>little lee i: the forgotten journey home by the arts fission company

>reviewed by ma shaoling

>date: 11 jan 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the university cultural centre
>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.


As I stood outside the University Cultural Centre after the opening night of LITTLE LEE I, I watched the 6 elderly Samsui women whose lives formed the narrative for this contemporary dance-theatre piece, getting into their transport home. This had been their first experience performing on stage, and I wonder if it could have been half as daunting as when they first came to Singapore from the Samsui province in China more than six decades ago.

Conceptualized and choreographed by Arts Fission's artistic director Angela Liong, LITTLE LEE I features an inter-generational all-women cast of 16. With performers from ages10 to 93, LITTLE LEE I reflects the processes of aging through dance and video narrative. In line with the company's mission to reinvent vernacular movements into a new Asian dance theatre, Arts Fission's latest production should be lauded for engaging dance with such historical significance. The Samsui women not only occupy a unique place in our nation building; their personal lives are also a source of inspiration for female solidarity. Unfortunately by attempting to integrate into its agenda other major themes such as "the relentless cycle of banal, urban living", "lost landscapes" and "cultural dislocation", the dance work appears at certain times overly ambitious and thus loses some of its ingenuity.

LITTLE LEE I is divided into four acts, and each scene focuses on various aspects of aging and memories. Time and her traces on age are poetically teased out during the first act, but subsequently fail to entice as the performance proceeds. Nevertheless, LITTLE LEE I has a cast of strong dancers, and it is a pleasure to see on stage a successful collaboration between the company dancers and their guest counterparts. The first act opens to the six Samsui women on stage, now in their twilight years, seated around a young woman in her prime. Dancer Scarlet Yu sits with her back facing the audience, her black, long braid a sharp contrast with the other grey heads. Altogether, the seven women form a picture of serenity, their arms drawing simple, synchronized movements. The music selection for this opening - Flower Duet by Delibes continues to bemuse me. Although it is made clear in the programme that operatic arias are selected to throw these "little women into heroic relief amidst the banal, modern-day routines", I personally feel that the presentation would have been less clichéd, more appropriate and poignant if traditional Chinese operas, or any music that was listened to in that era were used instead.

>>'The Samsui women not only occupy a unique place in our nation building, their personal lives are also a source of inspiration for female solidarity.'

Scarlet Yu gives a strong solo in the second scene 'Spent Smells', where she rubs and smells her wrists - a motif of remembering that is to be repeated constantly in LITTLE LEE I. Her performance is aptly followed by another solo, this time by sculptor and Cultural Medalist Han Sai Por. As an artist whose works represent organic forms. Her petite figure is also an embodiment of strength and tenacity, albeit one different from that of a Samsui woman. Walking barefoot on stage and occasionally bending down to roll up her trousers, her slight frame looks so powerful that the accompanying reading of T.S. Eliot's 'The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock', definitely carries a feminist symbolism.

LITTLE LEE I also features the multi-media work of Chiang Jing Ying, whose video installations sometimes parallel the choreography, while at other times they are meant for juxtaposition. This works beautifully when the simple image of one of the Samsui women walking down the corridor of her present dwelling is repeated to various effects. For example, the image, when accompanying the opening act, evokes a bittersweet impression of one's loneliness amidst collective memory. When shown during a later scene titled 'Hurrying Feet' - which shows four child-performers playing hide-and-seek - the same image inevitably insinuates irony. However, there are times when the video images are flimsily appropriated, and appear redundant. This is so in Act III Scene I, where neither the title of the scene ('Lunar Incantations') nor the meaning of the choreography calls for the showing of a busy central MRT station where commuters rush up and down the escalators. No doubt the scene aims to draw out the all-too-oft-repeated themes of urban dislocation and identity, but even so the effect fails to strike a chord. At other times, a close-up image of a caterpillar is cast on the screen accompanied by images of a construction site. It is really difficult to force oneself to see the meaning behind these messages. And to have to link a caterpillar to life and growth and an eventual blossom, risks being contrived. Sometimes the dancing should have been permitted to speak for itself.

I find two particular scenes - 'Youth has no remorse' and 'The Fear of Forgetting' - worth mentioning here. Sharing the stage with Scarlet Yu, Elysa Wendi and Alicia Foo is one of the elderly performers who laboriously, though calmly folds a pile of orange plastic bags with her back to the audience, counteracting the younger trio's boundless energy. In this scene, the choreographer makes very good use of stage space, by having the dancers first travel vertically down in hop-scotch manner, and then horizontally to and fro in more frenzied movements. This latter segment of the scene signifies the characters' loss of their previous naivety, and Alicia Foo displays commendable musicality here. However just as I was noting down these details mentally in my head, a shopping bag carrying the brand name 'Prada', fell from above the stage and all three characters clamoured after it as it hung in mid-air. If the prop and all the ensuing hysterics were meant to symbolise (here we go again!) themes such as 'materialism and the contrivance of modern society', etc., it is regrettable that the effect was unintentionally comical.

Yet as I mentioned at the start of this review, this performance is always redeemed by the technical consistency of its cast. In the subsequent scene 'The Fear of Forgetting', Scarlet Yu, Elysa Wendi, Lim Mei Chien and Yang Mei all match up to a very compelling choreography, and achieve moving characterisations. Four of them begin the scene standing closely together in two lighted spots on stage. Within these plots of light, each of them fights for more space, and this space subtly alludes to memory. The four women then start to move out to the rest of the stage and by this time, the rhythm of the dance escalates and steps become very rapid, though the dancers remain sure-footed in their ensemble. There is a great deal of individual characterisation and improvisation with various torso contractions and certain floor movements portraying different forms of anxiety.

LITTLE LEE I came to a close with the epilogue - 'Forgotten and Remember'. Hving the full company on stage was an appropriate ending, and as they came forward joining hands, split screens showing images of nature descended slowly. Again, I wondered if this epilogue might have been more stirring if it had not been staged to the strains of Un bel di vedremo from 'Madama Butterfly'. I wonder if there can be another way of expressing the sense of peaceful satisfaction that emerged from the four acts.

As I write now, I imagine the 6 Samsui women on their way home to Blk 89 Redhill Close after this first night on stage. For each of them, it can only be an unforgettable journey. And all of us will remember that age cannot deter us from trying something new.