The dancer flops forwards onto the mattress and lands on his belly, limbs spread-eagled. The choreographer tilts her head to one side. She says something too soft for me to hear. The dancer scrambles off the mattress, stands up, flops again. The second flop has a minutely different quality. But the choreographer waves the dancer off, stands in his place, and tries her own flop. Dissatisfied, she tries again. Yes, that is the quality she wants. She speaks to the dancer, tries to put it into words, demonstrates again. He flops. She flops. Slowly, they work together, exhaustively pinning down the almost ineffable quality the choreographer wants for this split-second of movement.
I am watching Lee Ren Xin creating her work Asing-Asing, in the underground gallery at Rimbun Dahan, my family’s art centre, where I run the dance program. Ren Xin is only 26 years old, but her confidence impresses me: she knows what she wants, and she’s not afraid to ask for it. When I was dabbling in choreography, I neither knew what I wanted nor had the courage to demand it from my dancers. Eventually I gave it up because I was so dissatisfied with the result. Ren Xin’s relaxed authority fills me with envy. How is it that she succeeds, I wonder, and with such casual grace, when I and so many others have failed?
I am very interested in how to cultivate choreographers, and women choreographers in particular. In a TEDx talk last year, I observed that good girls don’t make good choreographers, because they are too afraid to take creative risks. Good girls learn to be law-abiding and obedient; they are often reticent to assume authority. A directorial woman risks being termed bossy, while her male counterpart is hailed as a leader. How can women free themselves to be creative? What are the sufficient conditions to nurture a woman choreographer? As Ren Xin is now in demand as both a dancer and a choreographer, after a relatively short career, we might do well to examine her as a test case.
Ren Xin grew up as the youngest of three sisters in a little link house in Petaling Jaya. Her mother taught Chinese studies at University of Malaya. Her father started as an acupuncturist working in a Chinese medicine shop, and now teaches tai chi in the dance departments at UM and ASWARA. Like so many other nice middle-class Chinese daughters, Ren Xin took ballet classes at the Federal Academy of Ballet down the road, working her way dutifully up the ranks through the RAD exams.
Her dance story could have ended here. She might have given up ballet when she reached Form Five, as most do – focused on her studies, took her SPM exam, gone to an urban college for A-Levels, and never looked back. Or she might have clung to her early exposure to ballet, and become the kind of closed-minded bun-head who populates the suburban ballet studios, bitterly demanding turnout and skinniness from ugly duckling students whom they know will never be swans.
Perhaps Ren Xin simply doesn’t have the character or the constitution for either of those unfortunate but well-trodden paths. When you meet her, the first impression is of her megawatt gap-toothed smile. She has a kind of enchanted feyness, a wide-eyed innocence, crossed with sudden, almost fiery, focus, which seems otherworldly. She claims she is not at ease with words. “Making dances is a medium through which I process or make sense of the world around me,” she once wrote in a grant application, “More so than being a medium to express a message, although this is usually a side product.” And yet, for a dancer, you will note she is surprisingly articulate.
Next you observe the peculiarities of her body. She’s very short and quite stocky, with a long torso, broad muscled thighs, and small, though rather flat, feet, often clad in Birkenstocks which she shoves out in front of her when she walks, like a giant striding across the terrain. Ren Xin doesn’t have the physique traditionally required for ballet, and perhaps she’s lucky for that. There is a — perhaps apocryphal — tradition that female comedians can’t be attractive women. It’s a theory of creativity through necessity: pretty girls don’t have to make you laugh, while ugly girls are forced to develop other tools in their arsenal. In the same way, modern and contemporary dance owes much to iconic women like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham whose bodies (and minds) made them unsuitable for the conventions of ballet, and who sought an alternative. In doing so, they broke moulds and forged new traditions. To such dancers, both male and female, as to Ren Xin, contemporary dance continues to offer an outlet and an opportunity.
But Ren Xin almost did follow a more conventional path. After high school, she went to Singapore to do her A-Levels, where the dance world might have lost her except for two small lucky chances. She realised she missed taking dance classes. And her school in Singapore offered extra-curricular dance classes taught by Sylvia Yong, a beautifully pliant dancer who is also the wife of Kuik Swee Boon, the Malaysian-born director of T.H.E. Dance Company, Singapore’s premier contemporary dance company.
From there, Ren Xin’s descent into dance seems almost inevitable. Like Alice having made the choice to go down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland, the adventures came thick and fast. Ren Xin applied for the dance diploma at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts [NAFA], where the environment of serious focus made her want to become a dancer. NAFA offered a twinning program with the State University of New York in Purchase: one extra year of study to gain a Bachelor’s degree. Ren Xin was one of only two students in her year to successfully audition for the program. In 2010, she went off to America.
There, again, was the risk of stagnation, but for some serendipitous challenges. In terms of physical technique, NAFA had prepared her well for the dance classes at SUNY Purchase. But to gain enough credits to graduate, Ren Xin had to take extra classes in the liberal arts tradition: in American history and international relations. These classes, as well as weekend trips to nearby New York City, where she watched incomprehensible postmodernist works performed by the heirs to the Judson Church dance revolution of the 1960s, plunged her into culture shock, but also broke open her mind. “I realised,” she said to me, “Dance could be anything!”
After graduation, Ren Xin tried, as so many dancers do, to ‘make it’ in New York City. After many auditions, she was accepted as an unpaid dancer in LeeSaar The Company, which is led by two Israeli performers who employ the dance technique called Gaga [no relation to Lady Gaga], developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin for his company Batsheva. Gaga is a grounded, detailed, intensely physical technique, based in a rich vocabulary of imagery and often developed through improvisation. But when Ren Xin auditioned, she didn’t even know that was what she was doing. “I thought it was just an improv class about sensations. It wasn’t until later that I realised, ‘Oh, this is Gaga!'” She laughed. “I didn’t do my homework very well!”
But Gaga proved too much of a challenge and Ren Xin didn’t thrive at LeeSaar. Looking back, she thinks she was trying to be ‘correct’, which cut herself off from giving free reign to her imagination. LeeSaar wanted her to access her individuality. The company was composed of more experienced dancers, all with very diverse bodies and minds, working in a process-based environment. Ren Xin discovered she couldn’t fit in by trying to fit in. “Gaga is ‘out’,” Ren Xin told me, “But I was brought up to be ‘in’. I thought that I couldn’t do what they wanted, when in actuality I could. I only couldn’t because I thought that I couldn’t.”
Ren Xin left LeeSaar after only one year, but she took with her an ideal of treating dancers as adult humans, each with his or her own thought processes, background and body, rather than as automatons striving for uniformity. She had absorbed the aesthetic of Gaga, with its preference for organicity, weightedness, and delicate contrasts between small and big movements. She had also acquired an appetite for risk and change. “I felt I had a lot of habits I needed to break,” she said. “Sometimes I look at my work and I don’t like the outcomes, because I feel I am settling into a narrow way.”
In 2013, Ren Xin returned to Singapore, where Swee Boon offered her choreographic opportunities with T.H.E. Second Company. One of these works was performed in Malaysia at the 2013 MyDance Festival. She connected with JS Wong, artistic director of Damansara Performing Arts Centre [DPAC], and made a work for d’Next Artist Project, DPAC’s platform for young creatives, with two dancers and a stack of mattresses. On the strength of this work, she won a grant from the competitive and prestigious Krishen Jit ASTRO Fund [KJAF]. Marion D’Cruz, one of the founders of theatre collective Five Arts Centre which co-manages the fund, called Ren Xin the most exciting Malaysian dance artist since Aida Redza (a choreographer who rose to prominence in the 1990s).
Hopping from lily pad to lily pad, Ren Xin’s career advanced enormously in just two years. But she still has a lot to learn. Early this year, she started a residency at Rimbun Dahan with three performers, to develop her work for KJAF. “I really laugh at the whole process,” she told me afterwards. “I thought I was being open minded…” For two weeks, Ren Xin gave her performers a stack of mattresses and almost free rein. This led to boundless brainstorming. The dancers kept coming up with ideas, but before anything could be developed it was sidelined by another idea. Only when one of the performers became intensely frustrated by the lack of progress, and told Ren Xin that she didn’t have to follow every suggestion made by the dancers, did she take back the reins. She had wanted to emphasise the validity of the dancers’ individual approaches, but realised she needed to find a more delicate balance between directing and giving ownership to the performers. “I learned a lot that week. I’m thankful that it happened, even though it was so frustrating.”
It is a challenge for most thoughtful choreographers to find their axis on the spectrum between being a totalitarian dictator and a democratic mediator. I may be generalising, but I often feel that women choreographers, at least in Malaysia, tend towards the latter, either because they are less confident or because they are deliberately trying to be more nurturing and broad-minded. In any case, admitting too many sources of creativity risks producing wishy-washy work. On the opposite end of the spectrum, dictatorial directors, who want their own way or the highway, fail to recognise or support the beauty of individuals or ideas other than their own — their work can be strident but tends to be one-dimensional. [See my article on Sutra Dance Theatre’s 2012 season for another take on this idea.]
Ren Xin’s experiment with loosing the reins of artistic control has convinced her that achieving balance means taking the individual performers into account: who they are, where they are in their career, and how they cope and respond to freedom and possibility. She is also feeling her way through the parallel dilemma of demonstrating movement. Like a theatre director who says, “I want you to say the line exactly like this,” a choreographer who demonstrates movement with their own body ignores the rich and unimagined possibilities of allowing a performer to make it their own. Ren Xin says she now demonstrates to her dancers not so that they can copy what she does, but to inspire the performer to find the thing for themselves. For less experienced performers, this distinction isn’t always clear. So she decided to stop demonstrating entirely to one of her dancers in Asing-Asing after he told her he couldn’t do what she wanted, because only her body could do it!
And yet Ren Xin sometimes finds that her body can’t do it. In the kind of work that rests on the deep exploration of subtle differences in quality, on delicately manipulating the rhythm and texture of a work’s atmosphere, Ren Xin feels her own body is not always up to the task. “I feel I need to go back to dance, as a dancer. My body knowledge is a bit rusty,” she told me recently. She feels she is losing her connection with Gaga. Here she faces yet other challenges, not just between being director or facilitator, but between being dancer or choreographer, and between staying close to the powerful creative source or working alone at the periphery.
Like Alice, Ren Xin emerges from Wonderland, only to dive straight through the Looking-Glass. And though some of her adventures remain baffling until much later, Ren Xin has ended up knowing more of what she wants: when to let go and when to take charge. As Alice discovered, you play the game best by being both curious and resourceful – eventually, you may inadvertantly become queen.
In retrospect, it’s easy to point out discrete moments in Ren Xin’s biography as the reasons why she can take risks as a choreographer, has a broad aesthetic awareness, or is comfortable in her role as director. But in reality, the story is much more complex, much less teleological. Certain elements in Ren Xin’s life – supportive family, helpful mentors, growth opportunities, available funding – may have enabled her development as an artist, but they are not sufficient in themselves, and they cannot come close to capturing the reasons for her own particular genius.
So – as much as I would like to find ways to encourage choreographers – while reflecting on the trajectory of Ren Xin’s life I decide that were I, in fact, faced with exhaustive evidence showing how creativity might be reduced to just a few key variables (and surely the Singaporean government is already working on this), I must, on principle, reject it. Because the myth-making, the play with meaning, the delight and magic of art, depend upon its slippery mystery. We can no more build a choreographer from available parts than we can grow a Picasso in a Petri dish – and we should not want to. Ren Xin, with her giant smile, wrestler’s physique and sensitive mind, might as well have sprung fully-formed from the cloven head of Zeus, for all that studying her life can tell us about constructing choreographers. Her catalogue of fortunate moments, narrow escapes and adventures, is her own special story. While I have tried to document her life as a particular experiment in how to cook up a choreographer, now I am certain that this prescription can never be replicated.
Photos of performances at DPAC provided courtesy of DPAC.