A conversation with Singapore International Foundation (SIF) Arts for Good Fellows Yoana Kristiawati (Nalitari) and Kavitha Krishnan (Maya Dance Theatre & Diverse Abilities Dance Collective)
By Wong Yunjie
The Arts for Good Fellowship (A4G), organised by the Singapore International Foundation, is an annual programme dedicated to growing the Arts for Good ecosystem by fostering a community of practice that harnesses the power of arts and culture to create positive social change. The A4G Fellowship brings together artists, arts administrators, creatives, and programmers from the social sector from around the world to take part in an exchange of ideas and best practices across a five month period.
The 2021 edition of the Fellowship was offered digitally, with 32 Fellows from 12 countries joining the SIF team and speakers from Singapore in late September. They spent one week learning together, sharing their skills and experiences through a series of virtual presentations, workshops, panel discussions and working groups. Since then, Fellows reconnect through monthly webinars to build their capacity in arts innovation, such as in cultural mapping and creative facilitation models. In February 2022, the Fellows will reconvene for the second phase of the Fellowship, this time hosted by SIF’s partners in India. The India Programme will also see the implementation of four digital community projects that the Fellows have collaborated on over the past months for vulnerable children in various Indian cities. This fourth iteration of the Fellowship focused on the theme of Arts and Well-being for Children and Youth in a Digital Future, exploring the intersections between the arts and technology in enhancing access and achieving social impact, and how the arts contribute to the mental, social and emotional wellness of young people in a digital age.
“I imagine it like we are in a desert. And then there’s a big umbrella where you can rest. The desert is the comfort zone that we had before COVID-19. But because of COVID-19, it is now very hot so we have to be under the umbrella. Under the umbrella, you can meet many other people. For example, I can be in Indonesia and connect with you in Singapore; or with others in the USA and other parts of the world. But then it becomes too tight under the umbrella. We cannot really communicate deeply because we are squeezed together too tightly, like ‘UUHH!’ There’s a longing to leave the shelter of the umbrella and go back into the desert.”– Yoana Kristiawati
This year, Yoana Kristiawati and other overseas fellows were unable to travel to Singapore for the SIF Arts for Good Fellowship. As daily COVID-19 case numbers continued to rise at the time of the interview, travel remained complicated if not impossible. Faced with the impossibility of face-to-face interactions — SIF, Yoana, Kavitha and myself have, along with much of the rest of the world, turned to internet-based digital communication platforms such as Zoom to connect.
Zoom and other digital communication media emerged as necessary technology during the pandemic. These platforms could be seen as a much needed tools — for Yoana, an ‘umbrella’ — we use to connect with people when thrust into the desert of lockdown isolation. Yet, for many, using these digital media as alternatives to face-to-face interactions constitutes an uneasy compromise. For some, digital media even causes unease and distress.
My virtual conversation with Yoana and Kavitha took place after the end of the first phase of the Arts for Good Fellowship. I chose to interview Kavitha and Yoana because I was intrigued by their respective practices; both work with the disabled community through dance. Kavitha Krishnan is the artistic director of Singapore’s Maya Dance Theatre (MDT), a company which comprises a disabled dance practice arm named the Diverse Abilities Dance Collective (DADC). Yoana Kristiawati, based in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, helms an inclusive dance company called Nalitari. I was interested to learn of the challenges that Kavitha and Yoana — as well as the disabled communities with whom they work — faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in relation to their use of digital platforms like Zoom, given that their practices rely on embodiment and live interactions. What emerged from our conversation was a narrative of breakthroughs in use of digital media borne of their communities’ passion and commitment to connect through dance.
In the Desert: “Don’t forget me”
Irvantoro (left) and Salmaa (right) performing in Nalitari’s production, Kaksa, in October, 2019
(Photo courtesy of Banyubara Productions)
“I am very confident that I will continue to learn from this Fellowship and make new connections that will benefit DADC/MDT,” says Kavitha. “Beyond all the possibilities of the different projects and exchanges, as well as the opportunity to understand different perspectives on ‘arts for good’, I am simply glad to be sharing the space with like-minded people.”
Despite her glowing review of the Arts for Good Fellowship, Kavitha shared honestly about her initial reservations regarding the programme being held virtually:
“I thought connecting with different people via an online medium would be challenging and maybe even ‘cold’! But the exchange actually felt warm. We did not feel the distance and were not disturbed by the ‘fourth wall’, as it were. Everyone was generous, warm and friendly, and I was so amazed to just feel how well all of us got on with each other, despite the virtual medium!”
As the artistic director of a dance company, Kavitha was staring at the prospect of losing vital income streams when a COVID-19 lockdown was mandated in April 2020. Theatres and physical classes were ordered to stop. Kavitha and Maya Dance Theatre were forced to reassess how they could keep their various community engagements alive. Help was offered by the Singapore government in the form of the Digital Presentation Grant. “I’m not very tech savvy” said Kavitha. ” I got things done because I have younger members in my team who assisted me.”
Kavitha also employs six disabled members of her DADC team as part-time staff at MDT. She encountered first-hand the challenges her disabled employees faced when they were asked to “work from home” using Zoom.
“They couldn’t comprehend why they cannot come to the studio […] We used to ask them to come to the studio and there would be a main trainer who would set up the space for their teaching work using Zoom. They would do their activities and work together, with social distancing. But we had to reduce that for their own safety, considering the risks of commuting.”
“One thing that inspired me during the Fellowship was learning about Kavitha’s work with elderly communities,” shared Yoana. “It’s a group that I have never worked with before […] I have already shared her work with my friends in Nalitari and they are really excited to start involving elderly in our work, and explore working with other less familiar communities in our society as well.”
Nalitari, the inclusive dance company that Yoana helps to manage, started as a community-based, volunteer-run organization. Its sustainability depended in part on its management team earning an income from other jobs. Yoana herself was working in the education and tourism industries when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Indonesia in March 2020, and the government imposed strict movement orders akin to a lockdown. Yoana lost her job. The work of Nalitari and its plans to transition into a social enterprise were thrown into question. Nalitari did not receive any financial assistance from the Indonesian government.
“In 2019 we realised that we have to develop from being community-based into something related to a social enterprise, because we wanted to be able to compensate our dancers. So we created a business model, developed marketing, gathered all the tools, and decided on the organisational structure […] When the pandemic hit, we didn’t know what to do. I lost my job, and two other management team members also lost their jobs, so it was quite hard to navigate. We actually didn’t do anything from March to June. We didn’t have any practice. We just let everyone try to navigate the situation themselves first.”
But a small cry for help was heard.
“In my organisation we have around 30 dancers, it is community-based so we don’t give them any payment unless there’s a performance, and they don’t pay any membership fee. 60% of our dancers are people with various disabilities: Down’s syndrome, hearing-impaired, wheelchair-users, cerebral palsy […] One of the parents of a dancer with Down’s syndrome texted us, saying ‘Please do something, anything is OK. It doesn’t have to be a big performance, just please connect with my daughter.’”
Kavitha too identified similar requests for connection among her DADC dancers in a way that challenged her.
“Because the DADC dancers didn’t get enough interaction, they started to text through WhatsApp a lot: ‘Hey, I’m here, you know?’ ’Don’t forget I’m here.’ Small, small things like: ‘I’m going to the toilet now.’ ‘I’m going to go out to buy something now.’ ‘Oh I’m not feeling well.’ It did bring a lot of frustration because we were working, and people were constantly texting us. But we also took a step back and asked ourselves: why is this happening? We realised that it was happening because they needed to establish a physical presence in absence. They wanted to be present in our space and this was their way to say: ‘I’m still around. Don’t forget me.’”
In a time of upheaval, Kavitha and Yoana were responsible for heeding this call constructively.
Hands Reaching Out
“We tried to have a Zoom call, but it didn’t work because not everyone had the gadgets; not everyone knew how to connect. Even when we tried to give step-by-step guidance, the parents said they were unable to make it work.
So we shifted our approach. We gave them a concept and asked them to make a video. The first concept was “Hand”: explore something with your hand, make a 3-minute video then send it to us and we will compile it. We started with only one video, but in the end we created five because after one day, someone would ask for another concept. They were very happy to make videos for us. People with disabilities in Indonesia are quite marginalised. The government does not give any attention to them. So a simple act like that is big enough for them.
Soon afterwards we connected with Dancesequences Inc. in the United States. We created a new concept together, wherein we each asked our respective dancers to create videos and then combined them together.
After that we realised that we could indeed make works online! Our work didn’t have to be live, nor involve everyone getting physically together. We created more and more videos […] When the dancers saw their videos uploaded, they were so happy. The simple act of uploading the videos made them feel like: ‘oh! I’m performing already!’”
“Maya has two divisions: one is a main division of professional dancers and the other is the second division, which has dancers with diverse abilities. So I connected with my main division dancers first, and we began conducting online classes for them. Then suddenly, we realised: ‘eh, my goodness! We have to connect with the diverse abilities group because they are texting us.’ So we started a ‘Friday Social Gathering Time’. Every Friday we would meet on Zoom for a social gathering. The first time they gathered together, the energy was just so exuberant.
Then at one of those Friday gatherings, one of our diverse abilities group members, Judith Teo, played a game and said, ‘OK, today I want to tell you the story of Sang Nila Utama.’ I think she must have read it from somewhere. She then nominated each person to be a character, and she became the storyteller […] It was so cute how she went to read about it, brought it to the gathering and then gave characters to each person and said, ‘OK now you know Subas, you are going to be Sang Nila. Arassi you are so and so. I am so and so.’ So everybody had to move as she told the story. She would shout out for the character to do the movement as well. We later decided to take this particular activity and turn it into a production. We brought in a young storyteller, Jeremy Leong, and a few children performers, and made it a dance storytelling production. It’s opening in December this year!
Yes, it was just a purely social gathering that gave life to a production with the support of the National Arts Council’s Digital Presentation Grant.”
Rehearsal for Sang Nila has Arrived! (Photo courtesy of Maya Dance Theatre)
Aware of Kavitha’s unease with Zoom, I invited her to expand on her relationship with technology by asking her if she felt like she was being coerced by the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic into presenting and devising works using digital media.
Sending Virtual Flowers
“Honestly speaking, I don’t like the digital space. I’m a people-space person. You can say I was resisting; I just didn’t want to go there. But the company’s producer and director Imran Manaf gave us space to explore and discover this new tool, Zoom. When he presented it as a playground then I felt okay because I felt I was allowed to make mistakes. He said ‘just go into Zoom, play, see what you guys get out of it.’ So when it became play, Zoom became easier. I love learning new things, but I have an apprehension about the technical part.
We had to figure out how to maintain engagement with the different communities. So we created a programme called Creative Movement, for seniors by seniors, with dancers with disability. This idea came about because in one of our Zoom social gatherings we asked the DADC dancers: Okay, so we have connected, but who do you think is feeling left out? One of them who works as a housekeeper in a nursing home said, ‘Oh, the grandma and grandpa in my nursing home are very sad. I’m sad I cannot visit and say hello to them.’ she said. So we created a set of movements using themes of nature, and daily living like brushing, washing hair and so on, and made it into six different videos. These videos were translated into Mandarin, then circulated to different nursing homes and disability homes. The staff who were so overwhelmed could have a few moments of respite while the videos were being played and the seniors watched and moved with the video. We also wanted to give the seniors the sense that someone was visiting them through a virtual space because, at the time, no visitors were allowed. I’d say I wasn’t forced into the digital space, because I think all of the areas that we explored were still coming from a creative space. So I didn’t see the need to be pulled into it because I voluntarily walked in.”
Having been away from the practice of theatre for years now, it is easy for me to lose sight of how simple yet powerful connecting through acts of reciprocity can be. An unforgettable moment occurred for me when Kavitha stretched out her hands and demonstrated the flower gesture — a classical Indian gesture or Mudra — that the DADC members were initially taught in the making of the Creative Movement video:
Kavitha’s flower during our Zoom interview (photo courtesy of Wong Yunjie)
When I saw Kavitha’s mudra I was inexplicably moved. The Zoom window, broadly focused on Kavitha’s body from the chest up, was perfectly placed to accentuate the mudra – Kavitha was able to use the camera to light up the screen with it.
I was brought back to my Wayang Wong training in the Intercultural Theatre Institute, when I first learnt this mudra from my late teacher, Bambang Besur. I felt a strong urge to mimic Kavitha’s gesture. So I took Kavitha’s action as an offer, repeated the gesture while she repeated it with me. Seeing the flower that we both made on the Zoom mosaic, my heart was lit up. There was the sparkle of a flower blooming in that shared moment.
Conclusion: Art-making as Gestures of Generosity
“Last week, we opened our first on-site, live performance since 2019. Two seniors were performing: one 74, the other 81. The COVID-19 numbers were spiking, and then there was this announcement: all the older ones please stay at home […] We were thinking: ‘What do we do?’ The seniors came to us and said: ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for me. Don’t you dare stop it,’ They were dead against me cancelling the show because, ‘at 74 and at 81 I worked eight months to get myself onto the stage to be seen. Please just let one person clap for me.’”Kavitha Krishnan
There is certainly nothing like being seen by an audience on stage, nothing like the rain of applause at the end of a performance. Digital media simply does not allow the replication of such experiences. Those that know that passion for performing live rightfully stand up and fight for it to be preserved when it is being challenged. But at a time when physical interactions are impossible, we can discriminately settle on using digital media, embracing the possibility that it offers.
Through this conversation with Yoana and Kavitha, I came to see that these two artists demonstrated a common quality in the face of government-mandated lockdowns that challenged their work and organisations. They each found within themselves the resources to return to a place of generosity: the impulse to share a part of themselves in order to help people feel connected, accepted, and loved through dance, regardless of differences. Now that they have found amicable ways of incorporating digital technology into their work, I think they would both agree with me that their passion for working with dance and disabled communities will persist, regardless of the technology they employ.
“When COVID-19 ends — hopefully soon, fingers crossed — I will still return to this umbrella, this Zoom platform, to meet the people that I have met, and to meet other people. But for deeper connection I will use the offline platforms […] The good thing about digital space is that we can connect without borders. But for depth: I don’t think we can replace the in-person.”Yoana Kristiawati
 Direct quotes have been edited for clarity.
 Later, Kavitha was to learn that Judith learnt about Sang Nila Utama’s place in Singapore’s history by visiting Singapore’s Bicentennial Experience presentation a few years ago.
Judith’s initiative has since been made into a digitally-recorded stage production titled “Sang Nila Utama has Arrived”. It will be streamed for ticket holders on Sistic from 6-19 December 2021.