By Nabilah Said
(621 words, three-minute read)
On a Monday afternoon in Goodman Arts Centre, I am watching a group of dancers working. They are leaping. They are climbing. They are pushing. They are sweating. They are making me feel strangely immobile – when was the last time I hung upside down from my knees? – yet their movements are sending my brain into a thousand different trajectories. I feel both compacted and elongated. This is The Human Expression or T.H.E, a contemporary dance ship commandeered by artistic director Kuik Swee Boon.
I’ve been invited to a rehearsal of Invisible Habitudes, a work that is soon going to go on tour in Europe – the company’s largest tour to date with six cities in three countries, Italy, Latvia and Poland. Their month-long sojourn (they will be back in time for their next performance at M1 Contact) involves performances and talks, a residency in Bassano del Grappa in Italy and a stop at the 42-year-old Inteatro Festival in the Italian city of Polverigi. Invisible Habitudes is a work from the 2018 edition of Esplanade’s da:ns festival, the first ticketed performance held at Esplanade Outdoor Theatre. In a review, Chan Sze-Wei described it as “between dream and nightmare… a sort of deep impulsive cry, a writhing spirit…”.
Since then, Kuik and the six dancers have been hard at work trying to dig deeper into the work’s themes of exploring identity, home and one’s relationship with authority. Kuik believes that these themes will find international favour. At the same time, he hopes that the company aesthetic shows up through the work – a philosophy known as “hollow body”, wherein the body acts as a hollow container for a dancer’s understanding of, relationship with and reaction to the world.
A habitude is more than a habit, or something one is accustomed to. It can also refer to one’s essential character or bodily composition, which suggests that Invisible Habitudes is also an exploration of society versus the individual. Apt then that the work will be performed in venues of varying scales, in both indoor and outdoor settings. These include the 1,200-seater concert hall of Teatro delle Muse in Ancona, Italy, an outdoor floating stage in Riga, Latvia, and the courtyard of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Kuik says he is hoping to “create a performance environment and detail in which the indoor quality can be created outdoors”.
It is also a piece that is very much a living, breathing organism. The preview I sit in for runs longer than the 65 minutes advertised, as it is the first time musician Wang Yujun is in the room for this stretch of rehearsals, singing and performing live with an accompanying soundtrack. She sings a fragment from a Beijing opera song*, moved by a scene about gender identity and expression. This pays homage to the old Beijing operatic practice of male performers playing the Dan, or female roles.
The recorded soundtrack also contains recordings of the dancers talking about their memories of their hometowns, in different dialects, bringing into the work a flavour of their individual journeys and stake in its themes. There is an element of danger too. Part of the choreography involves the dancers moving large pyramidal metal structures around the performance space, building up to a frenzied pace of structure-body-wheels-feet-structure-body-wheels-feet. These are emblematic of different power structures, such as polity, authority and industry, nameless yet familiar in their foreboding presence and heft. In Invisible Habitudes, we thus see multiple struggles that man has: with himself and others, with machine, with nature, that open up opportunities of exploration and excavation on scales both minute and massive.
*I am told the lyrics translate to:
The Han troops have conquered our homeland
We are surrounded by folk songs of Chu
You, as our Lord, has lost confidence,
I, as your Lady, have no courage to live on.
Invisible Habitudes by T.H.E. Dance Company has several stops in Europe between 8 June and 6 July 2019. These include: LAIKS DEJOT Festival in Riga, Latvia; International Dance Theatre Festival Zawirowania in Warsaw Poland; Inteatro Festival in Polverigi, Italy; Cross Festival in Verbania, Italy and Festival Fabbrica Europe in Florence, Italy.
M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival runs from 15 June – 21 July 2019.
Nabilah Said is the Editor of ArtsEquator.