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M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival 2018: An Interview with Festival Director Kuik Swee Boon and Festival Manager Athelyna Swee

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Often assumed to be esoteric, avant garde or incomprehensible, reserved only for the educated, upper echelons of society, contemporary dance can be a daunting art form to come face to face with. But the truth is, contemporary dance is simply a representation of the human spirit in a different language, each dancer bringing to stage their own brand of physicality and movement, and with a little exposure and thought, becomes one of the most universal art forms of all.

Now in its 9th year, the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival has become a staple of the Singapore dance scene, and aims to dispel the myth of incomprehensibility while presenting quality international and regional works and championing new local artists. The festival’s opening show EARTH (by T.H.E Dance Company) opens this Friday, but the activities will already have begun earlier than that, with workshops and classes kickstarting last weekend.

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Sitting down with M1 CONTACT Festival Director Kuik Swee Boon (also artistic director of T.H.E) and Festival Manager Athelyna Swee, we talked about the local contemporary dance scene and how the festival is shaping up this year. Swee Boon begins by explaining the language of contemporary dance, and how each person brings in their own voice and experience to make each performance truly unique. Says Swee Boon: “When you learn how to appreciate contemporary dance, you also learn how to appreciate differences and diversity in Singapore and learn to listen to a spectrum of voices. This year, we’ve been putting a stronger focus on local young talents last year, with programmes like Dance at Dusk and M1 Open Stage, and some of the directors we bring in might take an interest in these works and bring them outside of Singapore.”

He continues: “Even though the festival is organised by T.H.E, I do consider the overall feel and energy of all the works when deciding on programming, and always want to ensure that it helps grow the local contemporary dance scene. In the future, we might want the festival to move further away from T.H.E and truly become more independent.”

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Athelyna, who was formerly company manager at Frontier Danceland, chimes in at this point, explaining how as Festival Manager her role goes beyond simply managing budgets or the programme. She says: “There’s a responsibility to the Singapore audiences, and we need to be answerable to them when part of the budget comes from taxpayers’ money. These programmes need to be of a certain calibre to maintain the standard of contemporary dance, and the various diverse platforms in the festival are there for people are different levels of contemporary dance.”

Photos by Shaun Ho (www.shaunho.com)

She goes on to explain how free programme Dance at Dusk, for example, is educational and to introduce contemporary dance to new audiences, while closing show Binary is more advanced, aimed at audiences who might have been following the scene or more well-versed in understanding or considering why the artists might have made certain artistic choices. In terms of accessibility, besides offering concession tickets and ticket packages, the team has also offered six ‘scholarships’ to dance students and others who apply, giving them access to workshops, classes and shows as an incentive to motivate them in their pursuit in the art form, and at the same time, these ‘scholars’ gain behind-the-scenes exposure to as they volunteer in various roles during the festival.

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Athelyna’s own history is a fascinating one, and one that has somehow culminated in her being a perfect choice to be Festival Manager. Starting out with dance as a co-curricular activity in secondary school, she completed her diploma in early childhood education before deciding to pursue dance professionally, eventually graduating from the Wesley Institute in Sydney. In between, she’s even put her diploma to good use, working a year as a teacher and also more than two years as an administrative staff in an interior and architecture design firm. Says Athelyna: “It’s interesting how I’ve always been involved in the creative industry, so to speak. As a teacher, I was always creating games and finding new ways to teach, while at the architecture firm, my bosses were very cool and advocated ‘design thinking’. That’s when you design with the consumer experience in mind, and that’s something I took with me in my own choreography when I went to school.”

She continues: “After graduating, I heard that Frontier Danceland was looking for administrative staff and so I applied for a job, thinking that I could work part-time there. But when I went in, I saw how some of the dancers were spending their lunch hour doing administrative work, and that broke my heart. I decided to stay on full-time to see if I could help develop and grow the management side of the company. With that, I remained for 3 years as company manager before deciding that it was time to move on and see how else I can contribute to the scene, and joined T.H.E as the Festival Manager as soon as I left.”

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Says Swee Boon: “I started this festival with the intent to expose more people to contemporary dance, and for some programmes within the festival need to be able to act as an entry point for new audience members. We truly believe in this art form and believe that it’s what Singapore needs to form a stronger Singaporean cultural identity.”

Athelyna concludes: “Contemporary dance covers such a wide spectrum and has so much room to be thought-provoking and enjoyable. Growing up in Singapore, with so much rote learning and a huge emphasis on academics being the most prioritised form of success, I hope festival-goers will experience what contemporary dance has always done for me – a chance to get out of that busy schedule of the daily grind, and to have the space and time to be reflective; the dance that we watch may trigger thoughts, ideas or memories in life.”

The 2018 M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival runs from 9th June to 5th August across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available on their website here

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