When Yvonne Ng was a young girl living in Singapore, her mother would play Chinese children’s folk songs on the piano and Ng would perform solo dances in front of a pretend audience, a small light mimicking a stage spotlight.
“It sounds like we had a huge bonding thing—not really,” Ng says, laughing, “but someone sets an example, and then maybe you stick to it.” Ng’s mother also introduced her to Chinese opera and classic Hollywood musicals, all of which are influences in Collection #1: xiao bai chuan, a solo contemporary dance performed alongside Ng’s collaborator, pianist Lee Pui Ming, at the Sir James Dunn Theatre, from February 16 to 18.
One of six intended collections of concept solo dances (she’s up to number four) created through structural improvisation, Ng originally designed the pieces as self-portraits. “I was jealous of visual artists who get to paint self-portraits, photographers can take pictures of themselves—‘I want one too!’—so I began embarking on this journey,” she says. “The way I look is probably from all my experiences. I look at different people—I look at the curve of their lips, their little frowns, their wrinkles, and I wonder what made that line.”
Ng shares the program with another contemporary dancer, Ottawa-based Natasha Bakht, who draws from her training in a classical South Asian form of dance called Bharatanatyam. Bakht and UK choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, who created Triptych Self, one of the two pieces Bakht performs, play with movements from the graceful style, but not as a deliberate reinterpretation.
“It wasn’t a conscious effort to create a movement from a particular vocabulary. We were working in classical Indian dance as well as more contemporary forms of dance, so it’s not a conscious mix of anything,” Bakht says. “There is a certain precision that comes in Indian dance. It has a restless quality. Short stops in unpredictable places, a quality of unending movement. At the same time, there are all these unexpected gaps.”
Conscious that western exposure to Indian dance is often limited to Bollywood productions, Bakht is clear that her work, like Ng’s, is an abstract portrait without a narrative.
A law professor at University of Ottawa, focusing on legal issues faced by visible minority women, Bakht draws parallels between her two careers. “Dance and law to me are both kinds of public services, and so the sorts of things that interest me in one type of public service tend to overlap with another area, so it would be hard for me to imagine any story, even in an abstract way, about a woman that wasn’t empowering.”
Ng’s background also affects her both on- and off-stage. “I do have Asian-style gestures. It’s not a conscious plastering—it’s just the way I move naturally,” she says. “And certain philosophies and certain characteristics are from my Southeast Asian, Chinese upbringing. But because I’ve been here for so long, I have evolved and developed. My approach to making art is influenced by my background here and my history there.”
Born in Singapore, Ng came to Canada to finish high school and study dance at York University. “I was trained in ballet—a little bun-head waiting to be the next Karen Kain. Then I found contemporary dance. It was amazing because in the contemporary world there are techniques you can employ, but you can also draw from so many other references and art forms, and other things that might influence you, like the piano.”
Both dancers acknowledge the foundation of their art as Canadian. “I’m excited to be presenting these pieces because we, as Canadians, have a limited understanding of what Canadian dance is,” says Bakht. “I mean that in the broadest sense, most people think of ballet shoes, so it’s very nice to be able to demystify that notion. I think that both Yvonne’s work and my own do that in a way that confirms that this is Canadian dance and not Indian dance, or some other kind of dance that is transplanted into Canada.”
Natasha Bakht and Yvonne Ng, February 16-18 at Sir James Dunn Theatre, 6101 University, 8pm, $13-$20, 420-0003.