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In The Distance - the work Sarah Foster-Sproull has created in residency here, for the International Artists' Showcase as part of the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival - looks at migration as a metaphor for human relationships.

Brodal Serei, which Phuon created with Amrita Performing Arts, revolves around a Cambodian boxer's life.

Maitra's creation looks at how impulse, motivation and desire are inherent in the original poetics of violence, trauma and displacement.

Holding their own (Amended)

Female choreographers are carving out their own creative space in the male-dominated field of contemporary dance. Check out their work in several upcoming dance festivals in Singapore.
Sep 30, 2016 5:50 AM

Sarah Foster-Sproull
In The Distance, with T.H.E Second Company, in the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival 2016
Dec 10, 3pm & 8pm

AS a woman and artist in New Zealand, Sarah Foster-Sproull is focused on supporting and progressing the work of female performers in the dance industry. She remembers when she, as a young choreographer, was paid less than her male counterparts, and it seemed harder to gain prestigious commissions over them as well.

"In this sense, I have followed the debate around Akram Khan's statements about female choreographers in the UK with some interest," she shares. Khan, a renowned choreographer, invited brickbats and controversy when he publicly said that there shouldn't be more female choreographers "just for the sake of it".

Then there are ways that being a woman impacts her in very practical, physical ways: like how she came to Singapore for the dance residency with T.H.E. Dance Company with an eight-week-old baby and a six-year-old daughter in tow. "Having a baby while making a new work posed a unique set of challenges for me. Things like lack of sleep, recovery from birth, breastfeeding while working, etc," she shares. Fortunately, she has her husband Andrew with her as he's also composing the music for the piece.

Her last work in New Zealand featured an all-female cast of eight dancers, which included her six-year-old daughter. Foster-Sproull certainly hopes her work with T.H.E. Second Company will reflect gender equality.

In The Distance - the work she's created in residency here, for the Asian Festivals Exchange as part of the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival - looks at migration as a metaphor for human relationships.

"There's the migration towards and away from each other. The individual versus the group. The group moving as one mass and what this can mean to the creation/destruction of a community," she explains. "I aim to tell stories that transport the viewer to an ethereal dreamscape ... punctuated with jagged or realistic human edges."

From the material she first created, she then asked the performers to engage in a series of tasks to create movement, before they look at how to engage these sequences with the theme.

"Each new context/commission brings with it a new set of people and skills to engage with, which I find exciting as a choreographer. In Singapore I am finding the dancers articulate, passionate, and talented. It is a pleasure to work with a group of people so ready to digest and embody my choreographic ideas," she says, adding that she loves the cultural diversity, food and fast pace of Singapore.

"It's so cliched but I feel like I learn more about myself through travelling, and in turn can apply this new knowledge to my work back home," she adds. Having grown up in a farm, her mother and grandmother were artists while her father built fences for farms. "I grew up with a contrasting mix of art/creativity and farming which has had a huge impact on me as a person.The mix of practical and ephemeral, physical and conceptual is a theme for me."

  • The M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival will run from Nov 21-Dec 10. For more information, please visit for full festival details and updates.

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed that 'In the Distance' was created for the International Artists' Showcase instead of the Asian Festivals Exchange. The article above has since been corrected.

Emmanuele Phuon
Brodal Serei (Freestyle Boxing) with Amrita Performing Arts
Oct 22 & 23, 8pm and 3pm respectively, Esplanade Theatre Studio

WHEN French/Cambodian choreographer Emmanuele Phuon wanted to make her next work about the macho world of Cambodian boxing, she enlisted the aid of her male collaborator Phon Sopheap to help her get access. Together, they hung out at a military sports centre watching the boxers go through their paces until serendipity stepped in to help them.

A few days after watching the morning training sessions at the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces Sports Center, a boxer by the name of Hem Saran - whose story is told in her resulting dance work - befriended Sopheap.

When Saran was injured in a fight, the duo helped him to get medical attention. When he recovered, the trio would go out for drinks regularly. It was mainly a bonding session between the two men, "with me in the background somewhere", quips Phuon.

When she finally asked Saran if he could teach boxing to three dancers, he immediately said yes. The dancers trained with him daily and also immersed themselves in the environment, which was new to them and to their working process.

Brodal Serei, which Phuon created with Amrita Performing Arts, revolves around Saran's boxing and family life, and also features audio recordings of personal stories told by the well-known fighter, juxtaposed with live traditional Khmer music and an electronic score by Zai Tang (UK/Singapore).

Phuon had to work stealthily at first because Cambodian society is patriarchal, and the world of boxing is definitely macho. "All I had to do was define what machismo meant in their context," she explains. And in the process, she inevitably looked at it from a female perspective.

Being an older Caucasian woman - even if she is half Cambodian - gives her enormous freedom to do her work. Apart from being presumed that she is rich enough to support herself, "being 'white' relieves me of the normal expectations for a woman in Cambodia. The fact that I am older also plays a big part. I can be more direct, I have authority (because of my professional and life experience), and because it is my project".

In contrast to her present work, Phuon grew up in a dance world that was dominated by female choreographers and female teachers, says the former dancer with Mikhail Baryshinikov's White Oak Dance Project.

"I wanted to dance for Trisha Brown or Lucinda Childs. I work now for Yvonne Rainer, and would have loved to work more with Meg Stuart. As dancers, men had more attention because there were so few of them. But it also meant that for the most part, they were technically not as accomplished as the women!" she says.

In her case, "I could say that I don't have the confidence of a man to sell myself and put myself out there. But that would probably just be an excuse", she adds. "In truth, nobody is stopping me, except myself."

  • Brodal Serei will be presented under the Dans Festival's Shift series, which presents contemporary dance that shifts and expands the possibilities of dance. Brodal Serei is a Festival commission and residency piece. It runs Oct 22-23. For more details, please check Tickets from

Raka Maitra
The Second Sunrise, Dans Festival
Oct 14 & 15, 8pm, Esplanade Theatre Studio

TRAINED in Odissi and originally from India, Raka Maitra has always choreographed only for women. But it's not a feminist stance that she takes, at least not consciously; instead it's about being a dancer herself and choreographing with her body.

"The way I visualise my dances, I don't see men dancing it. I've always only choreographed for women because that's the way I dance. I develop them using my own body, and that's just how it's been," explains Maitra, who came to Singapore in 2004 and started teaching dance. A disciple of Odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal, Maitra was awarded the Shringarmani, a national level award for Odissi in India.

She's never felt that her gender restricted her in dance, as there are many female choreographers in India, even in the contemporary realm. "In fact, there are more female than male dancers in India," she highlights. Hence, she doesn't feel disadvantaged in any way, and the works that appeal to her are also not viewed from a gender perspective. "It's just about humanity ... and I like my works to tell human stories," she shares.

Her new work, The Second Sunrise, is inspired by war stories in Sri Lanka. Based on contemporary Tamil writer Rudhramoorthy Cheran's war anthology that looks at the embodied connection one has with one's land, roots and loss, Maitra's creation looks at how impulse, motivation and desire are inherent in the original poetics of violence, trauma and displacement.

Cheran's poetry was a window into Sri Lanka's civil war for Maitra as she didn't know much about it until a friend gave her his book. "Being in Calcutta, in north India, we really didn't know any details about the civil war in Sri Lanka," she says. "His poems have been translated beautifully, and one could visualise what had happened. Although the poet is male, I don't consider his poems to have a gender perspective as it's about how war had affected all people - old, young, male or female." To music created by Singaporean artists Zai Kuning and Bani Haykal, Maitra's choreography will be contemporary, and expand on her roots in martial arts and Indian classical dance.

Maitra first founded her dance school in 2007 but as her students grew in number, she started Chowk Productions in 2007, becoming a formal arts group in 2011. From 2007 to 2011, Maitra was an associate artiste with The Substation. Chowk's artistic productions include full-length contemporary dance works that have been commissioned by local theatres and festivals in Singapore, and which have toured internationally.

  • A Dans Festival commission, The Second Sunrise is presented under the festival's Shift series, which presents contemporary dance that shifts and expands the possibilities of dance. It runs on Oct 14-15. For more details, check Tickets from

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Zai Kuning as Kai Zuning. The article above has since been corrected.