>dance 10 by frontier danceland

>reviewed by malcolm tay

>date: 26 nov 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: victoria theatre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


This year, Frontier Danceland commemorated its tenth anniversary with a two-night run of DANCE 10, reviving six dances - all but one by co-founder and artistic director, Low Mei Yoke - from previous years. In between, video clips of excerpts from earlier works, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, were shown in all their hissing, imperfect splendour.

As a Chinese-educated Singaporean, Low is interested in the tension she feels between past and present, East and West, tradition and modernity. In expanding the range of Chinese dance with ballet steps and contemporary floorwork - and in trying to put everything together in an artfully coherent fashion - these conflicting dualities are physically realised in her choreography. This tension can also be depicted in other ways, as we see in the opening 'Prelude', by having some dancers in traditional Chinese garb and others in street clothes. Putting on imaginary make-up, mumbling quietly to themselves at times, they try out various movement combinations in preparation for the rest of the evening.

Set to Peking opera songs, 'Golden Lotus Feet', one of two works from 1991 on the programme, deals with the grim fate of ancient Chinese women. Its contrasting images are effective; its conclusion is dramatic, if somewhat predictable. Long loops of white fabric, suggestive of the strips of cloth traditionally used in foot binding, hang gloomily in the background. Wearing the special lotus shoes made for bound feet, four coy maidens in brocade costumes sidestep delicately across the stage with a hankie and a silk fan in each hand. Four barefooted girls in blue, unwittingly drawn to these pretty bound-feet women, trail their every move; and yet, they also like the sound of their own bare feet stamping, squeaking against the ground. Eventually, the four girls meet their end, their flaccid bodies dangling in the hanging strips of cloth.

>>'As a Chinese-educated Singaporean, Low is interested in the tension she feels between past and present, East and West, tradition and modernity.'

The other 1991 dance was 'Retrospect', involving an anonymous woman (Lynn Gan) who has to face her ageing self as she recalls and confronts her lost youth in the form of Tiffany Tan's wispy, long-sleeved lady in white. Sitting downstage right, the older woman agonises over her fading beauty, dismayed by her own reflection in her mirror; she presses her lips into a sheet of red paper, but she isn't satisfied. Her remembered youth - soft as a weeping willow with her flowing sleeves, which she flicks so nicely in the air - is calm and composed, even as the older woman runs around her, kneeling at her feet. As a duet, 'Retrospect' is more intimate in scope, and Low sets up the two characters well in movement and postural terms.

'Crossing' (1998) is a work most plain. For much of the dance, three dancers, who take turns holding an umbrella, move from one end of the stage to the other very slowly. Alone or in twos, they walk forwards and sideways, the length of their stride exaggerated by the slowing of time. When they do meet, their interactions are brief, caught momentarily in a lift or rolling over each other, fleeting bits of contact that are impersonal at best. As a distillation of contemporary life, its simplicity is charming, even when it begins to test your patience after a while. Street performer Lin Jian Quan, who specialises in the three-stringed instrument, accompanied 'Crossing' on stage, his tireless strumming a constant companion to his unwavering Hokkien song.

One dance that is frequently mentioned in the group's publicity material is 'Cloud'. First performed in 1998, it is one of Low's more successful East-West experiments, combining the fluid grace of Chinese water sleeves with a more spacious, free-flowing style of movement. With their hair sprayed white, six women break out of their sculptural poses as each dancer unravels her white drapery into a long train. The fabric is gathered and released into the air in streams, or led by the feet along the floor. At one point, the women lose their trains and dance in various sub-groups. What spoiled 'Cloud' on this occasion was a less-than-expert handling of the fabric; one tripped over another dancer's train (cue giggle from audience), another got hers tangled around her legs while turning in place.

The evening ended with 'Vanishing…', which I saw at its premiere in 2000. The musical impetus is Vanessa Mae's 'Happy Valley', composed in 1997 to celebrate Hong Kong's re-unification with China. After a few rounds of marching across the stage, eleven women tear off their long-sleeved shirts and neckties to begin a most joyful group dance in their sparkly halter-tops. They just looked so happy twirling their beaded red hankies - it's a sight that could put anyone in a good mood. Two years ago, I observed the dance as a comment on female gender roles (my companion at that time still finds this view extremely hilarious), but now, I think it hints at something less specific.

My only misgiving about DANCE 10 lay with Choo Tee Kuang's 'Not That I Don't Understand' (1996). Six dancers in a row vigorously shaking their heads and wagging their fingers to the accompanying Chinese-rock track - that is the only impression I'm left with, and it isn't the most compelling of images. Whatever the reasons for programming this piece - perhaps it was the most convenient to restage at the time - it didn't seem like a decent representative of the body of work made for the group by guest choreographers.

Dances, unlike paintings or audio recordings, can't be accessed at our own leisure; every performance is an intense collaborative effort that vanishes the moment it ends. It's for this reason alone that I think retrospectives like DANCE 10 are important to our dance heritage - even when it turns out bad. I hope we don't have to wait for another ten years before Frontier Danceland or any other dance company revives an old work.