La La Li La Tam Pong

Ten years is long. The P’nang Dance Station have begun life on a culturally lethargic island but in the past decade, the company or its founders had been invited to perform far and beyond in Singapore, Seoul, Hong Kong, Seattle and New York. From the early classes they gave at a Penang Buddhist association, and the dance school they eventually started, to the courses they now conduct at Akademi Seni Kebangsaan in KL, the founder-teachers of PDS have also launched a few career performers (including one in Europe and one in Taiwan).

But when I asked Choo Tee Kuang, husband of Loke Soh Kim (both of whom co-founded the company), “What is your greatest achievement in these last ten years?” he answered without thinking, “My son.”

Indeed, many things changed for Choo and Loke when their firstborn arrived in 1999. To demonstrate how much their dancing styles have matured as a result of this addition to their outfit, four out of five of their works to be showcased during the retrospective of their choreographies (Saturday June 22 and Sunday 23 at The Actors Studio Bangsar) will come from this post-partum period.

In 1999, therefore, the couple quit the school they had started in Penang and moved to Kuala Lumpur, shortening the Penang in their name to P’nang. Their business office, selling dance costumes, now sits beside their own apartment in a condo at OUG, the place of their initial romance.

Many years ago, a young Choo, who was a member of Keng Ling Drama Association Dance Group in KL, was instructed by his teacher to mentor the new-girl-in-town, Loke. Since they both stayed near each other in OUG Garden, Choo’s diligent mentorship extended even to picking Loke up weekly with his scooter and sending her to the practices.

They soon scooted together to Singapore to further their training, first with the Singapore People’s Association Dance Company and then the Singapore Dance Theatre, and were married without ceremony there in 1989. Then Choo auditioned and was accepted into the Hong Kong Dance Company but not Loke. “In ballet, men are more in demand. Plus, I am tall,” Choo says with a laugh. But Loke went nevertheless, partly to take care of her husband, and partly to work and train without pay with the Hong Kong Contemporary City Dance Company. Half a year later, they hired her as a dancer.

At the end of 1992, missing her home, and tired of the professional jealousies and pressure abound in the dance world of Hong Kong, Loke decided to return. Together with Choo, they started Penang Dance Station, then the first contemporary dance unit on the island. They debuted La La Li La Tam Pong, their signature collaborative piece, in Penang. This light-hearted dance about gender wars quickly won them a following among young people.

One of Loke’s earliest choreographies is A World In The City (not featured in the retrospective), a dance about young people trapped in the rat race of modern life. The Buddhist association where she taught then, however, refused to present such a negative work. But the times have changed. Last year, the P’nang Dance Station restaged it during the incredible MyDance Festival at The Actors Studio Bangsar. It is a testament to Loke’s vision that ten years on, her ethos is even more pertinent.

Choo freely admits that his wife is more famous than him. Loke, who has come a long way since her Girl Guides folk-dancing days by the campfire, took her calling from her very first dance teacher, Tan Wei Ping. Tan, in his fifties now, used to be a construction worker by day, and would teach dance using ballet and Kung Fu textbooks from China. Loke laughs as she recalled her mentor confessing one day that the times when he had to rush to the toilet in the middle of a dance class were because he had to secretly consult his textbooks. “He is very tough, very hardworking.” Loke says, “His spirit, the way he works, is inspiring to me even now.”

Though as teachers, both husband and wife are known to be rather fierce. But like most things, their style has changed. Before the baby, Choo and Loke’s life together was as free as two bohemian bachelors. Now there is order and sense. Now, instead of staying up the whole night designing lighting cues on the computer, Loke puts her son to bed at 11pm, and has to retire herself or else the boy would refuse to sleep too. Choo now wakes up at 6am every day and puts his son into uniform. In fact, having joined the league of parenthood, a new set of worries- about his son’s future – informs his choreography. At last year’s MyDance Festival, he presented a visually striking work titled Junior White, which has a girl trying to drown herself in a bucket. It was his response to the Government’s gradual closing of Chinese schools and what he sees as his sense of helplessness amidst this encroaching erosion of values.

Though their modern ballet sensibilities appear abstract and visceral, the P’nang Dance Station’s art seems rooted in reality. Apart from the one work jointly choreographed, there will also be two by the husband and two by the wife (plus a guest appearance by the renowned Hands Percussion Team). Rogayah Sharimah, local dance advocate, describes their different styles this way: “Loke’s pieces are quieter, more spiritual and goes with the flow of the music. Whereas Choo’s are bang bang bang! Like a man lah.”

Ten years is short. Though we may be witnessing a retrospective, the P’nang Dance Station is only just beginning. Choo says, “Today I do a lot of things. I understand more. No more dream. Dream when I was young is good. But must wake up. Now some of our dreams start to wake up.”

Photos by Pang.

First Published: 20.06.2002 on Kakiseni

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