By Nabilah Said and Germaine Cheng
(1,580 words, 7-minute read)
What does it mean to be between worlds? To behold yet not belong? Three works – Café Sarajevo, ATARA and No Place – presented as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020 ask these questions, of their audience and of themselves.
Café Sarajevo, bluemouth inc.
8 January 2020, Esplanade Theatre Studio
A world premiere, Café Sarajevo is a transportative theatrical experience by Canadian company bluemouth inc. that sets itself up as a live podcast interview around the experiences of Lucy Simic as she journeys to her father’s birthplace in Bosnia-Herzegovina and finds a nation divided. It is stripped down yet ambitious, an ambulatory experience calling on the audience to get involved in the story, headphones and Google Cardboard goggles in tow.
The audience’s role as players in the story largely works well, though sometimes ends up being a tad clunky as audience participation can be. Whether cast as pro-feminist protestors, an enigmatic tour guide or towards the end, opposing sides of a soccer team, the audience is at once brought into the intimate fold of Simic’s story and implicated into the politics of the world of the show, and the world at large.
Piped directly into our ears, the stories and dialogue – delivered by Simic and the show’s other co-creators, Stephen O’Connell, Mariel Marshall and Peter Musante – crackle with life and quiet vulnerability. One particular anecdote, where Simic commits the faux pas of calling Bosnian coffee “Turkish” instead, gives the audience an easy entrypoint (like consuming a snack in the titular café) into the sensitivities and present-day impact of sectarian violence.
There is also a sense of communion to the show. While everyone has radio frequency audio headsets on, there is a limited number of goggles, which gives the viewer a 360 degree look at scenes of Simic and O’Connell’s roadtrip, allowing us to actually see where these stories are set. As the goggles are passed around, the sense of care and turn-taking in Café Sarajevo directly counteracts the darker backdrop of the story, the violence of the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, the shadow of which still falls on the region by way of bullet holes and tourist activity.
As the audience moves around the Esplanade Theatre Studio space, one thinks of the mass movement of people around the world as a result of war, policy and the creation of new nation-states – Simic’s family being one such example, her father moving the family from Bosnia to Croatia, and with Simic studying and working in Canada and now based in Brooklyn, New York. The performers, including Simic herself, are outsiders on this shared journey of discovery, and we traverse alongside them across state lines, and other, perhaps less visible, lines.
Whilst the podcast angle is clever and current, it is the tech that lets the production down. The 360 degree videos are ironically less immersive as the stories themselves are, and oftentimes the act of viewing them through the cardboard goggles is finicky, detracting from the actual show.
Still, Café Sarajevo comes across as an exciting endeavour. It is a wonderful example of the Canadian collective’s DNA of creating immersive work that combines good storytelling with other performance elements including live singing, movement, film and video. Its soul-searching journey of personal history intersecting with politics and the heartbreaking horrors of war can sprawl somewhat haphazardly, but perhaps forgivingly so. In 90 minutes, the world-in-a-room feels united under one same sonic sky.
ATARA – For you, who has not yet found the one, Reut Shemesh
14 January 2020, Esplanade Theatre Studio
ATARA – For you, who has not yet found the one is by Germany-based Israeli choreographer Reut Shemesh. The work reflects her view, as though through a telescope, at her homeland, her family and the mishmash of cultures she grew up with. About 15 years ago, some of her closest family members converted to Orthodox Hasidic Judaism, causing her to partake in their rituals and abide by their customs.
ATARA’s three performers, Hella Immler, Tsipora Nir and Florian Patschovsky are dressed modestly, their knees beneath skirts and their elbows hidden under shirt sleeves. They all wear wigs of neatly styled shoulder-length hair. They portray Orthodox Hasidic Jewish women who adhere strictly to the Torah – they are virtuous, domestic and pure, but perhaps joylessly so.
The work opens with a series of photographs. We see an extravagant wedding party, a beaming bride, a wig boutique, a pair of hands crossed. The wedding is seemingly when these women’s lives truly begin, as a wife and a mother.
Shemesh places her performers on a square of dance mat which appears like an island in the black sea of the Esplanade Theatre Studio stage. This is their world as they know it. And they dance through it, their feet stamping to keep time, because there is no music, no euphoria, no celebration. They hold their arms straight like blades of a helicopter, as they spin and gather speed. If Barbies danced, this is perhaps how they would move.
Immler speaks while she raises her arms as if in salute and sinks into a deep squat. She reveals that Orthodox Hasidic Jewish women only dance at weddings, and in a separate room from the men. She says they are untainted, but also that they are “suppressed and [they] love it”. The cracks in this manicured facade begin to show and Shemesh leads us deeper down the rabbit hole.
Step-tap, step-tap. As though in a disco, the trio whip their heads with abandon. They are saying “no”, but somehow are deriving some sick enjoyment from this as their hips and arms get coaxed into the motion. Forming a circle, the performers skip and pivot, their feet buoyant but their faces blank. The dancing is grooveless, yet they cannot seem to stop. Looking squarely at us, they urge us to clap along. But these Stepford Wife-esque bots are uninspiring, almost disturbing.
A computer-generated voiceover commands them to stop. Smoothing out their flyaway hairs, the trio perch themselves on one hip, like mermaids at shore. Their mouths slowly come agape, as if to speak, but they are mute. Gradually, an aching lilt emerges from Nir and it grows more and more desperate until it gives way to a traditional religious song in Hebrew. She spreads her arms, as if to embrace but also to block. The melancholic song is punctuated by a sudden clap, which resonates through her torso. Her fingers creep down the sides of her body. She starts to shiver and her voice wobbles between the notes.
“This is for you, who has not yet found the one,” begins Immler’s final monologue. ATARA is Shemesh’s dedication to those who are different, those who are still seeking. In one scene, the performers remove their wigs and their skirts, only to trade and step into another’s almost identical outfit. Shemesh pokes at these cookie-cutter lives to find that there is nuance within the mould. She might be on the outside, but dances along the border.
No Place, Square One Collective
15 January 2020, Centre 42 Black Box
In No Place by Square One Collective, the characters are playing a precarious game of balance between their past and their (projected) future. We find them on a voyage, in a purgatory of sorts.
Directed and written by Singaporean Andrea Ang, No Place is set in the not-so-distant future of 2075 where three participants of the Promised Land Programme compete for a place in paradise. They play a game of dots and boxes, in which players draw lines with fluorescent markers to connect dots and form boxes, in order to win points. Through various rounds of doing so, they turn against one another, forming alliances and rivalries, trusting and mistrusting.
Players A (Juliana Suiade), B (Sarah McEneaney) and C (Ana Cantorán Viramontes) are a political exile, a former radical and a climate refugee respectively. Or so we are told. But none of these backstories come to the fore well or specifically enough that they matter in this play. These are simply people who have regret and hope in different measures, who are trying to keep their eyes fixed on the Motherland.
The trio is in the hands of a headphone-wearing, chain-smoking masked game master (Natalie Ahn) who makes appearances to rub off the lines drawn on the game board, albeit not cleanly. The result is blurred, overlapping lines that perhaps best represent the situation as the system glitches every now and then. After each gameplay, the players revel in mandated ‘decompression time’, sidestepping and heel-tapping awkwardly to funky beats.
Over time, it is the dancing that disintegrates, becoming more reluctant and grooveless. The players fall out of step with the music and one another, reeling from the consequences of the increasingly trying (previously hidden) conditions of the game such as being restricted to drawing horizontal lines or being denied a turn.
Towards the end, No Place descends into a madcap series of events. Player A enters in a red dress, calling to mind the corresponding dancer emoji 💃. To a Mandarin cover of “Bang Bang” by Betty Chung, she details the misadventure of losing her beloved Louboutin heels while escaping assassination. Then a scene inspired by The Matrix follows, where Player C is presented with the choice of a mango or a bottle of pills. Ronald the Rooster, the last of the species, flaps its wings across the stage. The climax is a trivia gameshow cum citizenship test with quickfire questions about the Motherland – a sanctuary from the apocalypse founded in 2051.
No Place wears its influences on its sleeve, citing science fiction, pop culture and the current state of the world where national borders are fortified amidst greater fluidity of information and people. It paints a bleak picture of the fragility of relationships in the face of survival, like the house of cards Player C builds before leaving for the Motherland. Perhaps there is No Place so perfect, No Place like home. Wherever it may be.
Café Sarajevo, ATARA and No Place were part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020, which ran from 8-19 January 2020. More info here.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.
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.