With spellbinding grace, and an unparalleled display of gumption, she tosses back a sip of her now-tepid pint of locally brewed artisanal craft beer, and utters the words that have come to frame the entire evening,
“I am a sponge. And I’m still absorbing everything.” These are the carefully articulated words of a poised, yet unabashed Zunnur Zhafirah, in recalling the brilliant trajectory of her nascent dance career.
The 24-year-old Malay-Javanese self-professed ‘movement artist’, hails from Singapore, and now calls London home. As a recipient of the heralded National Arts Council (NAC) undergraduate arts scholarship in 2014, Zunnur was awarded the opportunity to study at the renowned London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS), and graduated in 2017.
As a non-EU citizen entering the workforce in London, the avenues that present themselves are narrow, treacherous, and laced with uncertainty. Manoeuvring through professional obstacles and visa-restrictions is a tricky art, and with political uncertainty abound – she knew the only thing she could do next was look inward – and that is exactly what she did.
Zunnur’s signature method for introspection is simple – she draws an island. She maps her values, ethics, and ambition, and choreographs a landscape that orientates in the direction of courage: “As a Singaporean, I have an obsession with islands and drawing them, so I said: ‘This is Zunnur’s island, and I have to find on this [proverbial] island, what motivates me’.
“I had to choose something that feeds me, and I did not want to regret picking something that I would regret,” Zunnur comments. She knew instantly, that “dance was the only thing that fuelled my being”.
Growing up in Singapore, she soon learned how the female body was quickly politicised. As a Malay-Muslim woman in a conservative city-state, the Islamic tenets that governed the female physique were instilled from young.
In an economically driven ecosystem like Singapore, the expectation is simple – work, lather, repeat. There are few streams for artistic and creative expression that young people can wander down, as academia serves as the pinnacle for quantifying excellence.However, one of the many rites of passage for the young Malay girl in Singapore, is the acquisition of a Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) orchestrated by the primary school one is enrolled in. She quickly grew fond of her newfound escape route through Malay dance, reinstalling the software that the state had attempted to hardcode into her nimble physique.
Malay dance brought her an unparalleled amount of freedom and self-governance over her body – inviting her to think critically about how art and play can weave themselves into Malay tradition.
Today, the Zunnur Zhafirah that sits across from me in a mid-century modern bar in central London, is a motivated and fierce arts practitioner.
She enraptures me in the thrill of how her recent adventures with dance and choreography have galvanised her peers and onlookers through its masterful subversion of traditional methodology.
She recalls one of the most pivotal moments in her artistic development being when she served as assistant choreographer for the multi-displinary performance “Bhumi”, that debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016.
The show married traditional Malay dance and music with contemporary elements and explored concepts of identity in a multicultural and multinational environment.
The Sanskrit word meaning “earth” or “soil” opened her up to the dynamic world of play that was available to her through her heritage. Collectively known as “Bhumi Collective”, the show’s creators have now established a firm home-base in Singapore, where the troupe continues to experiment with traditional form and re-contextualising it for a modern audience.The show was an “imperative part of exhibiting Singaporean dance styles that explored Malay textures, movement, and idealism” says Zunnur. “Minorities around the world that are underrepresented” are the voices that she hoped to capture with Bhumi Collective’s new wave of contemporary movement.
“I am working on myself as a full-time dancer, and I am a maker,” she says, and reminds me that “it is important to know what makes you happy, and finding balance.”
She comically bursts into a rheumatic ‘French’ accent to comment on how she is a “vagabond”, moving to and fro finding her identity and making headway in a career in London. The “nature of my job is that of constant travel, either I am in Singapore, or touring for a show across Europe, but I am based in London”.
In conceptualising her ideal map of an island, she recalls listing down “the top five companies in the world that I want to work for”, that in retrospect, by her own accord, “were impossible feats of ambition” that she never deemed possible.
She pauses to glean ever so fervently into my eyes to enrapture me with the reminder of her unwavering spirit. “The week after I drew that map, I got the job with one of the companies I wrote down in my map.”
As luck would have it, the adroit and charismatic dance practitioner eventually found her way securing a full-time job at Hofesh Shechter. The lauded UK-based dance troupe helmed by Israeli choreographer of the same name, Hofesh.
“Trusting in the abundance of life, and knowing that you need to be able to visualise your life, is how you make your way”, says Zunnur. Her pangs of motivation and sharp-wit are tangible, as she walks me through her experiences at Hofesh Shechter, being one of the youngest choreographers signed with the company. Her career at Hofesh Shechter began with her starting off as an apprentice for the company, “working very closely with Hofesh but just as collaboratively with your fellow chorepgraphers.”
She then waltzes me through the particularism of Hofesh’s dance company, with a “key focus placed on improvisation”. It is through “personal improvisation that the devising and inception of new work comes from.” He makes the “movement” as well as composes the music, so context and sense-making is part of his work ethic.
One of the hallmarks of Hofesh’s choreography ethos is the notion of embracing every facet of the movement experience. Of course, Zunnur adds, “the adjustment from unlearning old techniques”, and embracing Hofesh’s signature style for creating dance and engineering an atmosphere is very different from what she was familiar with in Singapore.
“It was emotionally turbulent at times, and overwhelming”, recounts Zunnur. On top of juggling a full-time job with that of creative self-discovery, Zunnur was still wrapping her head around the fact that she was working at such a world-renowned reputable company.
“A lot of your own voice does not matter, and that is a reality for a lot of dancers in a professional repertory company,” says Zunnur. She adds that artistically, working according to your director’s vision and discretion has the potential to be stifling. However, throughout her work at Hofesh Shechter, she shares that this common hierarchical approach “allows me to be rich in how I understand my body and different ways of moving.”
“These are flavours that I am taking now, that I will put toward finding my own flavour,” she says with an endearing chuckle and vim.
“These are potential flavour profiles that I sprinkle throughout my work with say, Bhumi Collective, or independent projects I have worked on.” In speaking briefly about proverbial flavour profiles, Zunnur addresses one of her independent projects that she was comissioned to choreograph for the M1 Contact Fringe Festival Singapore, in June 2019.
This was the first independent project that Zunnur worked on that entitled her to full artistic and creative license over. Her show, entitled “Luna(s)”, served as a testament to her unhackneyed artistic vision exploring Malay styles, and Muslim faith and spirituality.
“That was really the start of my career as an artist, it was like my signature,” says Zunnur. The piece was choreographed by Zunnur herself, and was staged as a duet featuring Singapore-based dance practitioners Lyn Hanis and Chloe Chotrani.
“I do make the conscious decision to collaborate with women, especially women of colour.” Zunnur reflects on how this choice emulates her core beliefs and values to support female practitioners and subaltern communities.
She explains that “Luna(s)” was conceived by her motivations for devising a performance that invites two women from very different migratory backgrounds to come together in a shared space to envision an “experimental” form of movement.
“Lyn comes from a very traditional Indonesian-dance background,” whereas “Chloe who is half-Indian and half-Filipino, comes from a very street-dance background,” Zunnur adds. “This is the kind of potent energy that I really wanted to tap into for my piece,” says Zunnur.She informs me that “Luna(s)”, can mean several things in different languages. Quite commonly, the association people make is that of the moon, or anything lunar-related.
In Malay, “lunas” means, “to give” or “to satisfy”. When discussing the stimuli she brought to the table in creating the movement library for the performance, Zunnur introduces me to the concept of “soul-gazing”.
Naturally, an evocative glimmer in her eye was visible in this moment, highlighting the ever-fertile mind of the movement master that was seated across from me.
She expresses one of her idiosyncratic and “quirky” methods for arriving at this juncture, which has its roots in the eye-contact she would occasionally make with commuters on the public transport across various cities.
“When I am looking at someone sitting across from me, most people look away, but there are some that keep looking at me,” in a way, maintaining this sultry gaze.
“I am just a human being that wants to connect, non-threateningly,” and she says that she thrived on the acute primal sensitivity that occurs in this phenomenon to launch her choreographic impetus for “Luna(s)”.
This spontaneous non-verbal connection was key in illuminating a series of movement and multi-sensory stimuli that came to frame Luna(s)’ critical development.
“Soul-gazing is actually a tantric method” explains Zunnur. We pause, and ferociously jump at the opportunity to find sanguine humour in how we both associate the word “tantric”, with Singapore’s only prominent gay bar of the same name.
Nonetheless, she elaborates on how “tantra” is similar to the school of thought behind “mantra” which is verbal affirmations. She continues to explain how “tantra focuses on actions.” Essentially, “tantra teaches you different sets of actions to practice love and vitality, of which soul-gazing is one of these methods.”
She recalls one of her earliest devising sessions exploring the “tantric method”, wherein she requested the assistance of a seasoned tantra practitioner to conduct trial workshops with Lyn and Chloe, and recalls being “taken aback by his disarming gaze,” which instantly emulated love and affection – in a non-romantic, humanly way.
Having explored this method physically with her dancers, the tantric practice drove her to trisect her performance into three segments that showcase Lyn and Chloe starting off as “two moons”, or “two luna(s)”.
Subsequently, the two moon’s meet, and interact. Thirdly, the two moon’s finally “amalgamate in a combination of energy” to combine. She expresses that this female energy was “highly potent”, augmented by the experimentation of scent-play by way of burning sage and palo-santhos, to accentuate the overall sensual nature of the already maverick performance style.Zunnur expresses drawing inspiration from ancient Southeast Asian tribal lineage that practice scent-burning on altars to enforce the spiritual connectivity between this realm and the next, as well as serving the role of cleansing the space for the spirits.
In a sense (pun intended), her enduring use of psychosomatic stimuli entrance the audience to deliberately open up a post-verbal conversation about spirituality and dogma before their very eyes (and noses).
“I’m going to entrap the audience with the sense of smell as they walk into the space, because smell is something implicit that your nose cannot run away from,” says Zunnur.
Furthermore, she discusses how her use of an altar adjacent to the performance space was inextricably linked to “how this piece represented her ability to understand her faith and questioning it as a Malay-Muslim woman, growing up in a family that is very traditional.”Zunnur discloses that “when it comes to faith and religion, my parents have always guided me to be that ‘typical muslim girl’ in my personal life.” From which point, she is finally able to use her art to make a statement on nativist values that have been inculcated by society, and by extension, the family unit in contemporary homes in Singapore.
In a comical take on her early years, she exclaims, “wait a minute, for sixteen years of my life, I’ve learned to be a Muslim girl, but I was born into this. I did not know anything else, so let’s try something new.”
Some of the gestures and physical attitudes that Lyn and Chloe adopt in the performance further highlight this theme of embracing newfound paradigms for spirituality. Zunnur strategically places the two performers in a space that is littered with wall-motifs that further encapsulate this notion. The walls in the studio space display “yantras”, which are visual demarcations of spirituality, which Zunnur claim to “be representative of the spiritual space I have entered now, as a young woman learning to create her own pathway in light of my traditional upbringing”.
Fascinatingly, “Luna(s)” served as a platform for Zunnur to eliminate traditionalist boundaries that have to do with the human physique and the visibility of the female anatomy for recreational consumption.
Zunnur tactfully choreographed her show to explore the innate primal or “animalistic qualities in the human body”. She comments on how the “sexual is highly powerful, but is considered to be a taboo in traditional dance styles, because it is so tactile and enticing for the spectators.”
Through “Luna(s)”, Zunnur wanted “the female body to be a vehicle of expression, rather than a vehicle of oppression.” She confronts the tenets of Islamic tradition that implore women to conceal and enshroud their bodies during performance, by deliberately experimenting with highly tactile, engaging, and collaborative movement between two women.
She cites this as being one of the main reasons for her being supercharged to “explore how dance and spirituality can work together for a modern Muslim woman, who does not want to subscribe to historic belief systems or convention.”
She claims that she wants to “establish that this is my world”, and that she is not afraid to capitalise on her voice as a practitioner questioning her journey. “You are entering a bubble, my bubble, and I want you to see it the way I see it,” says Zunnur.When asked about challenges Zunnur faced in the development of “Luna(s)”, she responded by saying that some of her approaches to improvisation were initially met with skepticism.
She understands and respects the rich and historic presence of theoretical form in Singapore’s dance ecology, but she expresses slight discontent in a couple of instances where there were “conflicts of interest”, whereby “people did not quite understand my approach.”
In that sense, it made her realise that Singapore is still in that “state of mind where differences [in technique] is just not a thing. It takes time for people to understand that things can be done differently”.
She felt the responsibility to gently prod the dance community’s veterans to see her “approach as just as valid as theirs. Singapore needs time, and I have to be patient. I have to support them in my own way, and being patient,” she says, with a poised and reverential demeanour.
In discussing how dance cultures differ between Singapore and London, she laments about how Singaporean choreographers develop movement via approaches that are excessively cerebral or theoretical, comically chanting “boring” at the end of her jocular sentiment.
She yearns for a sociocultural milieu in which people are more emboldened to speak from their hearts, fearing not for whether they were successful in adhering to a theoretical underpinning to substantiate their creative processes: “Why can’t we just speak spiritually, and why can this not be considered an acceptable explanation for why your dance is the way it is?”
This was something that she had to continue to unlearn while working at Hofesh Shechter and training as a dancer in London’s contemporary scene. “Let’s stop talking about different dance styles, and being so theoretical. I have come to the point in my artistry where I have accepted that dance is movement.”
Put simply, Zunnur has wizened up to the didactic convention of artists using “theory”, or “concepts” as labels for governing or confining their works to linear categories.
“Why can’t we just speak spiritually, and why can this not be considered an acceptable explanation for why your dance is the way it is?”
Her intuition speaks for her, and whatever association to theorists that may arise as a result of her owning her own process, is nothing to be fussed over. In essence, “dance is a process of feeling, doing, and being, not thinking and prescribing” says the vanguard, ending her statement with a stoic proclamation, “let’s MOVE!”
Hofesh’s signature dance style emphasises on the holistic experience of moving the body in tandem with the mind and spirit, through “totality”, of which many Singaporean dance enthusiasts and practitioners have yet to figure out how to do.
When asked about her biggest influences in her young dance career, she mulls over her halcyon days at the aforementioned School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA), where she “felt a deep emotional connection” to the Graham dance technique, a pedagogy created by Martha Graham which taps into the body’s muscle memory and embedded psychological reserves.
“At such a young age, I was already guided to connect with something so emotional, and that is how I came to understand that dance truly comes from an emotional place” she says. She gestures to her cerebrum and says, “I don’t come from here,” and subsequently taps her chest to say “I come from here.”
Through her regional travels with dance in Singapore, Zunnur was privileged enough to be invited to conduct her own series of workshops with various pre-tertiary students across the country.
In a specially crafted workshop entitled “Groove and Gaze”, hosted by local dance company, P7:1SMA, Zunnur felt very passionately about how Singaporean students are too fixated on following precepts laid out in front of them through theory.
She felt it was essential to “incorporate some of her unique somatic and spiritual stimuli” into the workshops she was conducting, to enable Singaporean youth to quit relying of this catatonic framework.Zunnur’s entire philosophy for her workshops (as well as her dance in general), is still a work in progress, as she says in a candid comment about finding her own formula for approaching dance and mentorship. She explains how “2019 was such a prominent year for her as an artist.”
Having returned home for six consecutive months, Zunnur was implored to reintegrate and reinsert herself into the complex myriad of narratives that were so idiosyncratic to her nomadic career pathway in the first place. This very recent process of self-discovery and introspection follows a strangely poetic reopening of proverbial cuts from the cultural programming of yesteryear.
She pensively dissects this experience by addressing how this departure from her newfound safety blanket in London’s bustling dance ecosystem was met with an innate and much needed confrontation of her heritage back in Singapore.
I felt it necessary to ask Zunnur about how her artistic and cultural disposition has been altered since returning to Singapore to “nest”, as they say, for half a year. Her identity has been episodically regrouped, and redrafted, and is already fragmented from a slew of opposing schools of thought, that there had to have been some form of conclusion in this window of time touring abroad.
After a pause, she explains how in this particular era of her dance career, her manifesto is simple, “to be seen as a whole.” She stalls, and repeats, “I finally feel total. I like this word because I have a better understanding of my identity now.”
Singaporean morals are entrenched in categorisation, and as society obsessed with classification in order to maintain social order and stratify the masses, it is not uncommon for locals to feel like their identities are spelled out on paper in a series of composite figures, equations or statistics.
Unfortunately for the computing codes that organise binary files, human identity is complex, multifarious and unquantifiable. Subjectivity in one’s identity is a rare privilege, and Zunnur feels like she has finally cracked the code in finding out how to amalgamate not just her entangled characters in “Luna(s)”, but her identity as a whole.
Zunnur explains that in Singapore, “either you are Malay, you are Muslim, you are a woman, you are this stream in secondary school,” and the list goes on.
“It all feels so segregated,” she adds. They “try to unify us to make us feel like we’re whole, but it only happened to me when I used my art to find my own unique identity amongst all the labels that have been placed upon me.”
Admittedly, Zunnur shares that her “identity is still very much a work in progress.” She pays her fair share of respect to her Malay-Muslim upbringing, albeit highly fractured now due to having to come to terms with the dichotomous trends that emerge in contemporary Western culture.
She addresses how she now has “the liberty to wear what I want”, to “move my body freely through my art,” and to not have to worry about deflecting the male gaze to remain virtuous.
In doing away with obsolete labels and attempting to recalibrate her identity to make a composite “whole”, Zunnur cheekily corrects my naive error for asking her where she sees her “dance career” in the near future. Instead, she reminds me that she is not a “dancer”, by definition, but rather, a “movement artist”.
Because “movement exists on a spectrum, and it is something pure and innate.” Dance is something that Zunnur sees as not being able to be labelled by one placeholder, much like how she has moved past seeing herself as various hyphenations of ethnic or religious identities in order to fit the mould.
By not adhering to the labels placed upon her, and using her artistry in movement to speak for her virtues instead, Zunnur’s art becomes her voice. This serves as a testament to how she seeks to control her narrative, turning fellowship into ownership.
When asked where she sees herself in the near future, Zunnur says that she would like to give back to the local arts community back in Singapore, “helping them to grow and offer some new perspectives.”
Much like how Hofesh instilled her with some new creative flavours through her movement practice in London, she hopes to “impart some new flavours to the local community in Singapore” as well. She hopes to eventually be an educator in movement, “making a gradual departure from structure,” teaching people to dance from their hearts.
In closing, I asked Zunnur what advice she had for young Malay-Muslim girls in Singapore who may be experiencing similar conflicts or doubts with regards to their identities. She pauses momentarily, and discloses that “things would have been much easier if I just said ‘yes’, and followed what feels right.”
She urges young artists to follow their instincts, and to “avoid falling prey to the influences of social media.” Finally, she locks eyes with me, aplomb, and utters the same words that have now been hardcoded into the Zunnur Zhafirah zeitgeist.
“Allow yourself to be a sponge.”
To learn more about Zunnur and her artistic developments, check out her website here.
Featured Image courtesy of Crispian Chan via Instagram.
Edited by: Aaliyah Facey.