Letting Malta dance with the world | Mavin Khoo

Director of ZfinMalta Mavin Khoo speaks to us about the national dance company’s upcoming production – HOME – which seeks to address the themes of national identity in a way that eschews the usual clichés associated with the subject… particularly on our cultural scene

Caroline Mougenot and Keith Micallef in ZfinMalta's HOME
Caroline Mougenot and Keith Micallef in ZfinMalta's HOME

What has the progress of ZfinMalta been so far, and what would you say has underpinned its philosophy? How will the company be taking full advantage of recent national cultural initiatives, chief among them being Valletta 2018, of course?

The progress has been overwhelmingly rapid in relation to activities that fit our objectives. Particularly this year, as we are more clear of our artistic and administrative infrastructures, working and research methods and individual roles within the company.

I am particularly pleased at the development of our education and outreach initiatives – that is extremely important in ensuring that we ‘give back’ to the community.

The creation of international work has always been of importance to the company and we continue to develop and search. In the last year, we have also toured Israel, Palestine, Malaysia, India and Belgrade.

More international tours will soon be announced.  We have very quickly gained global visibility, which is great, but it also creates expectations for the group. I don’t take this for granted, as it’s uncommon for a company that has only been performing for over a year to have the support and the following of such significant international partners.

The philosophy of the company is one that we are developing. It’s underpinned predominantly by our approach to dance – the way we work and the kind of work we are interested in performing and commissioning. We are committed to a deep search that goes beyond codified steps and choreography. It’s a particular quality that is invested in striving for a depth that is emotional and pure; it can all sound abstract and intangible, I know, but in reality it transmits itself in the performance space and through the dancers. It’s one that is slowly becoming identifiable as a ‘ZfinMalta quality’.

I believe strongly, that the further we invest in this, the potential to create a sense of identity will evolve with depth and arguably, with more relevance to what we refer to as a Maltese identity.

What was the main spur behind HOME? What were some of the initial ideas behind it and how did you develop them as you went along?

HOME is being created at a very complex time in political history. The construction of identity is a product of so many factors that relate to migration, mobility, globalisation and diaspora. The creation of HOME comes at a point when I myself have a lot of questions about myself and my own diverse global existences. I also went through a renewed intense love affair with Spanish cinema (in particular Almodovar and Wild Tales directed by Damián Szifron). 

In an ever growing xenophobic environment that is further being challenged by territorial claims and cultural distinctions, I was interested in devising a work that looked at the idea of home as a metaphor to the identity construction of a single man’s life journey. The work follows him through the phases of birth, childhood, love, tragedy and death and he is accompanied by seven other manifestations of his previous existences and his inner voice recorder with British actor Felix Brunger.

The work has drawn a lot from cinema and is developed though a cinematic kaleidoscope. It aims to bring together our ‘serious’ life perspectives with the absurd and ridiculous... considering the construction of identity that we claim and own as nothing more than one determined by social rules and boundaries that define and segregate.

The work is a collaboration between myself, the dancers, our company production designer Moritz Zavan Stoeckle and Niels Plotard (formerly main company dancer and now Creative Resident Artist). 

ZfinMalta artistic director Mavin Khoo
ZfinMalta artistic director Mavin Khoo

National identity seems to be turning into a go-to subject for Maltese artists, and it’s almost becoming something of a tic. How do you hope to approach this topic without descending into kitsch or complacent truisms?

That’s a great question... as I said, it’s extremely important that we (ZfinMalta) consider the notion of identity with tremendous responsibility. First of all, to understand that identity in itself is complex by nature and as a result, should not be limited to simplistic and literal representational codes.

I was alarmed when I first took on my position as Artistic Director, when I was approached many times to work on projects that were aimed at creating a ‘national identity’. It was unsettling that this was limited to the sea, genres of music and language.

Yes, these are significant factors but for me, the inherent dynamic that sits within the soil of the nation is something more complex and intangible and can only be embodied through years of in depth research and development.

What are some of the main challenges of putting together such a show?  

There are many… the first is to ensure that everyone is working in the right direction. Humility is a must and by this I mean a real ability to keep searching – this often means that everyone has to be open to constant changes and shifts that may well continue till the work premieres and in many cases even after (as things change a lot when the energy of an audience becomes part of the process).

Then comes the pressure of cleaning material and coaching the dancers while constantly reconsidering the dramaturgy of the work. Is it readable? Is the clarity of logic in intention? All of this takes a tremendous amount of time. It seems that often people think that with dance we just rehearse steps. In actual fact, hours and hours go in every day on details such as intention and dynamics.

What’s next for you?

We are already working on a triple bill programme that will premiere in the summer. It’s a programme curated with three female choreographers and three female composers. We also have Big Dance, which is a massive outreach initiative that we are doing with the British Council here and the Dance Studies department at the University of Malta.

I am very excited about this project, which involves several schools learning a set work by Akram Khan (who I incidentally work with) whereby at the same time on the same date, participants from all over the world will be performing the choreography. It’s a great project that allows for Malta to ‘dance’ with the world.

HOME will be staged at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta on April 29 at 20:00 and April 30 at 14:00, 20:00; with an additional show at Astra Theatre, Gozo on May 7. Bookings: http://bit.ly/1o6x4pV