>ASHES by Performance Collective Asia

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 15 jun 2000
>time: 10:30pm
>venue: sculpture square
>rating: **

>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.


It seems that in this year's Arts Festival, many productions focus more attention on creating a visual aesthetic, theatrically exhilarating eye-candy that offers a unique experience for the audience, and less in trying to present a coherent set of ideas, a dialectic movement of thought into a sense of a conclusion.

In certain productions, like 'Spring Day' by Pappa Tarahumara or 'Ombra' by La Fura dels Baus, this theatrical aesthetic creates an emotional landscape that connects the audience to a multitude of expressions and thought provoking ideas. In others, behind the glossy façade lie productions too caught up in their own ideas so that they willfully disengage themselves from the audience, leaving us scratching our heads in frustration. The word "disingenuous" springs to mind.

ASHES, Performance Collective Asia's production for the Singapore Arts Festival Late Night Series, is a production that leans more to the latter and less to the former.

Barefooted and with hygiene masks covering their mouths and noses, the audience entered a sealed building located at Sculpture Square. Called a "memory cell", this was in fact more a chapel of memories, what with the high ceilings and the presence of two hundred bottles in different shapes and sizes that were filled with ashes - the burnt remains of personal items taken from people all around the world, be they a dissertation or a love letter.

>>'The audience was left to drown in a pool of inarticulation'

White was the colour of the night, and not only due to the killer white clothes worn by the performers. The entire floor was covered with a layer of white powdery snow (it was actually flour) which the audience was invited to walk upon. This, combined with the bottles of ashes that lined the floor, the six projector screens depicting a series of moving circles and an intriguing soundscape of thudding beats, jazz numbers and classical strings, imaginatively set the tone and mood for the evening.

For this was the liminal space where memories underwent transformation. Like the white "snow" that constantly shifted and took different forms under the shuffling feet of the audience and the more rapid movements of the performers, so too were the memories recollected tonight in constant change. They were shown and revealed in all their personal subjectivity and individuality, in all their states of transience and flux. Process was the key word here - the process of memories in their creation and destruction, their assembly, disassembly and re-assembly; in so doing, identity - personal, sexual and post-colonial - was called into question.

It was during the recollection of memories that the initially startling vision started to wear thin. The actors ran around, danced away, slammed their bodies against the walls, leaving a cloud of flour in their wake; meanwhile they spouted lines, told small tales of loss, and acted out fragmented stories that were behind some of the bottles of ashes. It was a sea of shifting signifiers, with the audience (like the performers who were in a search for a resolution to their memories) constantly searching for a sign or clue to lead them to an understanding of the confusion that was taking place all around. And because these small actions and minor details did not add up to any holistic picture and were instead totally impressionistic (and therefore easily forgotten), the audience was left to drown in this pool of inarticulation.

It didn't help that the video projection of morphing shapes or the woman at the front, who stood on a stool behind an altar of bottles throughout the whole performance, did not provide any direction as to where all this was headed. This lack of a sense of direction perhaps stemmed from the fact that ASHES was a collaborative effort, with each of the performers taking an active part in creating the production.

Maybe this was the intention, the whole idea of being in a memory cell: in a space of shifting boundaries and the dissolution of fixed binaries, a sense of loss and confusion was expected, leaving the audience to explore their personal space/memories on their own. But the production should have spent more time in helping the audience in this journey/process of the self or at least more time in questioning the process itself.

And it was because of this disregard for the audience that the whole performance at times became too self-conscious - there was a hint of refusal to admit that they were engaged with anything other than their own talent. (Even the limited interaction with the audience was too artful and calculated.) The performance as such became a pose, an incredibly interesting and affected pose, but a pose nonetheless. And there has to be a point when the pose is examined or questioned - one way is to take on a hint of ironic knowing-ness in the very nature of the performance; but this was not to be in this somewhat too earnest production

That is not to say that there weren't visually stunning or deliciously clever moments in the performance. There were - the beautifully slow drift of the "snow" onto a performer's body caught in the soft glare of the light; the poignant scene when one of the performers slowly chose bottles that represented his various states of feeling; the clever bit when the performers started to camp it up and sashayed up and down the performing space saying lines like "White is good", "White is beautiful". But taken together with the other deliberately obtuse and overly abstract vignettes, it just wasn't enough.

Maybe it's just me. But after two weeks of productions that were amazing to look at, yet empty or elusive in what they tried to say or mean, one wished for more engaging substance behind the interesting sensorial premise of ASHES. And aren't you tired of the overuse of multimedia in nearly every show, where its use has no discernable link to the production itself, as if multimedia equates to "new inspiration"? Maybe, the theme of this year's Arts Fest should have been "Using Video Projection" instead.