#CreativeInnovative with Lee Su-Feh: Yielding, Dissolving, Fighting, and Dancing Within Inquiry

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, Still from the film Migrant Bodies, Dir. Laura Bari

Lee Su-Feh, Still from the film Migrant Bodies, Dir. Laura Bari

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.

sufehlee2.jpg

"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.

Lee Su-Feh and Benoit Lachambre, Body Scan, 2010

Lee Su-Feh and Benoit Lachambre, Body Scan, 2010

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.

You can follow Lee Su-Feh and her work through her company website, Battery Opera, her blog, and on her Twitter page.

 

 

We can aid you in achieving your goals with our individualised approach and flexible sessions. Contact us: 


Success Is...

With the beginning of a new year, it is common to take stock and set goals for the months ahead. An important aspect of this process is to understand the elements of what ensures success. There are six skills that successful people excel at and you can develop to ensure your success. This framework shapes the Vibrance philosophy and influences how we teach our clients.

 

1. Grit

Grit is a marathon, not a sprint
— Angela Lee Duckworth
Do-your-best_WEB.jpg

The foundation for success is grit. Grit means having the motivation to work toward your goals, the perseverance to keep going when things get difficult, and the passion to keep your heart and soul in the work. As Duckworth argues, Grit is key to success.

Impress this on your mind: grit is not based on talent or intelligence. In fact, those with talent may become complacent, preferring to coast along thinking they can fool everyone. Despite being intelligent, individuals may be ill-equipped with problem-solving skills to meet challenges and setbacks. Grit will get you where you are determined to go, and the skills you acquire along the way will make you more successful at success.

 Part of grit is developing a growth mindset. This contrasts with a fixed mindset, the belief that failure must be avoided at all costs because it reflects a failure of the individual's intelligence or character. A growth mindset acknowledges that the human mind is plastic. It adapts and changes all the time. This means that we always have the ability to learn if we put in the effort and grow our passion for learning. Think of what you would teach a child, that they are not a failure, but rather their plan was not adequate to meet the demands of the situation or that they have not yet acquired all the skills they need to meet the challenge. Failure is never permanent if you cultivate a growth mindset. 

My husband has an incredible a growth mindset and I learn much from his example. He was raised with the ADB philosophy, Always Do Your Best. The outcome was less important than process as long as he was doing his best. If he knew that he was and learning along the way he was realizing his potential. My husband has taught me that there is always a solution, one simply needs to find it.

 

2. Discipline

Discipline builds on your gritty foundation. To succeed at anything you must put in the time. More than that, it must be quality, focused time. You cannot phone it in. You must be fully present and bring your complete concentration to the activity.

learn-practice-and-improve-on-three-red-dice-for-betting-on-your-future-in-attaining-new-s-Stock-Photo.jpeg

 

For some endeavors, this takes the form of practice. Remember Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours of diligent practice? This is certainly part of the puzzle in situations with stable structures and unchanging rules. Individuals must also be good at practicing and know how they best learn. This means constantly building skills and aptitude, raising the bar constantly so that there is failure at times, and having a feedback loop in order to perceive areas for improvement and to take appropriate action (think of dancers practicing with a mirror or artists attending a weekly class).

Always do your best .jpg

I like to use sports analogies because people understand that athletics entail effort, challenge, focus, hours, practice, and difficulty - elements that some are less willing to apply to other areas of their lives. A person gets stronger quickly at the gym by lifting heavy weights until failure (8-12 reps) meaning their muscles simply cannot complete the exercise with full range and structural integrity. They will use the mirror, peer feedback, and video recordings to improve their form. They will follow a regime that challenges them mentally and physically while ensuring adequate recovery and nutrition to maintain progress. Lastly, they will incorporate enough diversity that they stay passionate and prevent injury, tedium, and burnout. 

For other contexts where there are no set rules or constantly changing frameworks, as is often the case with creative and entrepreneurial endeavours, practice, however diligent is not the X factor, Instead, discipline may take on another form. A choreographer will get into the studio space 4-5 days a week, an artist will paint for a set number of hours a day, a writer will commit to writing a certain number of words before bed. A stockbroker building a client base may determine a quota of cold calls for the afternoon, a medical specialist may read a specific number of articles a week, an entrepreneur building a business will decide upon a minimum number of meetings a fortnight. 

Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most consistent and successful comedians in the industry. On Lifehacker, Brad Isaac relays a story regarding receiving advice from Seinfeld about becoming successful. Seinfeld has since claimed that this advice was never his to give, but the  "Seinfeld Method" remains the stuff of legend. Isaac claimed,

"[Seinfeld] said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

'After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.' ”

3. Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are often described as "soft skills" (to contrast with the "hard skills" of STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and are becoming recognized as more important than ever.

These include:

  • communication skills (verbal, non-verbal communication, listening skills)
  • emotional intelligence
  • team-working
  • negotiation, persuasion and influencing skills
  • conflict resolution
  • problem-solving and decision-making

As Cathy N. Davidson describes, 

"among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas [....]

[Google] enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs [....]

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety.  "

    Source: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/05/facial-expressions.aspx

    Source: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/05/facial-expressions.aspx

    One of the simplest ways you can develop your interpersonal skills is to slow down, listen, and observe without immediately thinking of what you want to say or of the next place to which you must run off. Try it with your friends and romantic partners, listen to them without trying to solve problems or to judge. Try it with your coworkers and notice what changes.

    Another important skill to develop is to understand facial expressions. This will allow individuals to better develop connection, rapport, and trust, in an individual's professional and personal life. Facial expressions have been found to be universal across cultures, both in interpretation and production. There are seven basic emotions, anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. This field has been widely developed by Dr. Paul Eckman. We now understand the concept of micro-expressions, involuntary responses that can be as brief as 1/30 of a second, and therefore can be a very honest portrayal of emotion. 

    Vibrance offers programs to build interpersonal skills in young people and adults.

    4. Failure (is Success)

    You will become clever through your mistakes.
    — German proverb

    Ooooof, this one is very difficult for me!

    Set time at the start of the week and month to set new goals and reassess old ones. Starting now, your aim is to fail at 20-50% of the goals you set yourself while aiming to attain 100% of them.

    This indicates that you are setting goals that are just the right challenge, with the stakes being high enough that  you must exert yourself. If failure is possible, you will work harder - within reason.

    With my school-aged students, I will often pick up a pencil, do a bicep curl, and ask "will this make me stronger quickly?"

    "No," they will say.

    "If I used a much heavier weight instead, will this make me stronger?"

    "Yes!" they exclaim.

    "If I try to pick up a truck, will I get stronger?"

    Mixed answers.

    truck.jpg

    "No, I won't because a truck is too heavy for my muscles to engage at all" (at least at this stage). If the bar is set too high, it can be demoralizing, failure seems certain. Here is where my husband offers another bit of wisdom, how do you eat an elephant? The answer?One bite at a time. Break larger tasks into manageable pieces. Maybe I cannot lift an entire truck, but I could work on flipping one of its tires, once, then twice, then ten times and more.

    That being said, ensure that you don't become attached to output or outcome. Some days may not appear productive. You may be gathering inspiration, learning a new skill,  or finding yourself going down some dead-ends before finding the right path.

    Source: http://www.escapeseriestri.com/philadelphia-escape

    Source: http://www.escapeseriestri.com/philadelphia-escape

    Another sports analogy: I attended a triathlon workshop that focused on transitions. Being new to this sport, I had not realized how much strategy and practice is involved in ensuring smooth transitions that will support your overall performance at a triathlon event! The coach reminded us to keep moving forward and to find economy in movement. When switching from the swimming to the cycling, have your equipment arranged so that you can bend down once instead of multiple times. Then move forward as you finish buckling your helmet and arranging your number. If you practice enough, you can even keep your cycling shoes clicked into your pedals and learn to fasten your shoes as you get onto the bike! Find ways to introduce economy of effort into your day and know that forward momentum (whether a slow plod or a lightning-fast sprint) is progress. Sometimes, just showing up and putting in a diligent effort is forward momentum.

    Failure is how one learns. Whenever I am embarking on a creative endeavour, it feels as if I have to fail a few times in order to figure out how I need to do it. Bring curiosity to your risks and focus on mastery instead of success. We see this in children. A toddler learning to roll over or to walk will try and fail - until they succeed. As we get older, failure is associated with shame and fear of looking incompetent to others. As adults, we must ensure that we support failure in others and facilitate reflection and learning. Perform post-mortems of your own failures without ego or shame, commit to remediating any areas in which you need to improve, and your progress will be exponential.  This is growth mindset in action.

    Embracing failure will also reduce suffering. Think of the opportunities you have missed due to fear of failure, the agony you experienced when venturing into unchartered territory resulted in a mess instead of success. How might you have changed your experience by looking for the learning opportunities in every "failure?"

     

    5. Mentorship

    In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.
    — Phil Collins
    Source: http://zelig880.com/the-power-of-mentoring

    Source: http://zelig880.com/the-power-of-mentoring

    Better yet, conduct post-mortems with a mentor. Find someone you respect, who shares some of our values, and is willing to give you their time. Ideally, this would be on a monthly basis. In health occupations, this is a common aspect of professional development. A mentor can offer you perspective, inspiration, and accountability. Be prepared to be vulnerable and transparent. Picking the right mentor is vital. They must be able to balance empathy with neutrality. Ensure that they do not shut you down or frustrate your vision, but that they still challenge you and hold you to account.

    In the future as you progress, consider mentoring others. Again, ensure this is free from your ego. We often learn best by teaching others and it supports perspective-taking. Don't become attached to your mentee's progress. In my dramaturgy course, I remember my close friend talking about the choreographer she was working with. My friend personally didn't find the performance that they were working on personally engaging however, she realized that it didn't matter. The performance wasn't her "baby." Her role was to support this choreographer in bringing forth her baby.

     

    6. Voice and Body

    istock_000012499903small-trans_543_300_c1.png

    Often, my clients come to me hating the sound of their voices. Therefore, when they speak to others, it is under duress and tension. They will even say their own name apologetically or with contempt, revoking the power of their existence. Listen to your voicemail message and hear how you say your name.

    Voice teacher Roger Love rightly us to percieve our voices exist as a gift for others. If we want to speak to our selves, we can simply speak in our minds. In order to reach others, we much open our mouths.    By thinking of our voices as a gift, this moves our attention away from our selves, our nerves, our inner-talk so we can focus on reaching the other person and reading their responses.

    People may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. The way that you speak informs your listeners as to whether they consider you a knowledgeable and trustworthy person. For example, if I end every statement as if I am asking a question, I am unlikely to convince a client that I know what I am doing or have anything useful to teach them. If I use a monotone speaking voice, I am unlikely to maintain a client's attention long enough for them to retain any information I am trying to share.

    The body, breath, and voice are inexorably linked. Amy Cuddy's research focusses on the way that body language impacts our body chemistry, the way we see ourselves, and the way we are seen. In training the body and voice we can transform our lives. 

    Peter Strick's research uncovered evidence indicating that our stress responses are tied to the primary sensory and motor cortices through complex networks:

    "The motor areas in the brain connect to the adrenal glands. In the primary motor cortex of the brain, there’s a map of the human body—areas that correspond to the face, arm, and leg area, as well as a region that controls the axial body muscles (known to many people now as 'the core').

    breathing_painting.gif

    The Pitt team didn't think the primary motor cortex would control the adrenal medulla at all. But there are a whole lot of neurons there that do. And when you look at where those neurons are located, most are in the axial muscle part of that cortex.

    'Something about axial control has an impact on stress responses,' Strick reasons. 'There’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress. And when you see somebody that's depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel.  Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress. And I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.' "

    The body is how we encounter and filter the world. This, in response, shapes our inner world which, in turn, influences how we re-encounter and interpret our surroundings in a constant loop.

    Vibrance specialises in training the body and voice to be free of unnecessary tension, to be dynamic, supple, and supportive of our presence in the world.

     

    Other Reading:

    Six elements of success adapted from Science of People

     

    Whatever your aims, we can aid you in achieving your goals with our individualised approach and flexible sessions. Contact us: