On Saturday, TODAY published a two-page spread on Kai. You can read it here.
To delve deeper into Kai’s journey as an artist and her motivations behind performance-making, read the complete interview with Kai below, originally published on the for art’s sake blog on TODAYonline.
by Mayo Martin
4:17 am, 9 May, 2015
SINGAPORE — Who is Eng Kai Er? For some, she’s the A*STAR scholar and scientist who was in the news late last year for her No Star Arts Grant, which resulted in much debate about Singapore’s bonded scholarship system. Some may even recognise her as the woman who walked naked in Holland Village a few years ago.
But my first encounter with Eng was as a dancer — her solo show The Prayer at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2012. She’s now a TheatreWorks associate artist and she has a couple of shows lined up this month. Here’s our long, no-holds barred interview with Eng, where she discusses, among many things, her life as a dancer and the No Star Arts Grant. Read on.
(Indulgence is from May 20 to 23, 8pm, 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. Tickets at S$10. To book, email email@example.com or call 6737 7213. Rated advisory 16. Dance-Oke is on May 16, 2pm to 4pm, 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. Free admission. Register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 6737 7213 with your name, contact details and your choice of up to three of your favourite dance music videos.)
Q: You’re one of TheatreWorks’ new batch of associate artists, together with the likes of Loo Zihan, Joavien Ng and Japanese director Junnosuke Tada. Can you share a bit about your project, which will be shown at the end of this month?
A: I’m doing this project that is called Indulgence. I wanted to have a chance to work with (dancers) Bernice Lee and Jereh Leong. We were in a few projects together — including Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective — but have never worked very deeply before.
Right now, it’s a slow-ish collection of different things that I’m trying to make more cohesive and (it has) a kind of museum or “church” mood, or a slow arthouse movie kind of mood. We’re basically using the space at TheatreWorks and there’s a pole (for pole dance), a piano, bean bags, a makeshift staircase…
Q: And what was the idea behind Indulgence?
A: It came from a desire to enjoy. I was struggling to think about what my next project was going to be and my idea was that this was going to be easy and I wasn’t going to go home and cry. Because in Fish (a show Eng presented last year as part of The Substation’s Director’s Lab programme), I was a first-time director and it was quite difficult. I really had a lot of control issues (laughs). And it worked. This has been really comfortable and easy.
Fish was exploring reactions about coming home and now that I’ve been back home for two years, the idea was to enjoy and really be in my element and just have so much pleasure.
It’s also connected to the idea of selfishness. I remember a very early conversation with (TheatreWorks managing director) Tay Tong where I brought up this topic and the desire to just indulge myself and do what I had to do. I remember him saying, “Oh yeah, it’s very important that we address this in this society. There are so many selfish people around.” I realised he had understood it in a completely opposite way. (laughs) I was thinking of challenging the idea of selfishness.
Q: That’s interesting because normally, one would automatically ascribe a negative value to selfishness, whereas you want people to rethink this. Perhaps even a hint of amorality there.
A: I mean, I do make work from a selfish starting point because I do see the world from my own viewpoint and I can’t see it from other people’s viewpoints even if I try. I only have authority on my own perceptions, just like everyone else. As for amorality, maybe it’s also another way of preempting any criticism? There are instances where I feel like I will be prepared if people say “This is a very masturbatory piece of conceptual s***.” I will just use my “amorality” to accept that.
Q: The past two years since you’ve come back has been fairly eventful but in a low-key way — until the hoohah regarding your personal grants project, the No Star Arts Grant. Your “dayjob” as a scientist and A*Star scholar has unfortunately overshadowed your practice as a dancer and choreographer. We can go into the former later on, but I’d like to find out more about how you got into dance.
A: I started dancing in my dance CCA (co-curricular activity) when I was nine years old. I joined the Chinese dance club in my school and I just kept joining until I finished JC (Junior College). At Nanyang Girls’ High School, I had a very enthusiastic young teacher who, being from China, was quite clear about the technical demands of the craft. She set my standards for what was good and what wasn’t. Her choreography was very SYF (Singapore Youth Festival) but it was very appealing and emotional. That’s where I got my early ideas about choreography— organising 40 bodies! (laughs)
I already had the idea that I wasn’t a very good dancer, but I danced anyway. I was not good but the teacher wanted to make the club very good so there were all these little intrigues — she would try to steal the girls from gymnastics to come over. We’d train very early in the morning because the gymnastics girls were also having their training. (laughs).
I was known as the figure-skating girl in my dance club because I was also training in it — I had gone ice-skating with friends after PSLE and after seeing one girl spinning, I wanted to learn ice-skating too. I think it was good that I did it by choice, like joining Chinese dance. But it’s alsy why I didn’t start as early as five, which some people do.
Q: I find it interesting how, despite an early awareness of your limitations as a dancer, you stubbornly continued to dance.
A: I think I was lucky also because by taking the wrong scholarship (laughs) I ended up in a place — the UK — where it wasn’t the end of the world if you cannot raise your leg up very, very high and hold it up very, very long. I met professional dancers in the UK — at that time, it had such a great funding system and so much support for the arts that it was infiltrating my university (Cambridge).
Back in 2003, I was under the National Science Scholarship BS-PhD through-train scholarship programme where I promised to do both my bachelor’s and PhD and be bonded to A*Star after that. So I took up Biochemistry for my undergrad in Cambridge and, later, Infection Biology at the Karolinska Institutet (in Solna, Sweden).
In Cambridge, I was in the Contemporary Dance Workshop student club and also in a lot of different things: Acrobatic rock ‘n’ roll, salsa… I had access to different teachers who passed through the university—and also young professionals. And not all of them were skinny or had long legs and they were still working in dance, so that really helped.
And also, I was doing contemporary dance and not Chinese dance. I felt generally more accepted because I had this weird (dance) vocabulary that people thought was interesting, whereas in Singapore, it was kind of bad that I would skate like I’m doing Chinese dance or do Chinese dance like I’m skating. I was in an environment that encouraged my development.
Q: While you were still doing your science undergraduate studies, right?
A: Yes. Oh my gosh, I spent so much time just thinking about choreography to stay away during lectures. It was so much torture but I just did it. (laughs) I choreographed a little and was involved in other people’s choreographies a little, too.
I wasn’t super confident that I would become a dancer at all, I just liked it. I was too shy to say I was a dancer. There were a little university annual productions where student journalists come to review shows and there was one year where my name was mentioned in two different (student) newspapers. I felt encouraged.
In my mind, it was a pretty serious hobby and by the time I graduated from Cambridge in 2006, I was really trying to perform everywhere I could. There was one year where I had to serve my A*Star bond in Singapore between my bachelor’s and PhD. During the Christmas party at Biopolis, I voluntarily performed two short pieces. I also performed at the scholarship award ceremony that year. I saw some dance competition in the papers, the Amore Dance Search, and also joined. In the afternoons, at work, I’d sneak out to dance at the office gym while waiting for my incubation samples.
People around me knew I was dancing a lot and one fellow scholar told me: “You’re on the wrong scholarship, man…” I said, “Yeah, I know.”
Q: And it was a passion you continued to pursue once you began your PhD at Karolinska Institutet.
A: During the first two years of my PhD, I struggled because there was no dance club in my little medical university. I tried to collaborate with a friend to get a dance club started but didn’t get it to work. I went to contact improvisation jams and tried to recruit people. I tried to start something called Choreographers’ Group but people stopped turning up. The problem was all the people who were serious in doing dance were already in dance school already because this is Sweden and they can study what they want and they knew from the very beginning there was such a thing as dance school! (laughs)
In the end, I just started to create stuff by myself. I went to see a bunch of solo shows and figured out that basically they’re talking and dancing and talking and dancing. I don’t know why, but I didn’t see any solo contemporary dance show where one person was dancing for one hour. So I started to also do this dancing-talking thing. I made this show called Don’t Let The Shrink Shrink You, which I performed at our dining hall for free and for my friends. I had little homemade flyers, which I gave to my friends. I invited my PhD supervisors and they came. I felt really, really supported.
It was really a bad show. The only good thing you can say about it was it was extremely brave. My PhD supervisors were sitting in the front row and I was m********ing and crying in front of them. It was very angsty, like I had something to prove. I wouldn’t even dare do it now.
But after that, I took excerpts from thisand took them to whatever place I could find — there was an open call at this thing called Summer Happenings at the Balettakademien in Stockholm so I just applied and showed work. There was also an open-stage thing called Velvet Underground where I went to perform My Mind Is Pie with Sveta (Viarbitskaya, a collaborator from Belarus). I also made a new piece with Sveta and Piak from Sweden called House Hole. It was a good time, I was creating, producing and working collaboratively and didn’t have administrative overheads at all.
Sveta was from a different university but we met through contact improvisation. She was a Physics post-doctoral fellow. We were the odd ones — we couldn’t access the dance world that’s why we ended up working with each other. (laughs)
Q: So what was the reaction back then to this PhD science student who seemed so obsessed with dance?
A: To be honest, there was a very clear breaking point actually. Because when I enrolled as a PhD student, I had to say I was interested in science, otherwise they wouldn’t take me in. So I felt so guilty because I knew I wasn’t really that interested but I also knew that it was my responsibility to do this thing. I did try my best and in the end I don’t think I let any of my PhD supervisors down.
Halfway through my PhD, I got arrested when I was on my holiday here, walking naked down Holland Village (in 2009). That was the really big wake-up call to me because up to that point, I really just imagined myself finishing the A*Star contract and going to dance school after that. But at that point, something just changed. After getting arrested, I decided not to lie again. When I told the truth, my PhD supervisors were very understanding and kind, and to this day I am very grateful to them.
Q: The Holland Village incident was the first instance you were in the public eye. Can you share what that was about?
A: At the time I did it, it was really just for fun. I didn’t think of myself as a particularly artistic type of person. I just felt like I liked to dance and I liked to choreograph. I didn’t understand, like you can change the world by interacting with it. I was just living out a lot of difficulties I had with my situation — letting the tensions come out in all kinds of different ways, partying a lot, running around naked… a very extreme kind of lifestyle. I was trying to dance, was very unhappy at work and just doing crazy stuff.
It was during the whole media circus thing that I suddenly felt like I had to distance myself from the whole thing. I couldn’t be “in it” because I’d have gone crazy. So I disassociated myself from the whole thing and realised it was an art project in a way. (laughs) But it was not intended as an art project at all. It wasn’t premeditated that way. It was a natural expression that came out and I only thought about it deeply afterwards.
Q: I guess we could consider your solo show The Prayer at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2012 your Singapore debut as an artist. What made you take that step?
A: I had come back one time for my sister’s wedding and just saw the festival publicity all over the streets so I thought I would just apply. I had such a hard time doing the application because up to that point, I would just do a show, beg for a venue. When they commissioned me to make a new work, I couldn’t believe it. I was nervous but also very happy and proud of (The Prayer).
It felt interesting because my family came to see it. They had not seen me dance for a long time.
My mum didn’t say much but my father said I was too extreme, because the show was like, “I just want to die”, “F*** the whole world”, which can be quite provocative, I guess.
It didn’t help when the bad review came out (in The Straits Times) — it was a moment when I felt so embarrassed and felt I had done everything wrong. That I worked so hard to put myself there and it turned out it was a really bad show that nobody liked. It did have an impact on me because I could feel that my parents were embarrassed too when they saw the review.
Q: I do remember saying in my own review of The Prayer that it was a diamond in the rough and you were someone to watch out for. So anyway, what happened after that?
A: In the end, I complained to three people in Stockholm that I was dying of shame, but that I was going to continue making shows. (laughs) I toured The Prayer in Stockholm and at the Prague Fringe Festival, where it was shortlisted for Outstanding Performance Award. I didn’t know anyone in Prague so I didn’t have a big audience, but it was more and more each night.
In my final years of PhD, I was intensively doing a lot of performances. My PhD was from 2007 to end of 2012, which was kind of slow because I kept doing art. I came back to Singapore in the beginning of 2013.
Q: Which reminds me, I recall reading you had also come up with a “fake PhD” project as well, right?
A: The fake PhD was awesome! We call it fPhD. This was in 2011 and it’s still one of my favourite projects. Sveta had asked me how my (real) PhD was coming along and I told her I thought I should be doing one on dance not infection biology. That’s how the idea started — I would write an fPhD thesis in choreography and I would have an exam. She would be my thesis supervisor, and we would invite people to come and sit on the exam committee. I would defend my thesis and either pass or fail. It was an art project. We did try to do it as close as possible to the Karolinska Institute model but we invented the school — Sveta’s School. I wrote it before I even started writing my real PhD thesis. I took it seriously, except for the last part where I really ran out of steam so I just wrote some jokes in the conclusion part. I’m an F doctor in choreography. (laughs)
Q: So basically you have two PhDs!
A: Well the other one is a fake PhD. (laughs) It won’t pass in a university. But the idea is consistent with many discussions we’ve been having about dance. In Stockholm, they had talked about the idea of how you might be able to do a practice-based PhD so you should get a PhD through doing rather than writing and thinking.
One thing that’s important is the Swedish science PhD is a compilation of papers you have done and each paper is like a little piece of actual science work. So your thesis is just science. It’s not you writing about other people’s science. It’s you doing your own science and then contextualising it within the rest of the science that has happened around you. If that is how it is in science and if you can translate that into dance, your dance PhD should be a collection of dance projects you have done, contextualised into current dance trends.
Q: Once you were back here, you started work at A*Star but also, continued doing dance, right?
A: I tried out various things to get to know people in the art world. Did some playback theatre sessions, made friends, looked for opportunities to perform — I took part in THE Dance Company’s M1 Contact (festival) open stage.
During this period, my husband was with me and we couldn’t live in my parents’ house because it was very small. So we were living in five different hostels in the first month we were here. I was going to Substation and saw the call for Directors Lab and applied for it from somewhere in a hostel in Bugis. (laughs) I felt like I just had to apply to kick-start my art life. I had doubts whether it was too aggressive but in retrospect, it felt okay because that was how I started to know people.
Q: And during this time, you were doing a few things such as Fish, of course, but also your duet with Sveta called The Pleasure Of Eating Oranges. Can you discuss these two?
A: The Pleasure Of Eating Oranges was about love but there was a lot of sex in it as well. And Fish was about freedom. And there was nudity in both. Fish was naked man, naked woman, running around doing crazy stuff for quite a long period of time. Pleasure Of Eating Oranges was, ‘I take off my pants, throw away my panties and put my pants on again.”
But Pleasure was way more loaded with sex. It’s a duet between me and Sveta that’s very based on images and really dependent on my close friendship with her. It was quite physical, dance-y in a way. She improvised on saxophone, there’s water, there’s sand… (laughs)
I also did a small thing with her in Europe called Ooze. Yuzuru (Maeda, a Singapore-based performance artist) had given me a zentai suit and Sveta and I were tied together, she’s a human being dressed in black and I’m a creature in a zentai. It was basically a 20-minute dance duet with shapes.
Q: Nudity seems to figure quite a bit in your performances. You mentioned that there are a couple of instances of this in Indulgence, too. You briefly stripped (from a distance) for Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective. And of course, it’d be hard not to bring up the Holland Village incident. Why is that?
A: I guess I’m just very comfortable with nudity. (laughs) I think living alone started this thing as well, because I lived alone in a room in Cambridge and I could be naked inside whenever I wanted. And it helped me not to do laundry so often. It was really a practical thing. And then I just spent more and more time naked, until I just got super comfortable with it. I’d be sending emails naked and drinking tea naked, and so on.
Q: There are some current works you’ve done that doesn’t involve nudity, of course. Videos of you dancing inside MRT trains had previously circulated on social media. What was that all about?
A: I have professional or semi-professional projects — or at least things that I do with the idea of profesionalising myself, which I can put on my website to contribute to my art career, for example. These are different from personal projects, which I can consider as hobbies.
The MRT Project started as a personal project and the idea was just to dance on the MRT and cover all stations. It started off as a collaboration with Vincent (Chia), who was also in Fish. I’d seen teenagers wearing earphones dancing in the train in their own world and I think it’s something I would enjoy doing and I thought I would enjoy it even better if Vincent was with me and we would dance together. But he wanted to have a more party mood, so in the end, we brought speakers, but not too loud.
The first line we tried to do was the “purple line” (North-East Line). We tried to go from Harbour Front to Punggol but by the time we were in Clarke Quay, we were asked to stop by the staff. Then we decided, the next time, we just have to start from Punggol and go down to Clarke Quay to finish the line. That was the strategy — the idea was to dance with music on and finish the network. It took a very long time because sometimes we got stopped.
There was only one time where the person shooting the video was a friend who volunteered. I never asked anyone to please come and document us because it’s kind of related to my ideas of regarding hobbies. I rarely take photos in real-life so when I do art projects that require documentation, to me it’s work.
So The MRT Project had this “dirty” aspect, like “I’m not an art project, I’m a fake art project”. I never asked people to document but it worked out perfectly fine. I still got lots of documentation from the public that trickled back to us, which we didn’t ask for and only encountered by luck. And that’s quite beautiful in itself.
Q: Your distinctions between “professional work” and “hobby” is rather interesting — especially since both still see you performing.
A: I find that people don’t talk about this much. I don’t come from (a) professionally training background so I don’t take it for granted that I do “this” because it’s my job. For some people, it’s “I am a dancer, therefore I dance”, “I’m a choreographer so I choreograph”, “It’s my vocation, therefore this is what I do.”
In the beginning, I really wanted to professionalise myself—I had the idea that I must go to dance school first, maybe 2005. I always thought I would just finish the contract (with A*Star) then go to dance school in my mid-30s. But then things changed so fast, I became 25, 26 years old, I saw that dance schools don’t even accept people my age. I became braver. I did my own things and started to realise maybe even if I don’t go to dance school, I can still do things. I might not get recognised but it’s okay. That it’s actually more important to do the things than to get recognised.
What I’m thinking about nowadays is how to balance this desire to professionalise myself with this need to preserve something personal about it that was always the starting point.
Q: But then, of course, you add into the equation the fact that you already have a dayjob as a scientist with A*Star. The conventional dichotomy is day job versus hobby — yours is day job, art hobby and professional art-making.
A: That’s because my art life is becoming more serious. But it’s fun. I never expected to be here in this position to even talk about this and say, “Oh, what does it mean for my art now that I am starting to be able to do it in this way that I wanted so much?”
Q: And so we’ve come to what has been your most talked-about project to date: The No Star Arts Grant. How has the relationship been between you and A*Star since it became public last November?
A: They haven’t said anything to me yet, but they will. They’ve wanted to but the meetings have been postponed.
Q: Other than what you’ve posted on the No Star website, you actually haven’t said much about it in public, even while the debates were going on. Perhaps you can share with us the story behind it?
A: The idea arose when I was in a super angry state around March 2014, and I thought it was a great idea and it instantly put me in a very good mood. But then I didn’t want to launch the project the very next day because I had this plan that I must wait until Fish was over and then launch it on the first year anniversary of my bonded-ness, in November. And that it would run for one year up to the second anniversary.
So by the end of that month, I had done the write-up and made the website but didn’t tell anybody yet. When it came time to announce the grant in October, I wasn’t sure if I should do it anymore. I was very happy with my life! (laughs) I had just done Fish, I was fulfilled. Struggling with my own art stuff but not in a way where I could say A*Star was ruining my life — because they *weren’t* ruining my life. That was a really strange period. “Should I still go ahead with this or not?”
In the end, I decided to go ahead because what I felt in March was real, and in principle, it’s about the scholarship system. It’s not really like “I hate A*Star” but “I hate the bonded scholarship system,” which is a nation-wide thing. In principle, the bonded scholarship system does make people not able to live out their lives in certain ways. And I thought, based on that, I would still launch the grant. But in a secret way — I only told my friends at first.
Then it slowly became something more widely known. (laughs) Not intentionally but not unintentionally either. I must say that I did not publicise the grant on any public platform and I did not contact the press. But I also did not hide the fact that the grant existed.
By the way, No Star isn’t included on my artist website (http://kaifishfish.tumblr.com/), at least not yet. Because I’m not sure where it falls. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to separate the scholar part of me with the art part of me, which is why I haven’t included any scholarship issues directly in any of my art projects. It’s like I try to be two people.
Q: But it all came to a head during Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective, where, as one of the performers who did a personal “retrospective” within the piece, you did mention this tension between your scholar and artist sides.
A: At the opening of my “individual retrospective,” I said I was “disgusted” with Xavier because he mentioned his PhD in biology in his artist bio, whereas I didn’t mention my PhD in mine because because I want to be recognised for my art. But now I’ve got over that. I still don’t mention my PhD in my artist bio, but I’m not disgusted at Xavier anymore, because actually, it’s just a fact of his life that he has a PhD.
Retrospective was when I finally started to feel like I’m one person again, because I started to talk about being a scholar in an art setting. That project was such a cathartic experience and I think I really needed the chance to confess I was a scholar, in the art world.
Q: So previously there was a conscious separation?
A: For many years I was very clear that in the dance or art world, I would not mention anything about being a scholar or a scientist. One reason was that I did not identify as a scholar or a scientist. Another was I badly wanted to be recognised for the art thing and not for the science thing. I was sick of people in the dance world in Stockholm having some kind of weird fetish for “research.” In Sweden, if my dance friends introduced me to their other dance friends as a PhD student in biology, I would get angry, because I wanted to be known as a dancer not a PhD student in biology.
After a while I just stopped even mentioning the biology part. I would go to workshops and festivals and just tell everyone I was a freelance artist, and I would not talk about my “day job” at all, because I didn’t think it was relevant to my art.
Still, there is a part of me that really wants to pretend I’m not a scholar.
Q: Well, with the No Star Arts Grant being the product of a clear confluence of your two “sides”, that’s going to be very different.
A: It does get confusing when my scholarship thing not only becomes my art work, but also, ironically becomes possibly my most well-known art work. I do view No Star Arts Grant as an art project and I really love it. It is a very important project to myself, and I am proud of it. I also think of it as a “pure” art project, one that comes from the place of un-stoppable, passion-driven art and not affected by commercial or professional interests.
But to officially put No Star in my artist portfolio means not only that I would have to acknowledge and accept that I really am a scholar, it also means that I acknowledge that being a scholar helped in my art — and also, that I would be using No Star to “sell” myself as an artist even though it’s such a personal, precious project that’s untainted by real-life concerns like how to professionalise myself as an artist.
I am looking forward to the day when none of this matters anymore and when it would be easy for me to talk about the scholarship and No Star, without any weirdness, in public. I guess this interview is one small step towards that.