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Peranakan Chinese choreographer Yvonne Ng navigates connection and belonging in excerpt of Wéi 成为

Yvonne Ng
Dancing on the Edge will present Yvonne Ng's excerpt of Wéi 成为. Photo by Marlowe Porter.

Choreographer Yvonne Ng notices things that elude most of us. For example, the Toronto-based contemporary dance artist has observed how human beings have an innate ability to pick up on other people’s energy on transit systems. On a busy subway ride, she has seen how they will move or respond in similar ways if triggered by a light disturbance.

“Sometimes, it’s not sound,” Ng tells the Toronto Spark over Zoom. “You just feel it. That’s always so fascinating to me because we have this ability.”

Ng, artistic director of tiger princess dance projects, decided to explore group interactions, belonging, and connections in her 65-minute excerpt of Wéi , which will be performed at Dancing on the Edge in Vancouver on June 16 and 17.

Nick Storring’s piano score is very structured, according to Ng. However, the five performers—Johanna Bergfelt, Irvin Chow, Mairéad Filgate, Sully Malaeb Proulx, and Kathia Wittenborn—are not restrained in how they choose to respond.

“The dancers are actually in a highly structured improvisation,” she explains. “It’s not set. As my dancers would say, there is a lot of balls in the air because it’s all task-oriented.”

This speaks to another of Ng’s observations. She feels that when people are focused on a task, they are in a better position to figure out who they are.

“Where there is more adversity or there is too much stress, you really rise to your own occasion and surprise yourself,” Ng says.

She points out that people juggle various tasks every day—and that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“We don’t see them as accomplishments but they are,” she states. “I think it’s about being grateful and thankful about the little things.”

Yvonne Ng
Excerpt of Wéi 成为 reflects how we find a sense of who we are through fulfilling tasks. Photo by Marlowe Porter.

Ng grew up immersed in diversity

The Chinese word Wéi translates into “Becoming” in English. And Ng, who’s Peranakan Chinese, has been on quite a journey to becoming the person she is today.

Peranakan refers to a person born in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia of mixed local and foreign ancestry. Ng has Malay heritage and her parents spoke different albeit similar Chinese dialects—Hokkien and Teochew. She was schooled in Mandarin and Malay, and her mother was influenced by American movies, and particularly musicals. That’s what led Ng into ballet as a young child.

“Growing up, we were kind of like sponges,” Ng says. “We were always learning from each other’s culture.”

As a result, she and her friends would code-switch between languages, dialects, and accents as they navigated their way through the city.

“You don’t even think about it,” the dance artist says. “You don’t think it’s being inauthentic and you don’t think it’s being disrespectful—you are being respectful by being able to code-switch.”

Meanwhile, Singapore still retains some English sensibilities as a former British colony. And in school, she was taught to emulate western culture and ways of behaviour. By the late 1980s, this smoothed her transition to Toronto where she received the Dean’s Award for Excellence as a fine arts student at York University.

However, she acknowledges being taken aback by how little Canadians knew about Southeast Asia in those days. In Singapore schools, she studied the history of different lands. But in Toronto, she would tell people that she was from Singapore and some would ask if this was in China.

“I’d say ‘No’ and they would say ‘Where is it?’ And then I’d try to explain the geography of peninsular Malaysia.”

Yvonne Ng
Yvonne Ng is artistic director of tiger princess dance projects. Photo by Geoffrey Stone.

Leaving room for audience interpretation

After a while, Ng would flippantly say that she was a “princess”. That led to the naming of her dance company.

Ng says that quite often, her solos reflect her identity as someone from a diverse city-state. They speak to where she’s from and how she sees the world.

“My group pieces are influenced by my history,” Ng adds, “but I don’t impose that on my dancers.”

Nor does she impose this on audiences. Ng’s work is informed by American dance artists, such as Deborah Hay and Stephanie Skura, as well as Canadian choreographers with whom she has worked.

“Yes, I am of Asian descent and I am highly influenced by my background, my heritage, all those things” Ng allows. “But when I think of the work that I like to make, I like to leave space for interpretation.”

In this respect she likens choreography to visual art because she thinks of dance as a visual medium. This enables audience members to engage with the work from their own perspective.

Her company, tiger princess dance projects, has toured in many countries. Between 1998 and 2019, it captured 36 Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations for performance and choreography. Ng’s honours include the Canada Council’s 2022 Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in Performing Arts, the Toronto Arts Foundation’s 2017 Muriel Sherrin Award, and an Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

“I’m sure that all artists will say this: that we are curious about something,” Ng says. “Something bothers us. Something is mulling in our brains and in our hearts and in our minds and in who we are. So, my curiosity has led me to wondering who we are.”

Event details

Dancing on the Edge will present tiger princess dance projects’ excerpt of Wéi at Edge 1 on Sunday (June 16) and Monday (June 17) at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver. For more information and tickets, visit the Dancing on the Edge website. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on X @TOSparkOfficial.


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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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