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Viva Flamenco: A Dancer's Perspective On Art, Life And Meaning

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VIVA FLAMENCO: A DANCER'S PERSPECTIVE ON ART, LIFE AND MEANING

By Carolyn Oei, 22 July 2018


Cover photo of Tania Goh by Marc Nair.

“Uno, dos, tres…”; “este es un coche…”; “no hablo español”.

These are phrases that would be familiar to anyone who has studied a foreign language; in this case, Spanish. But, the learning of a language isn’t complete without some immersion in its culture. Knowing your one-two-threes alone doesn’t quite cut it. Any self-respecting language text book would contain examples of usage and forms of grammar illustrated through cultural references.

How else would you understand why your Spanish dance teacher shouts, “No puede porque no tienes cojones!” because you haven’t been braver with your improvisations? (Editor’s note: This translates to, “You can’t because you have no balls!” Equally applicable to men and women).

Tania Goh's earliest flamenco lessons were almost accidental. Photo: Marc Nair.

Tania Goh’s flamenco voyage started in university in Adelaide where Spanish was one of her subjects. Her earliest flamenco lessons were almost accidental but Goh’s decision to continue with her practice of the art form wasn’t.

Goh explains, “Back then (after graduating from university), I thought that we were supposed to do what everyone else did – get an office job!” Goh did indeed work dutifully for a government agency and flamenco remained merely a hobby.

Goh cut her arts management teeth in the arts business unit of the Singapore Tourism Board. She credits her time there for having laid the foundation for her eventual foray into entrepreneurship. After eight years in a corporate and societal environment that Goh found, and still finds, too stifling and “constructed”, she quit her job with only a plan to teach English and dance in Seville, the mother lode of flamenco.

“This was 2003, my turning point. I found myself at the Academia de Manuel Betanzos. A class was going full-on, I stood at the door and watched. And couldn’t pull my eyes away. I knew I’d found my school and teacher.

“It was my Spanish epiphany - I realised that my hobby was a profound art and I felt a great hunger and yearning to learn,” Goh recalls.

Tania Goh and her maestro, Manuel Betanzos, during master workshops in Singapore from 20 to 24 June 2018. Photo: Marc Nair

SALTSHAKER PRODUCTIONS

After a dreamy three months inhaling everything flamenco, Goh returned to Singapore to work on the musical, “Mamma Mia!”, which was, at the time in 2004, on its debut international tour.

“’Mamma Mia!’ was a milestone for me. I didn’t know it then, but on hindsight, this was a precursor to SaltShaker Productions. ‘Mamma Mia!’ was a time of practical on-the-job learning from some of the best arts producers and enjoying the independence of work.

“I had to learn quickly. Beyond the books and degree, this was about a daily on-the-go; direct, confrontational and stimulating. ‘Mamma Mia!’ showed me a different model of working, which I wasn’t exposed to before. Everyone worked on laptops at the breakfast table, at the theatre, in the car, on the plane, and meetings took place any and everywhere, (usually virtually) because team members were in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Perth, in Singapore.

“(More significantly), decisions were made swiftly and there was no bureaucracy.”

Goh’s time working on “Mamma Mia!” proved to her that she couldn’t return to the corporate world, even if prudence recommended it. After a brief partnership with a friend on an events company called, The Go-Getter, Goh established SaltShaker Productions in 2007. 

As many freelancers and entrepreneurs do, Goh did just about anything that would pay the bills; no project is too small or irrelevant in the early days of a fledgling business. But Goh’s personal affinity for dance shaped and moulded her portfolio into a specialist one.

Unfortunately, in the world we live in, specialist doctors can make tons of money while specialist artists are less likely to.

“I don’t think an artist need necessarily be a ‘starving artist’ though. Quite the opposite. It’s good to work towards being a ‘thriving artist’. I’m at a stage where I’m excited to explore some new ideas for revenue streams that can sustain new projects in the pipeline. It would also help to reduce reliance on competitive grants and being tied to KPIs (key performance indicators) which one may not identify with,” Goh says.

Tania Goh: “I don’t think an artist need necessarily be a ‘starving artist’ though. Quite the opposite. It’s good to work towards being a ‘thriving artist’". Photo: Marc Nair

THE SINGAPORE ARTS SCENE

In an interview in 2015, veteran theatre practitioner and former director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Ong Keng Sen, said, “I think the way our Government has created Singapore is they have really entrenched certain perspectives. I'll give you an example. I had a young person once say to me that she wouldn't take literature, because literature is subjective and so you cannot get 100 per cent, while if you study science or math, you will be able to score 100 per cent…I believe that this happened in society because the Government has already created such a structure that it’s become endemic. So now, even if you backpedal, it doesn't mean anything…Singapore is a country that is always ‘two steps forward, three steps back’. We're actually dancing on the spot.”

This might explain the general apathy when it comes to the practice of the arts in Singapore; it’s there if you want some entertainment, but there’s no need to take it too seriously because it isn’t what many people would consider a way of making a living.

Goh has this to say about that apathy, “…artists and arts workers also need to make a living even in the face of rising costs, housing affordability, health and work injury coverage. The people in institutional positions themselves aren't all realistic about such matters.

“One experiment (would be) to rotate people of institutions into the field, from public to private sector, venturing from profit to non-profit, within and outside Singapore - because it’s enriching to have diverse perspectives gained from real experience. It then empowers people to make changes.”

One can't advocate change when one has no awareness.

Goh continues, “I find it extremely ironic that our 'leaders' wave the banner of 'innovation', 'creativity', being 'bold and enterprising' without growing and stimulating the overall environment or permitting the freedom to think, debate, challenge the existing situation.”

Tania Goh would like to see more freedom to think, debate and challenge the status quo. Photo: Marc Nair

Goh makes references to several incidents in Singapore when artists and activists have been punished for expressing themselves either through art or non-violent protests and says, “On the one hand, Singapore wants us to be creative, unique et cetera, et cetera, but when individuals express themselves, they get a tight slap. It isn't consistent.”

If Goh could have things her way, she’d like for “some lightening up” by the authorities and for people, generally, to break out of moulds and corsets and rules to find their artistry, voice and personality.

For now, she continues to work on her craft while taking a step back from the tried and tested.

“I’m taking a good look at how things can be done differently, exploring different ways and environments. Seeing where art flows into life, and life flows into art and, perhaps, find a place where the two holistically become one - in ways that are personally meaningful to me.”

Manuel Betanzos, Tania Goh and her dancers performing at Espacio Propio (Flamenco Appreciation Night) on 24 June 2018 at the Esplanade - Theatres On The Bay. Photo: Marc Nair