SINGAPORE – In Secondary 1, Soo Mei Fei and her classmates saw a poster outside their National Junior College classroom which advertised: ‘Indian dance try-out’. “There were 15 of us, mostly non-Indians, and we decided to join as we thought it would be Bollywood,” she recalled. To their disappointment, it was in fact Indian classical dance. But Soo persisted.
Last Tuesday (Jan 26), the 23-year-old made history as the first Singaporean Chinese woman to perform a full-fledged Bharatanatyam recital on stage. In the audience at the Goodman Arts Centre Black Box was a veteran local dancer and choreographer V. Balakrishnan, who said: “The performance was not a debut but that of a professional dancer. “I have no words to express the standard and quality of Mei Fei’s performance from the first piece itself. She has a very bright future.”
Soo’s Arangetram (stage debut) had a challenging repertoire, with difficult Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, Javali, and Thillana – key elements in the Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam. But, more importantly, she had to tellingly show expressions of love for the lord as the theme was Mohamana: The Love Within. “I was nervous before going up on stage despite all the preparation,” Soo told tabla!. “Whether you are Chinese or Indian, Arangetram is one of the biggest events in your dancing career and you are anxious to do well. “But I wanted to enjoy my performance and let everything go. Dance is for everyone and I wanted to do it well so that everyone could enjoy it.”
Soo was preceded in the mastery of Bharatanatyam by Singaporeans Richard Tan, who studied at the famous Kalakshetra dance school in Chennai, in the 1960s, and Temasek Polytechnic assistant director of arts and culture Sonny Lim in the 1990s, according to the book Kala Manjari: 50 Years Of Indian Classical Music And Dance In Singapore (2015).
Soo’s teacher Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, who is the principal dancer and resident choreographer at Apsaras Arts, said: “Mei Fei showed so much passion for Bharatanatyam that I took it as a challenge to teach her the nuances. “Her origin does not matter. All that is needed is a strong physique and good soul to understand the technique.” Soo, who joined Apsaras in 2015, has been training under Mr. Mohanapriyan for the past four years. She was taught the basics by Mrs. Vijaya Nadesan, the academy’s principal, and the late Ms. Neila Sathyalingam, one of its founders.
“One day, while I was in the car with Vijaya Akka, I asked her if I could learn dance at Apsaras,” said Soo. “I was insecure and a bit worried because I was 17 and most students learn Bharatanatyam at a very young age. I felt I was already old. But she reassured me and told me that I could try out at the academy.” For her first class under Mrs. Sathyalingam, she turned up in a T-shirt and trousers. “Neila Mami was nice,” said Soo. “She said I have potential and encouraged me to attend classes regularly.”
Soo immediately bought a dance sari and kurta and devoted herself to learning. “My class was for about two hours from 9 am but I would stay back for every other class until everyone left at 4 pm,” she said. “I would simply sit and watch what the seniors were doing.” The learning process was difficult for her at first because the lyrics and text sounded foreign. “I went online to translate the Tamil and Telugu words into English but it didn’t really work,” she said.