Masters Student | Dancer & Choreographer | Waacking Enthusiast
Jonathan (Jon) Lui is currently at the University of Roehampton studying towards an MFA in Dance and Embodied Practice after completing his undergraduate degree in 2019. Originally from Singapore, Jon undertook duties in the Singapore Armed Forces before travelling to the UK in 2015 to pursue his dance studies. His credits include performing in Sainsbury’s 2017 advert (MysDiggi x Sainsbury’s Food Dancing Yum Yum Yum) and choreographing for university dance competitions and MMA events. With a particular interest in waacking, Jon’s skills range from more commercial hip-hop styles through to contemporary exploration. He has previously worked as an Administrative Assistant for Siobhan Davies Dance & Independent Dance and now, permanently based in London, continues to research and explore the South East’s rich dance scene.
I chatted with Jon in September 2020 about his studies and experiences in dance. As well as discussing his roots and early inspirations, we touched upon embodied practise, choreographic frameworks and unhelpful barriers in the industry.
© Jonathan Lui
What opportunities were there to engage with dance when growing up in Singapore?
The dance scene in Singapore has grown since I started dancing in 2009. I had many opportunities through the creative director of the dance club I was part of in polytechnic. It can be quite competitive, but there were many opportunities to perform in the school and nationally. I was lucky to have had a cultural centre in polytechnic and the opportunity to perform in its 1111 seated theatre. Although I only did hip-hop and other street styles there, I had exposure to dancers who did contemporary/modern, Malay and Indian cultural dances and capoeira.
What did you learn from your time in the army and would you have pursued dance earlier if you were able to?
National service is mandatory for all men in Singapore aged 18 and above for 2 years. Since I was doing my diploma in New Media when I was 18, I was allowed to join the service when I was 21. At first, it felt like a chore and it was something I did not want to do, however, going to the army gave me team building and time management skills which helped me later on in life. It also gave me time to think about what I actually wanted to do after. I did not see dance as a prospect because it would have been hard to make a living in Singapore, plus I did not think that someone with a bigger body type like me could be successful in this industry. I continued to dance on the side while I was in the army and realised that was what I wanted to pursue.
What drew you to the South East of England to pursue your dance studies? Were there particular opportunities and experiences you hoped this part of the world would be able to offer (and upon reflection, has it?)
The appeal of the University of Surrey was their major-minor courses and the placement year between the degree. I knew I wanted to study Dance, but it would have been hard to convince my parents of it, so when I applied to do my degree, I only applied to Surrey because it was the only university I liked which had BA(Hons)Media Studies with Dance. I completed a diploma in New Media at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore, which gave me the qualifications to carry on to a media course. When I was at Surrey, I found myself enjoying the dance modules more and decided to switch onto a full BA(Hons) Dance course in my second year. England felt like the right choice because it has such a vibrant performing arts and creative industry. I just wanted to immerse myself in it. Having family living close by was also a bonus.
What inspired you to apply for an MFA in Dance and Embodied Practice after graduating from your undergraduate degree?
I wanted to explore my passion even further. In my MFA course, there is more freedom to play and the creative aspects are limitless. It felt like the right thing to do especially since this course only started in 2019 so it’s also quite experimental. It has aspects of practice and theory, which is similar to my undergrad course at Surrey. This course is helping me define myself as an artist, practitioner and teacher which I love. Its broad coverage of shaping my identity as a dancer appealed to me.
With your studies focused on embodied practice, what do you feel the benefits of taking a holistic approach to dance training are?
I personally feel that every dancer is unique. We are shaped by our experiences and the people around us. That’s why embodied practice is beautiful to me. It shows the identity of the dancer regardless of what style of dance they are doing. You just have to be open and honest and not be afraid to share who you are.
Do you think more can be done to encourage movement as an opportunity for personal exploration alongside being utilized for entertainment purposes?
Dancers are always viewed to be for entertainment purposes, there is no escape from that. Even if we consider personal exploration, it is going to be viewed by someone as entertainment when we perform. The difference, I think, is when you think about what you are actually seeing or feeling and not just what you are looking at. Personal exploration is like creating a mold rather than fitting into one.
What was your experience of an administrative position in the dance industry and do you see this type of work featuring in your future?
I did enjoy it when I had the chance to interact with people, in the office, on the phone or at the reception desk. I love working with people so it was nice to have that experience. It would be great to do it again because it gave me skills I have never had before and showed me a different side of the dance industry which I definitely appreciate more since then.
You have choreographic experience in many styles. Which have you enjoyed working with most and which frameworks do you find more challenging to be creative within?
I enjoy African contemporary, jazz, hip-hop and waacking. I love the freedom of movement paired with the technique. It gives me room the play around and explore. Styles like ballet and South East Asian dance that I did at Surrey had a very strict technique which I am not accustomed to. Coming from a mainly street dance background made it more challenging, but I did enjoy learning them and added aspects of those styles to my own movement vocabulary as well.
What is your opinion on incorporating social commentary into choreography – Do you believe it can encourage helpful conversations or risk undermining complex topics?
I feel that social commentary can be helpful in a creative process especially if it is an exploratory process. I would say it depends on the intention of the piece and the intention of the choreographer. I used social commentary in my choreography assessment in the second year of my undergrad course at Surrey. At the time I was speaking to a friend about the impacts that refugees face and decided that I wanted to share it with the audience through a collaboration of spoken word and movement in my piece. If the intent is good-natured to raise awareness, then it helps encourage the conversation. If the intentions are superficial or performative, then this will undermine the complex topics but stir conversation nonetheless.
Where did your interest in waacking stem from and were there any particular artists who inspired you?
I first learned waacking in 2010 from one of the pioneers of Singapore’s waacking scene, Melissa Lim aka Cat Lady. I saw how freeing it was and how beautiful and intricate the movements are, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. My dance teachers and friends have always inspired me. When they danced, I felt their passion and felt a connection to them that made me want to impact others in the same way.
Club dance styles used to be synonymous with the LGBTQ+ community. What are your thoughts around this and dance’s wider ability to offer a form of support?
I feel that this is more widely recognised now and dancers are being celebrated for their ability and not their ethnicity or sexuality which is a beautiful thing. Ever since club dances like waacking became commercialised, it has become more accepted and also embraced by dancers who do not identify within the LGBTQ+ community. Even though the world has become more accepting, some people are still stuck in their ways and I feel like there will always be at least some form of stereotyping for dances like these.
Parts of the industry still cling to out-of-date perceptions of what a dancer ‘should look like’. Have you felt the impact of this and how do you think we can combat these ideals rooted in a lack of body diversity?
Body diversity has always been a challenge in the dance industry; however, I see that it is changing, and people of different body types are also being represented and celebrated. This is one of the reasons I feel comfortable and encouraged to keep doing what I love to do despite my own body type. I just cut out all the negativity and embrace myself and my work. It also helps being surrounded by people who support and encourage me as a plus-size dancer. I found that it really changed the way people saw me and it gave me more confidence to perform and create.
Which of London’s performance venues and events do you try to attend to help inform your practice?
I love immersing myself in any show I get to experience. Since I love exploring movement and embodied practice, I haven’t found anything I wouldn’t want to watch: from plays, to musicals, dance performances or music concerts. There is always room to learn and inspiration to find especially in a city like London.
What advice would you give to a prospective dance student on how to become a well-rounder practitioner?
Do not be afraid to try something new. See every opportunity as a chance to learn or impact your craft. Sometimes you may feel ‘what’s the point, its not what I want to do’ or ‘I’m not really interested in this’, however there can always be aspects of it you could adopt into your own practice as a performer. If you are open to exploration, you’ll be able to find how each learning opportunity feeds into your practice and sometimes the smallest thing could greatly impact who you become as a dance practitioner.