Project Plait: An Interview with Founder and Choreographer Naomi Tan
Project Plait’s unique set-up of a dinning experience combined with dance has seen it through 5 successful years, most recently with 2018’s A Samsui Love Affair, which impressed us when it played last year as part of the Singapore Food Festival. Once again, the stellar team is back as part of the festival, this time with a brand new show and concept The Mem’s Servants.
Set in 1921, The Mem’s Servants is a site-specific dance work that will take audiences across various rooms in a historical bungalow at 18 Temenggong Road. As they wander through the building, the untold stories of the house’s servants will unfold before their eyes through dance, from the cookie (cook) to the amah (nanny). During the show, audiences will also enjoy a 5-dish modern Singaporean menu by Chef Nixon Low.
We spoke to Project Plait founder and choreographer Naomi Tan to find out a little more about what to expect from this year’s edition of the show and the history behind Project Plait. Read the interview in full below!
Bakchormeeboy: Going back to Project Plait’s origins, what compelled you to even combine the idea of dance and food in the first place? Did you meet with a lot of support or resistance when you proposed the idea?
Naomi: When I first got the idea for Project Plait, I was still dancing full time in a contemporary dance company. At that time, friends who came to the shows would tell me that it was too abstract for them and they couldn’t really understand it. That got me thinking: is that why contemporary dance performances in Singapore have not been reaching and seeing new audiences buy tickets?
So then I set out on my own personal mission to make dance accessible and enjoyable for anyone and everyone. But how? One day I got the idea to combine dance with something every Singaporean holds dear- food. So I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to a ton of people, restaurants and organisations. There wasn’t much resistance, but there wasn’t much support shown either, till one person replied my email – Chef Nixon! He invited me down to the restaurant where he was working at (the now defunct Portico) for a meeting, and the rest is history!
For our very first show, we didn’t know what the response would be, and how much people would be willing to pay for this concept, so we went with a pay-as-you-wish format. Many of the audience members from that show were people in our immediate social circles and family, and they helped to spread the word from there. Now, 5 years on, we are so happy that we have new guests (and old customers) coming every year to our show!
Bakchormeeboy: Why did you decide on highlighting the stories of servants in this edition of Project Plait?
Naomi: Much attention has already been given to the stories of our British colonial masters and their contribution to Singapore, while not as much is known of the lives of those who work for the British in the home. For many of us Singaporeans, the stories of our families begin with the early immigrants coming to Singapore to find work and brighter prospects, some of whom eventually found employment as servants in British homes. It is only with the hard work and sacrifices of these early immigrants that we Singaporeans have what we have today, and I would like to shine a light on that.
Bakchormeeboy: Controversy about colonialism and servitude has been rife surrounding celebrating the bicentennial. Does your show address any of these issues? Was there anything unexpected you found during your research process?
Naomi: The stories we are showcasing this time round zoom in on scenes from the servants’ lives, and as such, we do not explicitly address the above controversy you mentioned. What we want to do is to accurately represent and showcase the stories of the servants – their struggles, their happy moments, their hard work through the decades etc, and the overall message is to bring to the forefront of our audience’s minds that what we may take for granted today is in fact a result of the toil and sacrifice of generations past.
During my research process, I was quite tickled to learn that in fact, servants may not have been so obedient to their masters, especially if they feel that they were not treated with due respect. If you would like to read more about it, this was quite a fun read.
Bakchormeeboy: Compared to last year’s edition, how will the audience experience differ this time around?
Naomi: This year will actually be quite different from all our past years’ editions, as the audience will have to move from room to room in our venue to watch the different dances and be served the different dishes. Held in a black & white colonial house at the foot of Mount Faber, the house consists of four interconnected rooms and guests will be divided into groups and move from room to room on a rotational basis, thereby experiencing the full beauty of this house built in 1920s, now fully restored to its former glory.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us a little more about the type of choreography we can expect to see this year – how many performers are we expecting, and how has the challenge of the space affected your choreography?
Naomi: Our choreography is still rooted in the contemporary style, and we have four wonderful dancers this year- Alvin Toh & Natalie Lin (who were in last year’s show) and new additions Mandy Tan & Jash Foong.
Space has always been a challenge and I like the fact that every year I am pushed creatively to create work for different spaces. One challenge every year is simply the lack of space- we dancers like to “move big” and travel a lot in space to portray a high energy, but it is difficult to travel much in a small space. I have learnt that it is still possible to “move big” in a tight space, though it does take some practise and experience, and now passing that on to new dancers is my new challenge.
How do we “move big” in a tight space? It might be hard to explain in words, but what I try to do with my dancers is to get them to feel a sense of release at the ends of their movements, instead of stopping the energy and trajectory of their movements (which comes instinctively when put in a tight space where you might potentially hit someone). So it does take a bit of a shift in the mind and in the body, but it is possible!
Bakchormeeboy: As one of the servants featured is a cook, food obviously plays a key role in this show. How does it fit into the narrative, and what kind of dishes can we expect this time?
Naomi: We have different ways for the food to connect with the dance and vice versa. Sometimes, the dish is directly portrayed in the dance, while other times, the dish may be a visual representation of what the dance is portraying. I don’t want to reveal too much menu-wise as it is a surprise menu (we want the guests to view the food with fresh eyes, and with the dance freshly in their minds, so that they can appreciate both the dance and food in the context of each other).
I would say the dishes one can expect this time round to, at times, pay homage to traditional Cantonese or Chinese flavours we are familiar with, while being presented in a modern, creative way, sometimes influenced by Chef Nixon’s expertise in European cuisine, as such, making our menu truly Modern-Singaporean (Mod-Sin).
One concept we are breaking away from this year (a first for Project Plait) is that instead of the usual 5-course menu (starters and mains in a particular order) , we are going more with a “5-dish menu”, as different guests will be served different dishes at any one time, depending on which room they are in at the time/which dance they have just watched.
Bakchormeeboy: Was there a particular reason why you partnered with Klook for ticketing this year, considering they’re not usually an arts ticketing site?
Naomi: Klook is the official ticketing partner for the entire Singapore Food Festival (SFF) this year, and all the event partners of SFF (of which we are one) were encouraged to use the Klook platform for ticketing.
Bakchormeeboy: As a dancer and artist, what kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind through your various projects?
Naomi: As a Dance Artist, my hope is that more people will come to see contemporary dance as an art form for everyone, that you don’t need to be an art enthusiast or to be “schooled” in art to be able to appreciate it.
I’m also passionate about education, in particular educating the next generation of dancers and audiences in Singapore, so I try my best to do my part, no matter how small, and always make it a point to have children tickets available so that young ones can come too! Appreciation for the arts should be a seed planted and nurtured from young, and that’s what I hope to see in Singapore in the years to come!