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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

From Here On: Going to the theatre in the time of COVID

By Jocelyn Chng
(1,550 words, 5-minute read)

Attending From Here On, my first live performance since COVID hit, evoked a very strange mix of emotions in me. Unfortunately, before getting anywhere near the performance itself, the experience of attempting to get to the Esplanade was already one of sheer frustration. Anyone in Singapore who has tried to so much as get into a shopping mall since the onset of COVID-19 would have encountered this – walking halfway around the building to find the nearest possible entrance and having to scan multiple SafeEntry[1] QR codes. This is nobody’s fault; it’s necessary, it’s something that has become commonplace in our daily experience of urban life, but six months on, I have to admit I am so sick and tired of it. 

Before COVID-19, I had been used to going for a performance of some sort two to three times a week. I had come to somewhat take theatregoing, and its associated codes and etiquettes, for granted. Then came COVID-19. Companies who were in the process of bumping in or in the middle of a run, had to close overnight on 27 March 2020, which happened to be World Theatre Day – the irony!

Performance spaces in Singapore have remained dark since, with still no fixed date for a reopening. However, since 11 September, the National Arts Council (NAC) has begun a few pilot performances as “a cautious step towards the re-opening of live performance venues,” for audiences of 50.[2] From Here On was one such pilot performance by the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT), which has had to cancel two of their main season performances for 2020. 

It took me much more investment than usual, in terms of both time and mental capacity, simply to figure out the logistics of getting to the Esplanade. It made me wonder – if someone like me, who is so familiar with the Esplanade, finds it difficult to work out the travel logistics during this period, why would someone less familiar with the venue or with the arts – a casual theatregoer – bother at all? That was when I felt sad. Sad at the thought that all these measures in place to keep audiences “safe” might instead keep audiences away. 

Photo: Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

 

When I finally got into the building after what felt like a trek through the (urban) jungle and approached the entrance to the theatre stalls, the sight that greeted me saddened me again. 50 people in the 1,950-seat theatre. I was used to seeing the theatre foyer bustling with the excitement of close to 2000 people, not this tentative trickle of audience members who seemed outnumbered by Esplanade and SDT staff. Even for someone who usually dislikes crowds, the stark contrast triggered memories of pre-COVID times and some of the associated grief for something that we have collectively lost. 

Still more hurdles to cross – I got past the ticket tripping and bag check area, now outfitted with a hand sanitising station towards which I was pointed before I was allowed to carry on, down the stairs to the auditorium entrance and one more hand sanitising station, before I made it inside, SafeEntry-ed and sanitised like never before. Perhaps it was the mental weight of all these safety procedures, or perhaps it was simply harder to breathe through a mask in the dry theatre atmosphere – whichever it was, I found myself panting a bit as I made my way down the aisle, passing rows of the familiar red upholstered seats, now all eerily vacant. 

The programme proceeded without much fanfare. The company chose to present four pas de deux[3] from their repertoire, with Artistic Director Janek Schergen introducing each one before it was presented. The curtain rose on the first piece, the pas de deux from Configurations, originally choreographed by Choo-San Goh for the American Ballet Theatre in 1979. 

From the first few notes of piano music, I felt a small wave of emotion coming over me. For the first time in six months, I was not hearing sound through my crappy earphones or laptop speakers – I was hearing clear, deep notes that enveloped the space around me. And then, there were the dancers in front of me, in simple greyish costumes outlined by the stage lighting against a blue cyclorama. The minimalist Neoclassical[4] aesthetic felt particularly stark and melancholic when interpreted against the current context. As Principal dancers Chihiro Uchida and Kenya Nakamura took their curtain call, I could sense that the 50 people in the audience really wanted to show their support – everyone clapped as loudly as they could. I relished the chance to directly show appreciation to the performers, instead of lurking on a Zoom chat or texting friends to comment on the show.  

Photo: Bernie Ng, courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre

 

By the time we got to the second piece, I was finding it hard to fight back tears, which is particularly inconvenient when you are wearing a mask. It was the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux from The Nutcracker, a piece that I had never found particularly compelling as far as the Classical repertoire goes, but Akira Nakahama and Etienne Ferrère seemed to be dancing it with as much joy as could possibly be mustered up in these times. At parts, Tchaikovsky’s rousing music felt too much for the space. I wondered what the dancers must be going through, performing with all their might to an almost empty house, and I applaud their tenacity.

I spent the rest of the performance in similar rapture, marvelling at the movement before me while sitting with the flurry of thoughts in my head. In a non-COVID alternate universe, the company would have been presenting their annual Ballet Under the Stars now, a much-loved, family-friendly outdoor event that involves the whole company. In this very pared-down performance, only six dancers had made it to the stage. My thoughts flitted back to the multiple hurdles I had to pass, both physically and mentally, to be sitting here. But I was trying not to be ungrateful as I knew I was one of the few fortunate ones who had been allowed into a theatre in these times. Ironically, the pandemic has highlighted how digital online performances are more accessible in many ways. I also thought about how difficult it must have been for the dancers to maintain their training throughout the closure of the company’s studios, and how incredible it was that they were performing at this level, as if nothing had changed in their training and rehearsal circumstances.  

The third and fourth pieces, the Swan Lake Act II pas de deux and the Don Quixote Act III pas de deux, were standards in the Classical ballet repertoire. Presented simply with no sets, the programme on the whole seemed to be a statement of the company’s calm, understated response to the pandemic – whatever might come their way, the SDT is still here, and intends to keep progressing from here on. 

After the final curtain call – a short one – again with no fanfare, we were told to remain in our seats as ushers directed audience members out in groups so as to maintain safe distancing. This last ritual, leaving the theatre, is usually one of renewed excitement mirroring the pre-show hubbub – where friends might discuss the performance, decide to head for supper or drinks, or bid each other warm farewells. However here it felt disconcerting – everyone was compliant and orderly, but a sombre mood hung in the air, more reminiscent of the end of a serious religious sermon than a theatre performance. And in some way, maybe there was a sense of religiousness in the air as we collectively grasped at the ideal of live performance, attempting to keep some spark of it alive in such bleak times.  

As I filed out together with the few other audience members in my row, trying to process the wave of emotions I had felt throughout the entire experience, I could not fight away an intrusive reflection: why are we doing this? The pilot performances are meant to help arts groups and the public “gain confidence and experience” in resuming live performance with safe management measures in place.[5] They are a step forward in the nationwide plan for gradually reopening the economy, and on the surface, a positive sign that performance spaces might be able to resume operations in the near future. However, from the perspective of an artist and producer, I am not sure that it makes sense (economically, emotionally, and environmentally) to create performances for greatly reduced audience numbers for the foreseeable future. As an audience member, if this is the future version of what attending a live performance might look like, I’m also not entirely sure it’s my idea of an enjoyable night out. 

So, why do we, as an arts community, continue to pursue live performance? Of course, it is beautiful, it is visceral, it is all the reasons I was fighting back tears in the theatre… but, I wonder, is beauty alone enough? I hope my pessimism is wrong. After all, if there ever was a situation that called for creativity and resilience, this is it. And these qualities are fundamental to the arts and all the people who live and love it.

 

[1] SafeEntry – a nationwide application system that requires individuals to check in and out whenever they visit a venue, facilitating contact tracing should an infection occur: https://www.safeentry.gov.sg/
[2] https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/trials-for-small-scale-live-performances-to-begin-on-sept-11
[3] In Classical ballet, a pas de deux is a duet that usually follows a standard structure, often seen as the highlight of a work and a chance for the leading couple to show off bravura steps. The term is sometimes used more broadly to refer to any duet in Western classical and contemporary dance.
[4] Neoclassical ballet developed in the early 20th century as a response to the spectacle and opulence of Classical ballet. It is often associated with the work of George Balanchine, and often includes characteristics such as minimal costuming and sets, and abstract movement without a narrative plot.
[5] https://www.nac.gov.sg/whatwedo/support/sustaining-the-arts-during-covid-19/Arts-and-Culture-Sector-Advisories.html#LivePerformancePilots

From Here On is a collaboration between Singapore Dance Theatre and Esplanade, presented as part of pilot performance trial supported by the National Arts Council on 23 Sept 2020.

Jocelyn Chng is a freelance educator, practitioner and writer in dance and theatre, and has written for various platforms since 2013, including The Flying Inkpot and Centre 42. She holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (Dance Teaching). At the heart of her practice, both teaching and personal, lies a curiosity about personal and cultural histories; writing about performance allows her to engage with this curiosity. She sees performance criticism as crucial to the development of the performance landscape in Singapore, and a valuable opportunity to contribute to ongoing discussions about performance and society. Her reviews for the Centre 42’s Citizen Reviewers programme can be found here.

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Comments: 2

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  1. Timely and thoughtful reflections. While the measures might not be anyone’s ‘fault’ they are deliberate decisions. For example, its heresy, but it isnt clear that scanning into a mall and then each individual store makes a meaningful difference when the incidence of COVID-19 is approaching zero. Not a proportionate response. I think we need to look more critically at the decisions making attending an artistic event so troublesome.