© Photos by Tan Ngiap Heng, Courtesy of T.H.E Dance Company.
Kuik Swee Boon admits enjoying the uncomplicated and in-depth pleasure of the choreographic process while speaking to us about transitioning from dancer to choreographer at the age of 33, after a dominant career with Compañia Nacional de Danza and leaving an existential trail in the world.
Kuik Swee Boon looks into a possible future dedicating himself entirely to choreography while managing success and expectations in the arts. The Artistic Director of T.H.E Dance Company reveals the urges to create choreography, as well as curating and selecting choreographers that confirm a positive impact over dancers in an ever more contemporaneous dance festival in Singapore – M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival.
Ezekiel Oliveira: How was the transitioning process from a full-time dancer with a repertoire company to a full-time choreographer in charge of T.H.E dance company?
Kuik Swee Boon: It may be surprising; there was no dramatic trigger or impulse, simply a natural progression of events.
In actuality I can’t call myself a full-time choreographer with the company, despite the fact that I’m either committed to every company project or involved in some way or another – for instance, monitoring the dancers’ progression with a guest choreographer.
I was 33 when I decided to put a pause on dancing professionally. At that point, the Compañia Nacional de Danza in Spain was enjoying tremendous popularity with Nacho Duato at its helm, and I had been a principal dancer with the company for just over four years. My keenest memories of this time are the constant touring.
After five years of a profoundly fulfilling career – tied to precisely the high-pressure environment it demands – I began to wonder if there existed a different path outside CND better suited to my ambitions, yet equally galvanising.
These uncertainties simmered in my mind for a full year – which turned out to be exactly how long it took from my departure from CND till the return to Singapore, to finally co-found T.H.E as artistic director. It never occurred to me then that the arduous process of building a company from scratch would mean not being able to return to the stage as a full-time performer.
I am sure of one unshakable fact – that my artistic identity defines my existence. From the countless injuries I’ve racked up, or the creative inspiration that strikes at 4.a.m – these are part and parcel of dedicating a life to the arts. Devoting my time entirely to choreography, it strikes me now: why not? It is the apex of creative indulgence that I will – must – eventually, arrive.
Ezekiel Oliveira: Can you please let us into your creative process and the motivations you have to create choreography. What is that drives you these days to generate new dance work? And how did your choreographic research advance since you first started choreographing?
Kuik Swee Boon: I enjoy the simple yet profound pleasures of the choreographic process: the delight of discovery and learning, the mulling over of challenges, and the chance to improve this approach each time. Essentially it is the act of making something out of nothing, of birthing new life that imparts a certain legacy of thought and spirit.
There is tremendous joy when something you create speaks to the world, and it responds in kind. To know the medium with which you have chosen to communicate your attitudes, beliefs, and opinions resonate with others, and to leave an (existential) footprint in this world.
Looking at past works where it was traditionally instructional and directive, today the greatest satisfaction emerges when the process is participatory and mutually inspiring, and when the artistic and production teams work in tandem to bring the piece to fruition.
In hindsight, I do see a common thread that runs through choreographic structures and patterns I work in, or perhaps, the themes and narratives that have long held my interest. I do think that I’ve moved towards what I hope, is a more reactive discourse of the events that unfold in our world. Whether people react positively or negatively, I have the confidence to stand by my work, and the views that I represent and champion.
Ezekiel Oliveira: How does one manage expectations and success in an ever-expanding dance scene?
Kuik Swee Boon: This question has bothered me for a long time. I don’t think we can, nor should we place too much credibility in numbers and returns as a reflection of success. Frankly speaking, ( even having long learnt to work within this system) I find it hard to reconcile artmaking with the measurements of numbers, milestones and deliverables as proof of our value to society. The very doctrine that ordinary success abides by is diametrically opposite of my personal beliefs. Yet, I understand that a performing arts company without an audience cannot survive for long – which would mean accepting these practical notions.
‘Should we then concede to the continuation of the idealist/pragmatist personae that coexist uncomfortably within so many Singaporean artists?’
Ezekiel Oliveira: I am interested in understanding your relationship with dance. My experience of dance is ever changing. However, it keeps fuelling different areas of my life, not only my creative working self. Every time I take steps away from dance I get even closer and more involved consuming multiple parts of my private and professional self.
What is your relationship with dance these days? What circumstances led you to create M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival?
Kuik Swee Boon: From the time I was 15 and dabbling in extracurricular dance classes in high school up till today, dance to me (or more broadly, the arts) has always been an extension of living. More than the ability to shine onstage, it is the tool with which I choose to make my statement to my community, and to the world at large.
I started CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival in 2010 with an uncomplicated mission: to introduce a greater diversity of contemporary dance works to what was then a nascent Singapore arts scene. In that vein, our programming sensibilities and marketing approach have inevitably evolved with the macro changes in our environment. This is the key reason for the festival’s shift to a mid-year timeframe, which will kick off in 2017.
Ezekiel Oliveira: What is your process in selecting the artists that come to Singapore to present and create new dance works for the Festival? Specifically, what is the outcome for your dancers?
Kuik Swee Boon: While the approach and endgame are clear, the process of curating programmes and selecting artists is much more fluid. Ranging from recommendations through friends in the dance community, to chancing upon interesting names that others mention through casual conversation, the most crucial element that prevails is to personally visit and familiarise myself with the body of work of these artists and ideally to watch them perform in person.
If it’s a commission for the main company, creative originality and artistic intent are my first considerations. Now more so than ever, it has become equally significant that the artist demonstrates a positive influence over the dancers.
Ezekiel Oliveira: Can you please let us know a bit about ‘Pure’, what was or is the process for this performance? How do you see it on a triple bill with works from Jae Duk and Arthur Bazin?
Kuik Swee Boon: “Pure” can be viewed as the conceptual sequel to Helix, in progress (the new creation that premiered in May 2016) in its content, movement and sound narrative. Starting this year I have made a conscious effort to prolong the creation process, to delve into deeper research and development of ideas creating a fuller-bodied work that is all the more resonant and impactful.
To sum up “Pure” is driven by the perpetual cycle of tension and compromise that accompany every form of social interaction. An inevitable consequence of Man’s fundamental craving to belong. We may own the freedom to decide our individual actions, but so long as we exist amongst other humans, we may never escape the full forces that dictate the ebb and flow of existence. They are one and the same no matter the varying shapes and forms that manifest within different cultures and societal tiers.
(Despite having selected the choreographers) I cannot predict how this year’s triple bill will take shape – we are each at the earliest stages of our creations. What echoes through all our pieces are the conversations on relationships and love, tolerance and conflict: in effect, a pursuit of balance to coexist amongst these destabilising forces.
Ezekiel Oliveira: It is not the first time that Jae Duk collaborates with the company dancers. I can sense a similarity between the two of you in making dance, even though the aesthetics are completely different, even perhaps the motivation to make work.
What is your relationship with Jae Duk like, specifically what are your interests in his work and how does that inform your company, and your dancers?
Kuik Swee Boon: Jae Duk and I share similar perspectives and insights on our craft. We come from different backgrounds, and perhaps, as a result, diverge in our structural approach towards the materialisation of these ideas.
These past two years our choreographic preoccupations have inadvertently taken similar paths. The questions we mull over often are existential in nature, introspective probes that attempt to define the meaning and delineate the qualities of identifying ourselves as dance artists. In the process, we have drawn from Eastern and Western movement and thought philosophies to enrich our final creations. In turn, these serve to fertilise the imaginative grounds that our company dancers collectively draw upon.
Kuik Swee Boon presents Pure, part of Triple Bill for M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival alongside new choreography by Kim Jae Duk (South Korea) and Arthur Bazin (France), at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay 01-02 of December at 08.00 pm, tickets via sistic.