Community projects evolve society’s understanding of culture and heritage as observed in Yee Sue Ki’s encounters with Arts-ED Penang.
By Deric Ee
After appearing in festivals far and wide and working with so many industry icons, Penang-born dancer Yee Sue Ki has an openness and clarity about her. Her bright demeanour belies her volatile year; the freelance artist tore a ligament during a wrap party overseas in June 2019, sending her back to Penang with a swollen knee and no work. By the time she adapted her skills for a stage play in her hometown, COVID-19 restrictions were locked in place.
Sue Ki is only 26, but she’s performed, choreographed, and collaborated with local and international organisations and communities. Last year, she smashed a crowdfunding campaign out of the park so she could fly to Mexico and perform at Cuerpo al Descubierto. This year, as an artist-facilitator for groundbreaking Penang-based organisation Arts-ED, she worked with other artists to help the vendors of Chowrasta Market improve their work environment.
Art gets the job done
Arts-ED’s most recent Community-engaged arts (CEA) programme in Chowrasta Market brought together artists and cultural workers interested in community engagement to help vendors at the market improve their surroundings. The idea was that artists with different skills would creatively find solutions for issues. For instance, an unsafe trash disposal system elicited a 3D model from the programme’s artist-facilitators, helping vendors visualise the problem and provide input.
Arts-ED’s ‘Community-Engaged Arts Training: Building Capacity, Fostering Community’ participants received training to apply artistic and creative approaches to Chowrasta Market’s issues.
Photo courtesy of Arts-ED
In the beginning, not many vendors attended the programme. Sue Ki, who often felt like she was bothering them, reflected on how she could connect better with these vendors. One of her ideas involved documenting vendor movements on film, then choreographing a dance, with the process video utilised as a performance backdrop. However, Sue Ki found that dance may not have been the best entry point for every vendor.
“I’ve discovered that there are many ways to communicate with people; different people relate to different artforms. What is natural to me will not necessarily make sense to others,” she explains.
“There are a lot more elements to consider when working with communities and spaces. But seeing ideas from other perspectives really helps us understand the existence of culture, and ‘microculture’, within communities.”
Sue Ki believes that Arts-ED helped her gain a deeper understanding of heritage and also led her to her present work. She came in contact with the organisation at the age of 12, when she participated in the ‘Heritage Heboh’ programme. ‘Heritage Heboh’ took her to George Town to walk through streets and observe sights and sounds, to notice details like architecture and design. That’s when she realised she was seeing George Town properly, for the very first time.
“It was so interesting to think of heritage as not being a thing like books,” she noted. “I can be looking at the living too; heritage exists in living people and the things they do. It’s also saddening to realise that one day, it will all be gone.”
“My work with Arts-ED led me to understand the need for baseline studies and cultural mapping when approaching community projects. These things can take time; cultural mapping is a continuous project.”
King and queens of dance
Sue Ki separates her community projects from her personal work. When you peel off the layers, she stands as an artist hoping to realise the connection between body and space. How does one become a part of their surrounding space? Trained in ballet and contemporary dance prior to her years at ASWARA, Sue Ki’s relatively new appreciation for traditional dance might hold value for her quest.
“I used to think dance suited a more explosive kind of energy,” Sue Ki confessed, “but these traditional dances, like zapin and joget gamelan, have a subtler, more controlled energy that is just as intense.”
Sue Ki mastered traditional dance at ASWARA, where she met two of her heroes. Dance educator Joseph Gonzalez was her dean during those years, while Marion D’Cruz was her lecturer. She credits Joseph with having an unmatched vision for the local dance community and Marion D’Cruz for always pushing students to “not do movement for movement’s sake”, to keep questioning things, and to read.
She also holds Aida Redza close to her heart. She describes the Penang dance icon, who she met at 14 through Arts-ED’s ‘Ronggeng Merdeka’ programme, as having a “selfless and incredible passion” for dance. She also claims that Aida’s way of creating and reflecting on dance has influenced her as an artist. A testament to Aida’s ability: Sue Ki’s mother decided at the age of 54 to join a dance class at Studio Pentas.
At present, Sue Ki is working on creative collaborations with other artists. After her injury, she pursued several personal projects to develop her craft, one of which obtained the Create Now Funding Programme grant from federal arts organisation, the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA). This resulted in ‘Soliloquy: A Dance Film’ in October, which juxtaposed movement and visuals by Sue Ki against piano from Brisbane-based musician Rachel Morais.
“There’s so much information in the bodies of people,” Sue Ki mused. “It’s like language; there are many different ways to understand the body. I just want to keep discovering new possibilities in moving my body.”
Cover photo by Joie Koo
Deric Ee is a Seremban-born writer, editor, and arts manager with a background in theatre and media. His love for the creative industry has brought him to Kuala Lumpur, Johor, and Penang to curate and manage cultural events and festivals.