We speak frankly with Mavin Khoo and choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra about the process of getting ‘emotionally naked’ to create their latest work, Man to Monk, for the Sadler’s Wells stage.
“There is such a joy to being a vessel,” says Mavin Khoo, who has established a career of nearly 20 years as a dancer and is speaking to us from the back room of a rehearsal studio.
“One of the challenges I have now is finding people to make work on me who are interested to really go deep in terms of who I am, as opposed to coming into the studio and my body becoming a kind of superficial instrument.”
This hunger for a new kind of creative process is what led him to work with choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra on an intense period of research where they would literally eat, sleep and rehearse together. Mavin would become Carlos’s muse.
“I spent a lot of time with Mavin. I felt like a journalist in a way,” says Carlos. “Christopher Isherwood famously writes in his novel Goodbye to Berlin ‘I am a camera.’ I really feel like I was a camera that was just following Mavin and it was just so interesting to immerse myself into one person and the essence of that person.”
After two years in creation, their two-part dance work titled Man to Monk emerged: an exploration of raw human desire and an intimate portrait of sexuality, masculinity and relationships, where Mavin partners with Victor Callens in a male duet.
“I can play the very good student or the good dancer, who just listens in the studio,” says Mavin, “but it was important for me that he really understood all the negative things about me. My temperament, my moods, how I sleep at night, my desires. If someone was going to make a work on me about love, they had to really understand this deeply. I’m sure it must have been quite overwhelming and quite intense at times for Carlos.”
“Mavin would cook for us every night. There was a very kind of motherly, caring aspect to him I got to experience because you’re out of the studio. We interviewed each other several nights. I got to pray with Mavin so I got to experience his spiritual life as well. But then we discovered we’ve got lots of things in common. We really love The Golden Girls! It had some intensity at times because you’re negotiating personal space. But, wow, it definitely makes for a very kind of profound work. It makes the research so much more complete.”
Carlos and Mavin, on the surface, might not seem like your most obvious pairing – aside from their mutual appreciation of The Golden Girls. Mavin is a classically trained bharatanatyam dancer, from Malaysian heritage and practising Hindu. Carlos has become known for his gender-bending contemporary dance work questioning queer identity and comes from a Spanish Catholic family.
So, did their differing cultural backgrounds and dance styles force them outside of their comfort zone?
“I think the cultural perspectives of our backgrounds didn’t really have as much difference as we thought it would. There was quite a lot of similarity. It was more the perception and construction of queerness that had more challenges,” Mavin answers.
“Mavin has such a rich physical heritage inside him. There is so much in him that can come out, rather than a challenge I think that was a blessing. It gave us so many options,” adds Carlos.
Mavin’s innate qualities have become part of the work, whether he wanted them to or not, as he explained…
“I feel more that my whole spine is so Asian!” laughs Mavin. “I think there’s something about that certainty that is much more embodied as opposed to constructed. The work is a lot about this element of construction, whether it’s queerness or it’s cultural. There is an interesting subtext that is challenging our perception of what construction is as opposed to embodiment.”
“This isn’t a fusion between bharatanatyam and contemporary dance. What’s really great about this work is Mavin’s ‘orientalisation’. Everything that’s Asian in him is in the work, in the vocabulary, just because he’s there. That relationship between him and Victor, who is so clearly Caucasian, is really strong because of its honesty and not necessarily because of the language that we’re using.”
Carlos was speaking to us from Tennessee where he is currently crafting a work for Nashville Ballet. Here the tradition is still geared towards the male and female pas de deux, he told us. So how conscious was the decision to subvert what we’re used to seeing in a classical context, by partnering two men in Man to Monk?
“It sheds light on one gender. But although this is very clearly a relationship between two men or one man and god, there is a universality in it that I feel like any kind of gender denomination can relate to.”