Ballet Theatre Malaysia (BTM), which will make its debut with Spectrum: Triple Bill this month, is a perfect pairing of hardware and software. Behind both elements are three women who love dance and want to create a space where dancers can flourish.
“I have the software — experience from overseas, and of bringing works here and working with local and foreign dancers. Datin Jane Lew has the space and facilities and passion for ballet. Somehow, the match works,” says Choong Wan Chin, co-founder and artistic director of BTM.
Establishing BTM with Lew and dancer Rachel Chew, 45 years after donning her maiden pair of ballet shoes, is a dream come true for her. More importantly, she thinks the time is right for the country to have its first professional ballet company.
“We learn from other places and we start in our own way. Yes, we are ready to have our own ballet theatre,” says Choong, also the founder and artistic director of KL Dance Works.
Lew is CEO of the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) and BTM is the sister company. A dancer herself — she enrolled in the New York Joffrey Ballet School in 1990 and worked with New York Dance Ensemble artistic director Betteane Terrell on his production of The Firebird — she set up Dance Space Academy in 1993 and now has four schools in the Klang Valley.
Chew has performed principal and soloist roles in many repertoires, among them The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Les Sylphides, Carmen and Giselle.
Forming a professional ballet company had been on Choong’s mind for a long time but she could not imagine running it — the admin work, paying the dancers’ salaries and other nitty-gritty. Many had nursed the same dream, she says, “it’s just how to do it”. Idle days during the pandemic got her thinking about DPAC not being used and how she would love to do something about that. She brought her idea to Chew, who then approached Lew, her aunt. “She was very interested.” BTM was registered in September 2020 and things kicked in.
The company set up its website and auditions were held to recruit artists and scholars who learnt the works for Spectrum and made full use of Zoom to practise during the subsequent lockdowns. The production, initially set for July, was postponed to October and then this month. Principal dancer Yui Kyotani and soloist Benjamin Cook have flown in and the curtains will go up from Dec 17 to 26.
Three works are lined up to introduce what a small company can do: Don Quixote (Act 1), Franz Schubert’s Impromptu and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto, with Choong choreographing the latter two pieces.
She has a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from RMIT University, Melbourne, and a master’s in dance and integrated media from the California Institute of the Arts. She is also a graduate of the Shanghai Dance School and has performed with the Singapore Dance Theatre and Shanghai Ballet Company.
Choong lived in Japan for 12 years from 2001 and was resident choreographer and principal teacher of Ena Ballet Studio. The co-founder of its professional arm, Ena Ballet Studio Company, has also worked in Colombia and Thailand.
Between 2004 and 2013, she was on the panel of The Dance Society (TDS) of Malaysia’s solo classical ballet competition and also created the compulsory variations for Category 3 of the annual event. From 2010 to 2019, she staged 10 full-length repertoires and international ballet galas at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur. After the lull wrought by the coronavirus, she plans to bring in more major shows and create new ones.
A back injury prompted Choong to stop dancing and switch to choreographing and producing ballets more than 23 years ago. Stepping onto a different path that is related to dance has turned out for the better, she says, because “I get bored easily and like to create new things and be involved in designs rather than tweak a dance to make it perfect”.
Staging productions also means a chance to put her industrial design training to use. Her course focus was product or packaging design but the mechanics of it has enabled her to be involved in set design and 3D or spatial things.
On the artistic side, Choong draws inspiration from the music to visualise the choreography for a dance. “I choose the music first, then the ideas just come.”
Training is very much a part of what she does. When she first started bringing shows in, 80% of the cast were foreigners, and 20%, Malaysians. “By 2018, the figures were flipped. Now, I have only two foreigners; the rest are locals.”
There is talent, she says, but Malaysians’ easy-going nature works against building up a pool of professionals. “It’s hard to tell people what it takes until you are out there, you struggle, you fail and you come back. Or, if you’re really crazy about dance and you fight till the end, then you might make it. But it’s so tough.”
BTM hopes to spark interest from the ground up by going to schools and reaching out to the public. Besides the full-timers, it takes in scholars aged between 14 and 18, who can be the corps de ballet and do group pieces. It is a good opportunity to gain exposure: they learn to mime, watch the principal dancers, understand the ballets, and be committed and handle responsibility. “It’s a sort of pre-professional training,” explains Choong, who is grateful to the dance fraternity, especially TDS president Sunny Chan, for encouraging and helping them set up the company.
The high standard of the TDS competition over the years has spawned a group of teenage dancers who really want to dance. “They can join the scholars programme and enjoy the experience, and not wait until they finish school before going overseas to train.
“Some of the scholars respond to and absorb things very well. I’m surprised we have these young kids who take ballet very seriously. And everybody works very hard.”
For many, being a ballerina has a wow factor. The reality is few really think it can be a profession. In Japan, older students are roped in to inspire the next batch so they can maintain a certain standard, Choong says. Taking a cue from the country where a career in dance is considered prestigious, “I will use whoever I have and train whoever I can, and encourage and give opportunities to those who want to learn. We always want to keep improving”.
'Spectrum: Triple Bill' will be held from Dec 17 to 26 at Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Damansara Perdana, PJ. Tickets at RM88, RM108 and RM128. Book here or call 03 4065 0001/2.
This article first appeared on Dec 6, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.