‘With global visibility, the pressure is on’ | Mavin Khoo

We catch up with Mavin Khoo, the artistic director of Malta’s first dance company ZfinMalta, ahead of the company’s Dance Ensemble presenting a show at the next edition of the Malta Arts Festival. Khoo opens up about the challenges of adapting Mallarme and Debussy’s Je Tiens la Reine, as well as the growing pains and upcoming challenges for the new company

ZfinMalta artistic director Mavin Khoo: “Emotional and physical challenges I place on the dancers are extreme and intense”
ZfinMalta artistic director Mavin Khoo: “Emotional and physical challenges I place on the dancers are extreme and intense”

Now that ZfinMalta has been set up, what would you say were some of the main challenges of this process, and which challenges still remain in the immediate future?

Well there are many challenges involved… the most significant is negotiating how to develop a world class ensemble (and what I mean here is determined not just by a romantic illusion but within the reality of a working international industry) with what is essentially a completely new template for Malta on many levels (governmental systems, the needs of full time working professionals, the needs of a company on tour and challenges that occur with this).

We have to find a way to make our ‘manner of working’ administratively relevant and accessible to our international partners. And then of course we have our artistic challenges, which are to make us one of the best in the world. This is no short order, and emotional and physical challenges I place on the dancers are extreme and intense.

Would you say there is a ‘dance culture’ in Malta? How sustainable would it be to carry on cultivating a dance scene here in Malta? Is constant touring the only long-term plan available for dancers if they are to continue with their career?

There is definitely a dance culture that is developing fast in Malta. More importantly, there is a culture that is developing and that is contemporary and relevant… that is, looking to explore, research and experiment. When you have these qualities inherently embodied within any culture then, really, there should be no question of sustainability: it evolves.

With this also comes more opportunities for dance practitioners to work beyond just the realms of performance and touring. To dance in a professional company is not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ‘work’ in dance – there is project work, choreography, education and outreach, and several other branches within the field.

What have been some of the most significant highlights of the ZfinMalta experience so far?

Well, are in a new chapter now. The first six months were about training, developing work and solidifying dynamics within the ensemble. We launched, but with that has come a clear benchmark of excellence that we wish to expand on, and take forward. We already have huge global visibility from what I would consider main players in the international sector. This means high expectations in terms of quality and relevance. It’s essential that we don’t look dated – the pressure is on!

Could you tell us a little bit about ‘Je Tiens la Reine’? Why did you pick Mallarmé’s 1876 L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Debussy’s 1894 Prèlude a L’Après-midi d’un Faune in particular? Is there something specific in the source material that you wanted to express? Why did you think it was ideal for ZfinMalta at this point in time?

It’s very important for any mainstream company to have within its bank of repertoire what we refer to as full-length works (as opposed to several shorter pieces). Artistically this provides a challenge choreographically to sustain a work and for the dancers of course, there is tremendous physical and emotional demands. It’s also important to recognize that full-length works are more in demand from festivals, producers, promoters to buy or commission. ‘Je Tiens la Reine’ really is about destiny.

We were fascinated by Mallarme’s work, the ability to create a surrealist image with some pretty strong images of realism. We all love Debussy’s music and as dancers we have grown up with the legend Nijinsky dancing the Faun and have seen subsequent re-staging from choreographers like Sidi Larbi. We have chosen not to use Debussy’s music and really focus on creating an alternative narrative plot that mirrors the poem but that potentially has several twists in it.

What was the collaborative process between dramaturge Giuliana Fenech and percussionist Renzo Spiteri like?

I have worked with both before. It was crucial to have Giuliana within this process. A dramaturge is absolutely the anchor that ensures that work is readable and Giuliana is great at this. She also has a wonderful relationship with the dancers and is often more articulate than me in giving them a narrative spring board to build on for the work. Renzo too, has been a wonderful collaborator over several works now.

This particular process was slightly different for all of us because Giuliana and Renzo started work on the score and I came into the picture a bit later. So then it has been a matter of negotiation and ensuring that all three elements are able to organically support each for the purpose and the nature of how the work is developing. Collaboration can be beautiful and challenging.

What’s next for you?

Next we go on tour to Asia taking ‘Je Tiens la Reine’ to Malaysia and India as part of the CHOGM External Cultural programme. We then have a few European gigs and then we start work on our next work which is very exciting and that I will announce very shortly.