By Chan Sze-Wei
(1,031 words, 7-minute read)
“Dance making in Singapore: an instant noodle culture?” I’ve never forgotten the title of this talk hosted at the Dance Nucleus in 2016 (then helmed by Foo Yun Ying). At the time, local companies and choreographers bemoaned resource limitations and annual grant requirements that seemed to drive everyone to rush through the creation of new dance works in 2-3 months only to show them for two nights, before rushing on to the next “new” idea. Perhaps in response to the sentiment of that time, liTHE, T.H.E Dance Company’s showcase for its training company, was adapted in its 2017-2019 edition to offer a rare continuous platform for three emerging choreographers from within the ranks of the company.
Anthea Seah, Goh Shou Yi and Marcus Foo all emerged from T.H.E Second Company, with Anthea going on to join the main company in 2015. Each was given three years of support for rehearsals with dancers and creative collaborators of their choice (lighting, music, dramaturgy, costume, etc). It was a process to allow them to develop and refine a dance work, with one stage showing a year. Even now, such a residency is an unheard of luxury for most artists.
I regret that I did not manage to catch the two previous iterations of the works, so I won’t be able to comment on the development of the pieces. What I did see at liTHE 2019 was an evening of three sophisticated works, strong performances by Second Company dancers, and distinctive choreographic voices. There is generally a tendency for dancers from the same company to develop similar aesthetics, but here, there was a depth in the development of theme, motif, and a distinctive physicality and scenography in each piece.
This is how we meet/part – phase 3 by Marcus Foo and Quietly She Treads by Anthea Seah come across as finely crafted and complete movement-based works from choreographers with a matured sense of their own aesthetic and fine control of their toolbox of ideas as well as tools for rehearsal and collaboration. This is how we meet/part – phase 3 charts a series of introspective journeys, culminating in a confrontation of self. In the start of the piece, dancers flit through pools of light, teetering in apparently precarious one-legged balances and wavering upon truncated planks of light (their balance is of course rock solid). The ensemble comprises six dancers but each is wrapped in a world and journey of their own, even when they partner off to mirror each other. A particularly compelling performance comes from Zeng Yu, in a gagalicious solo moment, displaying a vulnerable yielding to gravity contrasted with a punchy unity of impulse from limbs to torso. Thanks to subtle lighting and sensitive use of space, the distance between the individuals seems vast and cold. However I found the group formations at the end of piece less convincing, and the silhouetted boy-meets-girl ending disconnected.
Quietly She Treads is similarly polished. A crumpled white textile waterfall upstage reminds me a little of the tableaux of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Cursive series, as do the slow moments bound by a sense of gravity and resistance. I am drawn in by the sustained concentration and presence of the dancers as they navigate partnering tasks. The disheveled fabric of the dancers’ costumes by Loo An Ni takes on a life of its own as the costumes are shed and hoisted into mid-air (though the technical execution is a little clumsy). The costume texture is echoed by a marbled light effect on the floor as well as undulating light textures in the rafters, creating a depth of space that offers a poignant counterpoint to the earthbound aesthetic of the bodies and the palpable sense of duration.
The outlier in the programme is Gaps《缺口》by Goh Shou Yi in collaboration with sound artist Jing Ng and dramaturg Rei Poh – a piece that seems incomplete not for want of ideas, but because of its ambition to transport us into a realm of psycho-thriller science-fiction dance theatre that appears to be just a bit too much of a stretch for this cast and this direction, for now. The scenography-on-a-shoestring is very impressive: the SOTA Theatre Studio drapes are replaced by translucent sheet plastic hanging from the low balcony that runs around the back and sides of the stage. The sound of falling gravel echoes around us, making the theatre feel suddenly cavernous. The dancers plod out from behind the cold back lighting of the plastic curtain, clad in oversize plastic bags or grey smocks that resemble hospital gowns (costumes realised by Yeo Fu Bi). They walk with a wraith-like sense of absence and when they move, they seem gripped by a painful desperation. There is a fleeting suggestion of body snatching in a trio where two men manipulate a woman, but the functional physicality erupts into a unison choreography of hurling limbs and lunges. One of the two plastic-sheathed women is festooned with blank, multi-coloured neon post-it notes that she sheds around the stage as she writhes. Two-thirds into the piece, another dancer comes downstage holding a glowing orb that also turns out to be a wireless speaker, bringing one layer of the electronic sound closer to us while the dancers slide and pass it close to their bodies. So many evocative signifiers, so few keys…
Overall, I was most impressed to see the fruit of rich interdisciplinary collaborations and coherently integrated production elements – in all three works with outstanding contributions from resident lighting designer Liu Yong Huay, and with the choreographers’ respective collaborators in sound, costume and dramaturgy. Goh noted in the post-show dialogue that this extended collaboration had finally given him the chance to shed his earlier notion that a “good” choreographer should be able to originate and direct ideas about all aspects of a production. It was the first time that he had grown to trust his collaborators enough to allow the concept of the work to develop through conversation and exchange. His comments resonate as a reminder that we tend to glorify artists who control and create many aspects of their content (e.g. Hofesh Schechter), but it’s good to recall that collaboration itself is a capacity that one has to either be gifted for or develop over time.
liTHE 2019 was presented by T.H.E Second Company on 21-23 November 2019 at the SOTA Theatre Studio.
Guest contributor Chan Sze-Wei is a dance maker, performance maker and sometime trouble maker. Her practice for the stage and screen is grounded a somatic approach focused on perception, sensation and the organic knowledge of the human body, coupled with an interest in the politics of the body.