Ching-Ying Chien sounds reserved on the phone, but at the same time very excited to be working with Akram Khan Company (since 2013) and rediscovering herself as a dance artist. She was born in Taiwan and graduated from the National Taiwan University of Arts. In 2017, she won the “Outstanding Female Performance (Modern)” award for her performance in Until the Lions at the UK National Dance Awards. When I congratulate her on her award she pauses to take a deep breath in and confesses that somehow the distinction doesn’t yet feel real. She tells me, ‘I am very happy, but it doesn’t feel real. I am a Taiwanese girl working in the U.K., and I am very fortunate to receive this award’.
A humbling and curious voice answers all the questions on the other side of the phone. It’s early morning in London for Chien and mid-afternoon in Singapore. She explains how much knowledge she has gained from the creative process of Until the Lions, coming to Singapore for da:ns festival in October. ‘Akram trusts us with ideas to create and improvise. Everyone has their language and different cultural background.’ The creative team brings together a marvelous cast of three dancers: Rianto, Ching-Ying Chien and Joy Alpuerto Ritter, in addition to powerful singers: Sohini Alam and David Azurza, with percussionist Yaron Engler and musician Joseph Ashwin.
The creative process for Until the Lions broadened the spectrum in which dancers and musicians work. Ching-Ying assures me that the exchange of expertise in the room includes vocal warm-ups for dancers where they challenge their bodies to express through singing, while the musicians workshop their bodies in space for performance, how to walk on stage and generally to use the body for performance.
Dramaturg, Ruth Little accompanied the process and challenged the team to look into the ideas developed in the studio. Chien explains how this role really stimulated the process and challenged the team intellectually; ‘the dramaturg helps us to open our eyes and mind to see differently.’
Until the Lions is an adaptation of poet Karthika Naïr’s book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, an innovative take on the epic Mahabharata. Akram Khan tells the tale of Amba, a princess kidnapped on her wedding day and ‘stripped of her honour, who invokes the gods to seek revenge.’ This dramatic story is inundated with kathak and contemporary dance accompanied by extraordinary live music on an epic set of a giant tree trunk.
Chien is nearly thirty years old and feels more mature in her creative practice. She speaks of differences between East and West and how her dance training prepared her for all physical challenges but one. ‘In Asia, the trend back then was really to be like an army; the focus was on dance technique, you know Asian girl high leg and all. But, when I finished university training and auditioned for Akram, he invited me to London to work with him. In our research process he said, lets to a slow-motion competition run. Akram said: you are too perfect, your movement looks so pretty, but he wants me to start from zero as a performer, and suddenly I realised, oh shit I don’t know how to perform. You know, I know I have high dance technique and all, but suddenly I found myself in a situation where I didn’t know how to perform.’
From that day on Chien has been focusing on what’s beyond dance technique, researching herself and spending many hours improvising to move more like an animal, to feel less pretty when dancing and perhaps to feel and look a bit dirtier.
It’s so exciting to learn of these changes overcoming preconceptions of dance. I can’t wait to see Chien on stage with Until the Lions at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay 9 & 10 Oct 2018, with da:ns festival.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.