>reviewed by malcolm tay

>date: 25 aug 2000
>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.


Since its inception in 1978, NUS Dance Synergy has earned a place in the developing arts scene at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Formerly known as the NUS Jazz Ballet Group, it has since been led by a number of different choreographers. People who have tutored Synergy at one point or another include Tammy L. Wong (this was incidentally her first job after relocating to Singapore in 1995) and Elaine Chan, principal dancer of the former's dance company. Today, China-born Fan Dong Kai, who also choreographs for the People's Association Cultural Troupe, leads the sixty-strong varsity dance group.

NUS Dance Synergy does not hold auditions for prospective applicants and as a result, it comprises largely of curious undergraduates with little or even no affinity to dance. This is compensated for with technique classes by SDT principal dancer Kuik Swee Boon and choreography classes with Fan on a weekly basis, a schedule that persists during the term breaks as well.

In preparation for this concert, members rehearsed at least four times a week, with each session lasting for about five hours or more. What took place in the 400-seater theatre of the University Cultural Centre, however, was more of an insult to the amount of effort that was contributed to try and make this concert a success.

The programme of seven works (all choreographed by Fan) began on a promising note with his latest creation entitled 'Prism', a five-part piece that made use of wooden boxes in its choreography. Like a glass prism that separates a ray of light into its range of colours, 'Prism' was a window into the broad spectrum of human states: loneliness and withdrawal; from Gershwin's "Summertime" in 'Love Peas' to warm and tender affection in 'Flames of Desire', from searching for personal gratification in pitch-black darkness in 'Path of Glory' to the peace and nature-inspired serenity in 'Tranquility', and finally to the rush of urban adrenalin in 'City Beat'.

Blending static poses with everyday and stylised movements, each section carried its own weight without the use of overly- ostentatious steps. The inclusion of wooden boxes appeared to have not only created different levels of space, but also their rigid lines complemented the staccato moves of the dancers. Particularly memorable was the 'Tranquility' segment, which had almost twenty women in blue and black moving their connected bodies in a fashion that mimicked the movement of waves. All was well until an eloquent, but self-deprecating compere made an unnecessary appearance onstage.

>>'Credit should be given to the senior dancers, who held the evening together with their experience and convicted performances'

Totalling four appearances throughout the evening, her job description was painfully limited to: 1. Regurgitating a list of achievements by the group. 2. Regurgitating a list of achievements by Fan Dong Kai. 3. Reminding audiences that the group/Fan is actually very talented. 4. Projecting a pathetic self-image that allowed audiences to snigger at her expense. From this point on, the concert traced a downward spiral into the tacky land of variety shows.

But the group was far from finished and performed a range of pieces that were perhaps meant to flaunt their versatility and exposure to other forms of dance. 'Exuberance' was a dance that was said to "combine the art of Brazilian folk dancing with modern dance techniques," featuring six female dancers decked in yellow, red and black costumes with ruffled skirts and flowers in their hair. While bubbly and upbeat, it felt more like a tourist sideshow than a contemporary adaptation, right down to the use of the Euro-cheesy Vengaboys track "To Brazil!" Similarly, 'Morning Lass' was an interpretation of a more traditional style of dancing, presumably Balinese judging from the three sarong-clad female dancers with spiky headdresses. The simplicity and virtue of "innocent village girls" may have been its main motivation, but swivelling hips and coquettish glances seemed to imply everything else but that.

No more interesting was 'Because We Want To', Fan's take on American street dancing, choreographed to an irritating song of the same name by an English teen pop tart named Billie. While sufficiently energetic, it had the undesirable taste of a fluffy junior college dance item. And the same could also be seen in 'Trio', a comical dance for three choreographed to Janet Jackson's "Together Again". As a light-hearted dance about childhood innocence and naiveté, it was pleasant enough but to those familiar with the accompanying song, the choice of music may have been inappropriate. Intended as a disco paean to friends who died of AIDS, the bittersweet undertones in the lyrics of "Together Again" were completely left untouched in the dance, which may be considered by some to be in bad taste.

Neither was it of any consolation that works like 'Trio', 'Exuberance' and 'Morning Lass' are staples in the group's performance routine in schools under the Arts Education Programme. Certainly, a paying audience deserved to see more than what was regularly dished out to schoolchildren.

Nevertheless, the award-winning 'Lazy Monkey', which turned out to be more exciting than it sounded, stood out from this cluster of shallow and sloppy work. Using bodily and facial expressions, four dancers - two male, two female - fleshed out their simian personas with aplomb. Set to an interesting collage of percussive sounds and jazzy melodies, the dancers displayed supple torsos and nimble footwork worthy of Chinese street acrobats, engaging themselves in antics that one might expect from monkeys. Two flailed their arms and screwed up their faces as if in a petty fight, while one climbed onto the shoulders of another as if to check out the view over a canopy of trees. Well-crafted, yet unassuming works like these really showed what the group was capable of.

Capping the evening was 'Virgin Touch', a four-part ensemble work that premiered at last year's production of 'Dance Reflections'. While it came across as a foray into something abstract, there seemed to be little that connected the various sections into a cohesive whole and thus, it never fully realised its potential as a finale.

In the first part entitled 'Spirits', eight male and female dancers in mangled corporate outfits combined stilted moves with held poses in a cold and detached manner, like emasculated individuals trapped in limbo. The second part, 'Awakening', featured transparent raincoat-clad dancers positioned around a table, each tapping a spoon on the table like hungry mute ghosts clamouring for a meal. Resting in darkness at the front of the stage was an intertwined couple, virtually naked in their skin-coloured tights, surrounded and stared at by the other dancers like a zoo exhibit. To the strains of Celine Dion's lung bursting "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", the final part, 'Spring Blossoms', brought this dance to a diva-esque climax.

While it was truly sad to see a promising contemporary dance group mutate into the proverbial Jack-of-all-trades midway into the concert, credit should be given to the senior dancers, who held the evening together with their experience and convicted performances. Looking at the sell-out crowd, it was also a time for family and friends to support their loved ones, and perhaps that was all that mattered to this audience. But a note to the management: dance is a form of expression that speaks for itself through movement, and if an audience needs to be constantly reminded by someone that they are watching something "really hot", then it only reflects poorly on the performers in question.