The Body Dutiful
Remember Forward Moves last year? It kicked some serious ass, with a deliciously eclectic programme comprising Jo-anne Lee's video game-inspired body mechanics, daniel k's forays into combining poetry and raw movement, and Ricky Sim's organic exploration of everyday movements. Vitally, all three works moved with a strong kinetic rhythm, with nary a dull moment where a reviewer might be forced to stifle a yawn.
This year, sadly, standards have dropped a little. Choreographers Joavien Ng, Neo Hong Chin and Ebelle Chong aren't as judicious as their predecessors, leading to occasionally tedious works, performed with noticeable imperfections.
Serendipitiously or otherwise, the three performances are thematically unified by their explorations of the body and control. First up, there's Ng's piece, Body Inquire (***1/2), based on personal reactions to the teachings of legendary modern dance pioneer Martha Graham.
The show's begun even before the audience finishes finding their seats. Passages of text by the maestra are projected on the screen at the back of studio, and first Ng, then her fellow performer Ricky Sim enters, wearing striped T-shirts and doing stretching exercises. When then the show officially opens, the two strike poses with large folded squares of floorboard while quotes from Martha flash onscreen, intercut with fragmented bits of text from the dancers' biographies. "Choreographer, Pilates instructor, home-maker." "My last cigarette." "My grandmother." Cute so far, but nothing remarkable.
Things only really get exciting when the "assignments" commence. Words onscreen instruct the performers to imagine they've just won a million dollars, making them dance in comic joy - especially when they're reminded they won't have to work as dance teachers anymore. The text then commands that they freeze their shoulders, then their elbows, then their hands, their hips, their knees, their eyes, their ears, and so forth. Even when the dancers can no longer see, a voice from the sound booth comes on to dictate their actions. And in spite of these restraints, the two continue their celebratory dances, awkwardly handicapped by their paralysis.
As part of the performers' second assignment, the voice describes a scenario in which they discover that their money has been stolen, moving the two to fulminate, despair, and slowly collapse to the floor. Then the bizarrest part of the act begins: the dancers guide each other, apparently haphazardly, through a range of difficult, semi-synchronised movements, centered on the twists of the horizontal body on the floorboards: strenuous variations on lying down, on their sides, on their stomachs, spinning and rolling, all the while uttering mysterious commands or commentaries - "Do not intellectualise the movement." "Do not copy." "This feels like an orgasm." "I am too old." At first, these movements are painfully slow, but then they evolve into smooth, quick movements, though still evidently problematic for the dancers to perform.
I'll have to admit, I'm biased towards this piece, partly because it deals with the tension between dance and text (and as a writer, text is my fetish), and partly because I'm familiar with Ng's work, so I can tell that this represents a radical departure from her usual aesthetics into high conceptualism.
The work seems to pivot on one particular Graham quote: "The body says what words cannot." Ng challenges this statement, which seems to suggest that the body is a superior mode of communication than text. If so, she asks, then why does dance training continue by diktat? And why do words continue to be so crucial in dancers' descriptions of themselves, in their discourse about their craft? It's worthwhile to note that she enlists comedy in her exploration of these ideas, both intellectual and physical - though Sim's clownish facial and physical expressiveness actually work better than Ng's as they contort their bodies.
Ng and Sim end the sequence by folding themselves into their floorboards, curled into rounded coffins, while a final quote from Graham appears on the screen. "Do not get bored with yourself, just feel that you are dancing toward your death," it states. The screen then rolls with the full biographies of the two performers, while overlapping sound bytes are played from their conversations on the state of dance in Singapore are played.
It's a smart, daring, and decidedly enjoyable piece, though its ideas aren't quite as cleanly condensed as in other works by visiting artists I've seen - Dick Wong's B.O.B: Body O Body, for example, or Jochen Roller's perform performing. A few fellow audience members found that the games of instruction took too long, but for me, it was decently tight - especially when compared to the acts which followed.
Neo Hong Chin's MAgic: MAchine (***) begins quite promisingly, with the appearance of Ebelle Chong (who's dancing for her fellow choreographer) her face and arms hidden in her dress, composed of layer upon layer of semi-transparent white plastic bags. In the dim light, she's an inhuman, violent figure, rustling and crinkling the fabric of her costume, striking weird geometrical poses as she emerges from the darkness.
This is a highly personal piece for both Neo and Chong, recalling their experiences of first pregnancy and ensuing confinement. Running sharply against the canonical vision of sacred motherhood, the creators present a stark vision of a venture into the unknown, the angular figure of the dancer advancing along diagonals and obliques, at once both the burdened woman and the growing foetus inside her. Though it adopts a more conservative approach toward dance than Ng's piece, it works - or at least, until the dancer reveals her face.
Somehow, as soon as we see that Chong has the face of an everyday woman, she's no longer the powerful, menacing figure she once was. What's worse is that Neo has decided to have her speak, blurting out mysterious phrases referencing her own peculiar experiences in the delivery room and nursery - "It's 8 o'clock," "Channel News Asia", "Where, where, where? There!" Quite aside from the confounding lack of context behind these utterances, the piece is weakened by the fact that Chong is not a trained voice actor - her presentation is amateurish, almost junior college-level in its silliness, causing the duration of the piece to wear my patience a little.
Certainly, there's still some interesting symbolism at work in the accompanying movements: Chong strips off the plastic layers one by one, giving birth to herself, playing with their tension across her almost-naked body. A projector beams the soft green image of someone's face on her white body - is this her child, herself, her ghost? And as the show concluded, the darkening lights reduced the dancer to a mere after-image: another phantom creature in the warped world of early motherhood. (Personally, though, I found this macabre beyond reason: it's suggestive of the death of the mother at the height of her hormonal swings, rather than an evolution back into the human.)
We take a step back into the realm of the conceptual with Chong's own
Perhaps I'm missing the minimalist aesthetics behind this sequence, but the simple fact is that it bored me half to sleep. Sure, there was a cool audio element created by Wong's laying down of the tape, and a bit of spectacle created by the physical contortions of the dancers' bodies, but the utter casualness of their movements and intoned numbers seemed to assure me that there was nothing here worth watching, nothing that was exciting or dramatic. There was only a dull repetition of the idea that it's hard to grasp the mathematical dimensions of space with our bodies. Even when the lights went out and red laser dots began shining, travelling up one of the dancers' bodies as she stood, nervously calling out random numbers - I was already too tired to care.
Then, suddenly, an epiphany: the dancers began to cross the space in complex, rapid motions, calling out numbers like stage directions, the red laser lights illuminating the points of contact wherever their feet, elbows or knees touched the ground. During talkbacks, Chong explained that this sequence represented an erasure of boundaries, as the confines of the grid were replaced by liberated motion. And while I've doubts whether the theme of boundaries was well expressed earlier (the dancers moved their bodies across the masking-tape walls several times in their first measurements), I have to attest that the visuals were beautiful, just beautiful.
The iffy results of this year's Forward Moves mustn't be seen as an indicator of Singapore's dance scene in general. Remember, the annual event is organised not only as a showcase, but also a development lab for our choreographers, an opportunity for creatives with a credible body of work behind them to do something unusual, to break out of their established boundaries. There're still a number of solid choreographers that haven't been featured yet - Ming Poon and Angela Liong come immediately to mind, and with a growing audience for dance, there're sure to be more in the future. I'll definitely be looking forward to next year's Forward Moves, and the performances that'll make their debut in that arena.
Disclaimer: Joavien Ng has collaborated with the reviewer in the interdisciplinary collective V.I.S.T.A. Lab.
Three original dance performances, playing with the themes of the body and control in various forms, choreographed by three experimental choreographers based in Singapore. First, Joavien Ng's Body Inquire riffs off the teachings of Martha Graham, as she and fellow choreographer / dancer Ricky Sim follow a game of written and spoken instructions, constricting and restricting their movements and emotions - a piquant game that pits text against movement, as well as a mischievous commentary on dance training as practised today. Second up is Neo Hong Chin's MAgic: MAchine, a more traditional dance piece that revisits the sensations of pregnancy and confinement for a new mother. While some strikingly inhuman images were created by the plastic-clad dancer early and late into the act, the central section with its monologue seemed weighed down by mediocre and uninspired acting. Ebelle Chong's w a l l s was the final piece, consisting principally of an investigation of the boundaries of the choreographer's apartment, mapped onto the stage in masking tape. Two dancers measure the space, using different configurations of their bodies - a game that soon feels repetitious and tedious. There's only a sense of aesthetic epiphany at the close of the piece, as laser points illuminate the two bodies as they spin and tumble across the ground. Taken as a whole, it's not a bad evening, but not precisely satisfying either.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /