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Yvonne Ng

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Born in Singapore, of Peranakan Chinese descent, Yvonne Ng came to Canada to get a “sensible” degree in the hospitality industry. But, following her heart, she left university (on the Dean's list) with an honours degree in dance. After a decade of dancing for some of Canada's best choreographers, Ng has created several commissioned choreographic works and has created choreographies for her company, tiger princess dance projects. Yvonne's current focus is on working with the symbolic meaning of movement more than inventing a choreographic vocabulary. Writers describe her work as ravishing, paradoxical, immediate and hard-edged, like painful memory.

Yvonne Ng spoke with Carol Anderson at The Rustic Owl, Toronto, June 4, 2012.

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Ng began her training with Madam Goh Soo Khim at the Singapore Ballet Academy. Even before completing her BFA at York University, she had co-founded the dance company Dance Allegro and was in demand in the Toronto contemporary dance community. After a year in the Danny Grossman Dance Company, she left to work with choreographers including Bill James, José Navas, Marie-Josée Chartier and Peter Chin. Her commissioned choreography and performance have earned her eight Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations and taken her to Australia, Singapore, across Canada and the USA.

Marking the start of her transition from performer to choreographer, Ng travelled to Beijing to train and research Chinese traditional and minority dance forms, and to study Arabic singing at the Beijing Dance Academy and Central University for Nationalities in 1996.

Ng is the 2007 recipient of the prestigious Ontario Premier's Emerging Artist Award, the 1996 and 2003 Chalmers Performing Arts Training Award, the 2003 Chalmers Arts Fellowship and New Pioneers Arts Award, and the 2002 K.M. Hunter Dance Award. Yvonne Ng's intensity, grace and mesmerizing presence have made her an unstoppable force on the Canadian and international dance scene.

Ng is an active member of the dance community and has served on the board of directors of the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists and Dance Umbrella of Ontario. Ng has worked as the artistic director of Series 8:08 and is curator and presenter of dance: made in canada/fait au canada, both of which focus on career development opportunities for members of the dance community. She has made commissioned works for two Canadian universities and a work on the Toronto Dance Theatre. Yvonne has performed in Dublin, Ireland, and across Canada in Peterborough, Guelph, St. John's, North Bay, Sudbury and Goose Bay.

Founded in 1995, her company, princess productions, supports the work of two divisions: tiger princess dance projects for Yvonne Ng's activities as a performer, choreographer, arts educator and producer; and dance: made in canada/fait au Canada, started in 2001, a presenting division that produces a biennial festival of contemporary Canadian dance works.

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Carol Anderson: What is the story of your coming to Canada? Can you describe how and when you decided to come to here?

Yvonne Ng: First of all, I think of myself as belonging to “generation zero”, because I am the first and only member of my family to come to Canada. The Historica-Dominion Institute has a speakers' program where they have invited immigrants from all walks of life. I'm part of their roster – teachers, ESL teachers and others bring groups to the Institute. I'm feeling practiced in telling my story, since I did a talk for Asian Heritage Month in May.

My desire to emigrate came from my desire, while still in high school, to continue to dance. I wanted to carry on at the professional level, but I didn't grow physically. My first dance studies were in RAD technique, at the Ballet Academy in Singapore. The Goh family, of Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver, also started out in Singapore. Because of my training, I understood that when I didn't grow taller I couldn't be a ballerina (and I can look back now and think, “Thank god!”); I thought, “Well, I'll be a dance teacher.” It was that whole notion … I can't be a dancer, I'll just teach – which I now realize is so false. But at that time I was desperate; I was trying to find something in the same field. My parents wouldn't let me continue in dance – particularly my father. Ironically, my father worked in the broadcasting world; he was a sound engineer in Singapore, so I think he had an idea of what my potential life could possibly be. There was not a lot of arts activity there – Singapore at that time was focussed on finding independence and building the country – the whole country was concentrated on developing the economy. Singapore also follows the Confucian way of thinking – it's about working hard and getting paid off later. Typical Asian parents never want their children to be artists.

Near the end of high school, my father asked me what I wanted to do. When I proposed becoming a dance teacher (by then I realized I wasn't getting taller), he responded that dance was hobby not a career. I admit that I'm pretty resourceful, so I didn't take “no” for an answer. I decided to figure something out. This was before the advent of the Internet. Singapore has most of the international embassies, and I made the rounds. I went to the British, and the American, and then the Canadian Embassies. I went to the British one first and looked up all the institutions that would provide teacher training and also provide me a degree – because Asian parents love degrees … like a little badge.

I did my homework and made my proposal to my father. I actually applied to a number of schools in England. I received acceptance for auditions, but of course I didn't have the money to travel to England to audition. Anyway, I made that proposal to my dad and he kept saying, “No, you can't do that. You have to get a degree. You have to think of something else. Dance is a hobby, you can always dance …”

My second love is food – I love to eat. All Asians love to eat – especially Singaporeans. So I thought that since I love to eat, I'll go into hotel and catering management, become a manager and boss people around! It was really a way to appease my father. When we had our next talk I suggested hotel and catering management and of course, he was agreeable. He said, “Where?” By that point I'd done my homework. I'd gone back to the American and Canadian Embassies, and I had found Cornell University, a university in Hawaii and the University of Guelph that offered hotel and catering management. It was very tense, between my father and me, at that time. I was doing well enough at school then – I'd also figured out that school was a game. It took me a while to figure out that the basic thing about Singaporean education is you are not expected to think; you are expected to memorize and regurgitate information. The last thing they want is for you to have an opinion. Once I realized that, I was able to overcome it – then I found school a lot easier and was doing better.

I remember my father said, “You can't go to Hawaii, because you'd just be surfing.” Then he said, “You can't go to Cornell because it's too expensive.” Finally he said, “Canada – oh okay!” When I was much younger, my father actually entertained the idea of immigrating to Canada because Trudeau had made a visit to Asia, and he left a very positive impression. I thought all Canadians were bilingual, so before I came to Canada I studied French for a whole year thinking, “How am I going to fit in if I can only speak English?” When I mentioned the University of Guelph – he said, “Where is it?” I didn't really know; Singapore is a city state, and I didn't know what “province” meant. I said “Canada.”

I needed to get a chemistry credit, which I didn't have because I was already majoring in the arts in high school. I did a year of high school here in Toronto. My dad travelled here with me, partly because he knew I would not be coming back for a long time and he wanted to give me safety and security. I had found a place to stay through a neighbour, or friend of a friend – I don't remember exactly. He came with me, and then literally just dropped me off. He stayed in a hotel and went off and did his own thing. This was the early 1980s.

CA: How did it look? Do you recall your first impressions?

YN: Flying into Toronto, I remember looking out the window and seeing all this white, and these little brown dots, and thinking to myself … it wasn't a very positive response … “Oh my god, what the hell is that?” Because in Singapore, everything is green, the architecture is different, houses are further apart – everything is just different. Then we came out of the airport. It was January and very, very cold. There was tons of snow. It was evening, and it was already dark. I was taken aback. It's one thing to know about time changes, daylight savings, short winter hours, and to know about snow. I remember when I was growing up I'd ask my mother what snow looked like and she'd say, “Open the fridge and stick your head in.” Remember the old fridges with frost on the freezer compartment – I'd scrape the top off and imagine snow would be like that. I'd been out of Singapore, I'd been to Asia, but I'd never seen snow in my life.

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