Percolating an Idea of a Project on Dance, Labour and Economics

Issue #09: The Money Issue

It was the exchange of their physical prowess as dancers with different training that interested me, from the pedagogical approaches of both dancers to the notion of economic exchange. How are these dancers repositories of body disciplines that contribute to their economic sustainability, and how might this lead to the exchange of different body disciplines as an exchange of information or knowledge that could be traded or circulated, perhaps as a form of capital?

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In 2013, I discussed the impact of government infrastructure spending, which aimed to develop arts and culture in the small island state of Singapore. In its many incarnations of arts master plans over the past 20 years or so, the government has enabled the mobilisation and circulation of economic capital to turn Singapore into a regional arts hub. My argument is that while arts and culture is monetised and artificially nurtured with huge injections of funding, neighbouring artists have benefitted with new theatre performances, choreographies, and artworks, not to mention a myriad of facilities for directors, choreographers, and visual artists. Singapore has thereby acted as a cultural broker in global terms. More importantly, the island state’s competence in arts networking mobilises and ‘choreographs’ the movement of economic and cultural capital, to the benefit of foreign artists, especially from the Southeast Asian region.

Since then, many other arts hubs have now been established and are flourishing throughout Asia – the most recent being the massive Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, Korea. This is not an article on recent trends of regional arts and cultural management, but I am implicated by this trend of global and regional funding and commissioning mobilisation – or ‘choreography’. As a research student and part time dramaturg for the past five years, I have had the luxury of not worrying about financial support for my artistic and research projects. My National University of Singapore’s PhD research scholarship came with a comfortable monthly stipend that covered basic housing and food. My part time dramaturgical projects with choreographers also meant my fees were built into their budget. I never worried about seeking funding for them.

Money matters began to figure in my performance psyche when I became an independent artist about two years ago. Wanting to initiate dramaturgical projects close to my heart, I put together a plan for a research project of dramaturgical practices in 2014. While funding for the project came initially from my home country of Malaysia, the sustained growth and development of it has involved further support in the form of a research residency as far as Kobe, Japan. And now, what began as a research project about a year ago, will actually be realised as a performance of sorts in Japan in 2016 – all because I benefitted from the mobilisation and flows of economic capital that encourages the proliferation of cultural capital across the region. The very ‘choreographies’ of transnational funding that I wrote about have become a working reality for me. Not only that, this transnational project between Malaysian and Cambodian artists has also grown to include Japanese artists.

It began with an exchange between a Cambodian and Malaysian contemporary dancer of differing social and cultural backgrounds, dance training and experiences, and even nationalities. Well into the first week of a three-week residency in Phnom Penh, it became clear that I would change course, with the support of my two dance collaborators. Malaysian contemporary dancer Naim Syah Razad and his Cambodian counterpart, Phon Sopheap, first started to share their dance training and practices with my facilitation as dramaturg. However, we also had plenty of time and space to talk and get to know each other on a social basis. The topic of money always came up largely due to the fact that I was now responsible for a small grant that was used for this residency project.

Since then, I have become interested in the everyday financials of Naim and Sopheap, in how they make a living as dancers, in how they make a living despite being dancers. At 27 years, the Kuala Lumpur-based Naim is fortunate to be armed with a Bachelor in Dance from Malaysia’s premier performing arts academy ASWARA (National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy). After graduating with a degree, the talented quickly get hired by the academy’s dance company where Naim has the luxury of being a jobbing dancer. His workday consists of dance training and classes, rehearsals and ultimately performances of different choreographies.

This is in contract to 36-year-old Sopheap in Phnom Penh, who is hailed as one of the most proficient classical Cambodian masters. His initiation into contemporary dance began about seven years ago and he has been fortunate to work with and perform for choreographers all over the world. Contemporary dance is almost non-existent in Phnom Penh. Sopheap teaches classical dance in a high school where his monthly salary can barely support his family. Thankfully, he has a substantial side income as an entertaining and charming musician, singer and master of ceremonies at weddings.

While Naim talks about a burgeoning contemporary dance and choreographic career that sees him dreaming of doing a Masters in Choreography in Berlin, Sopheap waits patiently for new projects from abroad to land in Phnom Penh. As passionate as he is for contemporary dance, Sopheap is also realistic and pragmatic that his art – contemporary or classical – cannot fully support his financial and material survival. Over time, the subject of being a dancer became more and more dominant in our discussions and improvisation work in rehearsal. In one exercise, I asked Naim and Sopheap to present a simple accounting of their expenses against their monthly income. In another exercise, I interviewed Sopheap about his motorcycle, which plays a vital role in his everyday financial well-being, from taking him to his classes to teach, to enabling him to travel to rehearsals about 20km away from his home, to travelling 50 to sometimes 100km away to far flung villages to sing and play music for wedding parties. There were also movement improvisations based on Naim’s and Sopheap’s fears and concerns for their future. Naim presented his career ambitions, fears and doubts in dance, while Sopheap moved to his worry for his children growing up in an increasingly capitalist and materialistic Cambodia, gradually edging out arts and culture in favour of commerce, trade and manufacturing. As a result, I have become intrigued by the prospect of dancers talking about their economic and socio-economic lives from this part of the world – as distinct from the west and western discourse around sustainability in dance.

At the end of 2014, I spent a month on a research residency in Kobe, hosted by Dance Box, a non-profit organisation and theatre venue specialising in contemporary dance in western Japan. I took the opportunity to continue my research on finding out how dancers live and work. I interviewed about ten dancers and also initiated workshops. This time, I focused on the worth or monetary value of their bodies. I also continued the idea of dancers teaching each other. It was the exchange of their physical prowess as dancers with different training that interested me, from the pedagogical approaches of both dancers to the notion of economic exchange. How are these dancers repositories of body disciplines that contribute to their economic sustainability, and how might this lead to the exchange of different body disciplines as an exchange of information or knowledge that could be traded or circulated, perhaps as a form of capital?

By now, I have a better picture of Naim, Sopheap, and two other Japanese dancers in their late careers, including their very varied socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds. Japanese Osamu Jareo and Takao Kawaguchi are two highly successful dancers in their early 50s with vastly different approaches to contemporary dance. It was indeed a potent mis en scène to have all four dancers together exchanging their views on dance, life and money. They are all at different stages of their dance careers and financial situations living in three different economies: post-industrial and advanced economy (Japan), developing and newly industrialised economy (Malaysia), and, the least developed, developing economy (Cambodia).

Negri, Hardt and Lazzarato write of immaterial labour and art in Euro-American contexts – a concept that must grapple with the ephemerality of performance on the one hand and the materiality of the dancing body on the other. What are the implications of such a concept in an Asian setting? Do dancers – and indeed performers of all disciplines – in this region see themselves as immaterial labourers? In the words of Akseli Virtanen:

We need new concepts and words to understand an economy where immaterial matters, where value is produced more with words and images than with machines and direct labour or where machines and tools blend in human abilities and memory, where products are more like communicative acts than material things and where value seems be born out of “nothing”, of mere words and ideas.

These questions raise issues to be explored in performance, through research and presentation (eg, What Price your Dance?, Kobe, February 2016), and on the dance floor with Naim, Sopheap, Osamu and Takao. I have become part of these questions in virtue of seeking funding to create such works – work that refers to its conditions of possibility, both material and immaterial.




Mauss, Marcel, The Gift, London and New York: Routledge, 2005 [1950]