Choy Ka Fai asks me if I want to interview him as the artist or the dance doctor for Dance Clinic! This interview has a surprising start, and I feel vulnerable.
Two years ago, I had the thrilling experience of watching Soft Machine by Choy Ka Fai at da:ns festival. It was one of those unforgettable and mesmerising performance encounters, which stays with you forever. To this day, I speak emphatically of his work with dance and performance. To say that Choy Ka Fai is my favourite artist is an understatement. A beloved artist by the dance and theatre communities in Singapore, he seems to have not been given the deserved recognition for his outstanding contribution to the arts at home. In contrast, his work has been enjoying a long world tour with performances at the most established theatres in the world such as Sadler’s Wells, London, Carriage Works, Syndey and ImPulsTanz in Vienna.
Our conversation via skype starts where I saw Choy Ka Fai last, Soft Machine. The piece, which is still on tour, is a very impressive quadruple bill of dance from Asia in a lecture format where a group of outstanding artists confess themselves on stage. I am interested to know how the last two years of touring Soft Machine have been. Ka Fai shares that, “Soft Machine is modulus, sometimes two artists sometimes four. The Indonesian dancer Rianto is the most popular one. This year we are doing a seven-city tour in Holland, but Rianto is busy dancing with Akram Khan“.
Ka Fai returns to Singapore with a new production in October; Dance Clinic, co-commissioned by da:ns festival, where he plays a dance doctor saving the world from bad choreographers. In my view, the humour and sense of urgency on this subject couldn’t be more pertinent.
In 2010 Ka Fai conceived Notion Dance Fiction, in his words, “looking into copying bodily dancing movement from one body to another”. The research and performance led him to new questions on his creative practice. He considers, “What is the most important thing to show? What is it about the body that interests me?”
An inquisitive performer, the conference call is taken over by Ka Fai sharing details about the inquiry for his performances and the pathway that led him out of Singapore and into creating productions with dancers in a multimedia setting. He tells me, “After my study in London, I was broke. I got one research grant, and I worked my way through one Asian city at a time, with the help of the locals to create Soft Machine”.
Dance Clinic is part of a larger body of work. Ka Fai describes it as a trilogy, starting with Notion Dance Fiction (2012) where he tries to highjack the connection from brain to the body, followed by Soft Machine (2014) where he looks at what is the choreographer thinking.
For Dance Clinic, Ka Fai affirms, “I combine my research in an analogue way and try to make everything real, process and experiments, unlike Notion Dance Fiction where the reality of the technology is not yet available. At some point, you realise there is only so much you can tell with this technology.”
Dance Clinic contextualises Ka Fai’s process in a narrative. He plays a dance doctor wanting to save the world from bad choreographers with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). Ka Fai works with choreographers, dancers and technology, saturating the area where all of these can meet to create a compelling story, balancing the composition elements of AI, speech and dance in a dramatic lecture performance.
It is not pure dance or pure performance work. Borrowing the most forward-thinking experiences of dance, he delivers a new work filled with humour and a recurrent, underlying story of the future of dance and technology.
Ka Fai runs Dance Clinic as a live performance with two different appointments. In his words, “I am trying to help someone understand more of themselves.”
Since last year he has been busy working with the artificial intelligent dance system Ember Jello. Using it to analyse different brainwaves: a monitoring system which can help identify if a choreographer is absent or present. The premise of Dance Clinic is imperative, in this day and age where people are always plugged in, Ka Fai uses technology to find answers for choreographers on stage – plugging in artists with AI.
As we dive further into our conversation about Dance Clinic, he changes his tone and becomes the dance doctor, in his words, “the chief engineer of the piece”, and admits to sometimes feeling nervous because he doesn’t know how the dancers will react to his consultation. However, that’s exactly why I can’t wait to see this performance. Technology confronts the future and all it’s dance uncertainties.
Being the mastermind of such a project, allows him to be in control and I can’t help asking if he is honest with the data all the time. He returns, “I don’t know if I mislead the dancer because it’s quite clear live. When I say something that doesn’t make sense, it won’t make sense.”
The treatment is a performance living well beyond its 60 minutes time on stage. Ka Fai plays the dance doctor saving the world from ill choreographers, and I hope that the treatment lasts long on the patients, as well as in our minds.