P/M Day 3: The Role of the Artist

posted 6 May 2018, 12:17 by Daniel Teo   [ updated 6 May 2018, 21:27 ]
In conversation with Michelle Dorrance
Sinclair Ang (right) in conversation with American tap-dance artist Michelle Dorrance (left).

- In Conversation with Michelle Dorrance
- P/M Workshop 2
- SIFA Performance: OCD Love

While yesterday seemed to be about the role of art in society and in the world, today had the Performance Making (P/M) participants thinking deeply about the role of the artist.

For American tap-dance artist and choreographer Michelle Dorrance, the role of the artist is that of a custodian of tradition, or “living historian” as she put it in a public dialogue on Sunday with swing dance teacher Sinclair Ang at the Festival House Blue Room. Dorrance is in Singapore for The Blues Project, a dance and music performance at SIFA 2018 which the P/M group will watch next week.

Clearly knowledgeable and reverent about the roots of tap dance, Dorrance continually emphasised the need for artists to know and respect the history of their art form. But with tap dance’s origins in the African slave trade, Dorrance was quick to acknowledge the danger of cultural appropriation.

“I’m a white girl,” she said matter-of-factly. “You have to take every opportunity to say ‘I am part of the community’.”

Dorrance reiterated that an artist needs to not only be aware of the form’s heritage, but also to protect its legacy: “We are responsible for our history. We are responsible for telling their stories. We are responsible for getting the next generation to tell their stories.”

But she was also quick to point out that it’s possible to respect technique and tradition while finding room for individuality and pushing boundaries: “You have to be yourself to honour other people. People don’t want rip-offs.”

Dorrance’s words struck a chord with several of the participants.

 “It was very resonant for me when Michelle Dorrance spoke of the roots of breaking not only being aligned with tap, but also expanding on the early history of the dance in the late ‘60s,” Dominic Nah said. “As a b-boy myself, I was nerding out. In the breaking context, I try to learn the history of the dance, have had the privilege to travel and the luck to meet some of the OGs of the dance in the Bronx, but I ask myself what then do I do now? It did feel like the more I've gone out to learn and connect with breaking culture, the more the art form gives to me in terms of priceless experiences and there is a gratitude and responsibility that arises from that which I carry forward with me.”

Gabbi wondered about the history of spoken word poetry: “It got me thinking about my own work because I work quite a bit with spoken word poetry and although it’s not a Black art form, it has been quite heavily influenced by Black culture. And I did wonder what my role is. Michelle Dorrance pointed out the importance of honouring the backs you stand on, but what if your art form is an amalgamation of various influences? Is it your responsibility to honour all of them? Is there a cultural slapback when I fail to do so?”

The P/M group continued with their introspection back at Centre 42 in their second workshop with POV Facilitator Charlene Rajendran.

P/M Workshop 2
The second workshop for the Performance Making track.

Rajendran opened the workshop with a discussion about how an artist talks about his or her work, in the context of the artist dialogues the group had attended over the past three days. She asked provoking questions like, “When an artist speaks about a work, is that the definitive perspective?” “How do you ask an artist questions and why do you ask the questions?” “Why are some questions evaded?” “What are some questions you would evade?”

Rajendran’s next workshop activity for the P/M group was based on Kwok Kian-Woon’s essay The Bonsai and the Rainforest: Reflections on Culture and Culture Policy in Singapore, which explores the role of arts and the artist the city-state by examining the use of gardening metaphors in State discourse on culture.

She had each of the participants create a glossary of terms that have informed their work as performance makers, words that they have accepted and words they resist. The exercise was an examination of the personal vocabularies associated with their art-making practice, therein revealing how they define their role as artists in society.

“The exercise was very hard,” one of the participants quipped. During the sharing afterwards, Lakshmana KP admitted that he had some of the same words in both the Accept and Reject list for different reasons. Dominic Nah said that some terms were so impactful that a list could contain several variations of it.

The second activity was about answering the question: What expressions have worked for you and what haven’t? Rajendran wanted the young performance makers to think of an instance in their past work which they thought was successful and one that did not meet their expectations. They were to think of success on their own terms and not what their audiences thought.

In the sharing afterwards, Irfan Kasban, citing a particularly exceptional performance, worried about consistency in delivering successful performances. Rajendran’s answer, hinting at the ephemeral nature of performances, was simply: “Learn to let go”.

In the evening, the POV participants headed to the School of the Arts Drama Theatre to catch OCD Love, a contemporary dance performance by Israeli dance company L-E-V.

As is the convention in the performing arts, Monday is a day of rest for the POV participants (and this blogger). But not before Rajendran had assigned the P/M group some homework - they were to go, by themselves, to a location which "replenished" them. While in this rejuvenating space, they were to consider their relationship as performance makers to this particular space and to the larger Singapore city.

It has only been three days, but the group of young performance-makers have been quick to bond.

“The past three days have simply been very blissful – perhaps our group is a product of the Universe's happy accidents! I am thoroughly enjoying our thoughtful conversations,” Shannen Tan said. “As Charlene mentioned, it is rare nowadays to have deep and long conversations so these discussions are very precious. I enjoy how it extends beyond the meeting rooms and we all have intertwined conversations on how it relates back to our own projects we are working on and helping each other resolve our own struggles as a performance maker.”

Victoria Chen echoed these sentiments: “I am stretched, challenged and inspired by the contents of the workshop, and we communicate with a lot of care and respect towards each other and the issues presented. It’s marvellous.”

POV activities  will resume on Tuesday.

Update (5 MAY 2018 11.55AM): Minor corrections and added Activities list.