Choy Ka Fai

  • Photography  Max Barnett
  • Words  Rachel Speed
In response to Sadler’s Wells’ Out of Asia series, and inspired by a William S. Burroughs novel where he cut and paste different novels together to create a new novel, Choy Ka Fai, travelled around Asia collecting different performances to create a new perspective on contemporary dance.

How did Soft Machine originate and how did you select the different mediums used across the performances?

Contemporary dance gave me the freedom to do what I like to do. My background is in Singaporean physical theatre but I majored in video art and then I went on to study Design Interaction at the RCA.

I studied in London for two years, received my Masters and graduated. After which I was basically bankrupt as I was an international student, so I applied for and got a research grant to pursue my interests on contemporary dance in Asia. I started off by interviewing and conducting a lot of research but somehow I always made a performance at the end; that’s how the performances are made. If you really look at the four pieces they exist not only in contemporary dance but they can be presented in a documentary theatre festival.

Before Soft Machine I made a piece, which was almost like electro performance where I tried to digitize movements through muscle censors and then implant it into another person with electrical neural simulation. That piece got picked up a lot at the Contemporary Dance Festival when I was touring. I feel that maybe contemporary dance attracts people with an open mind-set.

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How have your views on contemporary Asian dance changed since your travels?

My views have changed a lot as this whole project was inspired by Out of Asia season one in 2011 at Sadler’s Wells. As a student paying to see the shows, they were nice and presentable but I wanted to see something else. I didn’t want what was already coming out of Asia, which is why I made the decision to go back to Asia. At that point of time I didn’t have much knowledge but it was a very intuitive process where I would meet one person, and that person led me to another person.

There were instances where I would already be aware of the choreographer’s work and the work wasn’t to my taste but when I’d interview them the concept was so interesting, but I felt it wasn’t translating on to stage. This idea of performing the process worked into the pieces that I made; I feel the process is so much more interesting than the end product most of the time.

The term ‘Asian contemporary dance’ is a very problematic term, you realise there is so much happening across Asia. Within India there are eight classical dance forms and within each region they have their own development of dance ecology, and so it’s like a mass of big data that I’ve collected. I make shows, performances, and exhibitions but now I’m thinking about how to share this knowledge and information on an online platform. This is the next step I am going to take.

I don’t know if the British have influenced me, but my humour is quite dry.
— Choy Ka Fai

What impact did studying and living in London have on your work?

Quite a lot. I chose a course called Design Interaction, which is about speculative design; the course is about students trying to design for a future that doesn’t exist yet. You are free to propose what you want to do in those two years. I had been working full-time as an artist for about five or six years and I had reached a point where I became a producing artist, so I came to London in order to stop thinking about producing and start thinking about creating again. The Royal College of Art is so close to Imperial College, the possibility of collaboration and being able to have coffee with neural scientists is so easy, you just drop them an email – the culture is so open.

In terms of the research methodology, I learned a lot from the forward-thinking approach on the course because I feel artists are sometimes too intuitive. Especially when they start to build an archive, you need some sort of methodology to categorise and see how the research will develop, which is one the main things I learnt whilst studying in London.

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A dancer from Choy Ka Fai being hit by a satsuma
What do you want people to take away from the performances?

The four performances are so different; I try to demystify a lot of things especially in the Indian pieces. Each performance is a question to the audience. It’s about asking the audience is this what you want to see? Is there something else you want to see?

I think a lot of Indians come to the UK to study and work here. What I call the persistence of exoticism, is when you go to the performance by an Indian choreographer you want to see something Indian. But I ask this question to all the Indian choreographers: ‘What is it to be Indian?’. One response said: “I am wearing jeans and a white shirt, does this make me less Indian?”, so it’s really complex issue. With the performance, I tried to make it a little bit more accessible and includes a lot of humour. I don’t know if the British have influenced me, but my humour is quite dry.

If you were to do this show in Asia, asking an Asian audience similar questions about western culture, do you think it would have a different output?

I think that is an interesting proposition, what if we reverse everything and do it in Asia? Which I haven’t thought about but I make a point to perform each piece in its country of origin before we come to Europe, to get feedback from the local audience.
It opens up a lot of questions but I don’t think I provide any answer in the show because I think that a lot of Asian curators are programming what they think the audience wants to see. I think you shouldn’t dumb down art for the younger generation because they are educated enough to think for themselves.

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