Quite frankly, the synopsis for the work is quite awful, sounding more like a diploma graduation show: "Life may be seen like a game of chess, entangled within the infinite existence of the chess set in endless matches [...] A work that is a reflection of and closely related to the realities of daily life, it explores the unspoken gaps and boundaries that divide, tensed relationships, schemes that plot against and make use of each other, rivalry for authority, ridicule and hypocrisy that lie between the hearts of humans..."
On a scale of 1 to 10, I honestly have to say the cringe factor for that little blurb alone is about 8. Checkmate promised such little ground-breaking or thought-provoking content that I expected it to be what I call "emo-dance", a dance of expressions without justification.
Tiong admittedly said, in the programme notes, that his objective was not to be deep but to be clear: "Though this may not strike you as deeply as desired, I am glad to have simply shared and said my piece." I appreciated the humility but thought it misplaced. It was just not good enough. Since I take contemporary dance choreography seriously, I hold the choreographer to task to "read" his own work critically. One cannot evade the cultural content in one's work. Whether meaning is intended or not, it is the artist's job to know how his work is going to speak, which language it is speaking with, whom he is speaking to. Depth must come through.
Still, we must judge a work on its own terms. In this case, it was strategic to focus our expectations on the piece's formalism since the choreographer had clearly placed all his attention on composition, musicality and form. And indeed, by this standard, Checkmate proved to be a tour de force. Tiong's approach was indeed simple but simple in a way that exhibited discipline, self-awareness and acumen. Insofar as the work was a personal response to past emotional experiences, through Checkmate, I felt that the man knew exactly what he had felt, understood how to translate that as music and dance and took us through a spectacular journey that left no stone unturned. In the sense that depth equals thoroughness, Tiong's work pulled out all the stops. It was deep, emotionally heartfelt on the part of the choreographer, and reflected an artist who is mature in his craft.
Dance is often loved for its ability to drown one in the moment. But whether one is the dancer or a member of the audience, it's not often that dance can take one's breath away. I remember when I first saw Ballet Frankfurt as a student in London and how a twenty-minute piece was so sensational that I was clutching my face in disbelief, actually wanting the piece to stop. My fellow Singaporean and friend, Stephanie and I sat silent and still next to each other during the intermission that followed. I was actually in tears. We were stunned that a dance work could be that sublime. We were proud that we had been part of something amazing.
Years later, now much more cynical, I am glad that Tiong's work took me close to that place of wonder again. It didn't take long for Checkmate to mesmerize. After a stunning solo by Chiew Peishan of Singapore's Frontier Danceland, Taiwanese dancer Wen Tsu-Wei, who had been watching her from a distance, ended his own short sequence by thumping his fist on a long narrow podium. This immediately started a soundtrack that sounded like a buddhist chant - a voluminous and bewitching sound - to which Chiew danced on her own podium across the stage. The choreography was of conventional contemporary styles but here, blending beautifully with the grandeur of the buddhist chants, moment after moment of alternating intensity and gentleness, strength and grace were portrayed. Tiong was in command of his work from beginning to end. There was never a moment of slack.
The eye continued to be kept busy throughout the show and was rewarded with movements that echoed each other, reminding us of what we had just seen and hinting at what was to come. Stillness and silence, in contrast with movement and sound, were key motifs employed in different fashions. As some of the eight dancers sat still, immobilized by their sense of dread, others spun round and round and jumped onto the platforms as if restless and undecided on the ideal state of being. At other times, the dancers articulated the frustrations of a lover mad with rage in the midst of an argument. But they never allowed actual sounds to depart from their mouths. Their face would contort and their bodies would bend over from forcing out soundless words. The idea of silence within sound, perhaps demonstrating an affinity to buddhism, is interestingly rendered here not as a source of peace but as tension and desperation.
I suppose Tiong sees man and woman in clear dichotomy, like the black and white pieces on a chess board but I think this unquestioning use of the cliché of the gender war, complete with the man as stoic vs the capricious woman, was a little bit disappointing with its one-dimensional treatment. Also, the work began with a conflict but that conflict did not appear to have been resolved in any way at the end. We shared one climactic moment after another with the dancers who first appeared in solos, then duets, then finally as an ensemble but the purpose of that remained unclear but then again, did this really matter?
The strong cast of dancers - four male, four female - was a large one for the studio theatre. Amongst them were some virtuosic dancers and Tiong seemed to have stretched them to their full abilities. My favourite was Wen who displayed an amazing grasp of the choreography and understanding of his body. I grabbed the edge of my middle-of-front-row seat, ogling this impossibly beautiful dancer and transforming back into a teenage boy hero-worshipping some Taiwanese pop idol. (OK, so I sound a teeny-bit partial and unprofessional.)
Tiong also made full use of the stage, which was bare and wide with the wings removed, most effectively. The stage was always richly layered with different textures. The supporting designs for the work were just as well-considered. Colours in the work were cool and sombre, as witnessed not only in the set but also in the lighting and costume designs. The stage was awash with blues, magentas and greys, underpinning the melancholy mood of the work.
The Straits Times reviewer Tara Tan gave Checkmate a less-than-glowing review. To be fair, to anyone with a trained eye and a preference for postmodern posturing, Checkmate may not only come across as dated but its hyperbolic expressionism, which is not quite agreeable with the 21st century zeitgeist, will likely make a critic wince. However, I felt humbled by Tiong's effort. Like Tan, I too enjoyed the "lightning-quick ferocity" and the "unusual and mesmerizing positions" of the dancers' bodies but unlike her, I did not feel that the "sullen faces and angry gestures" lay beyond the threshold of tolerability. Contrary to what Tan said, I don't think Tiong's was a "highly gestural choreography" either. There was the use of gestures but only some. The dance work was full of dance, dance of the exuberant sort, dance that makes you tap your feet, dance that makes you want to stand up and dance along... but only if you allow it to. The work was clearly a lot more than those clichés. It won me over with its sincerity which, trite as it sounds, is often a missing ingredient in many performance works today.
Emo-dance? As I walked out of the Esplanade, I felt foolish for pre-judging the work; although I do maintain that the programme blurb did not do Checkmate justice and should be re-written if the work is to be performed again. (And I certainly hope it will be! Come on Esplanade! Take this overseas!) Emo-dance, if I still want to call it that, can be wonderful in the right hands, just as conceptual work can be plain boring (and often is) in the wrong ones.
Daniel Kok is an artist/choreographer. Daniel is an associate artist with the Substation and was placed at the top of the Faces to Watch list by the Straits Times in 2007. He currently teaches the Art Elective Programme at Hwa Chong Institution.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /