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Reflection from/in Asia on Dance, Technology and History - Choy Ka Fai Interview

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Surveying the Current Situation of Contemporary Dance in Asia

- You have been working on various individual projects. Since when have you been working on the Soft Machine project, which has partially been presented in Japan?

Ka Fai: Since 2012.

- What was the idea that made you start it?

Ka Fai: The concept of Soft Machine is that we should survey the current situation of contemporary dance in Asia. In 2009, when I was living in London, an event called “Out of Asia: the future of contemporary dance?” was held at the major dance institution Sadler’s Wells. I saw their promotional video clip and thought it was one-dimensional.

- One-dimensional, meaning orientalist?

Ka Fai: Probably. I understand that large institutions has to program things that draw audience to sell many tickets, but that event rather made me wonder what was really going on in Asia. I thought, “Isn’t ‘within Asia’ more interesting than ‘out of Asia’?” So, I traveled across Asia for two years, to meet artists and learn about the contemporary dance scenes in various cities in Asia.

- You were in London, so the presence of South Asia — India, Pakistan or Bangladesh — must have been strong. Did you feel that was too narrow?

Ka Fai: Right. Akram Kahn, for example, is from Bangladesh. Their productions are highly valued there, but I wanted to witness dance scenes in Asia with my own eyes.

- Which means what started this project was, rather, your intellectual curiosity?

Ka Fai: Yes, and of course, I felt uncomfortable as an Asian not knowing, so I started researching, and soon realized that there was little information. For instance, there are interviews on the website of The Japan Foundation, and even though they are in English and Japanese, there is limitation in that you can’t directly access the interviewees. There are 48 countries in Asia, so there is linguistic limitation too. So, anyway, I thought I would start by actually visiting places, and the first place I visited was Japan, which reflected my personal history.My personal interest in Japan came from the fact that I was influenced by Dumb Type very much in the first five years in my career and I would see as many Japanese performances as possible at that time. So I decided to visit Japan first, but didn’t decide in what format I would interview people or build archive. I would read related documents in advance, but when I interviewed, I sometimes read the documents aloud there or asked the interviewee to show me their work. The way I collected interviews was quite dialogic and improvisational.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

- What is interesting about this project is that, for example, you even lived together with an artist you were researching into. Was that planned?

Ka Fai: The method evolved as the project progressed. First I interviewed fifteen to twenty dance creators — choreographers, curators or managers — and learned about their various points of view. However, I chose one choreographer that I liked and considered the person a kind of “proxy.” I thought that I would learn about the dance scene through this person. That naturally led me to the documentaries about specific choreographers. That was how the series of documentaries started, and when shooting and following their dance activities, I didn’t only follow them on stage but also in their daily lives and even their birthplaces, in order to reflect on what they do from various angles. As I worked that way, since many of the people who supported this research were involved in dance festivals, it spontaneously developed into a project that would also produce performances. I became able to show them what I was researching into.

- You started as a visual artist, didn’t you?

Ka Fai: A video artist, to be exact.

- Some video artists are more or less hesitant about performing, I presume?

Ka Fai: I saw memorandum by Dumb Type at Singapore Arts Festival in 2002, and I wanted to use video as they did and create multimedia performances. I had already been involved in physical theatre and started making multimedia performances.

- You were a member of TheatreWorks, directed by Ong Keng Sen, right?

Ka Fai: I was an associate artistic director from 2007 to 2009. I had been working with Ong Keng Sen since 2004, right after graduating from college.

- From which work?

Ka Fai: Sandakan Threnody and Awaking.

Performances Born from Interviews with 88 People in Five Asian Countries

- Getting back to Soft Machine, I saw the version that was presented at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala in India, in January 2015. Two dancers were in it. How many dancers have been involved in your documentaries? Who were the interviewees?

Ka Fai: I interviewed 88 people in five countries: Singapore, India, China, Indonesia and Japan. And then I created four performances and four documentaries except about Singapore. I tried making a Singapore version with a Malay dancer in 2013 but it didn’t work out to further develop it.

- Rianto from Indonesia and living in Japan, and Surjit Nongmeikapam from Manipur, India, were in the Indian version. Who are the other two?

Ka Fai: They are one person and one pair: Yuya Tsukahara of contact Gonzo, and Xiao Ke and Zi Han from China. In June 2015, all the four versions will be rehearsed in Singapore. They are going to be premiered in Vienna in August.

- How long did you work with Yuya Tsukahara?

Ka Fai: It wasn’t like I lived in Osaka. Probably it took three or four months in total. Throughout the two years, we met in Osaka, Kyoto, or New York because they performed at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) when I was there, etc. I kind of have a plan, but coincidences influence it quite a lot. If I have time and the artist happens to be somewhere nearby, I’d follow them.

- What about Xiao Ke and Zi Han?

Ka Fai: They are based in Shanghai. They had a show at TPAM in Yokohama (Performing Arts Meeting 2015), so I shot all the process from the rehearsal.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

- How did you choose the four people/groups from the 88 people/groups? Was it a hunch? I guess it wasn’t. I guess you had some kind of criteria.

Ka Fai: There are many reasons why I chose them. That starts in the preparatory stage of interviewing. I chose places that didn’t belong to so-called mainstream. In Japan, I would visit the Kansai area, not Tokyo, because I felt that there still were, in a sense, purer ideas about dance in the Kansai area. When I see a dance performance in Japan, I can tell whether the choreographer is from the Kansai area or Tokyo.

- I suppose Kyoto and Osaka are quite different too.

Ka Fai: When it comes to dance, both in Kyoto and Osaka, they give the top priority to “dancing.” Multimedia stuff and scenography just follow that. However, in Tokyo, often it doesn’t seem that “dancing” comprises the indispensable fundamentals of a dance piece.

- I see. From a domestic point of view, we tend to attribute elements to the artist’s originality, but there might be regional characteristics.

Ka FaiAnother is also from a marginal area: Manipur in India. Each artist that I selected had his/her own story. Thinking of all the people who I interviewed like this, my interest was eventually drawn to particular artists among them. I almost immediately chose contact Gonzo, and the documentary was an effort to demystify the idea of “what contact Gonzo is” — contact Gonzo was so unique that I thought I wouldn’t find more unique artist in Japan.

- The project can be carried out anywhere in Asia?

Ka Fai: In India, I had a two-month residency with 16 other choreographers at Attakkalari Bangalore. I took the opportunity to search for suitable collaborators. It is important that I can communicate with them, and sometimes, it is important that I get good vibes from them and they immediately understand what I’m trying to do. There needs to be something common in us. I had a hunch when I heard that Surjit was from Manipur. It was the first time to meet a dancer from Manipur, so I wanted to visit there to see the place. I went to his birthplace with him. So, maybe it’s a hunch, but it’s also important that we can be friends before involving them in a project, in other words, asking them, “Do you want to collaborate with me?”

- Let me speak a bit about what I thought seeing the piece at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala. International theatre festivals are often criticized for showing pieces detaching them from their birthplaces and decontextualizing them. However, in the Kerala version of Soft Machine, the artists’ regional and cultural identities were explicitly presented in the documentary footage that was shown in the beginning. Of course the notion of identity itself can be said to be a product of European modernity, but in your piece, there is always tension between the documentary footage and what is actually done on stage, and audience are required to establish a kind of intellectual circuit there. The piece consists of diverse elements: it starts with the documentary footage, and then you appear on the stage, which makes the show like a real-time documentary theatre, but there are also elements of performance. I was interested in the fact that it wasn’t framed by the notion of “Asia” when you tried to raise questions regarding the dancers’ bodies in an intimate atmosphere — you are from Singapore, which I think exposes you to criticism that it is cultural imperialism (laughs), but it seems, if I may say, you don’t care. The artists are from Asia obviously, but the presentation is not defined as “Asian.” Manipur in India is Manipur, and although it is in Asia on the map, it has nothing to do with European notion of Asia. I liked that.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto


Thoughts and Bodies of Dancers Explored through Technology

- Deviating a bit from Soft Machine, I also found your interest in, or obsession with, technology in your past works.

Ka Fai:Are you talking about Prospectus For a Future Body?

- I was thinking of Notion: Dance Fiction that was presented at Festival/Tokyo and Kyoto Experiment in the first place. The work was in a sense the model of the way you involve technology and anti-technology. You stored data extracted from footages of historically important dancers in a computer, and have a living dancer wear sensors or pads that control muscles and reproduce historical dances following the data sent from the computer. Of course that was a fake idea and impossible in the current technology, but I was deceived into believing that very well (laughs). In Soft Machine too, you bring a camera to Manipur to follow Surjit, so digital technology is important at least as a tool, but you don’t conspicuously show the technological achievement.

Ka FaiThe Soft Machine project is the second in a trilogy that I have been working on. Notion was the first, and what I tried to do first was to hijack the brain of the function of controlling the body. As you explained, it was about choreographing digitally, only with a computer. When I was working on the piece, I was interested in what on earth choreographers and dancers were thinking. That, and other various reasons, led me to the research and meetings with a number of artists, and developing on the process, the third piece will be premiered in Berlin. The title is The Choreography of Things, and in the piece, what I have researched about neuro-sensing will be merged with dance. I started to experiment on various things and came to think that there is a limit in technological multimedia stuff. I became less and less interested in having merely digital surfaces on the backdrop, in the projection or interactions. I worked with Japanese people, and thought I would never be better than them in interactions through digital technology, so I shifted my focus to the body. I began to study invasive technology. The master sensor collects data, and computerizes it. That is now possible with brainwave. “Invasive” doesn’t mean aggressive; I have the dancers wear brainwave sensors, and if I ask a question or give a choreographic task to them, I can tell what they are thinking by analyzing the brainwave data. Are they being true or lying? Are they following my instructions or not? I collect information from the dancers’ brainwave, but there must be some kind of stimulations in the viewers too. I want to work on that too.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto


- It’s indeed scientific, but it’s also utopian, or on the contrary, dystopian. I can imagine that it works like a polygraph, but can it really detect emotions?

Ka Fai: What made me conceive the piece was the fact that there is a gap between what a choreographer writes about their piece and what audience sees. I wondered if what they do can be understood and analyzed by using their brainwave.

- There is a huge accumulation of data and papers in neuroscience, and it must be difficult to understand their special terminology. It is easy to say, “understand what dancers are thinking when they are dancing,” but is it really possible? How do you analyze their emotions?

Ka Fai: It isn’t possible in that sense (laughs). Those kinds of studies have proven that the brain is too complicated even for the top neuroscientists to analyze. They just propose a hypothesis and experiment to learn which parts of the brain are active and which parts are not. Analysis of what dancers are thinking is my own hypothesis, and I can only interpret through my own observation and based on my own methodology.

- Doesn’t that sound groundless?

Ka Fai: I have actually met and talked with some neuroscience specialists, and they said that they understand what I want to do. This kind of research is important for them too, because recent studies in neuroscience are predominantly about consumer activities. Of course my project has something to do with consumer activities, but I don’t intend to raise a question about that or try to sell things. I just want to understand things.

- What the actual presentation of the performance will be like?

Ka Fai: In Berlin I show a version for a gallery. It’s with four dancers, and four unique versions forty minutes each. The brainwave shall be live streamed, and I shall add commentary to it. Of course, I conceived the choreography too.

- Can you concretely explain how you add commentary and conceive choreography?

Ka Fai: Most of my projects last for two years. The first series that I am going to present in Berlin is called Introspective, in which what a dancer feels while dancing is understood through the brainwave. After the gallery version, I will work on a performance version. For the first series, I had the dancer, and we collaborated on a choreographic score. For example, I proposed, “Here, what if you dance to a song that you like, or if you read aloud a text that you like?” We collect and compare various things like this. We need to gather data. While repeating the process, we compare the data, have another dancer make the same gesture to compare, or have them do different things. We also see how the brainwave works when they improvise. It can be accessing their memories, or if it doesn’t, the movements must be totally new to them and they must be just following energy and flow. An explanation like this might sound like something very dependent on technical studies, but I have been trying to make it as simple as possible and also to contextualize it. I don’t want it to be like a scientific paper, which I myself won’t understand. I want science to be accessible to audience. To make the piece sustainable, I’m trying to build a system that any dancer can use. You visit a place, work with a new dancer, and then a new “reading” is created. Of course, I need time to condition the dancer with the system and also software synchronization so that they understand each other. I think a computer is also an intelligent being. We don’t only tell a computer what to do but also receive instructions from the computer. After the conditioning period, we are able to work together.

- And then what happens?

Ka Fai: I don’t know before actually doing that (laughs).

Creation Environment

- You have been globally developing projects, literally, and it seems that experimental and new ideas are appreciated better in European cities such as London and Berlin. Is that right?

Ka Fai: But I get more money from Asia (laughs).

- Oh, the money is from Asia (laughs).

Ka Fai: As a Singaporean, I am very lucky to be supported by the National Arts Council Singapore. They provide the initial support for most of my research which are the basis of my creations, so I appreciate it a lot. However, I haven’t recently created works in Singapore. I had worked in Singapore for nearly a decade, and I always ended up working with the same people. It has been more than five years since I left Singapore, and that made my creative concepts clearer and my environment freer. In terms of my strategy, I often get support from the National Arts Council or commission from Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, which is also in Singapore, at the early stage of my ideas. And then, at the stage of work-in-progress, I get support from European and Asian festivals.

- You are based in Berlin now?

Ka Fai: I am on a one-year residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. That is also supported by the National Arts Council Singapore.

- Bethanien? The legendary art center, where Jan Fabre worked when he was young and Shogo Ota had a creation?

Ka Fai: Yes. Now they focus more on visual arts though. I’m grateful to them for picking me. Before that, I was in London for five years studying design at the Royal College of Art. I studied what is called “speculative design.”

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

- I am unfamiliar with “Speculative design.” What is it about?

Ka Fai: It’s critical design. It’s not for services or productions but critique on society, concepts and ideas. Speculative design is about designing certain situations or solutions aiming for possible futures. I created the first piece of the trilogy because the experience at the College made me think of the future of dance technology. The documentation of dance that followed it is also in that line.

- That is responsive to the idea of archive, which has recently been enthusiastically embraced by scholars first and then practitioners. Why has archive become important for artists in these years?

Ka Fai: That happened in the recent five years or so. I don’t know why, but I feel that the recognition of the necessity to think about the issue of archiving has spread among artists.

- Is that different from the older idea of archive, where libraries would collect visual documentations?

Ka Fai: It has only been one year since New York Public Library for the Performing Arts started to make its dance video archive accessible on the internet. However, Soft Machine is different from that kind of archive. Of course, it involves historical issues about dance, but I am interested more in what is happening right now. So, that is not an archive of the past but a real-time, live archive.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto


Interest in Insignificant History and Its Development into a Work

- We have had you talk about Soft Machine and the project involving brainwave, but have you been working on other projects too?

Ka Fai: I have a project called Insignificant History. It started when I was still based in Singapore as a project about a Japanese shrine that was built in Singapore during the World War II. It is a ruin now, and it is not in our history textbook. Nobody talks about it. I am interested in this kind of forgotten history, which I call “insignificant history.” I am interested in understanding what it is now and what it means to our generation. I presented another work, I think in 2012, at Singapore Arts Festival. It was about a Hakka Chinese republic that was in Indonesia. The 107-year history of the republic and the 50-year history of Singapore have a lot in common. They are like parallel worlds. This kind of “insignificant history” has formed another line of my work, from which sometimes an exhibition or performance emerges.

- I like the word “insignificant.” There are “official” histories, and the histories of peoples and publics are always presented in opposition to them. But “insignificant” histories don’t belong either to the former and the latter, which is interesting.

I visited Singapore recently and saw the exhibition in cerebration of the 30th anniversary of Lasalle College of the Arts, to which you contributed a work.

Ka Fai: Yes, I did. I contributed part of a project that I started in 2009. In 1777, a Hakka Chinese republic was established in Pontianak, Indonesia. There had been a number of Chinese people who went there to mine for gold, and the business grown so big that they seized sovereign power over the land. That resulted in the republic because they selected the leader through election. Scholars call it “the first republic in Southeast Asia.” It was ten years before the Constitution of the United States. My interested started there. I went to Mandor, 30 minute from Pontianak, where the capital of the republic was, to look for the descendants and remnants of the republic. The republic officially ceased to exist long time ago, in 1884, but there still are remnants and people who worship the founder of the republic. There are also Hakka people who have mixed with Indonesians. I went to the town where the founder was born, and interviewed some descendants living there. I also went to the archive of Leiden University in the Netherlands, which has all the documentations about the republic.

- Ah, the Netherlands. The former suzerain state.

Ka Fai: The research proved that the republic surely existed for 107 years. Its history is similar to Singapore’s history. People gather for a business, they gain power, and bring Confucius scholars from China to educate children: this is exactly the same as what happened in Singapore in the 1980s. Also, both the two republics have punitive provisions that follow industrial and corporate priorities. They are so similar, which made me think that I have to study the history of the republic to be able to study the history of Singapore.

- Is the project ongoing?

Ka Fai: I stopped in 2012, but that just means that I have collected all the materials. I have been thinking of doing something with a different structure and more accessibility to audience.

- Thank you for the interesting conversation. I look forward to your future projects.

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

[February 12, 2015, in Sakuragicho, Yokohama]

Interviewer: Tadashi Uchino

Born in 1957 in Kyoto. MA in English literature at the Graduate School of Humanities, The University of Tokyo. Ph.D. in 2001. Currently a professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, The University of Tokyo. Specializes in Japanese and American contemporary theatre and performance studies. Among his publications are Melodramatic Revenge (Keiso-shobo, 1996), From Melodrama to Performance (The University of Tokyo Press, 2001) and Crucible Bodies (Seagull Press, 2009). A board of trustees of The Saison Foundation, board of directors of Kanagawa Arts Foundation, board member of Arts Council Tokyo, a committee member of ZUNI Icosahedron Artistic Advisory Committee, and board of directors of the Association for Studies of Culture and Representation.