Zfin Malta’s ‘Tlieta’ confronts audiences with notions of gender and identity

Teodor Reljic speaks to Mavin Khoo, the Artistic Director of Malta’s national dance company Zfin Malta, ahead of their upcoming performance Tlieta (3) which forms part of the Malta International Arts Festival and aims to highlight the work of female choreographers, with work by Francesca Tranter, Rachel Calleja and Athanasia Kanellopoulou

Zfin Malta dancer Florinda Camilleri
Zfin Malta dancer Florinda Camilleri

Tlieta (3) takes the work of female choreographers as its main impetus. Why do you think this is relevant to the contemporary dance scene, particularly in Malta? 

Well, actually the discourse on the imbalanced proportion of choreographic work developed by women is one that has been very current in the global creative sector. Of course, one doesn’t want to latch onto a discourse that is just ‘fashionable’ but I feel quite strongly about ensuring a balanced proportion for the dancers of the company to create work with both men and women not necessarily because it will provide different artistic results, but because it’s important for them to be part of a creative process and organisational structure that values gender equality. The three main choreographers of the company – which are myself, Ivan Perez (associate choreographer) and Jose Agudo (associate artist) – are male, so it seems right that we have a programme that is equally framed by female choreographers. 

The programme is also diverse in that in really engages with three different choreographers at different stages of their practice. Rachel Calleja is a very young dance maker and indeed, it’s her first work on professional dancers. It’s impossible for me to curate an evening of female choreographers in Malta without inviting Francesca Tranter to create a work. She has been at the forefront of the development of contemporary dance in Malta and has already developed a strong choreographic voice on the island. For the ensemble work, I wanted to ask someone who really knew the dancers well. Athanasia has been strongly involved as one of four rehearsal directors. She is of international repute both as a dancer and choreographer and seemed the ideal person to invite to create a work for the company. 

Would you say there is a significant difference in tone, theme and content when it comes to the work of female choreographers in contrast to that of their male counterparts? What do you think is the best way to approach this distinction? 

This is a complex question. There are many who would suggest that there may be a difference in attitude and approach, and I guess some would try to pin it down to gender attributes. Personally for me as a dancer, difference in approach was never based on gender. As a very young dancer, I went from working with Wayne McGregor to Shobana Jeyasingh – both highly intellectual dance makers. Different ways of working, but the difference was not because one was male and the other female... it had to do with their very personal perspectives and research interests as creators. To suggest that women provide a different tone is merely reinforcing a stereotype. As I said earlier, for me its as simple as ensuring a creative environment that is balanced and equal.

How will Tlieta (3) express the tensions inherent in what we’ve just discussed, and how do you hope to convey these relevant themes and motifs to the audience? 

I’m curious about the use of the word ‘tension’... to me, the ‘tension’ doesn’t come from the gender of the choreographers, it comes from what they have to say (regardless of their gender) about notions of identity. That’s where the discourse really exists. For example, it is fair to say that the work of Athanasia, which is truly political in stance and sensibility, is going to ask the audience to really think about so many issues that are politically inherent at our present time. The work emerges from a Greek artist who literally spent time in refugee camps with immigrants. The honesty of the work is confronting and overwhelming, and will lead to questions. And that’s what art is supposed to be about, after all.

Zfin Malta artistic director Mavin Khoo
Zfin Malta artistic director Mavin Khoo

How does it feel to be performing as part of the Malta International Arts Festival? Why do you think it’s important to form part of its programme, and what do you think it contributes to the Maltese art and performance scene as a whole? 

Well, personally I have had a long relationship with the festival as an artist since 2011. First being commissioned to make a work, to dance and to be part of a panel of advisors. So it’s always good to sustain a creative relationship with a partner in various capacities. The MIAF ensures a particular benchmark of quality that is important for any festival that brands itself as international, and with that enables the public to be in touch with what’s creatively current on a larger scale. 

In terms of being part of the programme, ZfinMalta is the national company and at the same time is incredibly international in terms of the culturally diverse team that makes up the organisation. Of course, my remit has always been focused on the creating a world-class company and with that comes the responsibility to always ensure that ‘quality’ is at the forefront. 

We also tour (in a year we have performed in six countries that ranged from the Mediterranean, Asia, Europe) so in relation to our international profile, it seems organic that we are part of the international arts festival on the island.

What do you make of the local dance scene in Malta? What would you change about it? 

The local dance scene is developing very fast with some very exciting and innovative thinkers and makers. I do think that it’s very important that we start ensuring that the new generation is more involved and visible. If we are to consider notions of legacy and sustainability through innovation and creativity, then its essential that the focus be shifted to a generation that is already active in trying new ideas and taking risks. 

What’s next on the agenda for Zfin Malta after Tlieta (3) wraps up? 

We immediately go on to a very exciting Research and Development phase with some sound and visual artists fro Berlin and the UK. We then have quite a number of performances of an abridged version (40 minutes) of Home in the autumn in Malta. At the same time, I am creating a new full-length work to be premiered in January and we have begun work on the re-staging of Exhausting Space by Ivan Perez. We also have two major outreach Valletta 2018 programmes: Jump (a youth dance company for non dancers) and Dance4All.

Tlieta (3) will be staged at Pjazza Teatru Rjal, Valletta on 12 July at 21:00. Bookings: https://booking.teatrumanoel.com.mt