If you’ve been to performances of/organised by KL Dance Works, there’s a name that should be instantly familiar: Ms Choong Wan Chin. The principal and artistic director of KL Dance Works, Ms Wan Chin organised the International Ballet Super Stars GALA 2019, and it was all thanks to her we managed to secure interviews with the dancers. Now, we’re turning the spotlight back on her, and we’re very lucky indeed that she had time in her busy schedule to have a chat with us about all things dance, and to share her experience with us as a dancer, choreographer and more!
EP: Could you tell us a little bit about your dance journey so far? As a dancer, your training etc.?
Ms Wan Chin: I grew up in Petaling Jaya. At the age of 5, I started learning ballet at Federal Academy of Ballet nearby my house. Around the age of 12, I continued my RAD training at Sri Wilayah Ballet Centre. Soon after, my mum felt that if I was serious about dancing, I should go to a performing arts school where full-time ballet training is part of the regular school program. So at 14, I studied at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in America. Over there, they do not follow a particular method of training like in Malaysia. I didn’t encounter any difficulty in the transition because I think the basics in ballet is the same and what was more important lies in the teacher rather than the syllabus or method. I spent two years there. After I returned to PJ, Mr. Anthony Then, the former artistic director of Singapore Dance Theatre, came to KL on some choreography work. We met and he asked if I would like to join SDT as an apprentice. The company had actually just started around that time. So I joined SDT while attending high school at the same time. While at Singapore Dance Theatre, I had the opportunity to meet the Shanghai Ballet artistic director who was the guest ballet master at Singapore Dance Theatre, and he introduced me to further my training at the Shanghai Dance School. I went to Shanghai and joined the graduation class where I met Tan Yuan Yuan and Zhao Lei who were my classmates. In China they taught in a Russian-based method, and it was really, really tough training, mind-blowing! *laughs* But there, I really learned a lot. After returning from China, I performed with Singapore Dance Theatre before I took leave to study Industrial Design at RMIT in Melbourne. After graduation, I went back to dance for a short time but did not last long because of an old back injury. During my two years back in Malaysia, Mr. Sunny Chan asked me and a few other girls to put up a production. That was the first Dance Works production show, in 1998.
EP: Did you also perform in the show?
Ms Wan Chin: *laughs* Yeah, I performed. You know, when you’re young, you have the energy to do everything – choreograph and dance… so it was quite fun. With the experience of the first production, I realised that I actually prefer to work on choreography and production more than just dancing. Putting up a show is more creative – involving the designs of lighting, set, program etc. – I really enjoyed it.
EP: Would you say that your transition from dancer to choreographer was kind of sparked by the first KL Dance Works show back in 1998? Was that the turning point for you?
Ms Wan Chin: Yeah. It was. Because before that, all I knew was “I wanna dance, I wanna dance”. It’s when I didn’t just dance and I had this project to do, that I discovered choreography and directing. It was by chance.
EP: Can you tell us a little bit about your time in Japan, seeing as you’ve been there for twelve years?
Ms Wan Chin: Japan was the place that I learned a lot. My mentor, Ms. Rosemarie Starke was part of the team which created the pre-professional program, as well as collaborating with professional artistes from ballet companies, producing numerous full-length classical ballets and original works. Working in Japan is really wonderful! Being a teacher there, you’re very well-respected, that goes for choreographers too. I don’t know how to say it… they really take it seriously in Japan! When I create a ballet, the students, dancers, pre-professionals, professionals – they put in all their efforts to make it the best! As a teacher, I taught the students who would practice five times more than what I expected and that drove me to give more. It’s very different here. *laughs* I have to do five times the work – it’s like I’m giving five points and they give back one point. I have to use so much energy. My way is to work till they get the idea of what it takes to excel in ballet. So in Japan, the work ethics and the appreciation of the art form is far more compared to here. And I got a lot of work done there.
EP: Are there any other differences between your experience in Japan and Malaysia thus far?
Ms Wan Chin: In Japan, students work very hard, but they lack acting, interpreting, improvising, to show feelings (referring to on-stage performances). When I brought dancers from Japan to do shows in Istana Budaya, Japanese and Malaysian dancers had to work together, and they learned from each other. Malaysian dancers saw that the Japanese dancers are so hardworking while the Japanese saw the Malaysian dancers can act so naturally. It was inspiring for both sides. The other difference between Japan and Malaysia is in the training. In Malaysia the training is mainly exam-based whereas in Japan, it is performance-based. The annual school productions I made in Japan are much longer than Malaysia’s. The students take more classes and spend a lot more time in rehearsals. Japan has a longer history in ballet than Malaysia, and the audience have much more knowledge and exposure of international standard in ballet. Most places in Japan have well equipped theatres with international-standard facilities and professional production teams.
EP: You’ve had a lot of international experience, like in America, Australia and Japan. What made you want to come back to Malaysia? Was it to expand the local dance scene?
Ms Wan Chin: 6 years ago, I wanted to spend time with my family – both my mum and grandma are getting old, I decided to be based here (Malaysia). I am glad to be able to share my knowledge in my home country after being away for a long time and to be part of the development of the local dance scene.
EP: So the method that you’re using here is the Russian-based method, Vaganova?
Ms Wan Chin: I would call it “Vaganova-based” method from the experience and knowledge I have obtained while working with institutes and individuals who teach in that method. That includes working in cooperation with the Berlin State Ballet School, Ms. Rosemarie Starke and recently with Ms. Elena Chebotar who graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy and obtained the teaching certificate Master’s Degree from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. I find that it is the best training method for students who aspire to pursue dance as a career.
EP: Do you send students for RAD examinations?
Ms Wan Chin: For those who want to do RAD exams, there are so many RAD schools out there, and I recommend them to take their examination with those schools.
EP: Could you tell us a little bit about your choreography work?
Ms Wan Chin: I created a lot of short and full-length choreographies while I was in Japan. I have done little in Malaysia.
EP: Is it because there’s a lack of dancers here?
Ms Wan Chin: Yes… *nods head* And even if there are dancers, it is hard for them to be fully committed as they have other projects or activities. It’s also due to the lack of fundings here.. I do hope to choreograph more, at least once in a couple of years to produce a full-length choreography.
EP: How do you usually start your choreography process? Do you find a piece of music first, or does it come with a narrative or idea in your head?
Ms Wan Chin: Usually it starts with the music. When I listen to music, I imagine stories. I like to do work that has a storyline. In Japan, one of the last works I did there was “Alice in Wonderland”. The book was very intriguing and gave me lots of ideas. I like to jump back to a child’s carefree mind to work on the various characters in the story and make sense in nonsense.
EP: Mostly in choreography, if you take on classical works, you like to make it a retelling of your own?
Ms Wan Chin: Yes. I like to make my own interpretations, again working on the characters. The setting is usually in modern times and more realistic. It’s not so much about prince and princess living in a castle forever, that kind of thing. In retelling the story, when I did “The White Bat”, I was very lucky to collaborate with a friend of mine who wrote an interesting storyline for the ballet, and who personally built the set for me. To have someone like that to work with… you spark off between one another, and it’s a really, really, very good experience.
EP: As you’re a choreographer, and also an artistic director; what are some of the qualities you look for in dancers? What are the things you look for, or how do you determine if they’re fit for a role or not?
Ms Wan Chin: Selecting the right people for the cast is very important. It makes all the difference in the quality of the work. Most professional dancers have their own unique quality and natural inclination to perform certain characters well. I select the program which firstly, is appropriate for the audience and secondly, which I can find the right cast (especially the principal dancers) to perform.
EP: Could you tell us a little about your role as artistic director so that the public knows more about what an artistic director does?
Ms Wan Chin: In my case, it’s quite unclear because we lack funds to hire enough people to organise a show, so I basically had to multitask. As an artistic director, I decide which dancers that I would want to invite – for the Gala, the kind of show that I want to put on, and the program on the whole. So, I’m responsible for many aspects of the production, such as how it’s going to be presented, and what I want the audience to experience and so on. For Malaysia, I also arrange the program in accordance to the maturity of the audience. To overcome shortages in funds for a better cast, stage equipment such as lighting for the theatre, grandiose in set design, I try to use as much creativity and hard work to achieve an international standard production as I possibly can.
EP: We’re almost done! What do you find most rewarding in your career as a choreographer?
Ms Wan Chin: *thinks* When I have to make a ballet, I’m in it totally- that’s all. It’s like – you wake up, it’s it; you sleep, it’s it – the continuous flow that carries on!
EP: Do you have any advice for aspiring choreographers out there?
Ms Wan Chin: It’s up to them how far they want to reach and if they can find support for their work. Here because of the limitations in facilities, fundings and audience crowd, one cannot just have a job as a choreographer, however if you love it, keep doing it.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity and all images courtesy of Choong Wan Chin; credits to respective photographers labelled with each image.
Once again, we thank Ms Wan Chin for this in-depth interview, and for sharing her experiences with us as a dancer, choreographer, artistic director, and generally as someone who is so passionate and involved in the arts, especially ballet.
For more on what Ms Wan Chin is doing, do follow her academy’s Instagram page @kldanceworks!
That’s all for today, and we hope that you’ve been inspired as much as we have! And in the words of Ms Wan Chin, if you love it, just keep doing it!
Should you have any questions, feedback, suggestions, or would like to share your story, kindly get in touch with us via the contact form on our website, or send us a DM on our Instagram at @expression.platform.
Embarking on the journey of self-discovery through dance.