Yvonne Ng is a Toronto-based dancer and choreographer interested in how we find and give purpose throughout our lives. Nominated for Outstanding Solo Performance for her compelling and visually evocative tiger princess dance projects piece In Search of the Holy Chop Suey, a coming home story stripped bare to reveal that our only one true home is the skin that we live in.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and your training?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I came here when I was a teenager, an older teenager and I’m here on my own and have been here by myself for thousands of moons…hundreds of moon, not that old. And a in Singapore I, back in those days the only type of dance that really existed was what you saw on TV and in that time we used to get a lot of American musicals. If you know all the… So I fell in love with the whole Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire thing because there was really nothing else. So we always get all our movies a number of years back and besides there weren’t really a lot of musicals being made at that time except the ones made in the 50s. So I grew up watching that but anyhow. That kind of started me wanting to dance and the only place my mother could take me was ballet classes because other then that there was folk dance. And um there wasn’t a lot of Chinese dance at that time there was other things. So we went to ballet class and that suited me fine. So I stayed in that and the system we dreamed in which is sort of this left over colonial the colonization that Singapore went through was the British system which is the Royal Academy of Dance. So that’s my training. So I would say that I’m kind of pedigreed in that.
Yeah! It was fun. It’s a little squarish compared to like Cecchetti ballet, but that’s fine. I had fun and I got up to intermediate and then quit. I quit because my Dad said I couldn’t dance as a…I couldn’t consider dance as a career. So it was my way of rebelling which is kind of a little simple minded and kind of stupid because it saved him money but anyway. I was like okay fine I’m not going to dance but you know of course it was only affecting me. He was going yeah sure whatever. Um anyway so that was my training in ballet.
And that was all in Singapore?
All in Singapore and that was through um the Go Family and I say that because the Isa Vancouver School you know the what’s it called now Go Ballet Academy…anyway it’s in Vancouver and it’s they’re related. These the their related to the ones in Singapore and so they have one big school, well there were other schools but that was the one. The main school in Singapore at that time if you wanted proper ballet training so we got all the examinations the exams that came from England you know the tinkly bell and that was my life and I loved it and I really wanted to dance um I wasn’t so strong on pointe work but I was still determined that I was going to be a dancer. I think I never felt brave enough to say I was going to be a ballerina but that was really my only course of action at that time. I really was kinda thinking and hoping I would be a ballerina. Anyways my dad said “no you can’t” but no I’m not jumping the gun. He said “No you can’t but if you want to further your studies I’m willing to support that but you can’t do it in dance.” So I had to choose another career path and I choose hotel and catering management and because all Asians like to eat. That’s a generalization but I’m going to stick with it. Particularly all Singaporeans like to eat and that lead me to looking into hotel and catering management and doing my own researching and finding out that there were universities that supported that and could give you further training, you could get a degree, blah blah blah. So I did a whole bunch of homework and in the mean time I had quit my dancing. I didn’t even stretch. I didn’t even stretch but you know I entertained it in my head like I think I was still dancing in my head even though I refused to let my body do anything. It was kinda strange because I would make up all these dances in my head and it’s interesting now but I didn’t think of it that way. It was kind of a weird life saving kinda thing. I just needed to do all those things but anyways so I came up with three…no a few different alternatives for my dad to choose from because he was going to support my education. So I chose Hawaii, Cornell, England, and Canada – University of Guelph and my father said no to England he said “If I let you go there I know you’ll go take classes.”
Yeah because by that point I had already written to a number of conservatory schools in England got myself accepted to the point where I was, all I had to do was show up and audition and of course I hid that all from my dad but I’m sure he suspected because it’s not that hard to apply and I just did all of those things and then he said no to Hawaii. He literally, he, it’s crazy he said “No you can’t go to Hawaii because all you’ll do is surf.” I thought really all you’re concerned about and he said no you can’t go to Cornell because it’s too expensive even though it’s a really good university for hotel and catering management. He said “Guelph? Where is Guelph? But Canada…Canada’s good.” So of course I didn’t really know where Guelph was. You know you know it’s outside of Toronto but I didn’t really know Canada that well. So I didn’t think it was that far and you know keeping in mind I’m from Singapore, Singapore was a city state so driving for 45 minutes is a long time. That was the longest and it takes about 45 minutes to get from side to side so he said okay yeah you can go to Guelph. Anyhow I came here for grade 13 because I didn’t have chemistry because by that point I was really under the mindset I was going into the arts so in for the O levels because that’s the schooling system we have to use. It is the British system I was already choosing the arts so I kind of gave up most of the sciences but I think for Guelph you needed to have chemistry at that time I don’t know now. So I needed to have chemistry so I had to do a few courses so I did my grade 13 here when the grade 13 did exist which also gives you an indication of how old I am because this is how far back it goes and while I was here there were other foreign students who went to another foreign school. You know kids talk we were the only foreign sorry we were foreign students by ourselves kids share ya know kids share your ambitions and your goals with each other – and then I got a boyfriend at that point too. And he said, “Consider it. Why not test the waters because you’ll never have to think about it if somebody says no, as opposed to wondering whether you could have always done it. You know, 20 years from now, when you look back, you can say, “Well, I applied and I didn’t get it”, right? As opposed to “I could have applied, but I didn’t, because I didn’t have the guts”, I guess. So while I was here, I applied to all the different universities in Canada, and mostly in Ontario. Yeah. In Ontario – so York, U of T, Guelph, whatever – but I knew that Waterloo and York had dance. So in the time that I was doing this homework to satisfy my father’s needs that I should get a proper degree, I knew that certain universities – so yeah, Hawaii, I knew they had a dance department. Like Cornell – I didn’t know – I think they have a Fine Arts department. All the universities I would, you know, look out for what I had to do, and then look up and go – the other departments and go “Oh, there’s a Fine Arts department”. So I knew York had a dance department, I knew that U of T didn’t, but I knew that Waterloo had one, and it’s all within Ontario, right? So I was already applying to York, and of course, wherever. So my boyfriend at that time said “You should just apply to the dance department, because you’re going into general arts.” I was going for – what’s it called now? I’m so far behind – when you don’t claim your major. You know, when you just enter and you’re not –
So you were in the arts faculty.
Yeah, but this – no, I was the arts faculty, but when you don’t have a claimed major. I forget now. Remember in our undergrad years? Yeah. So that’s where I was. But I applied to go into the dance department, but that was a whole separate audition, right? So I got into the universities, and I still had to get into the dance, the Fine Arts department. So I had to get to the dance department, through on audition. By that point, I’d been here for about, I guess, a number of months. I don’t know, 6 – 8 months, and because people, you know, so I thought “Oh my God, I haven’t danced for a while! Haven’t gone to class, I don’t know where to go!” So I went to George Randolph, to start taking classes while I was in Grade 13. And this was before George has his triple-threat school. This is when he just had classes. And there I met some ballet teachers. I didn’t know anything about modern dance, so this was all me having this vague idea about what contemporary dance was. I knew that I couldn’t be a ballerina, so while I was getting my ballet training, I wasn’t getting taller. Right? I wasn’t getting taller, so even though you dream, you kinda dream with this real pinch of – you know, you’re not really getting taller, there’s a chance that you might not be a ballerina even when you’re en pointe. But there was another part of me, another voice that says “But you could be a contemporary dancer!” But I didn’t understand what that meant, because there wasn’t a lot of it. There wasn’t a lot of contemporary dance. I guess we’re talking about the 80’s, so there wasn’t a lot. Particularly in Canada. There was a number of named companies, and that was it. So I found George Randolph, I found some ballet teachers. They were excellent, they said to me “hey.” You know, I told them what I was gonna do, and they helped me. And I got into York. And York gave me my contemporary dance training. But the audition was kinda funny, because I didn’t know – at the middle of the audition, you do your ballet class, and I’d done my ballet to get back into shape. I’d totally lost. But you’re younger, but it’s not that hard to get back into it. But you know that you’ve lost some facilities, so I was trying really hard anyways. So anyway, I got in – “great, yay” – but then they got to the modern dance part, which I hadn’t taken any classes for, because I didn’t know that that was part of the component. I was just focused, gung-ho on the ballet. And they said “take your shoes off, and go barefeet, and we’re gonna go and do the contemporary dance portion of it,” or the modern dance portion, and in my head, full-volume, it was going “WHAT?! What does that mean, take off your shoes?! I’ve got tights on!” And I didn’t know you could cut the bottom, because all I did was ballet. There was no “what do you mean, cut the bottom of your tights?” Sacrilegious. So I could see other kids doing that, all the other students. And I think somebody had a pair of scissors, so I had to cut it, right? And I was like “what do you mean, cut the bottom of tights?” Anyway, so I did that. I did the contemporary – sorry, the modern dance – and I did my little solo piece, and I did the whole interview, and I did get accepted. Anyhow. And then telling my parents was another big story. So my training then after that was modern dance, Merce Cunningham. I managed to skip Graham, because my body doesn’t love Graham so much, but Cunningham. I guess a mishmash of modern dance, because I wasn’t really one school. It was mostly Graham and Cunningham, and all the other contract teachers would kind of bring their own thing in. But I was very lucky. I have to say, I lucked out. I had really good teachers. Good teachers, dance artist who were working in the field but was contracted by York, so they were really, really excellent in their teaching, what they taught us, how they taught us, their perspective. Changing my approach to how dance – what dance is, what dance meant, what modern dance is, how you make dance and how it – I guess how it fits in the world at that time. So that was my training. So I have to say I owe a lot to being at York. And we had classes 5 days a week. You know. 2 classes a day. And we were encouraged to take other classes, so I used to still go down to George Brown. I’d do classes then, so once in awhile I’d do more than 3 classes a day, right? So that was the training. Then I left York. Sorry, that was long – I’m sorry.
No, that’s fascinating. When did you graduate from York?
Oh, late 80’s.
Late 80’s. And just briefly – have you been working as a dancer and choreographer from that point on?
When I graduated, I really focused on being a performer. So I really didn’t choreograph very much at all, and if I did, it was because of school homework, and just on a lark. So I really spent – I would say the first… 10-15 years of my career being a performer. I like – and I still do, I like being somebody’s muse. Being able to give you what you see in your head, in reality. Yeah. So I really enjoyed that, and still do, but… more so back then. That was like my sole purpose. I was kind of gung-ho on that too.
And now – I would consider you an established artist, a choreographer, that yours is a name that I knew.
Well, you know when you say “established,” it could just be cause I haven’t – I’ve been around the block more than once, and I’m still here.
Well, no, you’re a master of your craft.
I could question that too. And not to say that I discount that, it’s just that – that is a subjective thing too, whether I feel like I am, is really somebody’s, I guess, opinion of me. And if they see me that way, that’s great, and I appreciate that. And I’m not trying to sound modest, but you really always feel like you started yesterday. And there are moments where you go, “I’m too old for this,” right? “What is this crap? I’m too old for this.” But for the most part, you often feel like – even when you’re starting a new piece and you’re somebody else’s dancer and you walk in the studio the first day – if I’m dancing – I mean, I do dance, I’m dancing less for people these days, but when I have that opportunity, it feels… you feel like you’re still fresh out of – not fresh, sorry. You still feel very – what’s the word – vulnerable? It is humbling. Yeah.
It’s a vulnerable artform .
Yeah, it is. It is a vulnerable art form on many levels. Yeah. So being established is sometimes – I guess in my own eyes of myself – it always feels like “that’s because I’ve been around for a while”. Whether I’m established, that’s also somebody’s opinion. Yes, I’ve done a lot of things… that also is subjective whether I think that some of it has merit, and sometimes I feel that I make pieces in order to get to the next piece. You know? I mean, I didn’t really become – I didn’t really start wanting to choreograph. I would say that I only started wanting to choreograph in the last 10 years? 10-12 years. Yeah. When I really thought “now I really am enjoying, and I really wanna do this.” But if you’d asked me years ago, I’d’ve said “no, I don’t want to choreograph.” I never wanted to. When it was proposed to me that I should, I have no problems improvising, and I really love improvising, helping the choreographer through that process and generating vocabulary, generating material. I really liked that. In some ways you can call it choreographing as well – it depends which angle you look at it from. But I didn’t want – I didn’t have any driving concepts. Didn’t have anything that I was kinda being pushed – I really enjoyed being, you know, if you’re the choreographer and this is your concept. And that fascinated me. I would think to myself “oh my God, yes. I want to go on this trip with you because I know nothing about this, and I’m gonna learn so much”. So that was my kick back then.
I guess I’m surprised to hear that, because obviously we’re here to lead the conversation toward talking about In Search of the Holy Chop Suey! and your inspiration, the concept… because how I experienced the piece, and the visual, and sensorial images that it’s left with me were so impactful.
Oh, thank you.
So it’s fascinating to hear your journey and how that developed for you.
Can we talk about the piece now?
Yeah, yeah! Yes.
This is pretty open-ended, but I’ll put it as a 2-part question, and you can shape how you’d like to respond. So what inspired you to create In Search of the Holy Chop Suey, and also, how did you research and develop the work?
What inspired me? I think in a way, In Search of the Holy Chop Suey, I had to practise by making other pieces in order to get here. Not that I’m not proud of some other pieces that I made in order to get here, but I didn’t really plan for that too. But now that I look back, it’s always like a – when you look back, you go “right! All those other pieces kind of led to this!” The piece itself was inspired by my parents. You know what, it’s not just inspired by my parents. I had to look closer, shorten the lens, but it really is inspired by who we all think we are as individuals. Particularly living in Canada, and also in Ontario, this sort of Anglo-Saxon – what do we call ourselves here? Not French Canadian, the –
The Anglophones that live in the rest of the world outside Quebec. And what identity – what culture means to different provinces, different people. Because I live in Ontario, it comes up. I feel it comes up more, or I hear it more. Because we are a mishmash of different cultures, which is fine. Because we’re all immigrants. And we kinda have taken over from the indigenous, right, and we’re kind of imposing ourselves on a group of people who have a stronger sense of identity. But we don’t really seem to have a sense of identity. Who are we, and… and also driven by the fact that the company is a not-for-profit, so we are an organisation that gets supported by the Arts councils, and these are questions that come up in the applications. Not that I wouldn’t be interested in it, because as an immigrant here, I’m also at… it’s always more apparent to me. I mean, when I go back to Asia, I don’t think about it. I come from a multi-cultural Asian society, but everybody’s sort of all coloured, like me. You know? And then we have the smatterings of the expatriates, or the Caucasians who live with us. And everybody’s a jumble of all colours. Of all beings, types and sizes. But here it’s different because I feel that we haven’t really come to terms with the fact that we are a multi – we talk about it, but I don’t think we’ve embraced it. I know that for me it’s not a big difference, moving from Singapore to here, because it’s both multi-cultural in different ways, so I’m all “what’s your problem, people?” Like, it’s great that we’re all different! We have so much to share with each other, different perspectives, and how you see things. And I think the councils make you think a little bit more about it, and also… –
In that you have to check certain boxes on your application.–
That you have to check certain boxes. And I never forget that I’m Asian. But I’m always asked about being it. And I don’t know how to say this, but I don’t forget who I am, I don’t forget where I’m from, I don’t think about it in a different way. But I’m asked to think about it in a different way, so it always makes me feel discombobulated. So, that’s really driven home, or even much more in – not conflict, but there’s much more tension when I go back to Asia. Because I’ve lived here long enough that – and I remember the first day, and this is not recent, this is a number of years ago – I remember one day, my mother said to me, “you’ve” – I forget exactly, I can’t remember the quote. “You’ve changed.” And I said, “what do you mean?” She said, “it’s in your eyes,” and I said, “I don’t get it.” She goes, “you’re not from here anymore.” And it’s really sad, your own parents say these things, and we were out in public, we were going to a restaurant, and I think she was watching me walk in. And I was coming in by myself, they were waiting at a table and I was coming in, and she said “you’re not from here anymore,” and I’m like “oh my God! Don’t say that. I always think I’m from here.” And she said “it’s in your eyes”. So of course then I get kind of confrontational, because I’m the daughter, and I’m like “what do you mean by that?!” I’m not trying to cause a fight, because we’re public and plus there’s people there, my relatives and everything. And very quickly she said “it’s in your eyes, it’s how you hold yourself, it’s how you look at people. It’s how you look at people. You’re not one of us.” I was really pissed off. But at the same time, I wasn’t mad at her. I was pissed off, and it dawned on me like “oh, my God. She probably is right.” Then I come back here, and of course I don’t belong. Cause even though we’re all – most, but there’s a lot of people who are immigrants here – you never really belong. Because you’re planting your roots here, you’re not putting a seed here. You’re kinda going “let me get deeper and deeper”. So then it was a real struggle because I’d lived here and I feel like I’m neither here nor there. Neither here nor there, neither here nor there – and essentially that’s how it’s kind of accumulated. Accumulated to the point where this piece – so the title and the concept of the piece kind of came together. The title actually came to me years ago. And I couldn’t find – and this happens to me, I don’t know if it happens to you – sometimes you know you buy an outfit, but you don’t know why. You never wear it, and it takes you years to wear it, but you know you wanna have it. And you just never – it’s not that you couldn’t find the right occasion, but you just don’t feel like it’s time. So I had the title in my head for years, but I never used it. And when my father was diagnosed with cancer a number of years ago – I’m sorry, not that many, but a few years ago, I guess 3 years ago… Things changed for him that of course trickles down into the family. So I don’t live there, I go back periodically to visit and spend time with them. Also, there’s a decree from my parents, and because they’re older now and I’m younger, I’m expected to go back there. It’s like “we’re old, you’re young, YOU come back.” And I’m like, “okay”. So I try to go back periodically. I try to make it back every year if possible just to see them, which makes it a fam-cation, by the way – not a vacation. Just saying, people. Everytime somebody says “enjoy your vacation,” I’m like “it’s not a holiday.”
Family is work.
Yes. So each time I go back, I go with my father to the hospital to see his palliative care doctor, blahdy-blahdy-blah, all those checkups and everything. And I think him recognizing – and he’s ready to go. But him recognizing that the time is near – nearer – he started… he would spur-of-the-moment just blurt things out. And my father’s not a sharer. Never has been. My mother, no problem. We know everything about her inside-out. But my father never shared. It takes him a long time to share what’s troubling him, what’s teasing him, positive and negative – it takes him a long time. Then he also is really careful about who he shares it with, and usually it trickles to my mum, and my mother is his amplifier, so that’s how we get to know about my dad. So over the years, I don’t really – my father’s eccentric to me. Always been, still is. And sort of a mysterious kind of enigma. Anyhow, his illness – his aging, his coming closer to the other doorway – kind of triggered him. So sometimes we’d spend time with each other, myself and my mum and him, the 3 of us. And he’d blurt out with these things, and they would all be kind of proclamations. You know – different ways that you should be living and taking care of yourself, and the type of – you know, you should be doing this and not that. You should have this and not that. You should never do this, you should never do that. It was odd, it was just out of nowhere – we’d be having lunch, and it would kind of just come out. Anyhow, that kinda spurred this piece. Because – so then while I was in Singapore, this was all close to each other – I forget if this was the same year, the same time. I was out and about, and I could hear these voices in this sort of shopping area. Things kind of veer into a fake courtyard, and in that courtyard, there’s all kinds of hawkers. Like, have you been to Asia? But I think like South Africa, there’s a lot of hawkers.There’s a lot of outdoor markets and people selling wares, and stuff – so it’s the same thing. You kinda – all roads lead into this little courtyard. I could hear these voices, and I came out, and it was twice that this happened. First time this guy was selling this potion that cured everything. You name it, it did it, and you know, such conviction. Same with my dad, right? So it was this ointment, and he had pictures of all – it’s a laminated photograph that was faded by the sun, of pictures of people with skin disease. Like the most horrible parts of their bodies, and this ointment that he had, and this slab thing that looked really awful during – he was scooping up little jars and putting it out and kind of being “ugh, I can’t believe people would really buy this stuff.” Anyhow so at that time, coincidentally, I was also contemplating making this piece a solo. I didn’t know what it was all going to be about. I was just sort of – you know, you leave yourself open to possibilities, and the musician at that time, and that didn’t work out in the end, the long run, but at that time, he said “you should just record things.” Right? So there I was, with my phone, going “oh my God.” So I started recording him, and I came back to the same spot a different day – and I can’t remember this, it’s all blurring now. Came back to the same area, and it’s this other guy. And he said, this guy had a uniform, he had a costume. He was in this sort of weird ochre yellow safari kind of suit, and he had a microphone and everything, and he had a whole act at a table, and this and that, but he was selling good luck. He was selling good luck talismans, good luck – and lucky numbers, all kinds of stuff, right? And I’m like “oh my God”. I recorded everything, right? And I have the phone. You know, with all those things… any of these scams, in order to make the scam believable, you have to have a sidekick. They don’t work alone. There’s always people who buy it, right? It was 15 minutes, and I stood there. And in that time – or longer, I don’t know – but it was 15 minutes, I stood there and recorded the stuff – in that time, his sidekick – of course, you know, they try to look like they’re not – but they have money, like wads of money. Who would have a few $50 bills in here? Give me a break, right? He’s buying what this guy is selling. The talismans. But I watched this woman. She comes, she listens – and then she leaves. And I’m all “oh, okay.” And then she comes back with money. So she must have gone to the ATM. And she buys the talisman. Anyways, he was selling this talisman that looked like it had vapour in it, coloured vapour. But there are glass vials, and they’ve all got little coloured things. Anyhow. I almost wanted to buy it, but you don’t want to tempt fate. You also don’t want to make fun of, mock something that other people believe, so you kinda just take it all in, but I really wanted to buy one – “oh, I want one too.” Anyhow, so they were selling good luck in different formats, and the talisman was to protect you. It would take your life – if something happened to you, it would break, and take your life instead of – the act would take your life. It would replace that, right? And the Chinese believe that because you know the jade bracelet? That’s sort of a talisman too. The Chinese also believe that if that breaks – if you’re in an accident and that breaks, it saved you. It took your place, as opposed to – and also this. Like, I have this too (jade pendant necklace), which is the same thing. So things are floating and then suddenly aligned itself, and I’m like “oh, my God!” But one of the things that my dad said, sort of a roundabout way of telling you all this, is that my dad – they lived through the post-war, the post-Japanese war, and the Japanese occupied Singapore. The Japanese, the World War 2, when the war ended, they were teenagers. But by this point, most of the families had lost stuff, and his family had lost their shop, they had a grocery store and stuff – they had a pretty big, apparently, I don’t know. See, all these things I didn’t know until my father said. But he was sick, and then suddenly all these things like “you had a grocery store? How come I didn’t know this, and I’m your daughter!” They had a grocery store, they lost it… la-di-da… and so they were reduced to sleeping in a one-room place, and went from a house to a room, and there were lots of kids. My grandparents had lots of kids. So he was one of the oldest children, and he hated sleeping, because it was probably hot, it’s the tropics, and he used to sleep outside. And Japanese – sorry, post-war, the Japanese were still occupying Singapore, so the Japanese were still there governing Singapore, so it wasn’t still safe to sleep outside. And the Japanese at that time, you know, even during WWII, were really cruel. And they – my parents have friends who were captured and tortured. And you can find books accounting all these stories about what the Japanese would do to torture them. And so for him to sleep outside was not a safe thing. He would bring out his little – I guess – bed – you know those beds you can pull out? So that was one thing. And when he said that, it reminded me of being here. You know how your mind makes trips of its own? And for the longest time, when I was working towards getting my status in Canada, I did have a fear of becoming homeless. So I also was in a bad relationship anyhow. All that put together. Somehow I thought in my mind, it made sense. Emotionally, it made sense that I should have my own shopping cart. You know the grocery shopping cart? So I took one. I essentially stole a shopping cart, and I brought it home, and I had it for a number of years. I moved, and I would bring it with me. I would bring my shopping cart with me. In my mind, my shopping cart was Plan B. And Plan B was, I had a cat, and I never did it, but I would mentally pack that shopping cart. What would go in, what would be left out, what I would par down to, where the cat would go. You know. Where my passport would have to be, because it’d have to be hidden, because it was the only, you know. All these things. So I lived with a shopping cart for a number of years, until finally my roommate – so in that time, I had a shopping cart, then I broke up, blah blah blah, moved around. My last roommate convinced me to let it go. Which is so weird because I also gravitated towards open-source forms, which is the essential concept of letting go. “Let it go,” she said to me, “you don’t have to have it. You’ll be okay, you don’t have to have it. If you need it, you can always get a new one.” (laughs) So I left it behind in the last place that we lived together. I literally abandoned it. I didn’t even return it, because I couldn’t – by that point I’d owned it for years, I didn’t even know where I got it from. I mean, I knew where I got it from. I forget which store, but I think the store has closed down since. But I put it in the moving van. And I’m sure the movers must have thought “you’re wacky, why would you?” So when he said “I slept outside,” it made me think, “oh my God, I had this plan! My plan B! I always had plan B, and plan B was to, if I was homeless, I would have my own cart! No problem, wouldn’t have a suitcase. Because you need a place to be underneath, right? Cause I figured, you know, I would make with the tarp, I’d make a little tent and everything. And I would tie it up to some sort of tree and have a tent of sorts. And I wouldn’t have cardboard because it would get wet. So that kind of led to – I wanted to have a set costume that was attached to me.
That was very evocative when you entered the stage, carrying – what would I call it? Your habitat structure.You carried your habitat with you. And it was very clear throughout the piece that it was your shelter, but it was also your shell.That it protected you.
Yeah. That was it, exactly. Then it was a matter of finding the person who could envision this with me.
It was so perfectly built. The images of you inside of it – it was not a habitat for any other person, it was yours. That translated.
Oh good, I’m glad. Because we wanted something – I knew I wanted something that was no bigger than me. That I could carry around. I mean, at one point, I wanted it to be literally attached. Kind of like – you know when you pull fascia… and you’re still attached to all – I kinda wanted to have this, so when I came out, I wanted to have this fascia that was attached to the inside of it, but that would have been – that was kind of a nuts idea. I remember Sylvie kind of looked at me, and she didn’t really say anything, but I’m sure in her brain she was saying “Damn, that was too nuts. And your budget doesn’t support it!” You know, a lot of things are driven by money. So that was really how all those pieces came together. Because it wasn’t one thing. It does take a while for certain things to – and to also appreciate and give yourself permission, and acknowledge that you are this, you have all this crazy – you do have fears. People have fears all the time of whatever. Being abandoned, or never being loved, or this or that. And it’s for some people that some things are bigger than others, you know, which flexes at different stages of our lives. And I think because I’m an immigrant here, and my mother planted the seed in my head, that’s why. She’d be – cause I used to like to live alone, and she said, which I still do, although I have a partner now. She used to say “you can’t live alone, because nobody will know that you’ve died until they’ve smelt your body! My mom is so dramatic. So dramatic. I’m like “Okayyyy.” So yeah. The whole being alone, abandonment thing, is really my mother. It’s really fulfilling her – artistically, it’s kind of addressing her fears. That’s where she’s at, right? And for my father, it’s the “I couldn’t care two hoots if the Japanese soldiers came and got me, I’m going to sleep outside.” And this is how you should live, and this is how you shouldn’t be in all this stuff. So they’re very opposing people, in some ways. And yeah, I guess, in some ways they are – (laughs) they’re good fodder for this stuff (laughs). I have to say, parents are on, because you are a product of them, but at the same time, you appreciate all that they’ve given you. But both my parents are a bit quirky, so I guess it’s kinda – they’re like cartoons. It’s so worth it. Like, how could you not tap into who they are? So really it was addressing that, but when I look at it, I go, we all have – we’re all worried what the world’s gonna be like today. Now that we have a new neighbouring country, so to speak, we’re all a little bit nervous about it. Who are we, how do we fit in? You know, if we don’t know who we are, how can we live with another person? And identity is ever-changing. I don’t feel like I have a huge problem about being who I am – I’m pretty happy in the fact that I’m kind of unsettled, and kind of quirky, and this and that, bleh bleh bleh. So the piece ends up being about – it’s sort of a metaphor for many things, like the baggage you carry, the skin you have, the shell that, you know, the performance that you think – I guess, are we ever not in a performance of some sorts of ways? Like, even me sharing this with you. I don’t talk to myself about this, right? If nobody asked me, I wouldn’t really be in this sort of performance state in a way, just by sharing that. Cause when I’m in the studio by myself, who cares. And what that means, how people see us, what we’re trying to sell to each other and ourselves. So I guess, because that’s where that charlatan comes in, and also my dad – the way he was, I kept thinking, nobody can live like you. You’d make for a good preacher because you’re trying to sell this life to me, that maybe you did that, but there’s no such – nobody can live so absolutely like that. There’s no absolute. But he’s ill and old, and I didn’t want to question it. So I make a piece about it. And there’s no – you can’t buy good luck, right? You can think that you can buy it, but you can fool yourself into believing that, and then, yeah. So it’s in a way, it’s searching for something that you probably already had. So that’s the title, too. The “in search of” part was in the – I guess in the 70’s. But in Singapore it came to us later. So we used to watch – there’s a show called In Search of Different Things. And I was brought up a Catholic, which is also another good fodder for making peace with God, and religion is the best. So I was brought up a Catholic Chinese girl, it’s like, oh my God. Anyhow. There used to be a show called In Search Of, where they would search out different things like aliens, UFOs, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Holy Grail. Everything, right? And I would watch it because I think I’m like my father that way – I knew even from a young age, all these things fascinated me. Like, really? There’s another possible life? You know, there are UFOs? What’s the Holy Grail, really? Is there a God? Especially when you’re growing up Catholic, and you’re a teenager, you question that. What is faith, and what do you mean, the Church is telling you this is how you should live? So at the end of the show, which is like a half-hour show or 20 minutes or whatever, is that there was never conclusive evidence of anything. Like, they never found the Sasquatch, they never found Bigfoot, they never found UFOs, and they never found the Holy Grail. I don’t think they’ve ever – I don’t know, I haven’t kept up – but I don’t think they’ve found any of these things. So the In Search Of is really a metaphor. It’s the fact that I think that humans, because we have the great ability and the opportunity and the blessing to be able to consciously think through things and give ourselves purpose and find purpose, we’re always hoping that we find intent, right? Like, what’s our intention for today? That’s the newest, latest phase, right? What’s your intention, what’s your purpose? We’re always looking for something. How do we make ourselves useful? Are we really useful living in a big city? Am I useful as a dancer? And that’s always been this big thing. Am I really useful? What’s the point of what I do? So, that’s the In Search Of part. And the Holy Chop Suey is because there’s really – there’s no such thing as chop suey in Asian cuisine, right? It’s a made-up food. But in a way, whatever food that was made up was made up there, so we all make up things, and we give it meaning. We give things meaning. So we give chop suey meaning, and it has meaning. If I give this piece meaning, then this piece has a life, and it will have meaning, because I’ve given it an intent. I’ve given this piece a life because I’m always in search of something, and yeah, I don’t know why I’m a dancer. Because people say so, I do dance. Kids ask me, “why do you dance?” I can make an answer up, but honestly, I think deep, deep, deep inside, I don’t know, except it’s the only way I feel real. But is that important to you? To the rest of society? And you can look at it differently. People write papers about this, right? You dance, you move, you feel real so you can function. You’re functional for the rest of your life, and that’s huge, right? And that’s why we make stuff, so that we know how to – I don’t know – fit in, I guess? I’m not even sure if I still fit in. So that’s the piece and the inspiration and what it’s all about. Hopefully that covers a whole bunch of questions too, because there’s no way of answering what inspired the piece. Because it’s all accumulative.
Yeah, it’s something that was a long time in coming.
Yeah, I guess so. And it wasn’t something I could have predicted. Five years ago. It just came. All the parts, all the elements and components, just sort of present – you know, it’s kind of like where you find yourself with your PhD, right? The things – parts and elements just present themselves to you, and sometimes it just goes “ding”, and you go – I don’t know why, but I have to have… that’s the path I have to take. And sometimes you do know why. Some people – people are really good at being able to. But sometimes there’s a part… so, anyways.
No, that was wonderful. It’s a good segue into my next question, though, which is around, where does your work fit within the Canadian, and the Toronto contemporary dance scene? Let’s couple that with my next question, which is, what legacy would you like to leave as part of Canada’s contemporary dance history?
Wow. Well, selfishly, I hope I will be remembered.Legacy? I never think about that. I don’t think anybody’s asked me that! I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that, because I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about – yeah, because I’m busy trying to figure it out as well.
So you’re – right now in the moment that you’re in… where do you see your place in Toronto’s contemporary dance scene, and in the larger Canada dance contemporary scene?
That’s a really good question, because I’ve never contemplated that question. Where I see myself in the scene. I should. I’m sure someone else has a better answer than what I’m saying right now, because I guess that’s not who I am. Well, it’s not that I guess. I don’t really work that way. I never go “oh, and this is what I – “ yeah. The things that I do, or what governs, or what inspires me to create things, whether that’s dance works or whether that’s just programmes, or platforms, or so on and so forth, really comes from – God, I’m not trying to sound – I hope this doesn’t come across as trying to sound arrogant, but just from trying to be and live and… I’m also curious. The word curiosity comes to my head. I’m curious about life, but I’m also trying to see what – and I’m not even looking for it. When it emerges, it’s always – I guess my philosophy is like, what else do people not have? What else can I do that could be useful? Not that you might need, but could be useful. Which, of course – making my dad’s pieces is useful, but I hope it is, because I feel that we are in a place where we’re always being asked… the rest of Canada, I don’t think that Canada – uh, Quebec – has that thought so much. I think they know who they are. I wonder whether Torontonians know who we are, because we’re always looking somewhere else for validation. When somebody says we’re great, we’re like “yay, we’re great!” But at the same time, I go, I always think that we live in the city, that Toronto’s pretty great. And when I go elsewhere – and the reason why I get to think this through is because when I go back to Singapore, or when I’m on tour, because I am a little Chinese Asian – South East Asian, however-you-want-to-see-me person, in their perception of what Canada looks like, which looks all mostly Caucasian-ish… they ask me the question. They ask me “how is it there?” All to say is that it’s made me appreciate, and I actually have always been kind of grateful to Canada. I’ve always appreciated what Canada – and I’m talking about Canada in different levels, and different realms – has given us all people, whether they were born here or immigrants, the ability to become as much as you want to be. Who you’d like to be, if that makes any sense. So in doing that, I guess I’ve spent a lot of time trying to observe what’s happening in my neighbourhood. In the dance world, in the arts world, and I’m not really that great at observing everything. That’s not to say that I’m the best, and I skip things and sometimes I’m really clued out about stuff, because I get so myopic about where I am and what I’m doing and so forth on things that are closer to me. But hopefully I try and sort of – try and see what’s happening, building things from there, so hopefully that’s the legacy, I guess. I don’t know if that answers the legacy question. And where I fit in? There’s something I was going to say about all that too, but I forget now. The building… the question was… sorry, what was the first question?
Where does your work… –
Right, where my work fits in. Well, hopefully it’s of this time. It’s relevant to this time that we are living in, and yet I’m hoping – I always hope, oh God, I always hope – that it also has a place. Even years from now, that it doesn’t seem dated. That I can be timeless, and that’s like a bigger goal, because sometimes we look at some pieces and they seem kinda dated – it does seem like you’re looking into the past. And I’ve always hoped that my pieces can kind of be in the now, but also have the ability of being timeless. That’s a bigger ambition, right? And shoes to fit. And I don’t even know what that means when I say that, except that’s always what I kind of hope. And I don’t think I’ve ever – you’re the first person I’ve ever said that to! Because I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question. So yeah. Legacy? I feel – I don’t feel that old to be asked that question, but I guess selfishly, I hope that I’ll be remembered. Which is what I think we all hope in our lives. That every individual, normal individual person hopes that they get remembered. I think that’s kinda why I needed to make this piece about what home is.What home is, especially if you don’t have a home that’s attached to the earth. Because the only home that you have is really the skin that you’re wearing. And how are you defined by that? When you’re dead, and you get cremated… so yeah. I don’t know.
I didn’t think that sounded arrogant at all, I thought that was incredibly humble.
You’re very kind. You’re really kind. Yeah, it’s a hard question to be asked, because you kinda have to look at yourself with a different kind of lens. Or then you kind of question – are you thinking about everything that you’re making with that in mind? Because that’s what I’m kind of thinking. When you said that, it’s like – the first time I read it – I know, but when I first read it, it’s like – then am I thinking about every time I do something, whether it’s making a piece or whether it’s creating a platform, making an arts programme – am I thinking about what legacy? God, I hope not. So in a way, I’m glad that I am not thinking about it because that would be – I wonder what that would be. How would that shape the programme, how would that shape the bleh-bleh… So, yeah.
Well from what I have seen and in this conversation, it seems very clear that you’re interested in the human condition, and in the universality of the human condition. The things that are central to our being and our being in the world, so I think that your ability to tap into that could be your legacy.)
There you go! Did you say that loudly? Say that loudly. That might be it. You can write that down. I didn’t say that, but you said it.
Oh, you said it. You said it in many different ways.
Well, that’s great.
One last question for you. Again, open-ended, so let me know how you’d like to address it – is, would you like to tell me about some of the other projects that you’ve been working on, or what you have coming next?
Oh, boy. See, I knew you were going to – I figured that – so I’m working on a new solo, ha ha, already? And I didn’t – I was commissioned by CanAsian Dance Festival. Do you guys do fact checks? Oh, God, I hope that’s what it’s called. CanAs – I’d better do that myself right now, because they change their names. CanAsian Dance Festival, I’d better check. To make a solo. Which will premiere in February this year (2017). I guess at the end of the month! Can’t believe – yep, sorry. I’m checking that… the CanAsian, what are they called?! CanAsian Dance Festival, thank God, okay. Because it used to be international, but that’s gone – okay. So making a solo for them that will premiere at the end of February, on the 26th February – oh, that’s so bad, I can’t remember! I just know when I have to be in the theatre, how’s that? That opens on the 23rd of February. Yes. So I’m making a new solo. And I somehow – this is also attached to my parents. I didn’t mean to, but anyways. It’s a little bit more about myself, too, but now I’ve come to terms with it and I’m not gonna fight it. I was working on a different idea, but it’s kind of wound itself into this piece – is… it’s a little bit… my mother has dementia now, she’s being diagnosed as having dementia, and in my last visit with them, it became much more apparent. And I know nothing about that illness, so I did a lot more homework, and anyhow, it has to do with a little bit – it really… I’m working on what it is to be just here. Just here, only now, because that’s only what she can remember now. And now, because her forgetfulness is – it’s pretty incredible. In a minute, she can’t remember what happened a minute ago. Yeah, so it really is – and that’s been pretty… sort of heartbreaking.
And it must be challenging to be away, and then to come back and see the changes –
Yeah, yeah. A little bit, yeah – because the last time I was there, she got her first testing, and they said “no, no, just getting older”, and this time before we came back, sorry, went back, they said “oh, no, no, now she’s been diagnosed and it’s official, that she has early stages of dementia.” Which is better than what they used to call that – they used to tell older people that they were senile, which I think is a worse sort of stigma. So, anyhow – yeah, it’s pretty incredible, because she can only live in the now. But she’s not even aware of that. That’s what’s also pretty incredible – it’s heartbreaking, but it’s not for her because she doesn’t really know. She is really – the lucid periods, right? But when she’s in that state, it’s pretty wild. You feel sad, but she doesn’t, because she does only remember this minute. And then 5 minutes passes by, don’t remember what happened. Pretty weird. And yet kinda relieving. I’m thinking, “wow, you don’t have to carry baggage” – it’s wild. Cause I’ve read about, you know, illnesses where they have no short-term memory, and of cases, you know, Oliver Sacks has done a lot of research on that, because he’s a psychiatrist – see, this is where I get the whole P word wrong – and this one case with this guy who has no short-term memory so he has to write everything down. And my mother writes everything down, but the crazy thing is, she can’t remember where she put it. So it’s kinda funny. Anyway, this piece is not funny, but she’s kinda funny right now. The piece has turned out not to be – so I’m in the middle of making it. But that’s sort of where I’m at. So I hope so. In the last week, I’ve been kinda grappling with “okay, this is what the piece is about.”
Cause it changed forms.
Yeah, completely. And I kinda had to let the other one – yeah, it’s funny. Sometimes it’s kinda hard to – I mean, I’ve heard of that, but I’ve never actually experienced that yet. You know, when you’re sort of on your track, and then you’re “oh, no, this is not it,” and then you really have to change gears. It’s not even – it’s like you have to jump tracks. I’ve heard that PhD students do. Yeah. Somebody said that to me.
It could be part of a progress, right? It sounds like you’re having new experiences in that creative process. That sounds uncomfortable. And you’re giving into that discomfort.
Oh, you’re so wise.
I think you’re wise! You are the wise one.
Yeah – no, this is good for me! It takes me back to rehearsals – to go into rehearsals, because it’s so – I feel like I’m grappling. So that’s sort of – sorry, that is what I’m doing. Not sort of. It is what I’m doing. I can’t say “sort of” because there is a deadline to this. I didn’t mean for finishing that show in November to launch into this at all, but because it was a commission, it’s a great opportunity, so maybe it’s appropriate.
This is a mini-question, and it’s a for-real last question, but is there more life in In Search of the Holy Chop Suey? Is it going to tour, or is it going to come back to Toronto, do we get to see it again? What’s next for it?
I like how your questions have all this. Okay, so one mini-gripe – I’ll start there first. I would really love to show this work in Toronto again, but people in Toronto – does this go out to anyone? Because now my voice is
Do you want me to pause this?
No no, no, because I wanna say “people in Toronto, you have to love what the city makes and be willing to go and see it more than once.”
I’d go see it again.
Thank you. Because to remount a piece in this city, more than once in a short period of time, say in the next 2 years, is very challenging. So that’s to answer your question. I would love to remount it, but there’s not a huge market for it, unlike other cities in the world. Not some other European cities that I know of as an example. In terms of touring it, I would really love to be able to tour that – we are working on that a little bit right now, and there’s a possibility that that might happen, so I’m really crossing, crossing, crossing my fingers. But if that all comes to fruition and becomes a reality, it would be either end of 2017, that would be one possibility, and thereafter it won’t happen till the 18, 19 season, so year after next. That would be the only opportunity. It takes a while to build a tour, as well, and I don’t have the people-person-power to book the tours while the piece is getting made.
I kinda have to let it all finish, and then I go “okay, now I can think about what to do with it next”. But presenters plan a couple of years ahead anyway, so it takes a while for that to happen. And then to answer the other part of your mini-mini-part question is that I would love for it to be presented in more places, so if anybody wants to take it, of course, it would be great if we got paid for it too. We would love to show it elsewhere. We would love to. So there are hopefully 3 possibilities now. I’m hoping, in the works. And then there have been others. I’d love to. But in this city, it’s hard, for dance. It’s really hard. People have tried to remount pieces here. I don’t know what it is with our city. And I think that has to do with our identity, right? People don’t seem to wanna embrace what – the people that – I have had foreign dance artists come to Toronto – I used to run Series 808, so we used to do a whole bunch of workshops, and stuff. And they would come, they were guest teachers, and their workshops. They would say to me, “you guys have such amazing artists. They’re fabulous” – because you know, the workshops would be either some sort of technique, or choreographic, or composition. That sort of workshop. And they’d say to me, “your people are amazing.” And I said, “did you tell them? Because they don’t believe it!” we all feel that we have to go elsewhere to gain credibility in order for the rest of the citizens to love what we have, but we have a lot of – but it doesn’t happen for music so much. I think it happens for dance. You know, music – people embrace the fact that Broken Social Scene is from here, blah blah. Or Drake. Oh, God – is it Drake? Drake’s from here! But theatre doesn’t have that so much. People in this city love their theatre, but dance? That is – and I’m not saying that they don’t, but there’s dance artists who live here who should be rock stars. And could be rock stars. And yet – and everybody goes “oh, Montreal! And Quebec!” and it’s true, they have a distinct voice, but people here – there are some artists who make some really amazing stuff, and they should be rock stars. And they could be rock stars – not should be – yeah, they should be, not could be – they should be rock stars. So I don’t know. I wish we could. Yeah. I know dance is a little bit tricky, but contemporary dance – were you in the dance department at York too?
Oh Yeah! And there they have a different approach to how you’re trained, than York. It’s really night and day. That’s so great that you went there – I mean, York was fun when I was there too, but yeah!
Yeah. But thank you. On official record.
Thank you for having me! No, really. I really appreciate this. Thank you.