More career opportunities for young choreographers

Choreographer and dancer Shahrin Johry was just 15 when he won his first dance competition with a self- choreographed, boyband- inspired routine.

When he took part in the contest, organised by the now-defunct entertainment magazine Lime, he had no formal dance training or a space to rehearse.

Instead, he and his friends would gather at public places to perfect their routines and watch videos to improve.

"At that time, the boyband craze was going on. Their music videos were our teachers. We saw how they did their movements and tried to copy them," says Shahrin, now 31. He began his formal training in dance at Lasalle College of the Arts only in 2007.

Now the principal dancer and assistant choreographer of Maya Dance Theatre, he has come a long way since his days practising outside the National Youth Council at Somerset.

Since joining Maya in 2007, he has presented works at overseas festivals and, last year, he clinched the Most Promising Work award at Sprouts, a national choreography competition organised by the National Arts Council and Frontier Danceland.

There are now more avenues for young choreographers who want to follow in Shahrin's footsteps.

The last four years have seen the growth of new platforms which allow emerging choreographers to create and showcase their work. There are at least six regular showcases for new work and one annual national choreography competition.

There are opportunities with contemporary dance companies, some of which have started programmes dedicated to exhibiting the work of fledging dance artists.

Choreography competitions such as Sprouts, or open calls by organisations such as T.H.E Dance Company and The Substation for fresh works, have also created avenues where aspiring choreographers can cut their teeth.

Young choreographers have also been boosted by an injection of funding.

In 2009, the arts council disbursed $280,000 in creation and project grants for choreographic projects. Last year, the figure more than tripled to $1 million.

The result is that now at least 20 dance artists show their works annually, compared to just a handful five years ago.

The council says that one of its key priorities is to build a strong pool of choreographic talents in Singapore.

Ms Elaine Ng, director (performing arts) of the council, says: "We want to harness this potential and raise the capabilities of our dance professionals to help them make that leap forward."

For less established choreographers, the easiest way to present a work is to take part in a company showcase. These shows are usually annual affairs, featuring short pieces by a handful of choreographers which give the audience a taster menu of different styles and approaches.

There are advantages to developing a work under the auspices of a dance company, which is traditionally the route for most choreographers as they begin their careers as dancers.

Building a budding choreography career in the safety net of a company means there is access to professional dancers, mentorship, rehearsal space, a production budget and publicity. However, most companies will feature choreographers from only their own stable, although several accept proposals from independent artists.

One of the pioneer company platforms is Frontier Danceland's annual Dancers' Locker series, which started in 2009. Each year, four to five dancers - including some from outside the company - present short creations.

Artistic director Low Mei Yoke, 57, says: "I started the series because I felt that it was important to train the choreographers of the future."

Kuik Swee Boon, 40, artistic director of T.H.E, had the same goal when he launched the company's Emerging Choreographers series in 2009.

"After I started the company, I realised that it cannot just depend on me," he says. "We have a limit and we can't keep creating without stopping."

Other companies with in-house platforms include Raw Moves, which started its Run Another Way series last year, and Maya Dance Theatre, which began its Release and Creations platforms two and three years ago respectively.

Lee Mun Wai, 31, has been dancing with T.H.E since its inception five years ago. He has choreographed works for its second and main company, and will be performing in the company's New Vision programme this Friday.

He says that working under the auspices of a company, "you are protected, and are provided with resources".

"If you rent a studio outside, even a tiny one, you have to fork out $50 an hour. If you sit down and create for three, four hours, the cost quickly climbs to $150, $200."

Working with a company also gives less experienced choreographers the chance to tap on their seniors for mentorship and guidance.

At Passages, the Singapore Dance Theatre's fourth annual showcase of up-and-coming choreographers, participants will attend a workshop under the tutelage of artistic director Janek Schergen before creating their work.

Schergen, 61, says: "The workshop was started to give choreographers a more well-rounded idea of what tools in movement were available to them."

But there are disadvantages to working under the umbrella of a dance company.

Choreographing under a company's banner can sometimes come with restrictions, whether perceived or explicit.

Max Chen, a part-time lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' department of dance, is creating a piece for Passages this year. The 29-year-old says: "A lot of the time when there is an artistic adviser, I end up thinking about him instead of thinking about myself. Artistic mentorship is good, but if it happens all the time, then you will stay as a caterpillar and not blossom into a butterfly."

He adds that working with a company will not train choreographers to work well as independent artists. "Management-wise, you won't get any experience."

Industry insiders also say that even if the artists are not contractually bound to a company, doing side projects with other companies is often frowned upon.

Christina Chan, 25, a dancer and choreographer with Frontier Danceland, says: "If there were more collaboration, I think the scene would grow much faster. Working with other people will allow choreographers to experience different kinds of processes and a different movement vocabulary."

But budding choreographers now have more alternative venues to present their work.

National choreographic competition Sprouts is now in its fifth year. In its inaugural year, there were 22 entries. This year, there are 26.

The arts council launched the competition because new choreographic works then tended to be commissions offered to established dance companies and practitioners.

Low from Frontier Danceland, a co-organiser of Sprouts, adds: "The competition is to discover new talent, maybe dancers who have just graduated or returned from overseas and to bring them together."

Former judges include ballet doyenne Goh Lay Kuan and Laurent Van Kote, head of dance at the Ministry Of Culture in France.

But the competition has received mixed reviews from industry players. Last year's winner Shahrin was already a member of a professional company when he participated, as was 2011's winner Chan, which calls into question the competition's effectiveness at discovering new talent.

Low says there are no plans to change the rules or format of the competition.

Other options for choreographers include the M1 Open Stage at T.H.E's annual Contact festival, which started in 2010, and The Substation's annual Open Call, which has a performance category, started in 2008.

While the contemporary dance scene in Singapore is decades old, it is only recently that these platforms have sprung up.

Ricky Sim, 43, artistic director of Raw Moves, says: "In the 1990s and 2000s, dancers were just dancers. They were tools of expression. If you wanted to be a choreographer, you needed to find your own dancers and be your own set designer, lighting designer and stage manager."

Kavitha Krishnan, 41, artistic director of Maya Dance Theatre, says the large pool of dance graduates has contributed to the scene's development. "I think it's a matter of demand and supply. There is a lot of interest from young artists who have graduated as dancers."

One of these graduates is Chiew Peishan, 31, who returned to Singapore in April this year after training at the London Contemporary Dance School. She has since choreographed for Re:Dance Theatre, and is part of Raw Moves' management team.

She says: "Most choreographers start off as performers, but feel motivated to create after being exposed to the work. They want to stand on the opposite side of the space."

While it might be easier now to get a foothold in the industry, it is the calibre of the choreographer that ultimately dictates how far he climbs.

T.H.E's Lee says: "It might be easier to step into the interview room, but once you get through the door, what are you going to say next?"

What can be done to encourage young choreographers to step up? E-mail

Dance showcases and competition

Creations 2013 - In Between by Maya Dance Theatre and The Substation
The third edition of Maya Dance Theatre's Creations series will see young local dance artists collaborating with experienced international choreographers such as Ajith Baskaran Dass from Malaysia and Danang Pamungkas from Indonesia.
Where: The Substation Theatre, 45 Armenian Street
When: Oct 31 to Nov 1, 8pm
Admission: $25 and $20 (concession) from The Substation Box Office (call 6337-7800 or e-mail

Passages by Singapore Dance Theatre
What: The fourth instalment of Passages will feature creations by local choreographer Christina Chan and Swiss-Canadian choreographer Kinsun Chan.
Three up-and-coming choreographers - Max Chen, Ci Ci Chen and Jereh Leong - will also present works.
Where: Gallery Theatre, National Museum, 93 Stamford Road
When: Nov 1, 7.30pm; Nov 2, 3 and 7.30pm; Nov 3, 3pm
Admission: $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

Run Another Way 2013 by Raw Moves
What: The second year of Raw Moves' Run Another Way will showcase the creations of five young choreographers, all in their 20s.
Where: Studio Theatre, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, 151 Bencoolen Street
When: Dec 13 and 14, 8pm
Admission: $15
Info: E-mail

Sprouts Preliminary Round by the National Arts Council and Frontier Danceland
What: At the fifth edition of Sprouts, 16 young choreographers will compete to move on to the next round.
Where: Goodman Arts Centre Black Box
When: Oct 19, 11am and 3pm
Admission: Free

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