“Immersive. Interactive. Multi-sensory.”
Words often thrown about by creatives to lend an au courant sensibility to works that otherwise fall short to deliver on these same terms, and their untapped potential to engage audiences. And audiences are understandably wary - Singapore itself is seeing a growing trend toward experiential work that seek to destabilise the traditional hierarchy between spectator and performer. Unsurprising, given the increasingly arts-savvy market that demands to be closer to the artist and their processes.
Amidst this, Project Plait has been weaving dance and culinary excellence together to tell stories.
With beginnings in 2015, the collaboration has built up a repertoire of quirky, dynamic dance-dinner concepts - it’s current offering, The Mem’s Servants, takes audiences back in time to a colonial house in 1921, to the time of the British Empire, as they unearth skeletons in the cupboards, and stories between its walls. Oh, and did we mention a five-course fine dining meal?
B-SIDE catches up with the interdisciplinary dancer-chef duo behind Project Plait: Choreographer Naomi Tan, and Chef Nixon Low on their unlikely partnership, food memories and evolving audiences one stomach at a time.
Happiest memory of food?
Nixon: I was in a competition in Singapore recently with the Singapore National Culinary Team, and was appointed as Team Manager for a particular food category and my team conceptualised a thematic menu. We became champions and we lived happily ever after.
Naomi: My boyfriend and I were cooking Christmas dinner for my family and he has no talent whatsoever in peeling hard boiled eggs, so we lost 30% of our eggs that day. Good times.
And your funniest memory of dancing is:
Nixon: It would be funny if I could remember any of them because I drank quite a bit…and I don’t know what happened afterwards.
Naomi: I take dancing very seriously leh, it’s hard to think of a memory that is funny. Oh, okay, I remember once, me and a dancer friend were trying to teach another friend how to dance in a club. We ended up going with "imagine there is a giant keyboard up in front of you and you are punching the keys to type random words". I don't think we blended in that night.
Who broached the idea of Project Plait first? And what was the other's reaction?
Naomi: I was the one who first had the idea to combine food & dance and I emailed a ton of people, and one person got back to me with an invitation to come down for a meeting - that was Chef Nixon. So I went down and explained my idea, and I'm not sure if he was totally convinced at that point in time since neither of us truly knew what to expect, as nothing of this sort had ever been done in Singapore, but he took a chance on me, and the rest was history.
Nixon: Through Naomi’s email. My team was young and dynamic and kind of at the peak of performance at a restaurant, we were constantly looking for new concepts and ideas to challenge ourselves.
Tell us about your creative process. How has it changed since the first iteration?
Naomi: The very first show we did, we kept it simple and straightforward in concept, and since Chef Nixon had already done a seven deadly sins menu for the restaurant, we went along with that theme and I created dances for each of the sins. We linked it all up into a programme and smoothed out the transitions to make it flow, added a few surprises, and there we had our show!
Nixon: The first show was a little more straightforward because I already had a thematic menu at hand and all Naomi needed to do is complement it. For now it’s more of a collaboration, Naomi or myself will spearhead a particular concept or storyboard and we bounce off ideas to package it nicely together. Chemistry between us has also improved.
We know each other’s style and way of thinking, so creating a Project Plait event is not as stressful as before.
You've both had established careers in your respective fields prior to Project Plait. In what ways have these experiences shaped Project Plait?
Naomi: Before Project Plait, I was dancing in a contemporary dance company (The Arts Fission Company) which did a lot of site specific performances and outreach.
My time there shaped the way I think about Dance- I don't think Dance has to be confined to the theatre or to a certain kind of audience.
Dance has something to offer to all kinds of people, and I want to create work that will speak to many different people.
Nixon: I’ve been to a few places to work and Project Plait has always been part of it. The scale and difficulty of each story is heavily reliant on resources, both physically and mentally. I am currently with Artistry as an Executive Chef, so we have the right equipment and team to run catering events from small to massive scales. And Project Plait is a resource and venue-heavy concept. With the partnership of Artistry, we’re able to execute the event without many barriers.
What have you learnt about your audience/diners over the years, and how have these lessons influenced your own craft?
Nixon: Our guests and diners are generally more open to food compared to 6 years ago. They are more receptive to new experiences and ideas. Because of this, my team and I are constantly coming up with new food concepts to cater to the market.
Naomi: Some might think Singaporeans in general are more "paiseh" and reserved bunch, but over the years I’ve seen that they are actually more adventurous, curious and insightful than you might think. I usually incorporate in the dance some audience-interactive segments where guests are invited to interact with the dancer or to influence the dance in some way, and every year I am heartened by how enthusiastic the audience is to be part of the concept. When I chat with guests after the show, I'm always pleasantly surprised by some of the insights audience members share with me.
Local audiences have become more open to trying new concepts and experiences, which is why we want to keep pushing our limits and creating innovative and interesting work for our guests.
How is cooking like dancing?
Nixon: Dancing has different styles and each style has unique moves and techniques. It’s the same for cooking as well. There are so many variations of cuisines in the world, but each cuisine has its own signature cooking style embedded into it.
And how is dancing like cooking?
Naomi: Dancing is like cooking in the sense that it can stand on its own, or it can be used to convey a message. Dance movement can be simply movement for movement's sake, or you can use Dance to say something. Similarly, food can just be a meal you eat to fill your stomach, or it can be presented in such a way as to convey a story.
There are more interactive dining concepts now than ever in Singapore, but yours is the first to pair great cooking and dance. What else do you think keeps your audience coming back?
Naomi: I think one of our strengths is attention to quality and detail. Both Chef Nixon and myself are very particular that the food & the choreography are good even on their own. Then when we piece everything together, we try to visualise it from the guest's perspective and we pay a lot of attention to detail so the entire experience runs seamlessly between the dance and food segments. A lot of detail goes into how we present the food and dance to connect them together, how our guests enjoy discovering these mini surprises we plant for them.
Nixon: It’s about creating a concept that you can relate to. My favourite piece we have done is called The Daily Grind (2016). It depicts a life of a stagnant office worker, represent by Dance and connected by Food.
As creatives in your own right, the work can often be physically and mentally challenging, even for the toughest of us. In light of the growing conversation on self-care, how do you refresh, unwind and recharge?
Nixon: A great meal, especially Japanese. I enjoy sushi and also spending time with my family. It keeps me away from work. I also work out during my free time. Working out keeps myself motivated and fit.
Naomi: Funnily enough, to get away from the stress of creating Dance, I go for a Ballet class. When I'm in class, I don't think about anything else and I'm able to get away from my own chaotic thoughts for a while. After class, my body feels great, I feel fit and refreshed. I have come to make it a weekly commitment to myself, and no matter how stressed or busy I am, I make it a point to go for Ballet class at least once a week.
What do you love about working with each other?
Nixon: The synergy! The way we understand each other’s styles in our own craft makes us really unique. We also have a great “give and take” concept where we try to make our ideas and operations meet together!
Naomi: I love how amazingly creative Nixon is. Working with him is always such a great experience because he has got to be one of the most real and down-to-earth chefs there is. Over the last five years, we have developed quite a good rapport and have come to understand each other's perspectives quite well. In the process we have also become quite good friends and putting up a show together is always a new exciting adventure I look forward to!
Last meal on earth, and why.
Naomi: It’s not so much about the food but who you are having it with. So my last meal would have to be with my ever-so-supportive boyfriend, bonus points if we go for cake and coffee.
Nixon: My last meal on earth would be food cooked by my wife Jose. She has always been my pillar of strength and support. In my years of being a chef with long hours and non-existent public holidays, she has always been there for me and I would love anything cooked by her for my last meal.