Lee Su-Feh on Creating, Communicating, and Encountering the Humanity of Others
This is the sixth in a regular series of blog posts in which I speak with exciting artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs exploring how their creative skills have enabled them to do incredible things in their personal and professional lives.
You can find all of these interviews by searching for the tag #CreativeInnovative.
Lee Su-Feh is a force of nature. Until December 2017, we have been two ships passing in the night in the “real world” but we operate in some of the same circles. I avidly follow her online and come to her for advice. I am lucky to consider her a mentor and friend. In December, we finally had the opportunity to sit down together and our discussion ranged over the personal, the political, the artistic, and several other topics we won't divulge here.
"The notion that you can make a go of anything all by yourself is a capitalist myth. You are who you are because of others"
Photographer: Joerg Letz
F: Lee Su-Feh, you has a remarkable background in children’s theatre, traditional Malay dance, contemporary dance, contact improvisation, and martial arts, and your career is a neverending cycle of shows, projects, accolades, and collaborations. You have also recently been touring your latest show, Dance Machine. This work consists of a kinetic sculpture, formed by sticks of bamboo suspended from a copper disk, creating an immersive space in which the public is invited to work with the artists, becoming collaborators and mindful participates in cause and effect, play and rest. Oh, and you are an Instructor in the Theatre program at Simon Fraser University where you teach voice.
LSF: You should write my bios from now on!!!
F: Well, I try my best! Now it's your turn to tell me a bit about yourself - what about your training in the arts?
LSF: I did Chinese martial arts as a kid, when I was 11-12. Not a lot. But enough to awaken something in my body, something about the pleasure moving my body, training. When I was 15 or 16, I joined a children’s theatre class led by Janet Pillai, who is now an award-winning arts activist, recognized for her work in cultural mapping. We learned traditional South-East Asian forms like Pencak Silat (martial arts), Wayang Kulit (shadow puppetry), and became part of a larger questioning of what it meant to create contemporary Asian performance out of the debris of colonialism, half-remembered traditions and sitting in the interstices of multiple cultures and languages. We created work and toured across the country. Through this experience of Teater Kanak-kanak, I met my first dance teacher, Marion D’Cruz, from whom I learned traditional Malay dance as well as Western contemporary dance. These lessons took place in the basement of a place called The Temple of Fine Arts, which was a temple honouring Krishna as well as a school for Indian classical dance and music. So I was immersed in Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak, even though I never studied those forms. My first performance in public with Marion D’Cruz and Dancers was a dance from the East Coast of Malaysia called Timang Burung; and we performed it amid a show filled with Indian classical dance with The Temple of Fine Arts. All this is to impress upon you the plurality of approaches, aesthetics and culture that surrounded my entry into the arts. Janet, Marion and Krishen Jit, Marion’s late husband and a notable theatre critic, historian and director in the region, were my teachers and mentors; and they eventually founded, along with others, Five Arts Centre, which remains a provocative arts organization in Malaysia. This hotbed of cultural activity which also grappled with post-colonial politics really set the foundation for me as an artist. I think how I see the world and how I approach performance has been formed by this period. I eventually left Malaysia to go to Paris to study contemporary dance. And eventually ended up in Vancouver, where I continued learning new skills (more Chinese martial arts, more dance, contact improv), but always, always wrestling for my sense of self while being acutely conscious of how power structures play on my body.
F: How Has your art/training taken you to other places? What are some of the most interesting locations you have experienced?
LSF: Lots of places. Lots of complex relationships to different places. Two examples: Paris for being an incubator of my western contemporary dance ideas, and where I awoke to being othered by white society. Manitoulin island recently for showing me a glimpse into Anishnaabeg ways of being and artmaking as an alternative to settler-colonial ways.
F: Many of your projects are collaborative and call on your ability to communicate. What are the benefits and challenges of collaboration?
LSF: Collaboration invites you to expand your knowledge - of yourself, of your collaborators and of the form you are engaged in. Any kind of growth is often also painful and involves judgement, a dissolving of who you think you are, a constant question of whether you yield to new knowledge or to take a stand and fight for your (tenuous) beliefs.
F: How did you decide to take your art in this direction?
LSF: I’m not sure it was a decision. The notion that you can make a go of anything all by yourself is a capitalist myth. You are who you are because of others - humans and non-humans. I usually choose to work with people who I think I have something to learn from.
F: Did this require you to take on additional training or did you encounter any learning curves?
LSF: Choreography requires communication skills - listening deeply, speaking honestly, while taking care of everyone’s humanity. Maybe my history as a marginalized, racialized person has contributed to my skills in this department. But as I encounter new knowledge and new areas of my ignorance, I also become inspired to learn new skills. Contact improvisation, voice, new ways of dancing...
F: What drives you in your work?
LSF: My questions. About myself, about my relationship to the world, about my relationship to the sacred.
F: How do you create? From where do you draw your inspiration?
LSF: Usually, the spark of a new project comes from the unfolding of the previous project. For example, the beginning of my current project Dance Machine was 8 years ago and began as simply an inquiry into the energetic relationship between the human body and inanimate objects. This question came out of working on a piece called Body Scan with the Montreal choreographer Benoit Lachambre, where we worked a lot with fabrics and texture and sensation. I really loved the energetic quality of the costume designer we worked with, Alexandra Bertaut and proposed to her that we explored some things together. I proposed that she do my physical practice, which was deeply informed by Qigong and martial arts, and then see if she could respond by making objects. I would then live with those objects for a period of time and see what came out of my body as a response to those objects. It was during this period of living with the objects - which were fabric based, with personal objects of mine knitted and woven into them - that I went into the studio with my friend and colleague, the choreographer and dancer Justine Chambers. For about a week, we hung the objects up with fishing line, made very shoddy pulley systems and the beginning idea of an environment that was attached somehow to the dancer emerged. After that, I invited a designer/architect Jesse Garlick to help us actually build it. Along the way, I also started to want it to address a whole bunch of concerns - political, social, and underneath it all, my questions about what it means to dance. Anyway, this is a long story. But the gist of it is that works don’t usually pop out of anyone’s head fully formed. I’m usually looking to ask the most interesting question possible and then to construct a process that can lead me to an even more interesting question at the end of that process. Repeat as often as necessary.