Gwen Sin speaks to Frontier Danceland’s co-founder and Artistic Director Low Mei Yoke on receiving Singapore’s highest accolade in the arts and her extensive contributions as a contemporary dance choreographer for more than three decades
It was an unexpected call. After dancing for more than three decades, Frontier Danceland’s co-founder and Artistic Director Low Mei Yoke – more affectionately known as “Ms. Low” to her ensemble and students – received news one day that she was one of the Cultural Medallion recipients for dance choreography. That was in 2018.
Ms. Low shared candidly with us about her thoughts on receiving the award, as well as her personal struggles in breaking out of traditional dance to introduce contemporary dance in Singapore.
Could you recall what was going through your head when you were first informed about receiving the Cultural Medallion award back then in 2018?
Ms. Low: I initially thought it was a joke, when I first got the news from the local organising governmental agency, ie. the National Arts Council back then! I quickly called to inform my husband, Tan Chong Poh (who is also the co-founder of Frontier Danceland). And when I finally received the official letter about the invitation to receive the award from the President of Singapore, I was very happy that I am gaining recognition and also finally getting everyone’s 认可 (“ren ke” in Chinese for ‘affirmation’) for my efforts to introduce contemporary dance to the local schools and contemporary dance enthusiasts in Singapore.
How do you feel about the award now?
Ms. Low: The award actually evokes a lot of mixed emotions in me. I have been in the local dance scene for many years afterall; and my struggles were up to almost close to 30 years. I was from a traditional Chinese dance background. When I switched to contemporary dance in the late 80s, there was a lot of skepticism and people were not very receptive. I was like an “outcast”, since I belonged to none of the more common genres like ballet or traditional Chinese dance. Even my friends are in traditional Chinese dance companies questioned the genre I am pursuing: “(If) It’s not traditional Chinese dance, what is contemporary dance then?” So it was rather depressing for me from 1989 to 1993.
Also, it is an uphill challenge to be an artist in Singapore. But I do not keep lamenting how tough it is. I just like to dance, so I just continue to keep moving on. There were so many pitfalls I had to overcome when I started Frontier Danceland officially in 1991.
What keeps you going?
Ms. Low: Many factors keep me going in my personal journey. If you want to be a Chinese dancer, you belong to the traditional Chinese dance. If I stick to traditional Chinese dance but not without the traditional movements, I get criticised too. If you are in modern dance, you belong solely to modern dance. There was no ‘modern Chinese dance’, which is why I’m being ‘pushed out’ to the extremes. I wanted to add in Chinese elements in contemporary dance, because I am a Chinese afterall. I started to add these modern elements when I began teaching in the local schools. The schools then found it difficult to accept. So I switched to contemporary dance, but added Chinese elements. And the schools are fine with this new change. That’s why I made the bold switch and switched completely to contemporary dance, where there is greater freedom.
I also belonged to the older generation of Singaporeans where we used to study in the Chinese language. There was a change in policies from the 1970s onwards, and all educational materials had to be learnt in English. It was very, very difficult and depressing for my peers and I. We felt so inferior, because we were more grounded and comfortable in Chinese. As a result, I did poorly for my GCE ‘O’ Levels exams. My grades were horrible. Everything was just a pass. There was no way I could further my studies and I had to find a job instead. It was also a very trying time for me when I went for job interviews and everything was conducted in English. This challenging phase as a student was a constant reflection to me even when I switched to contemporary dance, and are reflected in my earlier works.
This phase also became my inspiration and led to even more changes in my works. Some people like it; some people don’t. I couldn’t care anymore. Sometimes I even get asked why don’t I do certain styles anymore? It has to do with the different phases of life that I am going through. As artists, we will be influenced by some experiences and thoughts, which are translated to our works. If my life is too stable, I find that I get complacent and run out of ideas!
I used to not look at my past works, till the Cultural Medallion award came about and I was reminded of the past works I’ve done previously. I thought to myself now, how could I have choreographed that piece in the past, and laughed to myself. Was it really my work? I couldn’t even remember some of them!
Who is and what forms your current inspiration?
Ms. Low: I like to get inspiration from life in general, whether it’s through conversations, readings, current affairs and even photo exhibitions. I remembered choreographing an earlier piece about abortion, which was inspired by China’s one-child policy.
At my age now (64 years old), I also like a lot on movements. Movements to me can be very special and speaks on its own about fluidity. A lot of my pieces are choreographed from watching and improvising with my ensemble themselves. How they interpret and express their own emotions speak a lot and how they express about their feelings. This is the hardest part of the process. A lot of dancers may not be able to get in touch with their own emotions that quickly, so it takes a while and lots of improvisation to get their movements right. It is similar to drawing out their ‘inner’ language to be expressed openly, that is the hardest of the process. Even if it is about walking strides, what is their feel? Their emotions? We spend a lot of time discussing about these.
Frontier Danceland is a non-profit, professional contemporary dance repertory company in Singapore founded by Low Mei Yoke and Tan Chong Poh. The company has worked with local and international dance-makers from various backgrounds, including Noa Zuk, Ohad Fishof and Shahar Binyamini from Israel, Sita Ostheimer (Germany) and Victor Choi-Wo Ma (Hong Kong). Frontier Danceland also represented Singapore internationally, which were all well received overseas. Since 2010, they have introduced PULSE, a one-year scholarship programme in contemporary dance for youths aged 15-25 years old. To read more about PULSE, please click here.