>SUBTERRESTRIALS by Arts Fission Company

>reviewed by Malcolm Tay

>date: 17 jun 2000
>time: 10:30pm
>venue: hawker's alley, clarke quay
>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.

>>>>>lost in space

Being the presumptuous fool that I am, a production with a title like SUBTERRESTRIALS had me thinking about the disenfranchised, marginalised groups of people who lived beneath the standards of society, in addition to images of the 'moles' who lived in the underground subways of New York.

All this came to mind after I had read the first few lines from the preview by fellow writer James Koh, which began with something like imagine walking down a tunnel, a dark and long passageway with its ceiling about to touch the tip of your head.

This latest offering by The Arts Fission Company was a bid to explore the feelings and emotions that ran deep in the recesses of our minds, "to recapture forgotten moments in life" - hence the title. On another level, SUBTERRESTRIALS became a means for Indonesian-Chinese choreographer Elysa Wendi to delve into her Chinese heritage, a part of her that was neglected during her childhood - hence the cheongsam-clad dancers and the use of an empty Chinese restaurant as a performance space, among other things. Using live dance, installation art and freeze frame photography, this production brought the audience out of the stuffy theatre and into an informal environment that attempted to foster interaction between the audience and the performers, giving audiences the choice to view what they wanted to see and the opportunity to get "personal".

>>'This inter-disciplinary work seemed to have fallen way beyond its objectives'

On the surface, this site-specific work turned out to be fairly intriguing. One by one, the cast of five female dancers made their entrance, placing each chair in a circle before they sat down. The choreography, while not terribly demanding, comprised of an interesting mix of static poses and staccato moves. At times they moved within the structures of white, translucent fabric that were part of Joyce Ng's installation art or danced against the video projection of assorted images, yet making use of the entire floor area while moving in time with each other. The collage of sounds, ranging from soaring synthesizer, Chinese opera, Portishead tunes and other sound effects, gave the air an unusual texture (in addition to the loud and sleazy music from the bar nearby). While viewing this with more than twenty other people in a small area, you did get a sense of being in an underground shelter of some kind.

However, this inter-disciplinary work seemed to have fallen way beyond its objectives, beginning with the performance site itself. The empty Chinese restaurant that was used looked nothing like a "dark and long passageway", mainly because it was not exactly long or tunnel-like in its dimensions. With two oblong areas that were linked by a path of white carpet, it was shaped more like an "I" with no nooks and crannies to look at, thus resulting a space that resembled nothing like the maze that it was meant to be. Likewise for the ceiling, which was not particularly low or claustrophobia inducing, unless you were more than two metres tall. The red pillars were, essentially, red pillars and I began to ask if there was any relation between the entire production and the choreography.

While this production was aimed at encouraging the audience to mingle with the performers, there seemed to be nothing that encouraged this. Even before the performance went underway, the audience was told to keep to the red-carpeted areas and stay away from the projectors, which effectively ruled out any interaction with the mainly white carpet-occupying dancers. If audiences were not even allowed to venture away from the walls, how much interactive response could have been derived? Probably very little or even none, the latter of which turned out to be the case here. Even if some members of the audience were bold enough to mingle with the performers, were the dancers themselves strong enough to handle it? Maybe not, but that is something we will never know for sure. Everyone seemed a lot happier to get out of the dancers' way.

When it came to choosing what you wanted to see, there were no choices to speak of. Despite the fact that the performers were constantly shifting themselves around the performance site most, if not all of the action was located at only one spot at a time. Nothing was staged simultaneously at different parts of the room so unless you were willing to stare at a blank space or a familiar face, you really had no choice but to stay put until it was time to move to another area. The slide projections, which could have generated some interest, were virtually unnoticeable and whatever connection they had with this piece remained a mystery. Neither was it of any consolation that the audience was unwittingly following the choreographer and the installation artist, who pre-empted the performers' every move around the room.

In many respects, SUBTERRESTRIALS was just as conventional as any evening at the ballet. It had the potential to confront the audience with something exciting and original, but somehow it lacked the courage to do so. Despite the amount of effort that was put into making it work, what could have been an intensely visceral experience became anything but so.