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Modern Dance for Beginners

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Escape Theatre Limited


Deanne Tan






DBS Arts Centre



Save the Last Dance

As a chronicle of contemporary heterosexual culture, one can easily draw parallels between Modern Dance for Beginners and television productions like Coupling and Sex and the City. Youthful and slick, it unapologetically serves up eight characters in a round-robin display of five couples, all within the span of an hour and fifteen minutes (yes, there is some overlapping of couples). The result is a portrait of a thoroughly modern lifestyle, filled with seemingly non-stop, indiscriminate sex.

This lifestyle that playwright Sarah Phelps creates is nonetheless far from salacious. Instead, Phelps' key focus is the constant talking that takes place either as a prelude to or after the sexual act. Phelps builds her stories around sexual encounters to show us the various versions of human connections that are formed around them. These connections (as opposed to relationships, which implies something more substantial, more long term) are a mix of seductive banter, hopeless self-justification, and desperate haranguing, salted with an ironic streak. Phelps moves efficiently to the next "conquest" once each set-up for sex is complete, this abruptness enhancing the sense of sex for meaningless self-gratification.

One also gets the sense that the characters are no closer to each other for having done the deed. Each story reveals a consistent longing for something more to exist between two human beings. While some moments in Modern Dance are purely humorous, some moments hint at greater emotional turmoil bubbling beneath the surface connections. The overall effect is one of endemic loneliness, made stark before a rash of fleshly pairings.

This premise has nonetheless lost some of its newness, thanks to its proliferation in the abovementioned television shows, and others. Given the competition, it seems natural that more effort would have been made to refresh the concept, either by the playwright or director. Here, credit is due to director Samantha Scott-Blackhall for not sensationalising the subject matter, and focusing instead on the tension between the physical closeness and the emotional distance of the couples. But, at the end of the day, Modern Dance, by merely chronicling what most audiences have at least heard of, if not seen several times before, failed to transcend its subject matter.

This can perhaps be primarily attributed to the actors, on whose shoulders a heavy, dialogue-intensive responsibility rested. Beatrice Chia and Mark Waite were suitably bawdy and enthusiastic in their acrobatic transformations from couple to couple. Waite, reprising his role, was particularly adept at mutating from one character to another, from a confused middle-class bridegroom hoping to use marriage to find happiness, to a rough-hewn handyman with a can-do attitude to life, to a dorky salaryman hungry for a relationship, and finally a self-envisioned Lothario of the night. Chia possessed a very modern, game-for-anything attitude which was absolutely necessary for the various sexually-expressive characters she played.

Unfortunately, the characters ended up flat and poorly developed. Chia's colourful characters came off as largely one-dimensional, which was especially ruinous for the key character of Frances, a modern female Casanova. Frances was very much the core of Modern Dance, epitomising the young, disillusioned career woman who prefers sex to romance. She has a regular fix-it man, Russell, who has ideas of a relationship, but Frances is resolute about not mixing sex with romance. The only sex that really seems to touch her is a clandestine fling with her old flame, Owen, on the day of Owen's wedding to Julia. In this opening scene, an over-stimulated Frances unleashes a bitter rant about Julia's family being posher than hers. Her anger not only reveals her sense of inadequacy, but is also directed at Owen, who is using marriage as an easy path to upper-crust happiness. While Chia's overplayed Frances was effective as the brutal, delirious voice of truth, she was too hard and flat to be poignant or human. Frances came off as a hollow statue, bitter and incapable of love. When Frances later turned down Russell's overture for a relationship, she appeared not to have any vestige of human vulnerability - and thus a chance to develop into a real, rounded character was wasted. Chia also froze over the softer, sadder side of Owen's wife Julia, who, some years after her wedding day feels betrayed and is desperate for her plumber to fulfil her husband's duties. For Julia, Chia dons a ridiculous bushel of artificial curls, and the same angry hollowness. There was a lot of unexplored pathos in the scene where Julia alternately ordered and pleaded with her plumber to give her a fix.

Such un-moderated extremes of character did not contribute to the play's attempt at a sensitive exploration of the human psyche thrown off-balance by modern sexual politics. They also made it difficult for the chemistry between the actors to grow. Waite was a tad self-contained throughout, eschewing more thoughtful gestures towards his co-actor that would have contributed to the feeling of chemistry. The initial camaraderie between the bickering Owen and Frances was funny and sweet, but Frances' unwavering emotional plateau stopped it from going any further.

Another key aspect, dialogue, could have been more carefully considered. While the humorous moments in the play came off well, this was primarily a bittersweet rather than a laugh-out-loud play. Those central parts of dialogue which explored the characters' interior musings were rushed through in a slapdash manner, with little consideration for the deeper rationale beneath the surface hunger for physical connection. This carelessness marred the play's many opportunities for outlining the connections (and anti-connections, a word coined by Phelps) between the couples.

Perhaps it was because of such unthoughtful treatment that the last two vignettes, which featured Owen's one night stand and a couple's role-playing game, had seemingly little resonance with the central theme. Owen's rapid-fire explanation for being a jerk after his one night stand with shop assistant Eleri was predictable and seemed like an easy way to maintain the link between Owen's philandering and his fascination with Frances. The almost mute Eleri was filled with blank equanimity, a human prop with the sole purpose of discovering a lump in Owen's testicle.

The last couple, which seemed even more disjointed from the rest of the play, was the couple most likely to be voted "happily ever after". Skinner (Russell's boss) and Lorraine (Owen's oncologist) engaged in an innocent game of role-playing in a club before doing the deed. There were endearingly clumsy attempts at recreating witty repartee, but there was rapport and the actual suggestion of a balanced relationship. However, the couple's deeper connection apart from a keen common interest in sex could not be fathomed. Whether this was the fault of the script, director or actor (or audience) is debatable, but it definitely brought into sharp relief how much more a successful coupling of characters could do.

Perhaps Modern Dance's lack of brilliance is due to the fact that it arrived a little too long after it had become à la mode to think about men and women having sex without relationships. That said, Modern Dance has the potential to stir the hearts of its audiences if done sincerely and conscientiously, given its rich subjects of human desire and loneliness. What it isn't really is "modern", lacking as it did a subtext about contemporary sexual politics. I suspect Phelps does not think of Modern Dance as her best work - then again, neither should Escape Theatre.

"Perhaps Modern Dance's lack of brilliance is due to the fact that it arrived a little too long after it had become à la mode to think about men and women having sex without relationships"

Producer: Edwin Koh
Director: Samantha Scott-Blackhall
Sound Designer and Music Composer/Arranger: Darren Ng
Lighting Designer: James Tan
Stage Manager: Toh Lin, Cheryl Ho
Assistant Stage Manager: Gethyn Evans
Sound Operator: Ye Junmin
Beatrice’s hair: Ashley Lim
Mark’s hair: Jade Chua

More Reviews of Productions by Escape Theatre Limited

More Reviews by Deanne Tan

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.