The way she moves

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Photos in order of appearance: by GEOFFREY STONE, DEAN BUSCHER, DAVID HOU, GEOFFREY STONE, TONY CROCKER, TONY CROCKER, TONY CROCKER

Story by MARITES N. SISON

Yvonne Ng is sitting on the hardwood floor in her black sweats, legs stretched apart in a perfect split, a MacBook Pro in front of her, as she and two other dancers – also sitting comfortably on the floor – listen intently to music for a segment of her latest choreography – SoloDuet: Metamorphosis of a Solitary Female Phoenix & Magnetic Fields.

It is their first rehearsal at the main stage of The Theatre Centre and dancers Mairead Filgate and Luke Garwood are trying to get used to moving and listening in the new space.

So many accolades have been heaped on Ng – the stellar dancer, choreographer, producer, curator, artistic director and arts educator – that to be faced with her quiet confidence, friendly manner, unassuming demeanour and funny streak is disarming. There is no trace of a diva lurking behind this polite woman who has been honoured with a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Performance (2000, after being nominated eight time) and a slew of other awards, including the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts/New Talent Award (2007) for which she was selected by fellow recipient and one of Canada’s most acclaimed dance performers, Peggy Baker.

When Ng offers suggestions and gives instructions, the tone is firm but lilting. She is also very animated, often gesticulating and moving her body to make a point.

Ng gets up with ease and her long black hair cascades down like a waterfall. It is hair that she flings about on stage to great effect when her body twists, contorts, rolls, flings and lunges—mesmerizing her audience.

The founder of Princess Productions, a not-for-profit dance company, and artistic director of its Tiger Princess Dance Projects, Ng says her work reflects her Canadian-Peranakan Chinese heritage and worldview.

Born and raised in Singapore, Ng came to Toronto as an international student in 1983. She was supposed to study hotel and catering management but ended up with an Honours BFA in dance at York University.

“Bizarrely, I’ve always wanted to move,” she says. She would be glued for hours watching the 1940s and 1950s black and white movies of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (who she adored because he wasn’t afraid to dance with Mickey). When she was four she convinced her mother to enroll her at the Singapore Ballet Academy under Singapore’s prima ballerina Madam Goh Soo Khim.

Ng’s university friends egged her to “just try, just go, just audition,” at York’s dance department. She got in but never told her parents she had switched majors until after she ended her summer vacation in Singapore. She didn’t have the courage to tell them in person, so she explained her decision via a letter she mailed upon her return to Toronto. She didn’t hear from her parents for a couple of months, “which was unusual because my mother always called me,” until one day the phone rang. “I say, ‘Hello,’ and my mother says, ‘Daddy wants to talk to you.’” Her father was the typical Singaporean male – not chatty – and the only time he had huge conversations with her was when she did something wrong. He wanted reassurance that their hard-earned money wasn’t going to go to waste.

Photo: Marites N. Sison/The Origami

Photo: Marites N. Sison/The Origami

In her second year of university, Ng auditioned for the performance stream upon the suggestion of one of her professors. “I never thought I would be a choreographer or dancer,” says Ng, who thought of getting into dance therapy. Clearly the professor saw promise and so did Toronto’s dance theatre art scene: Soon Ng was getting jobs as a dancer even before she graduated.

“She [Ng] was sought after,” by the likes of Toronto’s acclaimed dancer and choreographer Danny Grossman, said interdisciplinary artist Katherine Duncanson, a classmate, in a video interview produced by Skills for Change, which awarded Ng with a New Pioneers Arts Award in 2003.

Before she graduated, Ng’s father called her again, and advised her to stay in Canada where she had a future. Singapore in the 1990s was barren land for dance artists.

The journey towards becoming an immigrant proved harder than becoming a dance artist. Back then, Citizenship and Immigration Canada frowned upon students switching their visas to immigrant. “I had to go through so much hassles and pain,” recalls Ng.

Notwithstanding that experience, Ng says she still feels she “lucked out” career-wise. “You can debate whether it’s luck, destiny. I would say the right variables and certain alignments; the right time, the right moment. I wasn’t planning it at all.”

Her height, her Asian features, her visible minority status never stood in the way. It’s not that dance is colour-blind, but choreographers tend to look for technique and “the right person for the right work,” she explains.

Ng credits Grossman, choreographer Bill James and a whole slew of other artists for helping her get out of her shell as a performer and turning her into a pro. “You learn different things from everybody.”

James, currently artist-in-residence at Public Energy, in Peterborough, Ont., had travelled extensively in Southeast Asia and he always encouraged Ng to be herself.

“What do you mean ‘be myself? Aren’t I myself?,’ ” Ng had wondered. “It took me awhile to understand that it was okay for me to be Asian, a Chinese from Singapore, and there were things in my history and past … that fed me.” Sometimes in dance, “you clean up the slate,” says Ng. James’ advice “helped free me up … to not be afraid to express the things that I love and like and the way I move.”

It may sound impolite, even racist, but people in different cultures move in different ways, says Ng. “If you go to Asia, people treat body space between people differently than here. In Singapore, there’s not a lot of space so people are okay with people being close to each other and being loud.” James had drawn her attention to body language and “it was informative to me as a creative person.”

Ng says her openness to new ideas and the versatility of working with and learning from different choreographers helped shape her into the powerhouse artist that she is now. “I don’t know if it harkens back to the past. Singapore is a very multicultural Asian society, with so many blends of cultures. Your friends come from different religions, you get used to it and you embrace it. You also learn so much about other people,” she says. “I liked going to different rehearsals. Somebody would move like this, somebody would move like this. One days I would be this and one day that. I liked being able to switch like a chameleon.” This switching back and forth “fine tune certain things of your dance quality and technique,” she says.

In 1996, she decided to form Princess Productions because she wanted to extend her relationships with people she worked with. “It got to a point where you’d be in a project with someone and you’d fall in love with the project and the people you’re with, but projects are often short and you never work with them again.” In those days, it was unheard of for contemporary dancers to commission fellow dancers and grant-making arts councils were hesitant to offer her grants. The administrator of her dance umbrella suggested she set up a single proprietorship as a dancer and choreographer, and she got the money to set up her company.

Through the years, Ng commissioned solos and on some occasions, took performances outside of Toronto, including Singapore and Australia.

In 2001, she founded dance: made in Canada/fait au Canada and with the help of co-directors Janelle Rainville and Jeff Morris, it became a biennial festival for showcasing the work of contemporary choreographers across Canada. Ng is also currently artistic director for 8:08, a group that promotes the “professional and creative development of professional Canadian dance artists…”

Mimi Beck, curator of Dance Works, describes Ng as “a unique blend of resourcefulness, versatility and talent” and marvels at her “tremendous spirit [that] draws people in.” She unleashes those characteristics in all her projects – whether they be community arts education or a developmental dance series, adds Beck in the Skills for Change video interview. “She’s frankly unstoppable.”

SoloDuet: Metamorphosis emerged out of a work she created in 2007 as part of Toronto Dance Theatre creative director Christopher House’s project, 12 Solos, in which one artist was paired with one member of the company. Ng got paired with dance artist Linnea Wong and each time they performed the piece, people ended up asking, “So now what happens?” It kept them thinking, “Why not try exploring this and pulling it apart and seeing where it goes?,” says Ng. “We tried to look for pockets of time from then until 2012 to explore it.”

The final product explores “elements that shape us and shape how we are perceived.” Ng had looked at images of global culture and doing so made her think of magnets, where opposite sides attract and similar sides repel. It is the image of “energy forces between people, regardless of gender – attraction and repulsion at the same time.” Ng has always been drawn to people’s interactions and how they relate to bigger questions about life, or such matters as religion and war.

In the process of exploring, Ng says she realized that she was finding herself and reflecting on her immigrant experience. “It’s so strange. Whenever I’m in Asia I don’t think about it, but whenever I’m here I’m very conscious that this is my adopted country. It’s my home, but I’m much more aware of my identity, my culture, my size, the way I look, the way I think,” she says. It may just be because her company relies on public grants, which makes her think about it. “I think it’s also driven by the fact that I’m an artist so you’re driven by what speaks to you. It is something that is extraordinary and it will always be because I wasn’t born here. Everything that I know about this country is learnt because I live here.”

And what has she found out about herself? “I feel a lot less struggle in myself. Ten years ago was different than now, [where] I was struggling not just with language but all nuances, all aspects of living here, trying to make sense and to understand how [I] weave into the fabric of life here.”

The struggle has been useful, she finds. “Initially, it was hard … I even remember when I first came, part of me was translating, even though in Singapore we speak English, you’re still translating the way you speak into the Canadian way of conversing.” Sometimes, she would be slow on the response. “I would say to myself, ‘No, you can’t say that because nobody would understand.’ ”

Today, things are not necessarily easier, but she is less shy, less self-conscious that what she says might come out wrong. “I’ve lived here long enough that [I’ve] established relationships with people so they understand and are more accepting,” she says, laughing.

She loves the “expansiveness of life” and the “time and generosity that people afford one another” in Canada. “It’s not the ‘Canadians are nice’ cliché, but the way they behave is they try to give people a place even if sometimes it’s too tense or there’s a struggle. …People’s lives are busy, but there’s a certain amount of wanting to understand.” She concedes that her perspective is from someone living in downtown Toronto. “I don’t know what it’s like to live in the outskirts.”

The diversity not just of people but also of natural landscape has been wonderful especially for someone who grew up in a city where “the landscape is architecture,” she adds.

Still, she realizes that “you can’t ever un-root yourself from the past.”

Ng feels blessed that she grew up in Singapore, with its “hybrid mesh of all cultures that’s become Singlish [Singaporean English.” The discipline of kiasu, a Hokkien word which means “scared to lose,” and results in over-preparedness, hasn’t left her. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” she says. Singapore’s many rules also made her more resourceful, she says, laughing. “I don’t think Lee Kwan Yew wants to hear that, but the more you hear ‘no,’ the more you say, ‘But why?’”

At the end of the day Ng has come to terms with the fact that “there will always be the missing home but also loving it here because this is home.

Metamorphosis of a Solitary Female Phoenix & Magnetic Fields will be presented at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. West), May 6 to 9 at 8 p.m., and May 10 at 4 p.m.

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