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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Progress at work: “Forward Shift” at da:ns festival

By Bernice Lee
(1,507 words, 7-minute read)

Forward Shift, a new platform for works-in-progress within Esplanade’s da:ns festival, begins with much fanfare. Members of the public were treated to three performance experiments featuring artists whose artistic and audience development have been supported steadily at #mydurian. 

In What She Said, choreographer Raka Maitra and music composer Dharma work together for the first time; Ming Poon tests a new version of his choreographic interventions in social space with The Intervention of Loneliness; whilst Pichet Klunchun, dancer Kornkarn and DJ Rory transform regal classical dancing into something much more wild in No. 60.

The title “Forward Shift” is a reference to “Forward Moves”, a platform in the early 2000s presenting new works by Singaporean choreographers. It was organised as part of what was then known as the Singapore Arts Festival. As Singapore’s artistic landscape has grown, with a great volume and range of performances travelling through and coming from the local scene, these platforms too have shifted, rebranded, disappeared and reappeared — as ephemeral as live dance performance.

Just as institutions and individuals evolve, so too do artworks and audiences. Works-in-progress are not usually publicly shared. But each time a performance is shared with a roomful of strangers (and friends and industry insiders), possible interpretations and reactions multiply. No two events are utterly the same.

The Intervention of Loneliness perhaps best embodies this. Ming’s works create spaces for audience and artist, and audience and audience, to relate to each other in new, often unexpected ways. In this particular work-in-progress, he seems to be testing how little he needs to perform, before the audience takes over. Ming walks on stage, with a cardboard sign he has been taking around the world. It reads “Slow Dance With Me”. He stands there expectantly, alone. The lights come up on the audience.

“The Intervention of Loneliness” by Ming Poon. Photo: Bernie Ng

 

When the performer, the one being looked at, invites the audience to join in being looked at, the whole room shifts. Nervous laughter, tension. One might imagine that nothing happens — we have agency, after all, to choose to do nothing, and allow the performance to be nothing beyond a man standing on stage with a cardboard sign, looking like a homeless person, a political protester, a doomsday preacher. A friend beside me whispers that he heard a rumour that it is much more fun if somebody takes up the invitation. I know I am meant to review this performance, but something tells me critical distance need not apply here — critical intimacy, a concept that theatre critic and academic Corrie Tan has been practising and sharing, can be exercised instead. Plus, I had just spent a wonderful time dancing with very energetic children, and I was not about to let some awkward tension around adult social conventions kill my mood. I bound up on stage. 

Being on stage, being looked at, while you are sharing a quiet moment with the “official” performer feels strangely romantic, like we suddenly coexist in a universe where we can trust anybody anywhere. As the work unfolds, and as different audience members enter and leave the stage, choose where to stand, who else to dance with, which instructions to follow, this chain of events produces a visual composition, an emotional landscape, and new conversations between bodies. It becomes a chance to think about how we choose to make a connection with a stranger — what am I paying attention to about their bodies, the way they carry themselves? What judgments am I making when I consider whether I will want to dance with this stranger, or that stranger? We all know the title of the show, that there is something about loneliness here. But there is no authorial statement telling us what to think about loneliness. There is no singular way to enjoy (or not) the work and the space it creates for strangers to slow dance, to make a stand on stage. With a work like that, its unpredictability becomes part of the choreography. Audiences and performer alike have to assess our risk threshold, and know that with each repeated viewing, the work will transform, for better or for worse. 

How do we know whether something shared is worthwhile, a finished product? What patterns of habit do we develop, that tell us whether something is good, not good, beautiful, or not beautiful?

What She Said by Raka Maitra seems to set the stage for beauty. Coming before the tender awkwardness of The Intervention of Loneliness, we see three people sharing in a reverie. Simple and elegant, the quiet power of Sandhya Suresh meets the quiet strumming of Dharma. As though spurred by some disturbance, Elizabeth Sergeant Tan scrawls words, using chalk on the black walls. Inspired by classical Tamil poetry from The Interior Landscape by AK Ramanujan, this could be seen as a solo, a duet, a trio — visually, we are led to observe Suresh’s every move and mood. But the dialogue of movement with sound, and the visual presence of the other two performers, create an intriguing ambiguity. Who is the protagonist in this image? Who are the lovers? Nobody ever looks at each other. They each seem rapt in their own inner worlds, and the effect of that is my own meditation. They each seem to be yearning for something, and fulfilling their desires, at the same time. They enact no conventional love stories or love triangles, though the text written on the walls, large and bold, suggests some kind of entanglement. Each movement, each sound, manifests like a breath. Its slowness produces calm, and with it, a sense of marvel.

“No. 60” by Pichet Klunchun Dance Company. Photo: Bernie Ng

 

Pichet Klunchun’s work closes off the show with a bang. DJ Rory plays music not entirely dissimilar to what we hear in clubs to begin the show. A psychedelic, kitschy video showing different moving images of Pichet’s body and line drawings blasts on the screen, seemingly referencing a punk rock aesthetic. It definitely feels like a club, especially in the Annexe Studio, which used to be one. 

In the video shown, we see drawings and sketches Pichet has created over the years as he interrogated his Khon training and sought to understand it. The geometries of his dance bring to mind the geometries of classical ballet as described in choreographer William Forsythe’s Improvisation Technologies and Synchronous Objects. Whereas Forsythe interrogated ballet’s rules, Pichet interrogates Theppanom, producing new potentialities for contemporary dance.

In No. 60 we catch a glimpse of what a studio process might be. Pichet appears almost authoritarian, his voice stern as he dictates numbers for the dancer Kornkarn to perform a coded sequence. She also calls out numbers, for him to obey and produce movement, though she seems decidedly less authoritarian. As the dance develops, however, we see that the power balance shifts, they move closer to each other, dance through each other’s spaces, forming lines of energy where before there were none. The staid quality of the dance finds release through communication between the two bodies, and through the fantastic groove of the music. The geometries and spatiality of the dance weave into more refined, more fluid, yet more fragmented possibilities, and the dancers no longer shift from position to position, but continually define and describe the space. They pick up speed, and seem ready to explode. The dancers then leave abruptly, but the music continues, with video playing till the very end. The full-length, complete performance will be shown at The Esplanade in 2020.

When a newly unfinished work encounters a public audience, its rawness can be deeply exciting. The promise of further growth is ever present in any performance — from the most polished classical dance to the most spontaneous improvisation work — and in Forward Shift, as audience members, we are purposefully prepared to be part of a new work’s development. During the audience talkback session, facilitated by T. Sasitharan (also known as Sasi) when I attended, our discourse focused on the wider contexts of each artist’s work.

Forward Shift appears to be part of a concerted effort to create more layers of dialogue between artist and audience, at different stages of an artistic process. These are not categorised as education and outreach programmes which tend to have defined learning objectives for an audience/participant. Instead, performance works have become a landing place, a site from which members of the public can talk about issues ranging from loneliness to romance, decolonisation to emotion. They are also often considered rehearsals for democracy — how we talk about something as subjective and powerful as art could be useful practice for how we talk about the politics affecting our lives. In a post-show dialogue, talking about music and costume choices, for example, helps us to scrutinise the social and cultural norms that have informed those artistic decisions. In Forward Shift, audiences knowingly attend to become part of these decision-making processes. The questions we ask, our feedback and ideas, might affect how the artist develops their work. There is something quite thrilling about something like that, as if we are stepping into the unknown together.


Forward Shift took place at Esplanade Annexe Studio in Singapore from 11–13 Oct 2019, as part of Esplanade’s da:ns festival 2019. More info here.

Bernice Lee is a contemporary dance artist from and in Singapore. In her creations she deals with time as primary material. Her labours are rooted in improvisation, and sees art-making as a form of social activism. She contributes writing to online publications ArtsEquator and FiveLines, enjoying the kinetic rhythms of language and the impact of words. She co-directs Rolypoly Family with Faye Lim. With Chong Gua Khee, she has a joint practice The-Body-as-Theatre. An associate member of Dance Nucleus, she also enjoys teaching at various institutions. Currently developing her solo practice ghosting, performed most recently at M1 Contact Festival, and can be found playing with #ghosting on Instagram. For more information, visit bernicelee.xyz

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