Dancing across the globe | Mavin Khoo

Sent to India to hone his skills at the tender age of 10, the Malaysian-born dancer Mavin Khoo has turned Malta into his base after a long stint in London, where he established an international reputation as a dancer with a multicultural, gender-bending edge.

Mavin Khoo: “I remember my first dancing lesson very clearly – I was five years old, it was Tuesday evening, 6pm”. Photo by John Grech.
Mavin Khoo: “I remember my first dancing lesson very clearly – I was five years old, it was Tuesday evening, 6pm”. Photo by John Grech.

Many of us dream of striking out on our own at a tender age - at 15 or 16, we're probably already fantasising about leaving the family abode to pursue our destiny, whatever that may be.

But sitting down with the diminutive - he really is quite tiny, enough to practically fade into the desk we sit at the University of Malta quadrangle - Malaysian-born (now Malta-based) dancer Mavin Khoo, I'm regaled to a bit of a culture shock.

"The thing is, I moved out quite early," he says, as he recounts his formative years as a dancer. I nod at this, expecting him to say that he was in fact 16 or 15 - 14 would be pushing it, surely - when he decided to say goodbye to his parents and leave Malaysia for India - there to begin his induction in classical East Indian dance which would later on garner him a decorated international reputation.

But, nonchalantly as you like, he says "I was ten."

I don't really want to imagine what my face looked like when he says that - foolishly perhaps, I cherish notions of having a calm and collected exterior while 'on the job' - but ten?! The very concept seems alien. It's the stuff Star Wars's Jedi Knights are made of.

"I always remember having a desire to move. I must have been a very precocious, physical child. I even remember my first dancing lesson: I was five years old, and it was Tuesday evening, at 6pm." The spookily accurate memory to this day assures Khoo of one thing: becoming a dancer wasn't even a decision he had to take.

"After that first class I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So the beginning didn't even feel like a beginning - it just felt right. I felt like I was home."

So perhaps leaving his parents at the tender age of ten wasn't such a huge leap, after all. "Kudos goes to them, actually. They recognised how important this was to me even though they weren't dancers themselves, but academics..." (his father, Khoo Kay Kim, is a renowned historian.)

Video preview of Khoo's upcoming production, Akasha

On his arrival to India, where he had the opportunity to study the venerable Bharata Natyam classical dance form under the tutelage of legendary dance maestro Padma Shri Adyar K.Lakshman, Khoo was - predictably enough - allowed to practice dance, largely detached from the outside world.

"It was a very 'bubbled' existence, yes... which also has its dangers, of course. So in one way I was made to grow up very quickly but in other ways, I just didn't grow up..." Khoo says, teasingly leaving out any details while also adding that he began to study ballet in parallel to his classical training around that time.

It was at the more conventionally-accepted age of 16 that his career began to take off "literally overnight".

Scoring a scholarship in New York - where he trained at Cunningham studios - Khoo also studied in London, and it would be in the UK that he would start establishing his reputation as a full-fledged, mature artist.

"Again it was really a matter of circumstances joining up in my favour -  I was at the right place at the right time. Because initially I assumed I'd be staying in London for something like three years to finish the degree I was doing. Well, I ended up living there for a total of 16 years..."

His long stay in the city's first metropolis led to many lucrative commissions - including work for the Royal Opera House, the National Youth Dance Company, the South Bank Centre and others. But it also, by the end, placed Khoo into something of a pigeonhole - as his culturally varied background often conveniently aligned with a political scenario that would be keen to pander to a 'multicultural' outlook.

"In London I got a chance to develop a very interesting 'global' career, since really, my artistic roots lie somewhere between India and the UK. And the political scenario was also quite interesting when I first started putting up productions there, since the Labour government had just come to power, so the nature of funding had shifted somewhat.

"What was particularly is how my first commission with the Royal Opera House premiered just 10 days after 9/11... so there I was, this 'kind of Asian', developing a niche as a British-based Asian dance maker. In a way I was lucky that my aesthetic was in line with the political fashion at the time. As an artist, you need to make the most of every opportunity!"

But after 10 years of doing work that more or less exclusively dealt with cultural - and even gender - hybridity, Khoo felt that it was time to move on.

And though Malta - his current base - is only just coming around to the idea of organised government funding for cultural products, Khoo's experience would teach us to be wary of what a double-edged sword it can in fact be.

"The pros and cons of funding are that while you do get the initial support, it also becomes a matter of hitting certain criteria... and after a while I didn't feel that every single one of my productions had to fill a certain audience capacity, and that it had to address this multicultural, bilingual context."

This push-pull relationship with his mixed background is also evident on his views on cultural identity in general... and perhaps another hint as to why he would choose a historically diverse country like Malta as his current base of operations.

"The thing is, the 'bilingual' aspect is so deeply inscribed on our bodies already. And the thing is, you can't acknowledge India, for example, without also acknowledging the colonial side of it - like it or not, we see it through that lens. Same goes for Britain itself: can you truly say there is something purely 'British', now that it's become such a melting pot of cultures?

"But these things are already subliminally inscribed into all of us, they don't need to be 'wardrobed'..."

Coming into contact with Malta after he was invited to perform here for the Malta Arts Festival - which he has revisited ever since - Khoo settled on the island because he was "slowly settling into a kind of safe zone. This will always happen when things are highly structured. I wanted the freedom of risk - to be able to create productions that could 'fail' without it having a severe financial backlash. And after 13 years of experience I felt that it would be natural for me to start teaching..."

To this end, he'll be joining the staff of the newly-established Master's course in Dance Studies at the University of Malta.

And come October, he'll be premiering a new, homegrown production at the Manoel Theatre - Akasha - together with Maltese percussionist Renzo Spiteri which, following its Malta run will also tour to Singapore.

"I always said this - there is enormous raw talent in Malta, and I've met some really great dancers here. What is lacking is good choreography - choreography that is intellectual, not just entertaining. I make it a point to use exclusively Maltese performers for my productions - same as I did last year with the Arts Festival production of Swan Lake..."

And how has he negotiated what must have been a dramatic change of scene from London to Malta?

"Well, it's been a great learning experience," he says with a wry smile. "Malta is definitely more relaxed, though London is then another extreme... but you obviously have to take these cultural differences into consideration and apply a different mindset if need be.

"Actually, it's been a great exercise in diplomacy," he says... diplomatically as you like.