Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Testing the Silence
June 21, 2011, 5:20 pm
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Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

At the Singapore Arts Festival last year, Rimini Protokoll astounded us with Cargo Kuala Lumpur-Singapore, a road trip into unknown nooks of our city that melded the revelatory power of theatre with the lyricism of the everyday. As we travelled down the roads within a theatre-on-wheels, mundane sights coalesce to form an evocative meditation on migration, pondering both the physical act of displacing oneself as well as the attendant emotional and socio-political ramifications. One would also not forget the two truck drivers, who charmed us not only with their vivid memories of long-distance driving, but also with the endearing little stumbles they commit as they take on what is possibly their first foray into performance.

This theatre of the quotidian is once again realised at the festival this year in Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi, a Swiss director from the aforementioned collective. Taking the stage this time are the muezzins from Egypt, chosen ones in the Muslim world who lead the daily calls to prayer (adhan) from the minarets of the mosques. The stories of four muezzins are represented, of which three are articulated by the muezzins themselves, as they stand upon the stage and narrate the vicissitudes of life that have led them into their present occupation. Their stories, at times dramatic, at others mundane, are presented in an austere, unembellished form. They are simply told, in most instances with that assured, authoritarian cadence devoid of charade or any visible attempt at showing through gesture. Clearly, it flies in the face of the mythical adage, that one must show instead of tell, but despite so, the piece still manages to exude a tender humanity, tinged at times with pathos and humour.

It takes a sleight of hand to achieve this delicate fusion of theatre and everyday life, for life, despite all its authenticity, requires careful calibration upon its transposition to the stage, without which the slice of reality would be but a banality, authenticity without persuasion.

For Radio Muezzin, intrigue is already created by its premise: the distant, ostensibly insular world of deep religiosity fascinates with its otherness. For a country that is pathologically uptight about maintaining a strictly secular public sphere, open displays of piety, upon a national stage no less, is a curiosity. The audience enter the theatre with a kind of anthropological gaze, our minds open to the unfamiliar and seemingly incomprehensible, with the ultimate intent of bridging the distance between self and other.

The stories of the four muezzins are presented with a full plenitude of gritty, autobiographical details. The first muezzin, Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, is a blind Quran teacher who travels to the mosque for two hours every day. He relates his excitement in donning the sheik’s outfit, of which he is able to enumerate the cost that went into every article of clothing upon him. “Four hundred Egyptian pounds for the tailoring”, he says. The second, Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy, is a retired electrician who becomes a muezzin after a terrifying accident left him with a metal plate and seven stitches in his leg. The third, Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous, hails from the countryside and spends much of the day vacuuming the carpet in the small mosque. The fourth, Muhammad Ali Mahmoud Farag, the youngest and most accomplished of them, is the only muezzin absent in the line-up, having departed the production previously due to differences with the rest of the cast. In his place are a video projection of his past performances and a stand-in who reads out his impressive accolades as a bodybuilder and the runner-up of the 47th World Competition in Quran Reading.

A certain magic happens when these personal anecdotes are placed within the full splendour of a proscenium theatre production, where there is a script, an impressive set and a leering audience to contend with. The stoic muezzins stand upon a large, ornate carpet, each before a video screen and illuminated by green neon lights that create a surreal atmosphere. The colours are brilliant; the set is like a Technicolor sanctum of Muslim piety. The imposition of the theatrical upon the real pushes the performances towards a certain threshold, in which the overriding artifice and all its iridescent polish causes the little slippages of the amateur performers to become, by contrast, a kind of revelation. The awkwardness and jittery inhibition of the muezzins show through throughout the performance and it is this tension between the glossiness of their environ and their artless, non-theatrical selves that makes these brief glimpses of humanity all the more precious, honest and resonant. We begin to feel for them; the exacting anthropological gaze we came in with is softened into an empathetic response. This is real life seeping through the veneer of the theatrical, which surmounts art to reveal itself in all its luminous clarity.

The stark visuality of the set sustains our act of gazing. As the muezzins recount their lives and times, documentary footage of the streets of Egypt and the day-to-day bustle within the mosques plays behind them. The images are direct transcriptions of what is said verbally; rarely is there any deliberate attempt at incongruity. The images amplify the text unremittingly; they must not detract from it, for the voices of the muezzins must be heard in their unadulterated purity. In the case of the fourth muezzin who cannot be present to deliver his voice, an effort is made to highlight the ineffectuality of his replacement. The stand-in makes no attempt at re-embodiment; he does not hide his surrogate status, instead from the outset, he acknowledges the futility of his re-presentation. Verisimilitude, the quality of achieving mere likeness to the real, is not an aspiration of this stage.

As the audience, one is here purely to listen. Everything is plain, lucid and ingenuous. The false notes of ambiguities that often demand of the audience to play the role of the thinker, to negotiate the issues on their own terms and derive their own conclusions are eschewed. There are no riddles to untangle, no disparities to reconcile. The piece is characteristically unthinking, with little of that postmodern reflex through which a piece displays its self-awareness. In place of introspection is complete projection, to be consumed by the gaze of a compliant, unquestioning audience. One must accept the utterances of the muezzins as they are, for like the chanted verses of the Quran, the words are pure signs – a fact that is put forth in one instance when the surtitles go off and all we hear is the deep, soulful voice of the muezzins. This is listening at its purest and most uncompromised – the act of piety the audience must necessarily perform.

Piety defines also the relationship between the artist and his subjects. In contrast to the trenchant, provocative approaches taken by some practitioners in the treatment of religion-based subjects, Kaegi appears to be examining the world of the muezzins via a purely phenomenological lens. Within the text itself, there is little to suggest the advancing of an artist’s statement; Kaegi’s voice defers to that of the muezzins. When the show veers into the touchy areas, such as the position of women in Islam, for instance, its manner is light and detached, leaving the muezzins to speak for themselves. To the question on why women are not allowed to perform the adhan, one of them answers nonchalantly, “because the Prophet never asked [them] to do so.” Granted, there are those sporadic specks of irony that are clearly devised: a wooden divider that is often used in mosques to segregate the women is used here to hide the testosterone-loaded, weight-lifting gear of Mr. Mahmoud, but they are so benign that they register as nothing more than comic asides.

But the fact that the work is conceived to be seemingly apolitical does not mean that it is capable of transcending the politics that surround its creation. The absence of Mr. Mahmoud, for one, is a sobering indication of the tides of change in Cairo that has left an entire generation of muezzins silenced. The Minister of Religious Affairs has denounced the cacophony emitted by the thousands of muezzins each day across the city and is selecting the city’s best thirty muezzins to take turns to broadcast a centralised adhan via a radio channel. Among the cast, only Mr. Mahmoud has been selected to be a part of this elite cadre. While the differences that led to his departure from the show are not spelled out, it is not hard to make a guess what happened.

Towards the end, as a radio engineer appears to demonstrate the new technology through which the adhan would be emitted, one cannot help but notice the absence of the one person who has been qualified to use the contraption. Prior to Mr. Mahmoud’s departure, he would end the show with a rousing solo chant, but here, his silence is deafening.

The context in which the show is performed can also embed within it significant political undertones. In its 2009 premiere in Berlin, for instance, where loud calls to prayer are prohibited, the piece became a reflection on the waves of protests that have erupted in response to the building of mosques across the country. In an overwrought socio-political climate where overt religiosity is too often misconstrued as extremism, is there still a place where one can practice his faith freely and yet still abide by the contract of his society?

Similar questions can be asked within our society. Would the rapturous music we hear in Radio Muezzin still be appreciated beyond the asylum of the theatre? Or would it too be condemned as noise that encroaches upon the sterile, vacuous silence that is our secular space?

Ho Rui An


Bodies as Violence
June 7, 2011, 3:38 am
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Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio/ MAU

Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio/ MAU

How do we stage the primitive? How do we enact violence? These are critical questions to be addressed in considering Lemi Ponifasio’s Tempest: Without a Body, the production which has attracted one of the most polarising reactions at this year’s arts festival. While some members of audience have been most profuse with their compliments, there are those who absolutely hated it, with walk-outs happening as early as fifteen minutes into the show.

Most of the flak were directed towards what was seen as a gratuitous sensory assault, at times tending towards audience abuse. Others decried its apparent lack of meaning, denouncing it as an overblown aesthetic excursion. Both accusations puzzle me, less so due to the justifications provided – which I must say contain a ring of validity -, but the vehemence with which they are articulated. After all, there are a good many other productions at the festival which are equally, if not more vulnerable towards such indictments, and none of them have attracted dislike of such extent.

The reason for this perhaps lies in the sheer baggage of expectations that Tempest had to contend with, most of which were simply not fulfilled. For one, the title carries a heavy literary reference and I would not be surprised if anyone had walked in expecting to see a re-interpretation of the Shakespearean classic. Other references in the programme notes – “post-911”, “Giorgio Agamben”, “institutional injustice”, “terrorism” and “colonialism” – farther suggests an engagement with prevailing political discourses, when discursivity is perhaps the one thing that Ponifasio eschews.

Interestingly, it is the reference that I feel was the least discussed that singularly defined the performance for me – Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. Klee is a fitting source of inspiration in many ways, for the works of the painter-aesthetician are similarly bold experiments that come with subdued and thus all the more unsettling political undertones.

Angelus Novus (1920), Paul Klee

Angelus Novus (1920), Paul Klee

In Angelus Novus, we see a monster which Walter Benjamin has once described as “the angel of history”. There is something bewitching about this grotesque semblance of an angel, particularly with its sphinx-liked countenance and its head of unfurling scrolls that resembles Medusa’s. Its wings are spread out, but appear locked in stasis. The angel is suspended not in flight, but in limbo. Its gaze is averted away from the viewer, disregarding the present while fixated with an invisible time-space that Benjamin described to be that of history. Its beastly jaws are open, but the viciousness of its snarl is deflated by the tiny fangs that stick out rather lamely. It is an image of surrender, of a hapless angel stupefied by the vistas that it encounters as it is propelled away by the winds of change.

Like in Tempest, the political undercurrents in Angelus Novus are perceptible, but they are there not to buttress a tedious exegesis of what the work is about, but to be dissolved into the textures that constitutes what the work is. As it seems, both Ponifasio and Klee are artists who do not seek for interpretation as an end-point; instead, interpretation, if necessary at all, is that which enriches experience, meant to farther sensitise us to the sensorial plenitude presented.

This is why one who tries to construe Tempest as a kind of political text must necessarily falter, for this is a work that demands not reading, but direct experience. In this theatre of textures, ominous drones, baroque designs and traumatised bodies dominate, collectively conjuring a haunting yet intensely lyrical world.

A naked body wriggles across a raised platform in spasmodic motion.

A naked body wriggles across a raised platform in spasmodic motion.

The performance opens abruptly with an acoustic explosion, blaring into our ears a wall of mechanical noises. Upon the stage, a hunched, tottering woman appears, dwarfed by a massive, vertical wall with a rock-like surface that is suspended from the ceiling. She appears to be an angel, but the tiny wings that spurt out of her back like vestigial appendages make her look more like a monster. She cannot fly, for the wings that are usually the embodiment of freedom are upon her an ugly deformity. Her body is soiled with dirt, her face ghoulish and the scream that she howls pained and chilling to the bone. This recurring image of the ravaged angel-monster is one of the show’s most startling, and the first of the many traumatised bodies that follow.

Later, a naked, supine body is seen wobbling across a raised platform. He appears not to be moving at his own whim, impelled instead by the onslaught of spasms that run through the length of his torso like a malevolent current. Here, we see the interplay of light, colour and body at its most ingenious. Against the coarse texture of the towering wall, the man appears like a gleaming sapling of a being, with the reflected sheen taking on a surreal purple-grey hue due to the paint on the body. This subtle colouration of the body, seen also in the other performers, is one of the most delicately devised features of the show. Against the inky blackness of the stage, these tinted bodies gain a spectral translucency that suggests their gradual disappearance. The colour is also striking for its reminiscences of the paintings of Francis Bacon, in which the very same hue appears upon the coagulated, deoxygenated bodies that too, lie like pieces of carcasses upon an improvised plinth of sorts.

Two Figures (1963), Francis Bacon

Two Figures (1963), Francis Bacon

This connection with Bacon, I believe, is more than serendipitous, for in its portrayal of violence, Ponifasio has created what Deleuze, in writing on the paintings of Bacon, called the “violence of sensation”, and here, I find no better way to convey the nuances of this notion than to quote directly from the author himself:

What fascinates Bacon is not movement, but its effect on an immobile body: heads whipped by the wind or deformed by an aspiration, but also all the interior forces that climb through the flesh. To make the spasm visible. The entire body becomes plexus. If there is feeling in Bacon, it is not a taste for horror, it is pity, an intense pity: pity for the flesh, including the flesh of dead animals…

It is the confrontation of the Figure and the field… that rips the painting away from all narrative but also from all symbolization. When narrative or symbolic, figuration obtains only the bogus violence of the represented or the signified; it expresses nothing of the violence of sensation (emphasis mine) – in other words, of the act of painting.

Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze

The precision with which Delueze’s text can be applied upon Ponifasio’s work is almost uncanny. Indeed, the bodies that populate the stage have been stripped of their capacity for symbolisation. They do not perform, represent or signify violence but are, simply put, the very incidence of it happening. The presence of these diminutive bodies upon the vast cavern of the stage is itself a point of resistance, as each solitary figure wrestles with space that presses upon his body-space. Whether is it the four-legged beast who restlessly circles the stage against an unruly soundscape of barking dogs, or the hefty, heavily-tatooed man who stands solemnly like a bulwark protecting the Maori tradition, the bodies we encounter all remind us of their vulnerability to the surrounding elements. Their movements are prolonged, repetitive and at times Butoh-like, as if their bodies are in pereptual negotiation with the forces acting from within and without them.

The four-legged beast prowls the stage.

The four-legged beast prowls the stage.

Meanwhile, in counterpoint to these slow-moving, traumatised bodies are the fleet-footed men in black who frequently glide into the stage to enact a set of highly controlled and ritualistic gestures. With their synchronised thigh-slapping and hurried shuffling of feet, these bald, monk-like men come across as a squad of lifeless automatons. Could they possibly, just possibly, signify the bureaucratic colonisers?

Indeed, it would be doctrinaire to consider Tempest as a pure experience devoid of all potential for signification. There are certainly many possible ways to read the performance if one wants to. For one, the distinctive Maori elements already point towards a potential post-colonial discourse. The work could also very well be a larger, more encompassing examination of human history, with the suspended wall construed as a civilisational mural that bears the marks of its vicissitudes.

But these possibilities for signification, I believe, must remain just that – as pure possibilities; insinuations that serve to intensify our experience of the performance’s textures, without reducing them to mere devices for aiding interpretation.

In fact, it is when the performance tries to do the latter, when it tries to interpret itself, that it slightly comes apart. The sequence in which the tatooed man reappears in a corporate suit to delivering a blistering speech against the Christian invaders, for instance, is far too direct, even jarring against the general abstraction of the piece. Other parts such as when the squad of automatons begin to hurl chucks of plaster against a helpless man, creating a massive cloud of white dust; or when the angel-woman tries to use the fallen dust to wash herself, are far too reminiscent of the old-fashioned clichés of purgatory and redemption.

Notably, it is when the performance consciously tries to invoke that the power of its expression becomes lost.

In my conclusion, I turn once again to Deleuze. On the figures on Bacon’s paintings, he said:

These are monsters from the point of view of figuration. But from the point of view of the Figures themselves, these are rhythms and nothing else, rhythms as in a piece of music, as in the music of Messiaen, which makes you hear “rhythmic characters”.

The monsters of Ponifasio’s universe are precisely that: rhythms – rhythms of terror and paralysis that nonetheless manage to animate the senses and expand the power of theatre.

Ho Rui An

Writing HERStory: An Interview with Otto Fong
May 28, 2011, 12:20 pm
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HERStory by Drama Box

HERStory by Drama Box

HERStory, a festival commission created by Drama Box opens on 28 May 2011. Inspired by the personal story of his mother, Mdm Chen Poh Chang, playwright Otto Fong has crafted a story that speaks of the hidden sacrifices made by the women who lived through the turbulent times of the 1950s-60s. In this interview, we speak to Fong, son of prominent trade unionist and political detainee, Fong Swee Suan, on the process through which he excavated the personal memories of his family to tell a story that speaks for a generation of silenced women.

Q: HERStory involves the very personal story of a woman set against a turbulent socio-political climate. In writing the play, how did you bring these two disparate strands of social history and personal memory together?

Otto Fong (OF): The script jumps between three main eras, namely the 1950-60s, the 1970s and the first seven years of the 2000s. The whole story is essentially about this woman, who I created based on the experiences of my mother, and how she had to deal with the end of a century and the start of the next.

I did write more about the historical background in earlier drafts of the script and there were also more characters, but all these were eventually taken out because I wanted to focus on the mother. Anything that did not serve this central character was removed. Even during the episode in which her son comes out as a homosexual, there isn’t that much emphasis placed upon the opinions of the son, for at the end of the day, I wanted to go back to the mother, her reactions and her feelings.

Q: Can you elaborate on the process through which you excavated the memories from your mother?

OF: Heng Leun, the director, and I asked her many questions over two major interview sessions which lasted hours. I also read through all the letters my parents exchanged when my father was in prison in Muar, which took an entire week.

Q: How open was your mother throughout this process?

OF: Well, she didn’t say no to any question and shared what she was asked to share. But as always, we have to take it with a pinch of salt. Despite what she said, we have to acknowledge that it’s just one point of view.

Q: Do you believe that the experiences your mother went through are representative of those of other women who were also living through that era?

OF: I believe so. Women of that era, in general, were really required to stand behind their husbands and play the supportive role. This was true even for the well-educated women in the upper class. Many of these women were kept out of politics, because their husbands decided that it would be an all-men affair. The women, despite their statuses and backgrounds, were required to be shadows of their husbands. Even if you look at someone like Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, you can see that her decisions were mostly made through her husband.

Q: It seems to me that women of that era are then in a way depoliticised by their society. This situation is particularly interesting in the case of your family when you have a woman living alongside two men – one, an anti-colonial unionist and the other, a gay man who decided to come out publicly –, who clearly are very adamant about asserting their own beliefs. In this light, was there any attempt on your part to shed light on the beliefs your mother held as an individual, if she had any at all?

OF: It is difficult for me to portray what she believes in, for these are things we can only guess. We don’t talk about these things in daily communication. Of course, personal beliefs can also be very fluid. Even if she makes a certain statement, we may not interpret it in the way she means it. So there is really no way I can put myself fully in her shoes and understand everything that’s going on in her mind. For that reason, we left her as quite a mysterious character. We deliberately didn’t want to pin her down.

Instead, what happens in the play is that we just look at her, acknowledge that she made certain decisions – don’t put a right or wrong to it, don’t judge it – and eventually ask ourselves: Were the sacrifices that she made really worth it?

This is a woman who supported her family all the way into the twenty-first century and it is naturally very difficult for her to reconcile her personal vision for her family with how her son eventually turned out to be, given that her son, unlike her, is someone who clearly does not conform to the rules of society.

Q: What are the differences between the mother and the father which are highlighted in the play?

OF: My mother only had a primary school education, while my father self-studied till he got two degrees. So in terms of their thinking, they are very different. One reads a lot of books. The other is more streetwise and prefers to work with her hands and eyes and not deal with abstract concepts. So when I came out, my Dad took it as a more academic thing and decided to read more literature about the subject. Also, as a person who experienced jail for six years, he had a more Zen attitude towards life. My mother, on the other hand, only knew about what the press wrote and as you know, in the last twenty years or so, the press has been very one-sided in their treatment of this issue. So I couldn’t expect her to take a very enlightened stance.

Q: Choral music features heavily in the play. What is its significance to the story?

OF: My mother picked up choral singing after her retirement. In fact, I realised a lot of women joined these choirs in their 50s to complete their dream of wanting to sing. What is significant is that in choral singing, you are not singing as an individual, but as a group, so what it brings to these women is a sense of community and belonging for they are able to meet a lot of other women who feel the same way as them.

Q: Did writing this play bring about any personal transformation in you, given that you are drawing from the memories of your own family?

OF: It was a maturing process for me. You know how when we were young we tended to wonder why the adults did certain things that you didn’t like? But when I put myself in her shoes and imagine the kind of era which she was in, I realised that I would probably have made worse decisions.

Reading the letters was a revelation. For one, I didn’t know I was such an outdoor person as a child. I always thought I was an introvert, when in reality, I was more like a social whore. At two years old, I would run to my neighbours and disappear without asking for permission. My mother, who was managing the household alone while my father was in jail, beat the hell out of me whenever that happened. But I realise now that that was the only reasonable thing to do due to the turbulent times we were in.

Q: What do you hope the audiences can take away from the play?

OF: I think there is a huge group of us who don’t communicate with our parents. If people go away from the play thinking about how they can better reach out to their parents, I think we have succeeded. The other thing is that I hope that young artists can go away with the affirmation that we have good stories here in Singapore to tell.

HERStory runs at The School of the Arts Studio Theatre from 28 to 29 May 2011. More information here.

Ho Rui An

Interview with Yukichi Matsumoto of Ishinha
May 19, 2011, 2:07 pm
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The performance by the Osaka-based theatre group, Ishinha, When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched just ended its spectacular run at the festival on Tuesday evening. In this interview, we speak to writer and directer, Yukichi Matsumoto on the performance and its connections to memory, place and the body.

When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched by Ishinha

When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched by Ishinha

Q: In investigating migrant histories, the production brings together the dual elements of history and place, which together are responsible for engendering our sense of home. How does the production engage with the differing notions of home today, particularly in a time of increased mobility and intercultural exchange?

Yukichi Matsumoto (YM): It is true that the means of mobility and intercultural exchange have changed a lot after the World War II. Before the war, people used boats for transportation. Moving through boats took more time and widened distances. It is beyond our imagination how long it used to take. That was why the Japanese emigrants then felt a strong sense of nostalgia for Japan. They built shrines and Japanese gardens and named the local flower ‘Nanyo Zakura’, after ‘Sakura’, the national flower of Japan, to create “small Japans” in the places they lived. They were aware of their Japanese identity which they had never been conscious of when they were back in their hometown.

Today, we do not build shrines anymore even when we live outside of Japan, but we are still aware of our identity when we are abroad. This production draws from both the past and present to express the ways of people’s movement across borders. I predict people will continue moving like this in the future.

Q: How has the local and regional histories and geographies of the place (both Singapore and Southeast Asia as a whole) figured in this re-staging?

YM: The islands of Southeast Asia are included in the show as part of the Sea of Asia or the South Sea Islands. The islands of the Philippines and their village called Barangay under Spanish occupation is representative of the story of the South Sea Islands. The local histories and geographies of the region are expressed in the lines and the design of the stage sets.

Q: In speaking of the experiences of Japanese migrants in the region, there is a rather unsettling tension involved given Japan’s involvement in the Second World War. Are these tensions processed and presented in the work in any way?

YM: I have heard that this place is the site of a hard-fought battle between Britain and Japanese troops. There are some feelings of nervousness when I think of Singapore’s memories of World War II. Therefore, it is meaningful and important for Ishinha to perform at this memorial place in Singapore.

This production mainly focuses on the life of Southeast Asia before the World War II, however, many young Japanese who carried hopes and dreams along with them to Southeast Asia were also shattered by the war. The stories of two Japanese emigrants will be performed.

Case 1: Mr. Momojiro Yamaguchi worked hard for 30 years to open a Japanese restaurant and a little Japan in Saipan, but his efforts were destroyed by a general attack by the Americans.

Case 2: Mr. Kinjyuro Matsumoto emigrated to the Davao Island in the Philippines to cultivate Manila hemp. He married to a local lady and raised a family there, but his family was torn apart after Japan opened an attack on the Philippines.

Q: How do the elements of architecture, light and shadow come into play in this work, noting that you are drawing from the existing landscape of Singapore? How does the iconic and spectacular nature of this urban landscape interfere or interact with the set design, particularly since the production was last staged in Inujima, a small, remote island in Japan?

YM: It is very interesting that the view of the stage was stretched vertically by the city skyline. A movie screen and a stage of theater are usually composed within a 3 x 4 ratio, but this is more like 10 x 1. Furthermore, it is also exciting to see a remarkable contrast of the skyscrapers of Singapore and the olden Asia scenes on the stage:

  • Lifelessness and life
  • Artificial and natural
  • Straight lines and curves
  • Verticality and horizontality
  • Heaven and ground…

These contrasts convey stronger impressions and give depth to the vision that is presented to the audiences.

Q: The movement for the production is devised by the actors instead of a choreographer, which brings us back to the personal in the form of the body. How is the movement devised such that this personal dimension is brought out?

YM: Ishinha is particular about creating dance with our bodies. Everyone has a different body and each body responds differently when it dances. We try to create our own unique movements which are comfortable for us to perform. This production is based on the point of view of the unsung emigrants. Therefore, it is very personal and is not written based on or related to the national historical charts.

Ho Rui An

Cargo Travellin’ Thru
June 1, 2010, 12:56 am
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Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

Cargo Kuala Lumpur – Singapore is amazing. It is easily one of the must-sees of this year’s Singapore Arts Festival. The basic concept of the work is a sure-win at least in the pleasure factor; everyone loves a road trip, even within the small confines of a city-state. But given that the work is so many things rolled into one, it is astonishing how the creators made every single cog tick. The result is richly layered and complex art work that stands in a category of its own. Most impressively, it skillfully dodges all the common trappings of the multiple artistic ventures it undertakes.

It could have easily been another feeble attempt at “intermedia” art, which more often than not entails a very cheesy insertion of multimedia in theatre which amounts to nothing more than an intrusive stage prop. It could also have been one of those reckless, auteurist excursions into the experimental art – aesthetically overloaded yet vacuous in content. It could also have been a clumsy lugging of the everyday into the realm of art, which often ends up reinforcing the very crudeness of reality, instead of its poetry.

But Cargo rarely misses a step. In fact, it scores on all fronts. It achieves not just amalgamation of disparate forms, but elegant synthesis. Its aesthetics are deeply evocative and purposefully so, skillfully teasing out the layers of meaning that are embedded within the landscape, architecture and communities of our city spaces. It surfaces the hidden aesthetic qualities of the everyday without belaboured aestheticisation, achieving so via the subtle methods of framing, isolating and destabilising the quotidian.

Rediscovering the Everyday

Rimini Protokoll’s Cargo is essentially about travelling. We go on board a specially converted truck, sitting in as human cargo in a moving theatre. One side of the container is replaced by a huge window, through which we experience the cityscape. We are greeted by the friendly truck drivers, “Welcome to Kuala Lumpur!” and embark on a journey towards Singapore.

The concept is seductively simple. It harnesses the latent wanderlust of urban dwellers to initiate a contemplation of the familiar and not-so-familiar spaces that pass us by. Consumed by the unceasing rhythm of the metropolis, the pockets of time spent travelling on wheels are the much-needed caesuras – necessary moments of pause and stasis that are forced upon us. We are resensitised to the oft-obscured aesthetics of our built environment and their embedded meanings: the cold, oppressive regularity of the Merrill Lynch office cubicles, the stringent uniformity of our phalanx of port containers, the ostentatious expanse of the golf courses… rediscovering these constructs as living elements of our contemporary culture.

Live video feed connecting us to the drivers seat

Live video feed connecting us to the drivers seat

Beyond the aesthetics of the landscape, we are also reaquainted with that of the everyday experience. We gain an acute self-awareness towards our experience of travelling, of movement. Every bump, turn and swerve suddenly becomes more pronounced and loaded with meaning, which begs the question: why is it that it is only under the institutional label of art that we (re)gain this sensitivity towards the nature of everyday experience? Why do we need to rely on art to demarcate a region of everyday life for appreciation and reflection? Are we able to experience the totality of the lived experience with the same self-reflexivity?

A live video feed brings us into intimate contact with the drivers, Mr Ramachandran and Mr Ravindran. The little performance by the duo really brings out the best of what amateur efforts can produce. We listen in earnest as they share their feelings towards driving, describe their nomadic habits and rituals and narrate personal anecdotes about their family, friends and colleagues. We watch them stumble a little through parts of the dialogue and catch their endearingly transparent attempts at improvisation and in the process, we can almost feel their jittery thrill as they participate in what is possibly their first formal foray into performance. Consequently, driving suddenly becomes an experience laden with aesthetic, emotional and even intellectual meaning. It is in fact remarkable that the entire work actually succeeds in making the absolutely quotidian activity of driving appear… sublime.

Spaces in Migration

There is also a much broader thematic concern of the work that merits deeper examination – migration. At various junctures in the journey, a scrolling text projected on the window serves as annotation to the sights. It articulates the history of immigration in Singapore and the evolving roles and statuses of migrant workers in the city-state, particularly highlighting the plight of migrant workers in present-day society. As we watch these little nuggets of information dispensed against a backdrop of the expansive metropolitan landscape, an uneasy interrogation begins to unfold between the inconvenient truth articulated by the understated text and the landscapes which showcase our economic ballast.

The ports at Tanjong Pagar

The ports at Tanjong Pagar

In fact, it is of particular significance that much of Cargo takes place within the premises of the ports at Tanjong Pagar, the nexus of Singapore’s economic exchange with the exterior world. The port is a geographically peripheral site in perpetual flux; yet it also serves as a fixture of our national identity. As a nation which started out as an immigrant community (and continues to be so), where should the line between migrant and native be drawn? Who is the migrant and what is his place in society? Is he able to lay claim to the dazzling facades of the city skyline to which he has made a direct and concrete contribution? Or is he alienated from his products of labour?

As audience members who are seated in where the freight used to sit, there is an uneasy sense that we have taken on the positions of the migrant workers who are delivered like raw materials to feed the state’s economic ambitions. In our new identities, benign architectural structures begin to take on oppressive or even dystopian dimensions. The various elements of the production in fact work to destablise our sense of reality and we begin to feel the sense of deportation and displacement faced by migrant workers in a culturally alien world.

In what can be seen as the turning point of the two-hour long piece, the truck steadily ascends a huge, spiral carpark to the tune of Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube Waltz. The darkening horizon framed between the architectural planes of the spiral initially appears as a picturesque image of nostalgia and wanderlust. But the relentless continuity of the image eventually distorts the concrete structures into an oppressive megalith. We feel it caving in our very sense of reality. The slow, momentous climb to the deck cultivates our expectations to such insurmountable heights that it creates both uncertainty and fear. Wanderlust has been transmogrified into a portentous sense of dread. Are these not precisely the conflicting emotions that characterise migration?

Towards the deck, the speakers begin playing a wistful Malay song, only to have our sense of reality taking jolt upon our arrival. The source of the voice is revealed: we see a solitary songstress delivering her serenade. Illuminated by a single spotlight, her countenance is spectral. Some members of the audience completely freak out but it is the beauty of the moment that strikes me more than its creepiness. The truck gracefully revolves around the songstress, establishing her form against the wider space she inhabits. The moment is intensely cinematic, registered as one long and slow motion arc shot. The sequence is both breathtaking and disconcerting as our ability to differentiate the fictive from the real is challenged: what appeared to be a recording is actually performed live while what is performed live has taken on the quality of filmic fiction.

But the bigger question is: does the moment offer any meaning beyond its immediate aesthetic? What does this ontological destablisation lead to? Personally, I thought that the image of a solitary figure poised against the cold, unvarnished architecture of the industrial environment evoked a melancholic yet resilient solitude. Her humanity presents a rupture to crude regularity of the architectural planes that enclose us all. It is the engagement with the physical space that really elevates the moment beyond gimmick, which is what I feel the songstress’ subsequent reappearances lack. Her reemergence at the roadside, in a passing car and at the dropping point evokes little more than surprise.

Interestingly, as we enter the depths of the ports, the sights we are confronted with take on an uncannily dystopian quality. We delve deep within the container labyrinth, with a commentator cycling beside the truck methodically listing the attributes of the containers that pass us by. The environment is harsh, dark and damp. The wandering stray dogs reinforce this notion of a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland. In fact, I’m very much reminded of Ho Tzu Nyen’s Earth. The running commentary by the cyclist becomes an indiscernible drone over time as the bleak monotony of the landscape begins to cloud our perceptions.

Outside the foreign worker dormitories

Outside the foreign worker dormitories

Another powerful moment of the journey happens outside the premises of a foreign worker dormitory. The deeper we venture, the world we so comfortably inhabit progressively takes on alternative facades that are beyond our expectations and comfort levels. We seem to take on the role of the outsider when we enter what appears like a migrant community ghetto. The workers gaze upon us with an almost scientific curiosity. We become the subjects of their scrutiny and judgement. But this is not a perfect schematic inversion, for we are hardly the marginalised other. We are physically elevated and cloistered in the comforts of our touristic journey; we come to gaze as much as to bask in the gaze of others. Such richly layered moments are abundant along the rest of the journey, as our Cargo passes by the real human cargo transported in air-conditioned tourist buses to and fro the work sites. The irony can kill.

When we emerge from the abyss and return to the familiar sights of our picturesque skyline, our perception of it has been radically distorted. Its polished sheen now radiates with ostentatious glare – one which obliterates the visibility of the very individuals who have made it possible.

Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

Promotional photo for Cargo Kuala Lumpur - Singapore

The Intermedia

Stylistically, it must be said that this is a rare piece of art which actually possesses a deep and purposeful understanding of intermediality. It delicately fuses two of the most successful and accessible mediums of theatre and cinema, employing both in connection with text, sound, image and architecture. So often have theatre and cinema been crudely conflated together that the distinctive ontology of each has been grossly overlooked. Amateur theatre particularly has the tendency to mimic its more popular cousin, often to disastrous results.

The basic concept of a theatre on wheels is itself a clever synthesis of theatre and cinema. While the latter extracts its material from the wide expanse of the real world which is framed through the lenses of the camera, the former gains form upon a stage – a demarcated space and a sanctuary housed within the real. In Cargo, the sites of the stage and the real world are reversed. The tiny cargo becomes the domain of the real and the world exterior to it its stage. The entire experience is that of a road movie experienced live.

The integration of cinematic language within the live performance also serves it well. Some of the most compelling moments of the work result from the purposeful employment of the cinematic frame, camera-like movement and “subtitling”. Complete that with the nimble soundscape by Evan Tan and the rich vocals of Celine Rosa Tan and Judee Tan and you have a near-perfect work.

I say “near-perfect” because the production is not without its flaws. While the representation of the Singapore landscape as that of Kuala Lumpur does create some interesting juxtapositions, I find the comparisons pointed and reductive at times. The transitions into the video segments of the show could have also been less flimsy. But my main quibble is with the short documentary video sequences which introduce the everyday workings of the logistics and transportation industry. They appear more like advertisements that add little to the work.

But these are insignificant scratches upon what is otherwise an extraordinary gem of this year’s arts festival. So wait no longer and hop on for the ride!

Rui An

Seduction of the Traditional
May 23, 2010, 1:16 am
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The Manganiyar Seduction

The Manganiyar Seduction

I have often found the differences between the traditional and contemporary arts to be incredibly irreconcilable. In fact, it is quite disconcerting to even find them united under the same banner, which only serves to reinforce the arbitrary nature of this demarcated realm of experience we call art. There is a great deal of work today that attempt a fusion of the two radically different forms but they have usually failed to convince. What often transpires instead is an exoticisation of the traditional or its reduction to contemporary spectacle. It seems genuinely difficult to create a symbiosis or even a proper negotiation between the traditional and the contemporary.

Certainly, it would be a critical flaw to attend any show with such contextual baggage armed as ammunition for intellectualisation, particularly in the case of one which is steeped in the spiritual, which Royston Abel’s The Manganiyar Seduction certainly qualifies as.

The work is a collaborative effort between the contemporary theatre director and the Manganiyars, a community of Muslim musicians settled in the Thar desert. Abel physically compartmentalises the musicians into separate, red-curtained cubicles stacked upon one another, revealing each musician one by one. The musical piece itself is a rearrangement of a Sufi song by Bulleshah, Alfat Un Bin In Bin, which accommodates two other songs – Halariya: The birth of Lord Krishnan and Neendarli, the latter being an expression of the love of a wife for her husband. The show was essentially my first encounter with Rajasthani music and I was determined to keep an open mind.

While the performance does come across as a little alienating initially, it hits you with a particular clarity once you are acquainted with its language. The effect is sublime and it results from the many ways the performance engages the senses, in terms of the sound, lights, costumes, postures and dramatic movements. Considering that we have 43 musicians playing within their own little cubicles, without much eye contact with one another, the level of synchronisation and harmony achieved is a bewildering technical feat and a spectacle in its own right. The musicians hardly miss a beat.

The Manganiyars

The Manganiyars

The dramatic moments are sustained by a collective energy which melds the different instrumental sounds into a singular, raw and pulsating life force which confidently surpasses multiple emotional thresholds to propel us into a spiritual zenith. Furthermore, the diverse and at times utterly unfamiliar timbres of the various instruments take us across an entire universe of sensual landscapes. There are moments of utopian festivity, of insurmountable tension, of unbridled emancipation, of intense longing and of bittersweet nostalgia.

The thing about the traditional arts is that it requires the time and the fundamental will to commit on the part of the audience, which is understandably a big turnoff in a soundbite society. But the rewards are abound once one is willing to devote that extra bit.

This particular quality of the traditional arts, I feel, is what forms its fundamental incompatibility with the contemporary. While, yes, The Manganiyar Seduction is best experienced as a form of spiritual cleansing when “the intellect is put to rest” (to quote the programme booklet), it is still a piece of material that offers a great deal of room for reflection about the nature of the traditional and the contemporary.

The use of the word “seduction” in the title clearly points towards the inclination of contemporary visual culture to tantalise through spectacle. But I do wonder how much of a seduction actually takes place in the show. In other words, to what extent do the contemporary elements actually provide the key thrust of the work? Would the work be the same without the pyrotechnics? Is it the contemporary spectacle or the formalist virtuoso of the traditional music that enables its emotional and spiritual resonance? Or does that arise from a symbiosis of the two? But is there really a symbiosis taking place? Are the contemporary elements nothing more than extraneous embellishment?

While the most iconic features of the show are undeniably Abel’s various creative interventions, in the set as well as in the snappy lighting effects, the power of the piece lies mostly within the drama that the aural conveys. I do wonder then, if Abel is merely theatricalising an aural narrative which is already intensely theatrical by itself? Are the contemporary elements then merely a form of amplification, which in effect, does not necessarily include a genuine interaction or negotiation between the traditional and the new?

But I’m really just dishing out questions spontaneously. I don’t exactly have answers and I don’t think this is a work to be dissected so categorically. But if anything, I think that the set design does add a particularly interesting dimension to the performance. The compartmentalisation of the musicians isolates each of them within their own private space in which they embark upon their own introspective, spiritual quest. The audience are effectively the only ones who can witness their collectivity from their vantage point. I found this to be a remarkably powerful articulation of the relationship between the individual and the spiritual realm that belongs to collective humanity.

What is equally remarkable for me is how the music, which is essentially religiously inspired can achieve such universal resonance, particularly in a world where religious differences are often construed as dangerous fault lines that tear society asunder. In this light, The Manganiyar Seduction does present a glimpse of a utopian future of a common humanity. In fact, I thought that it would have been brilliant if the work was presented in an open-air civic space with the crowds dancing to the music in communal revelry. And there was clearly an urge to do so within the audience with so many of them grooving to the music in their seats. They looked all ready to get on their feet and break out in a dance!

Do also check out Abel’s other works at his website.

Rui An