FEATURE: ZUNNUR ZHAFIRAH

  Photo by Shawna Chia

Photo by Shawna Chia

We're with London based Zunnur Zhafirah (Dance 2013) to talk about what she's been up to since she graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School. She is a recipient of the NAC scholarship and has spent her time locally and abroad in numerous collectives and companies, and we learn about how she's been navigating her relationship with Malay identity in her practice.

Freshly Pressed: Hi Zunnur! Who are you and what do you do? 

Zunnur Zhafirah: Hey there! I'm Zunnur (or Zee), and I'm a dance artist, performer, improviser and inter-arts collaborator. I'm currently based in London as a full-time dancer with Hofesh Shechter Company - Shechter II, having just recently finished my BA (Hons) in Contemporary Dance at London Contemporary Dance School last July 2017.

FP: How was your experience studying at the London Contemporary Dance School like?

ZZ: Being in LCDS was a roller coaster with a lot of waves that went extremely up and down. I grew a lot as a human and an artist being in the school, having had more independence and finding my 'voice'. I was blessed to have crossed paths with peers who supported me to grow, discover, and develop my many interests that were not necessarily dance-related. It was definitely a life-changing experience.

    bhumi , (2016) sought to address the question of  '“What does it mean to be Melayu (Malay)?” in this rapidly changing cosmopolitan age where race, culture, religion and nationality are becoming increasingly integrated and blurred at the same time.'  Photo courtesy of  Bhumi Collective .

 bhumi, (2016) sought to address the question of  '“What does it mean to be Melayu (Malay)?” in this rapidly changing cosmopolitan age where race, culture, religion and nationality are becoming increasingly integrated and blurred at the same time.'Photo courtesy of Bhumi Collective.

FP: You’ve are and have been a part of several collectives such as The Bhumi Collective. Can you tell us about your experience in companies like these? 

  Photo by Helen Murray

Photo by Helen Murray

ZZ: The Bhumi Collective was a huge turning point for me in realising how strong my roots were to my Malay upbringing. I started dancing through Malay Dance with Sri Warisan, and was then introduced to the western art form in SOTA. I knew deep down that my roots were fundamental in my artistry, even though I didn't understand then how to mash up the western and Malay together in the way that was authentic to me. So when I moved to London four years ago, it naturally became a huge part of my identity as a human and as an artist. People here became more interested in this whole notion of Malayness, and I never felt more proud to represent my Malay identity. 

I started simple classes with my peers and shared with them bits and pieces of the Malay culture and dance. That was when I began to explore the notion of the subjective term 'Malay'. Bhumi appeared unexpectedly as a project at first, initiated by Shaifulbahri and Amin, who happened to be fellow Singaporean Malays pursuing their Masters at that time. They wanted me to join them as an assistant choreographer exploring this notion of Malayness. Being away from Singapore, it became an outlet that allowed me to continue my personal research on this complex topic and analyze it in a third-person perspective. We collaborated with other Singaporean London-based artists and some of my British and Singaporean dance peers from LCDS. An international mix allowed for a lot of cross-culture discussions and questioning everything! I started looking at Malayness through multiple lenses in a way that I never could before. It was a roller coaster I loved so much! 

We premiered Bhumi for the first time as Bhumi Collective in August 2016 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for 2 weeks. Bhumi Collective is a multi-disciplinary company telling stories of the lesser seen, lesser heard and lesser talked about. We have worked with many international artists ever since the premiere in Edinburgh. We recently worked on a collaborative site-specific work with artists from various background for Arts in Your Neighbourhood initiated by NAC Singapore last October-November. Being with Bhumi inspired me to do my whole dissertation on the subjectivity of the Malay identity amongst Singaporean Malay UK-based artists.

Societal and political changes in history have constricted the definition of Malayness, but what I’m constantly doing is expanding its definition into something more infinite.

FP: How has it been like navigating the experience of the minority identity and the history of Malayness in dance?

ZZ: A lot of times you find yourself in crossroads not knowing how to make sense of it. But then you have to remind yourself that the beauty about Malayness is its SUBJECTIVITY. It's a rich culture with a very complex makeup of history. This complexity and subjectivity is the beauty in itself. I wish more Singaporean Malays can appreciate this culture much more for this reason. Societal and political changes in history have constricted the definition of Malayness, but what I'm constantly doing is expanding its definition into something more infinite. It's not as black and white as it seems with strict rules that needs to be 'followed'. They just act as guidelines and you can relate to it however that feels authentic for you!  It does get a bit tricky and exciting at the same time when you involve this in dance, but movement allows me to greater explore the depths and intricacies of this notion. I am constantly learning along the way and I'm still amazed at what I've been discovering. It's a lifetime research. It makes you realise that perhaps Identity does not exist but Identities do; we are a makeup of an infinite list of identities. 

  Photo by Camilla Greenwell

Photo by Camilla Greenwell

FP: It’s inspiring to hear that you’ve been really digging into the multiplicity of identities that I think most of us can apply to different parts of our own lives, or at least in understanding that of others. You've recently been using the hashtag #NomadicMalay on your social media, can you tell us more about this nomadism or how you relate to it?

ZZ: I was doing my daily writing and had a lightbulb moment about the 'Nomadic Malay'. It simply relates to my passion in researching on the subjectivity of my identity as a Malay and my nomadic lifestyle as a traveler. I have a deep-seated passion for traveling, especially places that are not 'touristy', a trait my parents passed down to me. I find pleasure exploring unfamiliar territories learning about history, culture, traditions and languages. It's a simple phrase to describe a significant part of me at the moment. I might change the phrase one day, who knows. 

FP: Can you share with us a significant performance or experience in your career? 

  Photo by Ahmani Vidal

Photo by Ahmani Vidal

ZZ: The most significant experience I had in my career has to be the recent contract I had with Hofesh Shechter Company - Shechter II. I was confident I wouldn't get the job as it was a competitive international audition, with talented friends from all over the world who flew into London for it. Prior to this I was a fresh graduate who was auditioning for various companies and getting many rejections. You will get many rejections all the time, but that does not mean you're not good enough. It's about being at the right time and place, and where you are at in your life at that point of time. I went into the audition without any expectations and was just so open to learning and gaining more experience. For me, every audition is a free class to keep learning and developing your skills. I told myself that this was going to be the last audition I was going to do for awhile because I had planted the seed to start an online business. I had wanted to do this for a long time and was going to focus my attention on this new baby of mine. On the final day of this three day audition where about 1100 people attended, I went through until the end and was one of the eight dancers Hofesh chose to form the new Shechter II. The universe was telling me that I should keep dancing and that the business could wait.

FP: That’s such good news. What’s a typical day like for you now? 

ZZ: I'm just one week into my new job with Hofesh Shechter Company - Shechter II as a full-time apprentice dancer. A typical day is doing morning company class and working on a repertoire/creation period which we will be touring worldwide starting March 2018 and the dates will be up on the company website. Its been a blessing to be dancing in this company and sometimes it still feels like a dream!

FP: You mentioned that you were an “inter-arts collaborator”. Can you tell us more about what that entails?

ZZ: Over the years I have collaborated with many artists of various backgrounds, from musicians to actors, and dramaturg to physical theatre practitioners. The best part about collaborations is that the lines are sometimes blurred as to who is the dancer, the actor, or the musician, and so on. It's magical as to how roles are so fluid and interchangeable. I've had a couple of projects working on site-specific works, which is currently a trend within the dance world to portray movement in a more engaging audience-oriented collaborative manner. You start picking up skills beyond dance and your tools as an artist grows organically. 

   Performing the   Smart Nation  (2016) by Teow Yue Han, '  seeks to engage this corporate vision by finding new performance strategies within choreography — a system that thrives on bringing physical expression and it’s potentialities to the fore.' Photo by Rebekah Lee

Performing the Smart Nation (2016) by Teow Yue Han, 'seeks to engage this corporate vision by finding new performance strategies within choreography — a system that thrives on bringing physical expression and it’s potentialities to the fore.' Photo by Rebekah Lee

FP: Do you have any artists you look up to?

ZZ: My list is pretty long, but if there is one person I admire at the moment is Deepak Chopra. He is an author who is very known for his spiritual writing. I've been reading some of his books and it has inspired me to get into spirituality this past year and it has really changed my life. It has brought me closer to myself, discovering honesty, acceptance, inner self and inner beauty. This has led to many unexpected events that have brought a lot of light, including this dream job that I never knew I could attain at this point of time in my life. Spirituality has led to many blessings for me this past year, and is definitely a path that has helped me develop my depth in understanding my artistry and the notion of identity. 

FP: Where do you see yourself five years from now?

ZZ: Wow five years from now? That's a tricky one. For now, I know that I would love to focus on my business at some point. But who knows what might happen? Unexpected events align for us in the way we never knew we needed. That excites me; when you just do not have expectations and go with what feels right and an open heart. 

FP: Thanks for spending time with us Zunnur! Any closing comments? 

ZZ: My pleasure! I'm very humbled for this opportunity to share my experiences. Our journeys are our own paths to carve, never compare, just live it in the way that feels honest and from the heart. I'm grateful to SOTA for being one of my greatest initial stepping stone into this great roller coaster of life that I can paint with many colours through the arts.

 

You can follow Zunnur on Instagram here.

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