AWARD-winning dancer, choreographer and dramatist Lee Su-Feh is in the midst of questioning her art, asking why we dance and why people watch dance. At the same time, she believes everyone should be involved in dance. “I believe in the dancing body,” Lee says. “Everyone needs to dance and experience dance…It’s a way of transmitting codes from one person to another, it’s a language. And it’s a language that we often forget how to speak.”
The Nut Graph interviewed Lee, who usually resides in Vancouver, on 5 Feb 2010 in Kuala Lumpur. She is artistic director of Battery Opera, which she co-founded with David McIntosh in 1995. A dance showing of Lee’s workshop Objects and Matter will be held on 11 Feb 2010 at 8.30pm at Five Arts Centre.
Lee with her brother Kenneth and grandmother
Tan Cheng Soon (pic courtesy of Lee)
TNG: When and where were you born?
Lee Su-Feh: I was born in Klang in 1964.
Where did you grow up?
Mostly in Klang and, as a teenager, mostly in Petaling Jaya.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My Hokkien great-grandfather came here from An Hui, Anxi province in China in 1897. I think he was a farmer. The story I was told was he went to the Klang convent, which was an orphanage, and he picked out my great-grandmother to marry. My paternal grandparents lived in Klang. My grandfather had a stationery shop and printing press [which is] still run by my cousin. I think of my grandparents as the people who brought me up because I went to live with them after my parents split up when I was about five.
I don’t know very much about my mother’s ancestry because her mum died when she was a toddler and [my maternal grandfather] died when I was very young. My mum was born in Rembau. Her family are Teochew Nyonya so they speak Peranakan Hokkien. I also heard that my maternal grandfather could have Thai [ancestry].
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
My memories change depending on what I’m doing. I don’t think memory is fixed, it’s all very fluid. At the moment, because I’m sitting here in a garden, I’m thinking about my grandfather’s rambutan trees. Tomorrow, I [could] give you another answer. Yesterday, when I looked at your (e-mailed) questions, my strongest memories were of the dogs in the neighbourhood.
Are there any stories you hold onto from your family?
Lee’s paternal grandfather, Lee
Eng Kong (pic courtesy of Lee)My grandfather told me stories every night before I went to sleep. Those are the stories I remember. Sometimes he told me classical stories like the Butterfly Lovers.
He also told me about two orphaned brothers living with a mean uncle, who didn’t feed them. Out of pity, the servants gave [the brothers] a chicken’s heart. Upon eating it, they realised they could communicate with birds and animals. So they ran away and had adventures — conquered a dragon and saved a princess with the help of all the animals. Sometimes my grandfather made small changes like instead of a mean uncle, it’d be a nice uncle. Or instead of a faraway place, it happened down the road.
As a child, I was obsessed with eating chicken hearts. I kept listening to hear whether I understood the chickens and ducks in my house. I’ve also used this story in a solo I created because it really resonated with me.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
Being Malaysian is one of the many parts of me. I’m generally sensitive to diverse and multiple ways of being and I feel that that is my Malaysian-ness at work in the rest of the world.
I’ve realised that language affects me a great deal, how I think. I think changing syntax and speech patterns when switching languages affects your thought patterns and I’m sure if affects your body.
In Malaysia, even when you’re speaking the same language, you’re actually flipping syntax. You can speak English like Chinese, or English like Malay. I notice my accent also changes depending on whom I’m speaking to. I enjoy this constant shape-shifting that happens here vis-à-vis language…And in this, I find different parts of myself.
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with?
(pic courtesy of Five Arts Centre)
I encounter, not so much a struggle but an awareness — as part of a minority [in Malaysia and Canada], you become very sensitive to being an outsider. Encountering people who are comfortably the majority, who think everything is as they perceive it; there’s always a slight surprise [for me]. When I encounter that assuredness, there’s always a decision on my part. Sometimes I yield and sometimes I want to say, “Actually, no, this is not normal for the rest of the world.”
Part of why we dance is that so much of dance is about shared code. In a shared culture, dance transmits the cultural code. The logic of the dancing body, the rhythms, the manners — the things transmitted through the dances are [found] in that society. But if you take that dance to another culture, those codes don’t make sense. So the dance becomes decoration and it’s just pretty. If it’s just pretty, it becomes an object — you can buy it, you can toss it away. And fundamentally, I don’t think that’s what dance is for but for the most part, that’s what dance has become.
So when we live in a multicultural and diverse world, without a shared mythology, how do we connect to our bodies? How do we address the question of dance? Yet, I think we all need to feel each other’s bodies, to have a fuller understanding of each other. Understanding is not just intellectual. There’s a whole body intelligence that I feel is missing in our efforts to live together.
What kind of Malaysia would you like for yourself and for future generations?
Lee at work (pic courtesy of Lee)
What I like about Malaysia is that issues of diversity and conflict actually get talked about in a very overt way. [In Canada, this is not usually the case.] Everyone’s very polite which I sometimes find oppressive. What I like here is that it’s just very out there. It’s quite inspiring. I’d like that to continue but with less fear.
When you encounter and engage with another person, there is this fear that you will lose yourself. That if you bend too far, if you give in too much, you’ll be annihilated. In my last project where I collaborated with another choreographer, we [examined] the notion of the body being very fluid. I practise Chinese martial arts based on Taoism where there’s this notion of yielding when you encounter resistance. But then you also move forward and advance when there’s an opening.
I would like to think that if you are like water, then water has the capacity to infiltrate, to transform. Even with concrete, water enters, so it’s very strong. It can be a slow stream, or a big rushing river. I think yielding without surrendering, that would be very useful.
I feel ultimately you’re indestructible. If you interrogate the things you care about, they can only [get] stronger, and less rigid. [In questioning dance these few years, I find it can sometimes be terrifying]. But you have to interrogate that article of faith, test it out, and then you discover your relationship to it becomes deeper and more complex.
How would we educate ourselves or a community to be able to be open to examining ourselves in this way?
Conducting a dance workshop (pic courtesy of Five Arts Centre)
By nurturing the artist in everyone. It’s important to develop the space in which you’re not linear, where there’s room to think about different possibilities and to imagine different realities.
It’s also important to educate everyone to know where they are without relying on external approval. When I taught at a university, there would always be kids who would keep looking at me to see whether they were doing it right. I had to constantly tell them to stop looking at me. It’s not very pleasant to have someone looking for your approval all the time, it’s a heavy responsibility. Also, that person has no authority over themselves.
So as a parent, even though it can be irritating when my child argues with me, I have to embrace that and say to myself, “Okay, we’re negotiating something. He has the right to argue and negotiate his own space and growth, without hurting other people.” I have to be open to that logic. I would like to see that not just for Malaysia but for everyone.
Disclosure: The Nut Graph’s editor Jacqueline Ann Surin is part of Lee’s dance showing Objects and Matter on 11 Feb 2010.
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