“I am the Dancer from the Dance. I am the Dance that dances the Dancer.”

Photo: Cristian Piccini
Photo: Cristian Piccini

An interview with Mitch Leow

Recently on Third Culture, we had discussed the possiblity of a stigma still existing around male dancers. So Third Culture caught up with a Third Culture professional dancer, Mitch Leow, to share his thoughts on the subject.

Mitch is from Singapore, and attended Millennium Theatre College on the Stephen Mear Scholarship. He graduated with a Professional Diploma in Theatre Performance and was a recipient of the Millennium Contemporary Cup for excellence in dance and choreography.

Photo: Chris Mann

He has appeared in ‘Madam Butterfly’, ‘Turandot’, Disney’s ‘The Lion King’, Cameron Mackintosh’s ‘Miss Saigon’ and recently Disney’s “Aladdin” at the Prince Edward Theatre. He will be appearing at Bridge Theatre in Sally Cookson’s ‘The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe’ at the end of 2019.

When did you first become a dancer – was it your choice or your family’s choice?

I first started dancing at the age of 9. Just to give you a bit of background: I grew up in Singapore, and come from a Chinese heritage. Apart from being heavily focused on academic success, the education system I was privileged enough to experience in Singapore also emphasised a well-rounded exposure to the arts in our extracurricular activities. My parents initially put me in Chinese Drama/Elocution, Choir Practise and Performance – I think their intent was to get me to appreciate the heritage that I was from.

My younger sister started doing Chinese dance, and when I was 9 (and she was 7) she asked if I would accompany her. I was MORE THAN ENTHUSIASTIC. Dance classes were smaller in size groups than Drama. There was always a lot noise and hyperactivity in Drama that was contrasted with the discipline of the Dance classes I observed. Effectively, I think I convinced my parents to put me in class with my sister, based on her request.

What first drew you to it? and when did you start to pursue it passionately, with the goal of potentially it becoming your career?

Beauty. I can honestly say NOW, unabashedly, that when you watch dance you naturally see BEAUTY. So at that very young age watching a dance class, I saw something that got under my skin and made me feel, made me sensate, and lit my imagination. Apart from that, I guess what I mentioned about the structure and discipline of dance classes appealed to me.

I find it funny that you would ask “when” I started to pursue that passion. Personally, I don’t think we decide to do MORE or to do LESS – when you feel strongly about something your whole body, your whole BEING, cannot help but invest in what you are doing. I do recognise that thought of, “This is the only thing that makes me feel alive.” I think I sensed that when I was 13 or 14 years old. In the culture I was brought up in, you always strove for excellence in whatever you were doing – from a young age you were made aware of how precious certain opportunities were, and how few were given those opportunities. So it wasn’t surprising that I threw myself at dancing when I was given the chance. That said, there was also the contradiction in an SE Asian upbringing: we were taught (and conditioned) to NEVER choose a career path that would not be lucrative, that would not be stable, and would not make our parents HAPPY! So dance as a career NEVER crossed my mind.

Photo: Simon Latimer

My professional training and career only started once I was talent spotted and was given a scholarship, but we can come around to that in a bit. 

Were there many other male dancers when you started? did you encounter any unique challenges as a male dancer?

When I started training, in my class of 20 there were maybe only 3 boys. I say ‘maybe’ because I think one of the boys dropped out within that year. And progressing through the years, I got to levels where I met other male dancers, but usually in the same scenario – the one or two men in a class of 10 or 12.

WITHOUT ROLE MODELS WE DO NOT KNOW HOW TO GROW AND WHO TO EMULATE

I would sit in to watch advanced/professional classes and observe the 2 or 3 men in the class, and it was helpful in the development of my perception of myself as a dancer. Because WITHOUT ROLE MODELS WE DO NOT KNOW HOW TO GROW AND WHO TO EMULATE – I guess that was the most unique challenge for young men training to be dancers – there just were not that many role models. Most of my seniors were women so that was a different kind of association and relationship. The proportion of males and females in a company also drastically changes the kind of work that the choreographer can make. The stories that are told become very specific. Almost limited. Movement can say a lot about the internal landscape. But having less men in a company also changes the kind of stories and narrative about relationships that are in piece of choreography. 

What were the benefits that dance taught you – in terms of understanding your body/ movement/ music/ discipline – but also in terms of life, career, friends, goals.

I love the discipline that dance has taught me. Honestly, I believe that the mental resilience is the main factor that got me through Basic Military Training that all Singaporean male citizens had to go through. That is right – I AM A DANCER AND A SOLDIER AT THE SAME TIME! (Once a dancer always a dancer; once a soldier always a soldier.)

Dance is very specific. I think if a boy dedicates his life to professional training, he is effectively steering his life in a different trajectory. You put incredible demands on your body. You think about your physicality differently to anybody else – like an athlete. It’s enormously alienating. Dancers seldom have people in their lives who do not understand or support these demands. It is, for want of a better word, a lifestyle. I could go into detail and tell you how extreme it could get – from gym obsession, to diet consciousness, to body fat percentages, to number of hours of sleep versus training versus recovery time, to physiotherapy sessions… but I will probably sum it up by saying that instead of “vanity”, a lot of focus on the exterior becomes work and work-related. 

People talk about work-life-balance and assume that because performers are doing what they love, it must not feel like work most of the time. I agree to an extent. The driving force to achieve high standards of performance in dancing, singing and acting most definitely needs to come from a deep desire for the expressive arts, but trust me when I say that it definitely is hard work that spans more hours of the day than someone can imagine. Some dancers even talk about how you start the day – getting out of bed, folding and unfolding the body through stretches, eating right and eating enough to last through dance class, the gym and the performance in the evening. It is all encompassing. Here performers are loosely categorised as “self employed” for a vocation that takes up ALL of your time. 

Professional dancing is surely one of the most disciplined and demanding art forms. You have to maintain peak physical conditioning amongst fierce competition.What do you find the most challenging aspects of being a dancer?

I started my professional dance training at age 21. So this was after Military Service (National Service in Singapore), I did a foundation year in the National University of Singapore, during which I did a bit of backup dancing for singers – this was when I was talented spotted by West End and international choreographer Stephen Mear who offered me a scholarship under his name at a dance college. 

What I consider to be the most challenging aspects of being a professional dancer:

Repetition – if you don’t love repetition, doing things over and over again and finding new inspiration or strength or meaning in it, then you will find it extremely hard to be a dancer. Think about it, dancers do what athletes do: train to the highest level of performance and do what they do repeatedly, consistently.

Consistency – producing the quality of work at the highest level ALL THE TIME. I find that the most difficult. Some say technically you only get to be at the prime of your profession ten years into performing, and by that time your physical body will start to decline after a few years. There is a limit to the duration which you can push the body under high stress, strain and impact. Even if you desired to do it, your body will slowly let you know what is possible and what is not. Think about the fact that professional athletes choose to retire at the peak of their careers, eg. Michael Phelps after his 28th Olympic medal. Dancers are the same. Renowned principle dancers in well known companies will often perform their ‘swan song’ when they decide to hang up their dance slippers. These artists and athletes are lucky in that they have a choice in the matter and have people (such as a company) who help support their decisions.

Performance vs Exercise – dance performance is about executing movement as storytelling. Whether it is the body as spectacle, or a romantic pas de deux, the dancer makes of his/her body a tragic instrument to help the narrative of the story. It is an important distinction. Otherwise, it might as well just be something pedestrian. One of my mentors, Thea Narissa Barnes used to say, “Say something with it. Otherwise what does it become? Exercise!” That is one of the most basic challenges, but one that all dancers (and choreographers and movement directors ) face.

Is there a difference in the challenges – even if just physically, like relating to strength – that a male dancer faces compared to a female dancer?

I think I answered the previous question as gender-neutrally as possibly. 

And yes, with regards to this question there is a very old school, standard, run-of-the-mill answer: male dancers tend to have to be stronger in order to partner females, and females are often required to be a certain height, and weight and even look, etc. (I’m sorry if this reply comes across as flippant, but this is a very traditional answer and I would like to add that there is a new way of looking at dance, dancers, dancing bodies, and the representation of bodies on stage now.)

Photo: Cristian Piccini

New wave choreographers and directors are interested in dancers who challenge traditional gender stereotypes. Nowadays, you see female dancers who are tough and strong, instead of frail and delicate. You see male dancers who are fluid and lyrical. You see women who can Krump. You see men who can dance in heels. You see different types of dance partnering. I actually venture to raise the debate that differences in challenges are blurring between men and women in dance. Even beauty standards are starting to blur. For the better. Dance is more inclusive now than it has ever been. 

Knowing what you know now – would you do anything differently, what advice would you give your younger self.

Stop DOUBTING. Just keep doing what you are doing. AND ENJOY IT. Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate. Don’t think that you need to wait for the next victory. CELEBRATE NOW!

Being an international dancer – have you noticed any culturally difference for male dancers around the world.  Are they perceived/ treated differently – do you notice a difference in the audiences/ press in different countries?  Is there anything you would change regarding this – is it possible to change it?

My professional career started and continued in this country. I have only been involved in one play in Singapore whilst training. And I have not toured extensively. So my exposure to the differences are limited to Singapore and the UK. Am I perceived differently in SG than in the UK? DEFINITELY. Here in the UK, when I tell people I am a performer, an actor, a dancer or a choreographer, it is UNDERSTOOD. There is a scope of reference to my vocation. In Singapore, I’m a unicorn… I don’t exist. Someone who makes a living out of doing what I do. It is so rare. There are a handful of dancer/choreographers who manage to make a living in Singapore but the industry does not keep dancers afloat.

 

For more information on Mitch Leow, go to his website:

www.mitchleow.com

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