It is not every day that a dance project is inspired by a book written by a cultural philosopher. But then again, Where Two Seas Meet, an intercultural project that borrows its name from the book by the same name, written by Marc Colpaert, can hardly be called conventional.
A collaborative effort between Malaysian dancer/choreographer Beh Chin Lau, who is also known as Jinn, Swiss/Dutch choreographer Katja Graessli and Belgian cultural philosopher Colpaert, it seeks to spark dialogue between different Malaysian cultures and Europe.
Comprising dance performances, workshops, a seminar, a talk and readings from Colpaert’s book, Where Two Seas Meet will be filmed and turned into a documentary of sorts that can serve as a reference point for future projects.
Rehearsals for the dance piece In-Between-Us – that will be created during an eight-day residency – will be open to the public. The audience’s comments will contribute to the dance’s final form.
“Feedback from the audience is a rich inspiration for me,” says Graessli, adding that the input helps in the reflecting and testing of her ideas, and is an important part in discovering the intention of the dance scenes.
“Having the audience be part of the process helps them to be more open and associative with their comments, and this helps me focus on finding the right ‘essence’ of the piece. I often work this way in the Netherlands as well, it is very effective,” she says.
Graessli is known for her dance theatre works, often described as “theatrical” or “expressionistic”. She shares that she is fascinated by the “stylistic possibilities” offered by a combination of human body language and the abstract aspect of a dance.
“With my choreographic work, I want to be close to my audience. My work gives them a deeper insight into the inner emotional world and conflicts of various characters, on the verge of humour and tragedy,” she says.
Her work includes strong visual aspects due to, at least in part, her study of fine arts in Switzerland.
In-Between-Us will be performed by three Malaysian dancers from different dance and cultural backgrounds.
Another dance piece, titled Can’t Look Through Your Eyes, is a solo performance by Lau, choreographed by Graessli, that has been staged in the Netherlands and Ireland. The show here will be its Asian premiere.
Lau relates that during the early stages of creating the dance she felt rather at odds with what was required of her. Coming from a traditional dance background, where “synchronisation is more important than personality”, she recalls how the world of dance theatre struck her as rather unorthodox.
“It was new to me, something I have never done. And in the beginning, it felt like I was doing something totally crazy,” she says.
Throughout her dance career, she had grown accustomed to learning her dance steps, and then perfecting them for the performance.
“But when I started working with Katja, she was constantly asking me what I feel, what I think, what certain things mean to me…and I thought, oh gosh, I am a dancer, do I need to think so much?” says Lau, who met up with Katja in the Netherlands to work on Can’t Look Through Your Eyes.
Over time, however, she has embraced what she now refers to as a turning point of sorts and confides with a twinkle in her eye that she now “enjoys being crazy”. Her sojourn into dance theatre was liberating, to say the least.
“My time spent in Europe really opened my eyes, it made me see the different realities in Malaysia that I was never interested in before. It is true that you really do need others to find your identity,” she says, referring to her epiphany, the merging of different cultures and ways of thinking, and the ideas explored in Colpaert’s book.
“ ‘I’ is a starting point. ‘I’ as such – that an identity as such – does not exist. It can only exist in relation to others. ‘I’ is constantly interacting with and reacting to the people and the reality which surrounds ‘I’. An ‘I’ must involve and must be involved,” writes Colpaert in his book.
Graessli, Lau and Colpaert first met in 2014 during the International Choreographers Week in Tilburg, the Netherlands, organised by DansBrabant (NL). Colpaert had a book reading at the event, and it resonated so much with Graessli and Lau that it led to the creation of Can’t Look Through Your Eyes.
“We were inspired by the idea that our identity is always changing in relation to our surroundings and the people around us. We felt strongly connected with the idea that life is created, transformed and given meaning by what happens between people, and between people and reality. Without human connectedness, there can be no life,” says Graessli.
The philosophy Colpaert discusses is very much in sync with her lifestyle – how she wants to live, work, and what she believes in.
Through her works, she searches for new connections and possibilities in the arts and communities.
“I like to dive into other imaginary worlds and I see dance as a possibility to connect different ideas, different body languages, different cultures, in a peaceful and fruitful way. It brings a great richness to the table,” she says.
Highlighting that the strength of dance lies in its associative characteristics, she explains that it needs no words to communicate. She calls it a “contemplative way of communication”, where different views can co-exist without acceptance being a prerequisite.
“Everybody has the opportunity to see the dance piece from his or her perspective. At the same time, body language is a mirror of human behaviour. This duality creates space between people, where they can share thoughts and perspectives without having to search for a joint conclusion,” she explains.
When asked if the space between becomes smaller or bigger as you explore it, Graessli says it is both at the same time.
On working with Lau, she says, “The space in between us became smaller because we grew to know each other better, we became close friends. But it also became bigger because our possibilities grew. We discovered new things together than we would never have found by ourselves.”
Perhaps Where Two Seas Meet will dance in these spaces too. And the best thing? There is room for everyone.
Where Two Seas Meet will run on April 16 and 17 at Damansara Performing Arts Centre. The dance event (In-Between-Us, Can’t Look Through Your Eyes, In_timate and Speaking Three) is on at 3pm both days with an additional 8pm show on April 16. For more information, head to www.dpac.com.my or call 03-4065 0001/0002 or 012-2303 583.