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SAF 2011 early bird bookings start tomorrow. Wow! I am really excited about Living Dance Studio, Arco Renz/Amrita, Swee Boon’s new work, the retrospective programming on Pina Bausch, Kazuo Ohno and Merce Cunningham, Javanese court dance, a Samoan Tempest…
But finding all of it is just a chore and the SAF website is DRIVING ME NUTS and making me ask WHY. The programming is split up by obscure themes like “Histories”, “Lost Languages”. No option to list by genre or artist, and works listed by title and date without the names of the artists upfront. There is no single festival calendar, with the listings split up again by the obscure themes or the incomprehensible categories “Great for all”, “Great for Students” and my favourite, “Great for teachers and artists”. Harh?
I know Merce told me that I gotta love dancing to stick to it. But must reading the arts fest programme be this painful for two years running?
Heroine begins with a thunderous electro-clatter, and the theatre plunging into pitch black. A darkness so suffocating that you have to tap on your body to make sure it’s there. There is no more sign that you are in a theatre full of people. The darkness leaves you alone with this solo. It is inhabited by the faint pulsing of the sound design and the apparition of a human form, hovering at the boundaries of visual perception, an incredibly subtle lighting design, and the tricks of the subconscious. It is interminable, the dark and the squinting. Five minutes? twenty? It is impossible to tell.
At this point an audience member would have fallen into one of three categories. a) asleep. b) whipped out handphone for comforting illumination. c) Riveted (as I was). The usual option of “d) walked out” wasn’t applicable at this phase because no-one could see the exit.
The figure twists and stamps, and the light gradually comes up to a cold bluish wash to reveal a female figure, with rippling back muscles and impossibly long arms. Her presence is so powerful yet she is clad in vulnerability: a translucent bra and tiny skirt. Hardly moving her feet, she whips and reaches through repetition after repetition of a limited movement vocabulary. It becomes clear that for all of the character’s feral energy and unwavering focus, she is bound by invisible gravity to that one location, and a struggling slave to the movement patterns she attempts to break. The driving beats of the music move to a more meditative atmosphere, and back again. At times, she breaks into an enigmatic smile.
I really appreciated that the sophistication in the simplicity of this structure. This is one of those rare pieces that offers a meditative puzzle that allows you to connect and reflect in many ways. The core of the piece is what the choreographer Arco Renz terms “the question of freedom”, but it can also be read as a commentary on rootedness, the monotony of modern society, the patterns that are imposed on us in life, invisible webs of power, the struggles of women or the dilemmas of being Asian. Or many other things!
The identity of the performer is really central to this piece. That’s perhaps why Arco has never considered interpretes other than Su Wen-chi in the 6 years that it has been performed. A little bird tells me that they originally met at an Arts Festival in Singapore before the two became long term partners! Knowing their relationship, how can one avoid also reading in the piece some references to the connections between the choreographer (white, German, male, western trained) and performer (chinese, Taiwanese, female, chinese and contemporary movement training).
An interesting point is that that the references to questions of identity and East and West that were in the festival brochures (and in the original concept of the performance) were omitted in the programme booklet this time round. Odd, because i would have guessed that this would have been the angle assessed to draw more local audiences to see the show. And also because I found that this show addressed this in a more credible and organic way than the contrived orientalism of Eonnagata. But I am also glad that it wasn’t a set of themes overtly rammed down our throats, so that the subtle inferences from the performer’s identity and the movement styles could be left to say the many other things that they do.
What was most disturbing for me at this show was the empty seats in the theatre! The Drama Centre isn’t too large a hall but even the circle seats were brought down to fill just a third of the stalls. What a waste. I heard that it was as dismal for both nights of the show. Seems like Nijinsky Siam and at least one night of Manganiyar also had this problem. More on this in another post.
Despite a thin turnout of less than ten people for the dance/film masterclass, we had a great, thougthful discussion with British filmmaker Alex Reuben today at Objectifs.
What constitutes a dance film as opposes to a document of a live performance? What are the possibilities of the camera, editing, technology, and sound in film? We had a good discussion in between four of his shorts and a feature documentary. The films spanned a broad scope of his work which includes dance as sociology-political comment, movement transformed by computer and technology into abstraction and pure line, dance with literary text. I liked his work best where he allowed the simplicity of images, movement and sound to do the speaking – in the catchy Line Dance where he creates astounding depth with only stick figures, and the impressive documentary ‘Routes’ that speaks volumes about race and politics in America without a single word or narrative text.
A DJ and visual artist by training, and a film maker with a pedagogical flair, Alex was really approachable and frank in his sharing. I didnt stay for the subsequent class by James Allen because (duh) I went to watch Shelly Love’s films at Cathay. Sadly I hear this class was even smaller than the first. The good news is that when I swapped over to Cathay in the afternoon, the Shelly Love films that had been advertised as ‘experimental’ managed to draw about 50 people.
Kudos to Danny K and Objectifs for pulling the masterclasses together against the odds. I hope we will have more dance film events in future.
Routes, Line Dance and a couple more of Alex Reuben’s shorts are showing tomorrow 6 June at the Cathay at 12.40pm (tickets from Sistic). The tough part is that you have to trade off the dance/film forum if you want to see them.
Swee Boon is that soft but completely unrelenting director and teacher, who softly runs what are probably the most punishing rehearsals in Singapore. In performance it all pays off. T.H.E gets better every time I see them. They move with an unrivaled fluidity, power and control.
Already an accomplished technician in her own right before she began performing with T.H.E, Silvia Yong tops my list as the No. 1 most thrilling female dancer in Singapore right now. She approaches every movement with fantastic detail and a burning intensity that starts in her eyes and whips through her back, to the ends of her toes and the tips of her hair. In O Sounds she is a sort of narrator figure who begins the piece in a shadowy floor solo and ends it alone clutching her memories in a handful of light. I also discovered at this show that she has a lyrical control of water-sleeves, and that she can sing. This being a performance that she described a couple months ago as “I will be dancing less…you will see me standing there.” If this is Silvia’s definition of gradually cutting down her performing commitments, I have no complaints!
(My No. 1 favourite male dancer in Singapore, her husband, was not performing in this piece. But I can understand that a choreographer sometimes needs to make the choice to focus his energy on crafting the work as a bigger picture.)
I must also single out the guys as having grown tremendously. Zhuo Zihao danced a terrific, kinetic solo in front of one of the hanging projection screens, jumping and twisting with a lyric lightness that I just didn’t expect after his earthy canine loping in VOID (T.H.E’s collaboration with Boi Sakti at the Oct 2009 dan:s festival). Lee Mun Wai’s fluid strength worked well in this piece, and I sensed a greater dimensionality and presence than he has shown before.
I didn’t see the 2008 premiere of this work, but I understand that significant enough changes were made to warrant the editing of the title from “Old Sounds” to “O Sounds”. Title-wise, I really find this a pity. The new title hardly carries the depth and the layers of meaning of the original, or the Chinese title (Gu Sheng) which has remained unchanged.
Choreographically, this incarnation of the work looked to me like a more developed, punchier cousin of Swee Boon’s 2006 “Somewhere…we hear”, which he set last month for NAFA’s Crossings show. Suppressed emotion, fragile memories, twisting and grasping of the body, arms and heads flung out, arcing leaps.
The undercurrent of Hainanese cultural memory was carried mainly in the haunting sound design by Darren Ng, which fragmented and looped Hainanese voices and songs into atmospheric percussion and static. Listening to the first five minutes of Darren’s whispering, tinkling sounds against a darkened stage and the house at half-lighting felt like a poignant tribute to Victoria Theatre before its two-year renovation. The driving beats in the later section made way for unison dance sections simply electric in speed and energy.
The best of the video effects was a surreal projection of life-size limbs and dancers floating their way down a ceiling-to-floor video scroll. Or spooky, if you ask the row of teens behind me who were so absorbed that they couldn’t stop exclaiming out loud.
The downer was that O Sounds was draggy in parts. The slower-paced central section stretched out without enough changes in movement texture. The video of the dancers walking, dancing, then disappearing from an old house was a good idea but went on for too long. If there was a story for Sylvia’s character, it wasn’t something I could track except for the reiteration of a song, first as a children’s recording and then repeated by her haltingly as an adult. Other ideas did not seem fully integrated – a “body snatching” theme that came each time like an afterthought, dancers running helter skelter with giant balls of paper, and Mun Wai suddenly popping on a pair of sunglasses. Likewise with the makeshift water sleeves – strips of ragged cloth simply grasped in the dancers’ hands. The sleeves had a tantalising beauty and possible relevance, but they did not reappear.
I heard that the evening performance was a much stronger show, which I am supposing meant less technical glitches than the afternoon (I couldn’t spot them!) and cleaner unison dancing. O bless the mad perfectionists of this world.
Woohoo! Like Yish I couldn’t resist the two red sewing ladies and their kooky charm. It was only after I hopped on the bike for a good 15 minutes that I realised that this is also A REALLY SMART PIECE OF ART!
It must have been a specific decision that the performance was placed smack in the middle of a mall, and the bicycles carefully positioned so that while the tailors are working on your “surprise” garment (I got rapped for peeking one too many times) you pedal endlessly into either Forever 21 or Topshop. I was lucky enough to get a go and I faced into Forever 21 and its current collection of mass-produced pseudo bohemia. And the contrast smacked me between the eyes. In the middle of a mecca to consumerism, two independent ladies were pulling people off the shopping route to manually pedal-power their 1930s sewing machines and produce unique applique-art whose raw materials were given for free, and the art created and shared for free. At the end of each creation, they sew on their label – but it is a label that stands for something completely different. And maybe the best part – that this work is accessible on so many levels whether you’re shopping, five years old, or if you happened to be thinking about “art”.
Check out how they flower powered my camos!
The detail is just stunning. My cat likes it too.
Some other creations from the first hour of the show:
I am going crosseyed, sitting here trying to make sense of the scheduling of the Arts Fest dance-film programming. It’s a series of five film screenings, two masterclasses and one forum, supposed to take place next weekend on 5 and 6 June at Cathay and Objectifs.
Here’s the deal: if you would like to attend the directors’ classes (5 June), you can’t attend half the films being shown. If you attend Lee Yanor or Alex Reuben’s workshops on 5 June, you must choose between watching their work the next day (6 June 11am and 12.40pm), or talking about dance film the next day (6 June 11am-1pm) in the forum with Jason wee, danny k and Lim How Ngean.
One really shouldn’t have to be genius with a pen and a calendar to figure out that the limited dance film audience in Singapore will be spread thin with such parallel schedules. And that this schedule is simply a lot of wasted chances to allow that same limited audience to grow in their experience and comprehension of the subject.
Wind shadow was stunning.
But wouldn’t it have been more accurately billed as “Cai Guo-Qiang feat. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre”? The dancing wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t that memorable. The moments that will stay with me had little to do with the dancers: the impossibly endless waterfall of billowing black silk, the sea of fluttering kites, the blizzard of black snow and the eerie green laser vortex that swirled into the audience and ended the show.
It took me a while to figure out what was disturbing despite all that was impressive. First, what did Lin and Cai mean to say? It was clear that there were two strands in the show. There was a contemplative portrait of man and his reflection(s) that came through in serene duets between standing dancers and their black-swathed shadows on the floor, and the haunting tension as one by one the silhouettes of man and kite progressed across the stage. The other strand was about war and oppression, painted in gunpowder, a sea of flags, ant-like bodies writhing to the sound of gunfire, explosions and mass rallies, followed by the creatures’ extermination by a descending black horizon. Each of these strands was an obvious continuation of the artistic philosophies of Lin (philosophical introspection) and Cai (socio-political angst). Though there was a clear switch from contemplation to war/oppression, it was difficult to reconcile the transitions and I am not sure if the two ideas really met in the intermediary sequences peopled, among others, by a troupe of puzzling bare-chested macho blokes sailing around the stage in Oakleys and the black or white pennants of Chinese opera generals.
The movement vocabulary of this piece is unique among Lin Hwai-Min’s oeuvre and significant in the evolution of his choreographic style. But I feel that it is also the weakest point in this piece. When this piece was created in 2006, Lin had just completed of the third installment of his well-loved Cursive trilogy. He must have been aware that his signature martial-calligraphic new Chinese dance style had reached its zenith after an evolution of more than ten years, and that he needed to move on to something different (and how it has, in the six years after that!).
Wind Shadow appears to have been an experiment in meshing Lin’s signature style with two giants of the second wave of American modern dance: the stillness and clockwork precision of Merce Cunningham, and the technology and complete visual experience created by Alwin Nikolais. Technology like warping mirrors and lasers can be a great way to make the same old movements look very different. At other moments in Wind Shadow, I wondered if Lin had been trying to allocate the athletic kineticism and curved flow of his signature style to the kites and flags onstage, and reserve more of the static element for the dancers. Unfortunately, even after four years, the dancers of Cloud Gate still looked like they had not found the innate energy for the static poses that we might see in Cunningham dancrs, or the organic connection and partnership with the props that is so wonderful in some of the Nikolais works. The Cloud Gate dancers still do best what their training has moulded them for – this was most apparent in a lively, lyrical duet danced by a female dancer against a circle of light, and her partner dancing sometimes as her shadow and sometimes as a cheeky counterpart silhouetted from behind the cyc, whirling and curving in different sizes as he moved to and away from the light source.
Am i simply splitting hairs? Shouldn’t a performance simply be allowed to exist as that unitary work of art? I appreciate Dr Loon’s comment (chain on Bryan’s post on the same performance) about audiences knowing what they want and wanting what they know. Watching this piece, there were moments when I found myself struggling against my training in one specific discipline of the arts. On the other hand, I don’t know if that accurately reflected the mood in the theatre after the show (26 May). Ecstatic thunderous applause! Endless curtain calls! Certainly a whole bunch of the people in there weren’t worrying about whether they had just seen, dance, visual art, theatre, or philosophy. They were, literally, blown away. They had bought into the total theatre experience, of which Nikolais would have been very proud.
Finally managed to crank these out of my camera!
I visited the opening event on Saturday evening, and was initially sceptical. It seemed a bit quiet over there on the museum side of the river, just a couple of chill musicians sitting there playing, and some naked flames. Where was the show, anyway?
It took me a while shake off the couch-potato, entertain-me syndrome. This was more like an open air installation for visitors to explore, a vanilla-scented atmosphere that transformed the familiar spaces along the Singapore River into a space for contemplation and reflection. I ended up marvelling at the fire installations of balls, globes, vests and vines. They were simply beautiful and covered an astonishing area of the waterfront and park from the Asian Civilisations Museum, Victoria Theatre, all the way to the Esplanade Park. I’ve never seen the parks so full of Singaporeans. How rarely we take the time to soak in the evening, enjoy the music, and wonder at the beauty of an art installation, and also the beauty of the trees, monuments and buildings that we usually ignore. By the river, a series of mismatched old radios were strapped casually to the trees, broadcasting a selection of visitors’ thoughts on “What is Happiness?”. The other part of the fun was a performance-art element of seeing the installations being set alight and hoisted up by the fedora-sporting crew. I also boggled at how on earth the organisers persuaded NParks to let so much naked fire near their precious trees!
I think this was a great choice for accessibility as well as reflection, and a good opening event.
The show must have been rained out on the final Sunday night. A pity!
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Arts fest is always my favourite time of year. It is a time of excitement and discovery. This year, I have no shortage of things to watch; I’ve accumulated a stack of tickets as thick as my thumb. But ever since i waded through the clunky festival programme online, I had the niggling feeling that something wasn’t complete. It’s the sense of adventure.
With only a few exceptions, this year’s programmes carry blockbuster credits and/or prior proof of digestability. Especially in the case of the home-based contributions. Everything is a re-run of a previously successful production. I don’t mind allowing more audiences to have the chance to catch good shows that had a limited run, like Kuik Swee Boon’s “O Sounds” (though why only one show?) and the idea of cultivating a sort of national repertory as with Emily of Emerald Hill, which a whole generation of Singaporeans no longer know. But like Yish, I will miss the Forward Moves and Full Frontal commissions. Over the years, these commissioned projects were my window to discover the diversity of new Singapore artists and what they had to say.
Wearing my former-bureaucrat-hat, I can see that this year’s approach makes sense as a way to maintain the conservative reputability and ticket sales of the Arts Festival. In 2008, it was clear that this solely officially government-sponsored instrument of national arts programming was in crisis. While avowed arty farts (myself included) cheered the cutting-edge experimental bent of the festival, ticket sales were at an all time low and the programme choices were lambasted in our only national press.
Okay. A heavy dose of avant-garde programming is not exactly an easy formula for developing an arts audience. An American dancer and teacher who is a frequent visitor to Singapore once told me of her puzzlement that contemporary and modern dance on show in Singapore was mostly on one extreme end of the spectrum. She found that there was a surprisingly low proportion of accessible dance works at our festivals (for an American analogy, think companies like Alvin Ailey or Parsons). I will admit that this is an accurate enough assessment for what I know of students and friends who claim not to know anything about dance. At entry-level, folks don’t always get the concepts behind dancers contorting their bodies, writhing on the floor and shouting. They might also need to see some nice high jumps, multiple turns and some nice synchronised dancing that fits squarely on the 8-count music.
At the same time, there has been an explosion of platforms for arts events in Singapore. Ten years ago it was easy enough to be an all-round arts buff and catch nearly all of the arts fest shows as well as major events and exhibitions in Singapore. Nowadays it is a bit of a marathon to keep up with not only the arts festival, fringe festival, dan:s festival, sun festival, esplanade studio series – and still keep track of what’s happening in separately sponsored shows, the Arts House, University Cultural Centre, the Substation, Theatreworks, three museum performance venues and need we even mention what’s going on up at Republic Poly and the various studio-based shows?
As an arts buff in Singapore today, I am of course happy (and broke). But where does that leave the flagship Singapore Arts Festival? It needs its own identity amongst the happy cacophony.
This year’s programme emphasises the connection of art to the people. Laudable, but which people? The feeling I get is that the Arts Fest is being re-launched as the national platform to make the arts accessible and respectable to the mass public. It looks to me like the inclination is to leave the more avant-garde programming and risky affairs of commissioning less-established artists to the fringe and independent festivals that the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts shall not have to answer for. Let the Arts Festival be a beacon of popular acclaim and “world-class” programming that is respectably abstract and hardly controversial? I fear that this could be the start of a trend to limit locally-based programming to a token representation of “classic” work that emphasises our traditions and national identity. I believe that we should’t go too far in this direction. We need both accessibility and experimentation. Else half of what art’s about will be missing.
Chan Sze Wei