Asian Music and Dance

Mavin Khoo – Finding a Stillness That is Virtuosic

Mavin Khoo is a busy man. Like any successful dance artist, he has a jam-packed schedule that includes training, rehearsals, performances and numerous meetings. But where Khoo differs from his contemporaries is in the amount of travelling he does. He stretches himself between his home in Malta, his native Malaysia, India, London and wherever his tours take him (usually Europe and Asia). Khoo admits: “My life is pretty hectic at the moment because my work branches out into so many different areas.” Those areas include a premiere for his own version of Swan Lake, creating a solo bharatanatyam piece, co-running the dance department at the University of Malta (more on that later) and studying for a PhD at the University of Roehampton. He casually mentions: “…and I’m still doing a lot of what I call my ‘fun’ areas of work – modelling and working in clubs…” It comes as no surprise, then, that an interview via Skype was the only way he could fit us into his schedule! 

Recreating a ballet classic

I begin by asking Khoo about the Swan Lake piece, which opened at the Malta Arts Festival in June earlier this year. “It’s a massive work…and it took five years of research. It’s terrifying to do because everyone has a history with it and your version will almost instantly be compared to other productions.” Despite the sheer scale of the project, Khoo felt more than ready for it, saying that: “I’m in a position now where I’m happy to fail. …the tendency to fail in public is essential for our growth.” When I ask whether it was his intention to put the Mavin Khoo mark on this iconic narrative, he enthusiastically nods his head. “Yes, very much,” before acknowledging that this project was ten years in the making, conceptually at least, “…but I was really conscious not to [begin the project] until I felt I was ready to have a voice in it.” The title for Khoo’s adaptation is 00.00–00.01 for the way the piece defies real-time by isolating a single minute of action. Set at midnight, the work relates feelings of curiosity and ambiguity to a period of time, which is neither day nor night. Khoo muses about his connection to the Swan Lake narrative: “I suppose I share a certain affinity with the swan because of my own particular niche, in terms of the ways in which I’m perceived by audiences and critics. A lot of the time the term androgyny is linked to me, my presence on stage is often associated to the swan so this project felt almost inevitable.” In other words Khoo’s 00.00–00.01 is more of an autobiographical work than the Swan Lake adaptations before him, mostly because it is based on his own personal experiences. So how does one go about making an adaptation of a classic? Khoo says that, for him, the starting point was the music, “You have to be ready to give it, and the lineage that it’s come from, a sense of validation.” 

“…I share a certain affinity with the swan…”

I am intrigued as to how Khoo became involved with the dance scene in Malta, so I delve a little deeper. “I’ve been going over to Malta for the past ten years for performances through the British Council,” he recalls. Khoo tells me how London seems to be the centre of the dance world and how, if you’ve not been there for a while, then it’s assumed that you’re doing nothing. “In the last ten years I’ve danced in London maybe once a year because most of my work has involved so much travelling all over the world.” Interestingly, it was the support from the British Council that led to his appointment at the University of Malta. “I guess the timing just worked, I was ready to start a new chapter.” Khoo explains that Malta is set to be the European Capital of Culture in 2018, reinforcing the country’s sense of investment and dedication to the arts. Despite his love for Malta, Khoo maintains that he’s not defined by where he lives: “… I knew my international work would still continue.”

Mavin at the Chennai December Season

Talking of the international dance scene, the Chennai December Season, the Mecca for Carnatic music and bharatanatyam is now upon us – a month-long programme that includes hundreds of performances. Mavin Khoo is no stranger to Chennai; in fact he’s been connected to the festival since the age of 16. On reflection, Khoo says: “I have a long-lasting relationship with the festival. Chennai has always been a kind of testing ground to see what works and what doesn’t.” Although he has strong links with Chennai, Khoo does not attend every year. “I make a point of going to Chennai every two years instead of year after year.” Khoo describes the time away as crucial, in order to increase the level of interest, to leave audiences wanting more. When the artist, audience and venue remain as constant factors, there is an even greater need for a fresh, compelling performance. Khoo recalls one particular performance at Chennai, when his guru, Padmashri Adyar K. Lakshman, sat in the front row. He found the experience as humbling as it was pressurising but it was a chance for Khoo to pay homage to the teaching and lineage he has received throughout sixteen years of training under his guru.

The excitement of spotting potential

From one teacher to another, Khoo shares his experiences as a dance teacher, a role he’s known for quite some time. “I began teaching at the age of 13 as an assistant to my guru in India…but it’s very different when you’re an adult, in a place where you’re more artistically and emotionally secure.” He clearly enjoys teaching and particularly values the learning experience. “For me, watching someone else develop through you giving and sharing your experiences which, in turn, allow them to find their own paths, is very beautiful. What I’m most inspired by now, and I talk about this a lot, is potential. I think it’s wonderful to be in a position in your career where you are still trying to achieve certain artistic goals but where you can also look to the future of other dancers from a different generation.” He continues that: “I get very excited when I see potential now, when I see young dancers who are so hungry, so thirsty…that, for me, is inspiring…regardless of where I am.” 

The choreographic chapter

That Khoo has been teaching, performing and choreographing from such a young age makes him able to reflect upon the different periods of his work. For example, he sees the period between 2000 and 2005 as a time when he was trying to raise his profile as a choreographic artist. This is reflected in the sheer number of works he created, such as 

Cast in Stone (2000) a duet with Christopher Bannerman; Images in Varnam (2001) commissioned by the Royal Ballet’s Artists Development Initiative; tours with his own company, mavinkhooDance, with Parallel Positions (2003–2004) and Chandra/Luna (2004–2005) as well as a number of solo bharatanatyam pieces for other artists – Chitra Sundaram (2001), Seeta Patel (2005) and Shrishti (2005). In the years that followed, and up until the present day, Khoo has created far fewer pieces but those that he has created have been more in depth with regards to the process and the artistic investment that he has put into them. “I have developed a greater sense of interest in the process and choreography has been a catalyst for my artistic and academic research through my work at the University of Malta and my PhD studies at the University of Roehampton.” 

On the note of practice and research, Khoo has taken some definitive steps to artistic discovery which he willingly shares with me. The term androgyny pops up again, it is part of his thesis after all, and Khoo discusses how his performative presence is not defined by gender; on the contrary, he aims to remove gender from the equation. “It’s a way of really looking at the complex history inscribed upon me and finding a stillness that is still virtuosic. For me, dancing provides a sense of home, which is both a gift and a curse, but it’s never a case of addressing sexuality, dancing as a man or dancing as a woman, it’s what it is – just dancing. Dancing is so natural and innocent for me, it’s almost childlike.” 

Dancing in clubs

On his involvement in the commercial scene, bars and clubs, Khoo maintains that he has learned about the sensitivity of an audience and the sheer power of the body. He adds that: “The ability to move thousands of people without doing anything, where they’re not inadvertently there to watch you perform, that is power.” Khoo began his club work when a friend of his played gigs in bars, and when the two of them wondered what it would be like to create ballet installations in the same environment. “Suddenly it all became something much bigger when I started working with Fabric in London. This [commercial work] is an area that’s being developed and, although I don’t do it as often as I used to, that makes it a bit more special because each time it’s a much bigger event and there are more resources put into it.” 

So we’ve covered Mavin Khoo the performer, choreographer, teacher, mentor, collaborator, arts enthusiast; there can’t possibly be more to him, can there?! Well, there is. Cue Mavin Khoo the dance campaigner. Khoo is extremely passionate about his art and he feels strongly about the rights of dancers. “We’re becoming so engrossed in the choreographer and the choreography that we forget the dance artist. It goes back to the industry and how under-valued the dancer is; right from management, choreographer, designer – the dancer is last – in fact the dancer gets paid the least as well.” Khoo admits that, in recent years, he’s become very vocal about these issues. “I believe in the power of the dance artist; the choreography is incidental because, very often, a good artist can pull off very bad choreography. I think it’s very important for people in the industry to re-evaluate their roles and people often forget that they are working for the dancer and it’s not the other way round!!” 

Ballet and bharatanatyam co-exist

I ask more about his choreographic work and, more precisely, the relationship between the two classical dance styles he works with. This is where Khoo comes into his own. “Naturally, I feel that there is a dialogue there because they co-exist in me but I’ve come to a point where I’m slightly sceptical about a conscious effort to create a dialogue. I feel that this sometimes happens in the name of creating new work but either it’s there or it’s not.” He continues that: “The reason that it exists in me is because I’ve completely dedicated my whole life to training in bharatanatyam and classical ballet and, not only that, but its life, its philosophy, its history.” Khoo is clearly passionate about these two very different cultural dance forms; in fact one of his contemporaries, Chitra Sundaram, describes that passion, curiosity and energy as “infectious”. She continues that: “Whether he is creating, clubbing, teaching, rehearsing, reading, discussing or, well, simply gossiping, Mavin has always been intensely engaged with dance. His mind is as compelling and complex as the sollukattu he chisels out in the space of Guru Adyar Lakshman’s house in Chennai; his articulation of ideas is as agile and precise as the pas de chat he executes in a London studio for the eagle eyes of Marian ‘Midge’ St. Claire. Mavin continues to honour them both [bharatanatyam and ballet] with his sustained striving for success.” The man himself expands upon the idea of a dialogue, “…it’s not about putting a leg in arabesque and a hand gesture and calling it a dialogue. It’s much more ambiguous; it isn’t even about moving but where you can feel these two traditions co-existing.” Khoo explains that there is sometimes the assumption among the critics that he will automatically put bharatanatyam and ballet together – almost for the sake of it – but I am told, quite matter-of-factly, that he prefers to create works which are based on just one style. “Of course, sometimes they happen to co-exist but because I’m comfortable with that, it’s not an area that I’m constantly exploring. I believe in the co-existence and I leave it at that.” Mavin Khoo doing what he does best: creating fresh work that pushes boundaries and develops the field. No doubt we haven’t seen the last of him but for now, at least, let’s leave him to it. 



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