Sunday 29 September 2013

by Chua Zi, Form 4 Science 1, Class of 2014

“I’m really mature, or so I have been told. Inside, I’m just a kid and I just want to dance all day and not care about anything else.”

It was past midnight when I sat down with Auriel Yeap—this girl with a reputation in Cempaka as a terrific dancer—to interview her for a yearbook article that had been assigned to me through a Skype chat just minutes before. I was staying overnight at her place so we were sitting on top of a mattress on the floor mindlessly surfing the Internet, surrounded by cables and pillows. The rest of the house was sleeping.

It was really a treasure to hear her speak so passionately about dance, even though at that hour she was quite hyped up, enthusiastically repeating her sentences at times. We spent some time in the interview joking around as we always do but there in her ramblings were her true opinions. I hardly ever hear her talk about dance so seriously.

I started off the interview typing furiously at the keyboard even though our voices were being recorded. Soon after I stopped and just listened to her objective opinion because there’s something about hearing a person talk, listening to the product of her mind working in real time that gives you a sense of who a person really is. We see her not just as a young performer and student with a reputation but as a dancer who exercises a wider outlook on her expectations and who is trying to deal with her doubts related to dance with self-confidence and measured modesty. Here’s what she had to say:

On her background in dance and what motivates her:

AY: I started gymnastics with Zi, with you, when I was 6. We had a really good gymnastics teacher, Ms. Wong who really pushed us. Without her I wouldn’t have been interested in dancing. My first ballet class, I cried. I just sat there and stared at them then walked out of class. I returned the next year. *laughs* I didn’t enjoy dancing in the beginning. I just enjoyed doing splits and jumping because I was flexible. Then I started dancing more, performing in school, getting really active and getting involved in productions. 

As a kid, I just felt better on stage dancing with a smile on my face and not having to worry about anything. Those three minutes on stage, no, just those moments backstage when you’re all pumped up and your teacher says,“It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you make, just keep smiling and go on.” You can’t think when you’re dancing, it’s only what you feel. The first mistake a dancer can make is to think. Then I took up some hip hop, contemporary and ballroom classes. I wanted to apply to a dance school in Singapore but the math level was really difficult... Let’s not talk about math.

CZ: Okay then. Tell me about your dance experience in Cempaka.
AY: We represented the school in gymnastics competitions. We performed in Sports Day every year, in year-end concert, and there was that printer ad where we went on TV. We joined Witches of Oz. In secondary, I did Beauty & The Beast, Seussical, Cempaka Voices In Concert, Hairspray, Tarzan. We still participate in Commencements and Inter-house Dance every year.

CZ: You’ve been dancing since you stepped into this place. Is there a person in your life that motivates you to dance?
AY: [pause] My sister was the first person. She started ballet before me. I watched her dancing and I just needed to go. I also look up to the Cempakans, all the performers. They’re like me, they came from this school. They became this great so I will become this great as well. Man, in the early 2000s everyone was bursting with talent. By 2009 most of them had graduated. I still remember them: Ellya Sam, Muhaimin, Isabelle Ng, David Kam, Julie Chan, Claudilia. Look at Muhaimin, he’s been in 7 out of 10 productions.

CZ: After all that, do you regard yourself as a dancer?
AY: Yes. Of course.

CZ: What do you define as a dancer?
AY: This is a difficult question. I know people who write on their social media descriptions: I’m a dancer. Are you really a dancer? I believe everyone can dance, but being a dancer is different. It’s a profession. You can’t just say I like to dance, I do ballet, I’m a dancer. Are you a professional dancer, a ballroom dancer, a ballet dancer, do you dance for fun? There isn’t a fixed definition. It’s your own. Mine is: you’re a dancer if you feel you’re a dancer at heart. I call myself a dancer because I love to dance and I don’t want to do anything else in the world.

On what she has performed in recently and handling school life:

AY: Since I have transferred to Cheras I’ve performed with some of the junior dancers. Before that was Tarzan. I didn’t really perform much this year because I’ve been trying to focus on studying. Trying.

CZ: How do you manage your time with all these events going on?
AY: Well, I don’t. I try, I really do. I think it’s mostly a dance-all-I-want and fit in studying here and there mantra. Obviously academics are important and even in all these dance universities and programs you need a good GPA to get in. So I try my best and do last minute studying and somehow that miraculously works, though it sounds really bad. I’m not a good influence. I make sure that I always have friends that join me in the performances so that I don’t have to deal with it alone. That’s how I cope—good friends who help me to pass up homework and responsible teachers who understand that this is what I want to do. 

CZ: Your teachers are surprisingly understanding.
AY: Not all the teachers are pleased. They say, “You’re missing my class. Why are you always out of class?” They get especially annoyed when you pop in and out in between classes. Every teacher has their own opinion. Performing has all these ups and downs but I do enjoy it. It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life and I don’t see myself living without it.

On her plans for the future:

CZ: Do you intend to pursue a career in dance?
AY: I do. I considered doing environmental science at one point in time: geography, culture, development, design. This year, I’d stopped all external dance activities because I needed to focus on my studies. Then I joined Tarzan and realized how empty I felt without it. I wake up at 1am and take out my pointe shoes and dance around my room until I fall down because I’m rusty and my toes really hurt. All the CPAC teachers were really shocked to know that I had stopped dance. I thought,“All these people are believing in me. Why am I not believing in myself?” 

So I’ve officially decided to become a professional dancer. I want to go out there, get the experience and credentials, then come back home, wherever that is and open a school. I love kids. Even though I probably scare them.

CZ: How do you plan to get there?
AY: By working really, really hard. Being a dancer is definitely not easy. You need passion, just as you do with everything else in life. It’s not something that you can just apply for, get a job and resign for. You have to continuously push yourself for it. But that’s the best part. I plan to get into college first and doing unrelated academic things like getting a good GPA. I don’t need to go to a famous dance school which produces stars, just one that fits me, fits what I want.

On the Malaysian performing arts scene and where it’s going:

AY: I tried checking it out. There are places like KLPAC, Istana Budaya and they offer many auditions. It’s quite funny. I was talking to Mr Scott and I said that I was worried about being a dancer because when I come back to Malaysia, how are you gonna get auditions? The industry here is so small. Who’s going to recognize you? Then he said, “That’s exactly it. Your industry is so small. In Broadway, you have a thousand people auditioning a day. In Malaysia, you’ll get a thousand in a week if you’re lucky.” So how are you not going to get a part if you’re good? Here you have time to build it up. If you succeed, you’re known.

CZ: Like Ms. Suhaili. [Choreographer for Hairspray and Tarzan]
AY: Yes, like Ms. Su. She’s a runner-up of 8TV's So You Think You Can Dance but if I wasn’t in Cempaka, I may not have known her. But other people know her. In America, you see all these amazing dancers on Youtube and you’re like, “Oh my God. How are you not famous?” Because there are so many amazing dancers there. In Malaysia you have one amazing dancer and you can’t think of anyone else. It’s like a small village, everyone knows each other. So come back to Malaysia and build it up. Malaysia needs to be stronger in the arts. I’d love to be part of it. 

CZ: What do you think is stopping them from expanding?
AY: That’s a difficult question. They’re trying to expand, they really are. It just that, to do that, you need people who want to do it as a career. People go to the UK to pursue performing arts, that’s why it’s so big. In Malaysia, we simply don’t have that many facilities. There isn’t a full-blown performing arts university in Malaysia that’s fully dedicated to the arts with people whose names you know of. In Singapore they have SOTA, which is one of the top schools, and so many people know about it. In Malaysia we have many dance academies but we don’t have a school that builds your performance up. You have to build your own performance up. And all these Malaysians, they don’t study in Malaysia and become great dancers, they study overseas and we’re lucky enough that they come back. So maybe in Malaysia it isn’t expanding because there just aren’t the people to expand it with. Not to mention we’re all Asian and more than half of us want to be accountants and businessmen and doctors.

CZ: What do you suggest we could do to expand it?
AY: Who do you think I am, the prime minister? *laughs* What do I think we can do? Ms. Su’s one of the people who’s trying to promote it, to set up stuff that’s more open so that more people know about it. It’s about advertising and marketing, it’s just like any other product except it’s dance. I don’t know why, but Malaysians have this thing where if it’s from Malaysia it’s bad but if it’s from overseas it’s good.

[pause] I think it’s all about education. Cempaka is one of the schools that really focuses on all aspects: performing arts, academics, extra-curriculum. Without Cempaka, I really wouldn’t be involved in performing arts to the extent that I am today. Cempaka’s one of the schools that really nurtures performing arts—look at Caleb Choo, Savira, myself, Muhaimin, Natasha Lama.

On how Cempaka has shaped her life and inspired her:

AY: I’ve been in Cempaka for 11 years. From the moment I stepped in to the moment I step out of here, I will be dancing. No other school gives you that much exposure to the arts. The CPAC teachers really helped me. I never regretted it even when they pushed me too far. My parents ask 'why are you doing so much'? I just love doing it. Cempaka is an insanely huge part of my life, it’s practically all I remember. Probably more than I want it to be. It is where I learnt how to dance... in that dear dance studio that got burnt down.

Apparently I have a reputation in Cempaka. I have a reputation of being involved in dance and always being out of class. People are like, “What were you doing? Why are you wearing ankle guards?” I was dancing; I got injured. I do have a reputation but I’m just waiting for my testimonial to get some proper recognition that I can actually apply to universities with. *laughs*

On her advice to aspiring dancers:

CZ: It sounds like a very harsh reality to pursue the arts. Do you have any advice for those who want to pursue dance as a career?
AY: My advice is to go for it. If you do dance and you love it, you’ll want to do it forever. You should never stop pursuing something you want to do just because your parents, society or your friends say so. It’s not about the income or how you’re gonna put food on the table. It’s about you being happy because whenever you’re happy you will do anything to achieve your goals. Then you can start thinking about bigger things. Like I said, a dancer’s first mistake is to think. 

Everyone’s going to worry about their future no matter that you pursue, it’s not just dancers. Being a dancer is difficult. Being a freelancer is difficult. When you’re still studying it’s much easier because you’re still going through that experience to become who or what you want to be. Then after you graduate, you have to audition for companies; with endless rejections. But you can’t just stop because you get rejected. It’s tough, everyone gets rejected. I’m not going to say that you’re going to earn lots of money because honestly you’re not, not in the beginning at least. It always gets better. Anything can happen.

CZ: Is there anything else you would like to add before we end?
AY: I would just like to say that every dancer has this thing in their head that says they're not good enough. I’m sure everyone has that, but dancers especially. We dance in front of mirrors everyday. You’re staring at yourself everyday; you see your flaws: what you’re doing wrong, technicality issues, skill issues. 

It’s all about talent. Dance is something that if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. It’s not a language that you can learn up. And no matter how good you are, no matter how many parts you get, whenever you attend an audition you will always be nervous, because there are so many talented people competing to get the role. Then, the relief you feel when you land the part—it’s amazing. Of course there’s rejection which sucks and happens more often than not. It’s not even rejection from the audition, it’s rejection from yourself. You can’t even get it right and you just keep trying and trying. 

Even so, dancing is my forte. And I think without dancing, I’d just be this empty, sad soul.

"All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror, and the chance to dance
- The Music and A Mirror, A Chorus Line
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