By Germaine Cheng
(740 words, four-minute read)
There is an unspeakable tranquil that washes over the audience seated inside the chapel at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film in Singapore. For the first five minutes of Be Longing by Sara Tan and Yejin Kwon, the windows are thrown open and we watch the traffic of Middle Road roll past. Passers-by unknowingly become performers as the light from the green man flashing from across the street penetrates the dark room.
There is perhaps no better way to start what is Singaporean dance artist Sara Tan’s debut performance at home after being based abroad for nearly 10 years. As we observe the sights and sounds of the landscape we are situated in, we become like Tan – an observer of a place she once knew. The bright green EXIT sign hanging over the door feels like an invitation to step into the world of Be Longing.
Created by Tan and South Korean dancer Yejin Kwon, the work about the human desire to belong began as an investigation into the plight of refugees living in Europe. But the pair soon realised, as Asian artists based in Europe, that they, too, grappled with questions about their identity and an innate desire for ‘home’.
As part of their research into the refugee crisis, Kwon conducted interviews with Berlin-based artists and researchers Andrej Mircev and Nikoleta Markovic, who are from Croatia and Serbia respectively. The text from these conversations appears on a chapel wall, as though the interviews are being transcribed ‘live’. Amidst their deeply personal thoughts are more philosophical statements about ‘home’ as a construct. As these words begin to fill the frame of Tan’s body, she begins to move as if the sentiments are bubbling up within her and emerging, complete with ellipses and pauses for hesitation. Her movements echo the rhythm of the recorded text as they oscillate between minute jerks and large sweeps.
Kwon joins in, and the pair establish a motif of having both their arms outstretched. Their hands grab at the air and pull it towards themselves. Soon, the space closes between them as their arms intersect the spaces of each other’s bodies. They seek but they do not find. Even in a monologue of a mishmash of languages, Tan is a citizen of the world as much as she is an alien. Some phrases get swallowed, others thrust her into a deep backbend. There is a palpable sense of discomfort in the fragmented text, as well as Tan’s delivery of it.
But despite the liquid eloquence of the dancers’ moving bodies, they fall into familiar contemporary dance tropes, which includes covering their mouths with their hands and trying to speak, dancing with their mouths agape and wrestling each other to the ground. The improvisatory nature of these sections are apparent, but they last too long without making a deeper statement about grappling with the powers that be.
Unexpectedly, the pair breaks from their duet to neaten their hair and adjust their clothes. This is them in rehearsal, we assume, negotiating both their individual identities as well as their differences. Tan nods calmly while Kwon is a bundle of gestures. Jongkag Park’s soundscape stirs above their barely audible conversation as we get a glimpse into the duo’s working process. But what for? This raises questions about the place of the artists in their work, and how the personal and universal can coalesce. These personal stories, whether they belong to the artists or their interviewees, somehow lose their immediacy and power when told in a universal manner.
Surrounded by Dojun Lyu’s film of a distinctly urban European cityscape, Kwon and Tan move once again. But this time they meet, barely stopping as though movement itself is their only constant. There are no traces of the spasmodic movements from before; in their place are bold upper bodies arcing and beckoning the legs through the space.
Perhaps this assurance that ‘home’ is something or someone – some memory or some place that they can carry with them – is what drives Kwon and Tan. It was heartening to see the audience at Objectifs composed mostly of Tan’s family and friends, who greeted her warmly after the performance ended. After its initial showings in Europe, Be Longing has since travelled to Seoul and now Singapore. One hopes the significance of the experience of presenting this work in each of the artists’ home countries will embolden the artists – not only as they search for ‘home’, but as they continue to present this search through their bodies.
Be Longing was presented at Objectifs’ Chapel Gallery on 14 February 2018.
A freelance dance artist and writer, guest contributor Germaine Cheng is a graduate of the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London. Her writing has been published on various arts websites and dance magazines globally. She is on the dance faculty of the School of the Arts, Singapore.