Tammy McLorg and Mavin Khoo
Copyright © the participants 2003.
(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the authors.)
This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.
Interview between Tammy McLorg and Mavin Khoo, with an afterword by Susan Melrose
Tammy: I'm very interested in where Mavin Khoo's choreograhy is going, and I wanted to ask him rather than present something 'about his work' [in the third person]. Mavin, you were described in the Guardian by Judith Makrell as "half god, half tart". I think we'll come to what that implies a bit later. The description is very interesting to me in terms of the fact that you were trained in two very different dance cultures. Can I start by asking you about that training?
Mavin: I was originally trained in Bharat Natyam in Malaysia and when I was ten I moved to Madras in India to go into full-time dance training, and when I was about thirteen the British Council in India had this very interesting idea which was to do a project in what they called a "bilingual body", and that project was for one child to be trained in classical ballet at the same time. So I was the guinea pig. For a long time I never saw a link between Bharat Natyam and ballet. I did my Bharat Natyam, which was predominantly where my work was going, and I did my ballet exams. At the age of 14 my look into ballet changed quite dramatically by accident. Every Tuesday afternoon I used to go to the British Council and I used to watch a lot of dance. On one of those days I saw this video called "Baryshnikov at Wolf Trap" (1975) and I was excited because iot was Baryshnikov but on the video he was dancing with Gelsey Kirkland, a pas de deux. I was completely mindblown by Gelsey Kirkland - I think that it was the subtlety of nuance that suddenly gave me this new - it was like fire - which I hadn't really seen in ballet. My training in Indian dance was always with live music and there was so much emotional substance to it, and then you go into your ballet exams... Suddenly I saw this whole ither side to ballet, and I started to take this very seriously from then on.
Then after that I spent a long time predominantly doing solo Natyam work, in India and internationally and at the age of 17 or 18 I came here and I worked very much with Anne Went (Middlesex University) who was a very influential guide and artistic inspiration and with Tammy and I also went to the Royal Ballet School and the Cunningham Studio in New York, and eventually I worked a lot under Michael and Mary St Clair. My training has been in many different areas. The important thing is that, in order to find the "oneness" of ballet and bharat natyam, I actually had to live two separate lives for a long time before I could find them within each other.
Tammy: You worked mainly as a dancer when you started, but now you are beginning to be thought very highly as a choreographer - which brings these two words together - do you call this a hyrbid, or would you call it cross-cultural -
Mavin: I always find it very odd when I'm called a choreographer. I don't think of myself as a choreographer - I think of myself as a dancer. I create work that I think is challenging and that I love to dance, and that's quite important. I think that there are two different kinds of work, one that is dancer-led and one that is choreographer-led. I wouldn't give it a name because I think that it's about finding the contradiction that can live in one. What I enjoy in life is that on one level I'm very orthodox, very hindu, I'm very Indian, but another side is that I am very London, I'm extremely young gay London, and it is fascinating that these extremities can live in one. And that's how I see my work - I think that a lot of the dancers I work with have these extremities of personality and they have seemed to find a kind of 'comfortability' with these extremities.
Tammy: What kind of dancers do you look for - do you choose them for their high technique, their craft, their performance quality, their skill - when you want to make a work, what do you look for?
Mavin: Actually, all of those things. I take it for granted that dancers are highly trained - because of being classically trained myself, I like the classical body very much, so - all the dancers I work with are very highly classically trained. But what I look for is whether a dancer has the capacity to sustain presence when he or she is not dancing, and so very much - I find my dancers in class, when I'm doing class with them. Then, if it works very well in class, in the studio, I like to take it outside into the street, to see if they are still moving. I am going to be very politically incorrect now, and say that it's wonderful when you have a sense that a dancer is unlike anyone else, and that your body is unlike anybody else's body, because you have trained it to be so 'un-natural', so abnormal, so I think that with a lot of dancers I choose, it's whether they carry that confidence and pride, outside of the studio.
Tammy: When you are making work, how do you devise it? How do you start the process - I mean, yesterday Kim Brandstrup was saying that with Hamlet, obviously a narrative piece, but he doesn't let the dancers see the storyboard, he works from movement - how do you actually start the process?
Mavin: It depends on what kind of work it is - quite a lot of my work stems from carnatic music - I trained with carnatic music - and if it's carnatic music, then often it's text-based as well, so usually with that I have a kind of metaphoric visual representation in my mind, but not steps as such. Actually what I tend to do is to go into the studio and I usually use very commercial music initially - because I - and all the dancers I work with - you were talking about contradiction just now - I love clubbing.
I love going out, and very often I find that a lot of very interesting movement, a departure from classicism, comes from working with Madonna or Christine Aguilerra; and this has a very high comfortability factor - when you're creating movement from that kind of music, and then suddenly you put it to Bach. And it still sits well - this is something I find very interesting. So very often I might have a strong visual idea, which might be determined by a lighting state - because I like to approach dance like a director approaches film. It might be a very close-up look at a very small isolated part of the body - like the waist...and that becomes the core of where the movement starts from, but usually I don't plan at all.
Tammy: You just go in and work?
Mavin: Yes, so much is is determined by the mood, by how we feel that day, how our bodies feel that day -
Tammy: I was interested in what Mavin said about clubbing, because when we think of Mavin's work we often think about ballet or the Opera House, but you've done a lot of work in clubs as well.
Mavin: We've been working on a long-term project which will last over three years. It's one of the most exciting and satisfying projects I've done, which is taking classicism into clubs. So many things came out of it when we first did it, because a) lot of it was improvised, which is interesting because with classicism people don't usually connect that with improvisation; and b) a lot of it was determined by the space of the club, which means that you can't actually create anything before you go and see what the club has to offer. In the first project we did all of us were on pointe, and you the question was how you do pointe work on all kinds of floors and spaces?
There is the accessibility question about taking something like ballet into a club, to an audience who would probably never have gone to the Opera House, and then the question of the music, in their terms - I mean, you're not going in with Swan Lake and saying "OK, watch me" but you're literally going in, to their music, and their context. And the kind of response, when someone is this close to you, and seeing you on pointe, it's amazing, because of the physical muscularity of classical dancers. And then the kind of approach - in a club the audience is very different at midnight and three am and 5 am. When you take ballet dancers into a club the physicality and the muscularity of ballet dancers - this really works very well in a club. When they let go in a club, they are incredibly erotic because physically they have incredibly sexual bodies, and technically they are able to do very sexually-charged things.
Tammy: What's your concept of virtuosity? I think of you as highly trained, a beautiful technician -
Mavin: There are two things to say; the first is that one can't embrace the idea of virutosity without skill and control. The truly virtuoso dancer only gives that full energy from which flamboyance comes. But the other thing is that people seem to think that virtuosity is purely on a big scale, spatially or physically, and the second thing is that people seem to connect virtuosity with male dancers, which is something I have a problem with because I think that they think of virtuosity in terms of muscularity, and masculine muscularity... But I think that virtuosity can actually stem from the point of a dancer who can stand still on stage for three minutes [while maintaining presence as such]- there is projection and authority there. I was thinking the other day about the role of Juliette, in terms of [Kenneth] MacMillan's choreography - when you think of Lynn Seymour [playing the role] there's a wonderful moment before Juliette drinks the poison when Seymour - for about 3 minutes, the music is going on, and she sits on the bed, and does nothing, but she can hold an audience and a whole context - I think of her as a great virtuosic performer.
Tammy: You are totally involved in practice, working, creating dance - do you think that in the future you might write in a different way, do you think that you might do a PhD?
Mavin: My mother would love it! But no, I think that there is a place for both, but...
Tammy: We were once discussing how within dance there seems to be very little in terms of a place where more mature dancers can pass on their knowledge. There are extraordinary dancers now in their 50s and 60s, whose mastery and skill is not being passed down.
Mavin: I think that it is very important for dance, and I am talking as a dancer, for anyone whose work is going to evolve - there has to be a great sense of your point of departure, a sense of history, and I think that your work is particularly exciting when people can see it in terms of evolving from your point of departure. A sense of reverence for experience is incredibly important.
Susan Melrose: Who is the researcher, when we are concerned with choreographic work or dance 'itself', not least when it is a matter of professional work which has already been reviewed in the national press? The national press tends to record choreographic practice as single-authored 'signature work', and to attribute it, generally speaking, to a named choreographer and/or her or his company - for example, Lloyd Newson and/or DV8, Shobana Jeyasingh, Kim Brandstrup and Arc Dance . Often it does so without identifying the contribution to it, or the artistic 'ownership', specific to the professional dancer/s concerned. The exception here might well be a brief acknowledgement in the written review of virtuosity in the work of a specific, named dancer (or equally there may be complaint at a perceived lack of technical mastery). Yet in most cases of professional choreographers' choice of dancers to work with, one of the most basic requirements of their art is their own acknowledgement of the skill and the potential of expert dance-practitioners. If the reviewer tends consistently to seek to identify "the choreographer" as auteur, the added complication seems to be that the contribution of the expert dancer can thereby be subsumed into the choreogaphic "text".
Perhaps the register and focus of the published review of professional practice is linked to the fact that the professional reviewer her or himself tends to occupy the position of 'expert spectator', after the event of performance-making. After the event of performance-making, the contribution of the dancer, however singular in its importance, tends to have been transformed into that of 'the performer' (sometimes even 'the body'!). It appears no longer to be perceived as that of dance-maker - or 'co-author' (if we want to retain the notion of signature work.). In order to take back signature, the dancer seems to need to assume the role of 'self-choreographing performer' - as might be seen in the work of Wendy Houston, Nigel Charnock or Emilyn Claid.
We saw Mavin Khoo's work, from the point of view of this focus on aesthetic and research ownership, as especially challenging a number of times over. His work turns on 'cultural diversity' itself, but it turns equally on virtuosic mastery of more than one highly codified tradition. And that itself opens up series of choices for him, and a real lucidity with regard to choices taken, which are less widely available to a single-discipline-trained dancer. It moves between 'dance', worked with the noted choreographer (and cultural-theoretical practitioner) Shobana Jeyasingh - and 'dancer-choreographic practices' - but it also moves, while retaining the exigency and evaluative frameworks specific to the observation of disciplinary mastery, between designated dance spaces and popular sites.
In the case, for example, of Mavin's contribution to what is generally identified as 'Shobana Jeyasingh's work' (e.g. (h-)Interland, 2003, at the Greenwich Dance Agency), I would argue that some spectators at least came looking for evidence of an ongoing and edgy collaboration and negotiation between two or more signature-practitioners, one of whom was also a principal dancer whose expert mastery was vital to the whole event. In this sort of case - this collaboration for (h-)Interland also included the work of independent video-maker and sound-designer - my opening question returns: who owns the research-as-expert practice? And if research practices continue to unfold, such that 'the show' is merely one incomplete instantiation, to what extent might we claim that that named project was also research in the case of Mavin's ongoing and highly sustained enquiry into expert practices and virtuosity in creative-professional terms?
Malaysian-born Mavin Khoo studied Bharata Natyam in India with Guru Adyar K Lakshman, Contemporary Dance at the Merce Cunningham studio in New York and Ballet with Marian StClaire in London, where he has lived and worked for several years. He has performed in collaboration with Wayne McGregor ("Encoder" 1997), Akram Khan ("No Male Egos" 1999) and Christopher Bannerman ("Cast in Stone?" 2000), guested with Sankalpam, Random and Shobana Jeyasingh dance companies and toured internationally as a soloist. He has choreographed for National Youth Dance Company ("Mirror of Gestures" 2000) and London Studio Centre ("Unfrozen" 2001 and a new work for 2003). A former associate artist at Akademi, for whom he performed in the major Summer 2000 "Coming of Age" celebration at the Royal Festival Hall, he also teaches regularly in London, where he is artist in residence at The Tabernacle. His TV work includes pieces for JTV India and Channel 4, and he choreographed for the BBC2 TV Asian Achievement Awards in 2002. Mavin is currently undertaking with his dancers a research project into ballet and bharata natyam "Transforming Classicism" at the Universities of Surrey and Roehampton, creating new duets for the Royal Ballet and Akademi, and in Autumn 2003 his company Mavin Khoo Dance makes its first national tour with the programme "Parallel Passions", co-commissioned by Sampad Birmingham, Royal Ballet ROH2 and Arts Council England, to music ranging from traditional Carnatic to JS Bach and Madonna.
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Last updated, 30th August 2004.