It was not too long ago that I was a wide-eyed bun head in a full pink ensemble equipped with the full shoe, tights, leotard repertoire and a wholehearted belief that yes — I was going to be a world famous ballerina. Okay okay, perhaps it was quite some time ago that I was chasing my prima donna dream, but the Arts has never quite left my heart, has it?
I graduated in 2015 from School of The Arts, Singapore, where I studied and pursued Dance as both an academic subject and a profession. Having been a dancer for more than half my life, I’ve often time considered a full time career in the Arts. While my life has blossomed into pathways that seemingly have nothing to do with the art form that I was years ago so enamoured with, ask anyone who has ever attempted to pursue a life that sustains itself off the Arts and you will know: it never quite leaves you the same. The rigour, the discipline, the pure joy of perfecting your craft; the humbling lesson that perfection is simply a facade in and of itself — these lessons stick, years and years after to a time where you can barely call yourself “an Artist” anymore.
Yet, every now and then when I come across my old pair of shoes, or a Tchaikovsky piece that is so reminiscent of that time in my life, I think about the path not taken.
While I may not still be chasing the same dreams that kept me up some 5-10 years ago, I have seen many ex-classmates and schoolmates of mine going on to forge a career in the Arts. In a bid to explore the realities of pursuing a career in the Arts, I catch up with Valerie Yeo, full time professional dancer at Singapore Dance Theatre; Charlene Su, office lady by day, singer-songwriter by night; as well as Dawn Kwan, ceramist and painter who has 8 major solo art exhibitions to her name — all of whom dear friends of mine who continue to blaze the path for the Arts in Singapore.
So, pursuing the Arts in Singapore: a viable path or a far-fetched daydream? I ask friends and fellow alumni of School of The Arts, Singapore to explore what it takes to pursue the Arts as a career, be it full time or part time!
Art In Life
You may first wonder, as artists, how big a role does the Arts play in their lives?
Above: Valerie as a child
For Valerie, not only is being a dancer her full time job, growing up with a mother who was both a professional dancer and her first Ballet teacher, dance has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.
Above: Charlene’s second single, “don’t wanna grow up”.
For Charlene, it is in the simplest (and non cheesiest) way possible, a way of life. She shares: “As a singer-songwriter and arts practitioner, I rely on it for creative expression; as an active cultural consumer, the Arts holds intrinsic value when it comes to provoking critical thought and enriching emotional realities.” The Arts not only influences life in creation, but life as existence; Art transcends the creative realm to make sense for her in the everyday.
Above: Dawn in her element.
For Dawn, who spends 8 hours a day engaged in pottery and the rest of the time running a jewellery business, she is never not living, breathing and dreaming art. The heart, body and soul are in a 24/7 process of ideation, collaboration and creation, immersed in a never ending creative cycle.
Life In Art
But, how do I know that I should pursue a career in the Arts? Long answer short: you do not. One does not wake up and make the decision to live a life with the Arts in it. It is in fact quite the contrary. Charlene says: “It was less of a decision than a realisation that I couldn’t live without Art and everything that comes with it.”
For Valerie, it was similarly a fundamental cognisance: “Although there are always many physical and mental challenges, injuries and recoveries, and it is not easy or smooth, in the end on a very basic level I am very happy to dance.”
To Dawn, the experience of engaging in Art itself is magical and divine: “Whether one is dancing, painting or playing music, it’s not difficult to get lost in the moment because of how enjoyable it is to create something that you think is beautiful and to be able to share it with others.”
The Road Long, The Terrain Rough
But alas, the pathway to our dreams sometimes see itself with long roads and rough terrains. Like any career path, this one too, has its own set of challenges.
These long roads come in the form of physical weakness and restrictions for Valerie and the rough terrains paint a picture of being extremely self critical, as well as having a low self esteem.
For Charlene, her path takes a windy one through the high-pressured world of corporate life, seeing her running from her job in the day to music gigs at night, and then spending all of her weekends in the studio.
Dawn’s journey is littered with the lack of resources and facing lots of failure – trying many times before securing event venues, or simply failing to paint or create what she thinks is good enough: “Sometimes it takes so much ‘wasted’ canvases or clay to be able to achieve that one successful piece.”
Above: Some of Dawn’s pieces.
Standing On Their Shoulders
I seek their advice, so we can all stand on the shoulders of giants – friends who have and continue to pursue a livelihood in the Arts – what should one do if they too wish to do the same?
Valerie: “Be very patient with yourself. Keep your options open and no matter what you choose and what happens next, trust and always take care of yourself!”
Charlene: “In Singapore, people say you have to choose – your art or a stable income and job. I call bullshit – doing everything and refusing to choose is also a choice. Don’t get me wrong, it is a sacrifice as well, but that said — choose wisely. ;)”
Dawn: “Work hard. It’s not going to be easy and there will be many people who tell you that you can’t do it, especially in Singapore. You really have to fight to be able to do what you love because it comes at a big cost.”
Above: Valerie in her element.
Two Roads Diverged In A Yellow Wood
Grounding this article, I leave you with a poem all Sotarians of my time have etched in our hearts.
Whichever path you choose (or not), may it sit well with your heart.