By Jocelyn Chng
(960 words, 6-minute read)
EARTH opens the 2018 edition of the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival, the annual festival organised by T.H.E Dance Company. Now in its ninth year, the festival is a relatively small feature of the performing arts landscape in Singapore, but nevertheless a crucial one. Amidst the generally higher profile dance programming of other larger scale festivals such as the Esplanade’s da:ns Festival and the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), M1 CONTACT serves as a platform for smaller contemporary dance works by both local and international artists, that we would otherwise be less likely for audiences to experience.
This performance, staged at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, is a double bill consisting of EARTH, choreographed by Rudi Cole and Júlia Robert Parés, artistic directors of HumanHood (UK); and Filled with sadness, the old body attacks by Kim Jae Duk, resident choreographer of T.H.E.
As the house lights darken, the stirring opening image of EARTH confronts the audience. Seven dancers, wearing distinctive conical hats (resembling the Vietnamese nón lá), are each lit directly from above by a dim, narrow spotlight. The light catches the glossy surface of the hats, creating a deep yellow glow around the top of each hat, while the rest of the dancers’ bodies remain shrouded in faint greyness. This alluring image remains in my mind for a long time after the performance. It is a powerful way to begin, the yellow-brown-grey palette both evoking the hues of sunset and recalling the title of the piece.
The piece is characterised by a sense of continuous flow. Movements are slow and meditative, focused mostly on arm and upper body at the beginning. They gradually increase in tempo and size as the piece progresses, but always retain a sinuous and fluid quality. Whereas in the first section, the seven dancers appear more or less as seven individuals, the piece builds towards more group choreography and increasing use of spatial patterns in the later sections. The piece’s beauty, and its difficulty, lies in its unceasing motion – all seven dancers never leave the stage, and almost never stop moving, throughout the 30-minute duration of the piece. The idea of continuous flow embedded within a clear structural coherence gives the piece a philosophical, almost spiritual quality.
Cole and Robert’s interest in elements of “Eastern mysticism,” as noted in the piece’s synopsis, is recognisable, most obviously in the visual image of the conical hats, but also in the use of bell chimes embedded in the music, notably in the opening section, and the single, soft, deep chime that closes the piece, reminiscent of a large temple bell. If I have doubts about the piece, it is in these aspects, which although not aesthetically out of place, nevertheless raise questions about the incorporation of various vaguely “Asian” elements that could be seen as tokenistic.
However, this is a small quibble for a work that otherwise displays strong structural and philosophical clarity. The second piece in the double bill, Kim’s Filled with sadness, unfortunately appears less coherent in comparison.
Having worked with T.H.E and its dancers since 2010, Kim’s familiarity with the company certainly does comes across in this piece. It is choreographed to include six of the dancers in frenetic entrances and exits, and uncomfortable movements and contorted positions that highlight both the limitations and limitlessness of the human body. The opening section of the piece is incessant, in movement as well as sound, with some parts of the music bringing to mind a clock ticking. This incessant, continuous movement recalls the earlier EARTH, but the similarity ends there.
The second section opens with bodily sounds such as breathing, sighing, and coughing, against which well-timed actions are performed by dancer Billy Keohavong. The other dancers then enter and exit the stage, sometimes performing movements in time with the music, sometimes not. Probably the most light-hearted section of the piece, some quirky movements here elicit laugher from the audience. In the third section, tenor Leslie Tay is seated on a raised platform upstage centre, cross-legged, upper body bare, with a microphone. The dancers move to his performance of both spoken words and sung sequences in what sound like gibberish.
What makes Filled with sadness confusing is the overwhelming barrage of disparate sounds and movements. Apart from some recognisable movements from the first section returning in the third – such as dancers moving along the floor on their tummies, knees bent behind them and one arm outstretched – the three sections feel disjunctive, especially sonically. I am not convinced that the live vocal performance by Tay is entirely necessary. Although he could be read as the presence of a controlling, deity-like figure due to his central and elevated position on stage, his appearance in only the last section of the piece seems superfluous.
Some idea of the questioning of daily life and human behaviour in society does come across – for example in the costumes (pantsuits) and specific gestures such as the group of six dancers standing with one hand up as if holding on to the handrails in the subway – but it comes across only in a very general sense.
Nevertheless, both pieces in this double bill are difficult, requiring physical and mental stamina and focus, and the dancers live up to the task. This being the tenth anniversary of T.H.E’s founding, 2018 has been an interesting year for the company – in March this year it staged Cut Kafka! in collaboration with Nine Years Theatre, in which the dancers were faced with the challenge of performing considerable amounts of spoken text concurrently with movement. EARTH is a return to something more within T.H.E’s comfort zone, but is nevertheless a testament to the development of the company and its dancers over the past ten years.
EARTH, presented by T.H.E Dance Company in Collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, features the work of choreographers Kim Jae Duk (South Korea) and Humanhoood (UK), and is performed by T.H.E Dance Company. EARTH by T.H.E Dance Company ran from 15 to 16 June at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. This review is based on the performance on 16 June 2018, 3pm.
Guest Contributor Jocelyn Chng holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research. She is currently building her portfolio career as an educator and practitioner in dance and theatre, while pursuing an MA in Education (Dance Teaching). She is a founding member of the Song and Dance (SoDa) Players – a registered musical theatre society in Singapore, with whom she does choreography/movement training and production work. Jocelyn also writes for Centre 42’s Citizen Reviewers programme. Her reviews can be found here.