NUS Arts Festival’s “On the Shoulders of Giants”: Interview with the Artistic Director

NUS Dance Synergy will open this year’s NUS Arts Festival with “On the Shoulders of Giants”, a full-length contemporary dance work choreographed by Synergy’s technique tutors Yarra Ileto, Albert Tiong and guest choreographer Goh Shou-Yi.

“NUS Arts Festival 2018: If We Dream” (7 – 23 September), draws inspiration from Singapore’s first novel If We Dream Too Long by Goh Poh Seng, a coming-of-age story on youthful dreams and the search for meaning.

For Artistic Director Yarra, the giants represent the generations that came before us, paving the way for today’s dancers. Shou-Yi feels that structures built by our predecessors allows us to dream, yet at the same time restricts us. Albert takes a different view: he is the giant, and wants to break out of the structures within art.

Deep? Welcome to modern dance.

Wait, don’t leave yet! Cool stuff coming up.

We had the privilege of speaking with the Artistic Director of the show, Yarra. She explains that Giants explores the tension between being able to look forward with our aspirations, and backward, to understand where we come from.


If We Dream Too Long tells the story of Kwang Meng, the newly-minted pride of an uneducated family, who dreams of finding success and happiness. In the labour crunch, he winds up becoming a clerk like his father. After his father is struck with diabetes, he becomes the sole breadwinner, supporting his family with his meagre income.

The novel is a jumping-off point for the cast of Giants, who were encouraged to read it and reflect on their lives. While the novel was written in the 60s, it tells of a timeless experience young people of all generations will have gone through.

Yarra got the cast to discuss their thoughts on the novel during their cast retreat at Southern Ridges. It is important to her that performers find a personal connection with their art piece.

Giants is a meditation on the relationship between the giants who pioneered Singapore arts scene, and the dwarves – young people of this generation. Goh Poh Seng was a literary giant himself, having written the first Singaporean novel that has hugely influenced sing lit.

This show is extra special because it is the first time Synergy is doing a full-length work under three choreographers. It’s also the first time the entire creative team – including the NUS Electronic Music Lab (EML), Exxon Mobile Campus Crew (EMCC), lighting and design – and dancers have come together to work towards a common vision.

The rationale? For the opening show of the festival, Yarra thinks it is important to get all Synergy members together to form one united cast. No doubt it’s a challenge, but for the growth of the entire team, it is one that Yarra, who is Artistic Director for the first time, is willing to take on.


What happens when three choreographers with different styles, backgrounds and ages, come together?

Yarra remarks that, as Singapore is small, the choreographers all have histories with each other.Therefore they knew each other’s working style, aesthetics and artistry.

While Yarra and Albert are familiar faces in Synergy, it is the first time Shou-Yi is coming aboard a Synergy production, exposing the dancers to a new working style.

Shou-Yi focuses on how dancers feel executing a movement rather than how a movement looks on the outside – in his rehearsals the mirrors are covered. For instance, he gets dancers to imagine putting their hands in a bucket of ice.

What is important to him is the quality of movements, the tension, initiation and transitions. He stresses forming new movement habits, breaking out of the ways each dancer is used to moving.


At the start, dancers were split into three groups under the three choreographers. They went for their first rehearsals not knowing what to expect.

On separate occasions, Shou-Yi asked his dancers to imagine they’re playing with an energy ball, imagine the story of someone on the Utown green, and come up with a sound effect to base their movements on.

When he noticed everyone improvising similar movements, Shou-Yi would challenge them: Is this really what you feel brings out the sound? Is there something you can do that’s different from the rest? Can you vary the dynamic, size, or level?

For Yarra’s group, dancers experimented with crazy ideas like stacking on top of each other to form human towers. “But we train to be tough so it’s fine”, Yarra laughs. This was the fun testing stage common of art-making where people dream really big, try the next day and fail.

But epic fails are okay. Yarra believes always trying new things will keep everyone on their toes, constantly adapting, instead of getting too comfortable.

This was a couple of months ago.

Many ideas drawn from Instagram have been scraped since, as Yarra moves on to fine-tuning the movements that actually work. Shou-Yi is working with his dancers to tweak the improvised movements into solos.


Even as artistic director, Yarra never believed in simply telling everyone what to do. As the whole team read the novel, she wanted everyone to play a part in how the show turns out. She sees the value in inviting all types of collaborators on the show, for the dancers to learn as much as possible from their expertise.

Synergy’s dancers learn the fundamentals from tutors through their experiences as professionals, and are encouraged to build on that, to not be bounded by one style. Being comfortable with a variety of styles adds value to their toolbox.

For future productions, Synergy hopes to keep this professional-student structure, where professionals guide and support student dancers, while giving them ownership.

Yarra gives everyone in her group something to think about in the rehearsal warm-up structure, a chance to lead their friends. This is a welcome change from the way students usually wait for the command, and quite beautiful to watch, Yarra shares.


In contemporary dance, dancers are constantly exploring and breaking down boundaries with the goal of discovery. Trial and error is a big part in the making of productions.

As a rule, Synergy stresses breaking out of conventional movements, which this generation has seen plenty of on social media and reality tv.

Live dancing is a whole different experience from dancing on tv, for both the dancer and the audience. Yarra hopes that people can be exposed to a spectrum of contemporary dance and what it can offer, and come to appreciate live dance.

She also hopes the show will spark curiosity in the audience to be open to find their own narratives within a piece, but not to worry if they don’t get it, as contemporary art isn’t necessarily created to be a neat narrative.

She likens the appreciation of contemporary dance to visiting an art gallery where paintings might not come with descriptions — while we might not know what we’re looking at, there’s still some kind of connection.

There might not be a clear takeaway but if audience members find or notice things for themselves when watching the show, it would be good enough.


The dancers are carefully selected by the choreographers via auditions. The million-dollar tip: it is attitude that lands you a spot. You need more than sick skills to dance non-stop for five hours, typically. The gruelling rehearsals for this major production are not for the fickle-minded or faint-hearted. Drop out and you go straight onto the blacklist.

The discipline and initiative taken amidst the fatigue are remarkable, though there is no shortage of complaints. Dancers on my Instagram timeline report being too tired to move. Injuries are all too common for those big on defying gravity to make cool stuff.

To Yarra, a good dancer is always a respectful person everyone can work with. S/he is wary of complacency, which holds back many experienced dancers. Sometimes these traits are even more important than the physical, Yarra thinks, because “if your mind is in the right place, the physical will follow”.

“Dance is something which you’re continually learning as you grow older; you never know enough of it.” Such humility from a dance pro is inspiring, but more than that, it is telling. It goes to show that humility is important for mastering any art, and a good attitude may take you places you never imagined.


Interested in the performance? Get your tickets here!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here