>missing in tall pillars by ecnad project ltd

>reviewed by malcolm tay

>date: 11 jun 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: asian civilisations museum, empress place
>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.


Ecnad Project's latest site-specific production, commissioned for this year's Arts Festival and staged at the Asian Civilisation Museum's future Empress Place Building gallery, is its most ambitious work to date. There's intricate video processing by Tania Sng and Aquafire Production, Tommy Wong's stately lighting schemes, and an atmospheric, wonderfully textured score by Philip Tan. It is huge, monumental, possibly never to be repeated. Reviews of MISSING IN TALL PILLARS, however, haven't been particularly favourable; it would seem that it isn't so easy to like. Granted that not everything sits happily together, it's nowhere as bad as it has been panned.

In batches, audience members were ushered into the gallery on the second floor by way of a cargo lift and a plainly constructed maze. The space is vast, expansive, distinguished by twelve mammoth pillars (we're told they're Roman) and an exclusive area for costume changes. A white line that cut across the room kept spectators on one side, even when invited to move around to watch the action from different angles. Which is sad because the audience is part of the performance as well - we are shown a two-minute film of our pre-show selves waiting in the foyer, chatting in the lift. But no one wanted to budge; silly me was too shy to initiate anything.

>>''It is huge, monumental, possibly never to be repeated… Granted that not everything sits happily together, it's nowhere as bad as it's been panned.''

The main complaint seems to be that its various segments, with their easy one-word names and respective aural-visual components, don't gel into a coherent, cohesive whole. Abstract and disjointed. However, I suspect that the disjointedness is deliberate, perhaps more impactful with a mobile audience getting into the middle of things. (See previous paragraph.) And literal, linear narratives are not Ecnad's style; there's no real plot in MISSING, but there is a point to it all: humankind's search for acceptance, balance and identity in an increasingly urbanised world, the imposing pillars as a metaphor for that encroaching sense of alienation. The "sense of loss", according to the programme notes.

Urban dwellers finding themselves - for Ecnad, that's not an uncommon theme, one that the company has probed from different perspectives during its six-year history. Its dancers have come and gone, and currently, they have grown into a technically diverse, more cosmopolitan group. In addition to artistic co-director Tan How Choon, former engineer Kon Su Sam, and Swiss-born Monique Pillet, we find new dancers-in-residence in Australia native Andrew Rusk, Susan Yeung from Hong Kong, and project dancers Connie Cheng and Loh Yuk Sun. (The other artistic co-director, Lim Chin Huat, decided to sit this one out.) Rusk, with his shaven head, slender build, and alabaster-fair skin, could easily pass himself off as a Sankai Juku dancer. Especially when he contorts his face into a silent growl - scary. But he appears to be equally comfortable churning out double tours en l'air, as he is writhing in butoh-esque agony, so it will be interesting to see how he'll figure in future productions.

The last time we saw the indefatigable [Philip] Tan in an Ecnad creation, he was happily pounding the most infectious rhythms out of a stool in 'Percussion One - Variations for Eight' last year. More recently, he did much-lauded work for W!ld Rice's 'Animal Farm'. Here, his role in MISSING is considerably more substantial. Not only does he administer the passages of live music with his usual gusto - using drums, metal pipes, empty plastic containers, or whatever works - he is also incorporated into the choreography, and the video projections on the walls. In fact, he is first seen on video in the opening 'Entering' section, flustered and frantic, meandering his way into the entrance before he appears in person. Rhythmically pummelling a wall and the floor, Tan transmits this burst of energy to six dancers, standing still in their street clothes. They begin 'Stamping' by clapping, stomping their chunky shoes in rhythmic unison, only to face-off in two sub-groups before regrouping, and ejecting Pillet from the group for crazy boogie-ing.

Then, in 'Pillars' the dancers, now dressed in white pyjama-like costumes, each lay claim to a pillar and confess their (self-composed) hopes and desires, as they attempt to manoeuvre their bodies around them. "Pete and I are going to be best friends forever," says Rusk. "I love this pillar!" declares Kon, hugging it, his arms scarcely covering its extensive cylindrical surface. In their minds, the pillars are as special as birthday candles, ice-cream sticks, even bosom buddies. Of course, it all sounds so ridiculous, desperate; not that they were ever meant to sound logical anyway. In very personal and peculiar ways, they're just trying to compensate for the isolation, dislocation that they feel in the face of these massive structures.

As the pillared space is virtually transformed into cold urban terrain in 'Urban', a luscious rainforest on the brink of extinction in 'Forest', and a narcissistic sculpture gallery in 'Man', the dancers respond to their ever-changing environment accordingly. In these circumstances, their "sense of loss" - of direction, self-importance - is heightened, exacerbated. PVC-suited in 'Urban', they swing between jittery angst and lyrical aspirations. Against falling leaves and the sound of Loh's loudhailer Geography lesson in 'Forest', they wander around in amazement, doing their own thing, supplying wordless vocals that somehow add a strange serenity. And statues come to life in 'Man'; Kon and a bodybuilder (Ha Thanh Quang) flex and pose in only tiny white tights, while the rest bound, stretch their limbs with pleasure.

'Man' culminates with Tan [How Choon], alone, posing vainly on top of a pile of large white discs while indignantly proclaiming Man's, and therefore his, supremacy at the top of his voice. "This is a pillar, the almighty pillar, connecting heaven and earth… represents Man's ego, Man's ability to change the environment, the ability to achieve the impossible…" (Here's when I cringed a little; Ecnad dancers haven't completely mastered the business of dancing and speaking.) At this point, he looks deranged, self-absorbed, yet very lonely at the top. Exhausted, he eventually descends, but only with the help of [Philip] Tan, who slowly leads him down from a shorter pillar of discs nearby. The two Tans exit.

MISSING ends with 'Dream', a video projection of the white-clad dancers in this very space, fleeting images of madness and comfort. You then realise that it's the same video projection that was used earlier in 'Pillars', that the "sense of loss" is still present. With MISSING, Ecnad doesn't tell us how to deal with this loss; we just handle it however, whenever we can. At least that's how I see it.