By Chan Sze-Wei
(1,110 words, six-minute read)
Norhaizad Adam’s second full length work with his company P7:1SMA (say “prisma”) is set in another world. The audience steps through the door of the Drama Centre Black Box into an arena of wooden crates and sacking, the whiff of wood and coffee beans in the warm light of a late afternoon. We are invited to sit on crates around the perimeter of the space. Five dancers are contorted on the pale wood floor, laying out rows of tiny coffee beans and then plucking them up with difficulty because their hands are bound in vivid red smocks that wrap their torsos and arms together awkwardly. When they finish with their line of beans, the dancers stand, wavering in exhaustion, then collapse to the floor before they get picked up by a colleague. In contrast to the title, which abbreviates an invitation to “Mengopi” (Let’s go for coffee), it’s already clear that this isn’t going to be a comfortable yuppie café experience.
The 90-minute work is ambitious in scope and theme. Norhaizad relates in the programme note that he had plenty of time while working as a barista to digest the ethical dilemmas of the coffee industry. In preparation for this piece, he also took his cast to develop part of this work in a coffee plantation in Simalungun, Indonesia. These frustrations burst through the work with great theatricality. We are taken through the brutal labour conditions of farm production, crooked business deals and arbitrary valuation, ending in a creepily cheerful café scene where the dancers become baristas competing to sell coffee to selected audience members. We are invited to choose from a menu of the “best coffee in the world” that includes a choice of civet cats, slaves, or child labour – implicating the audience in the chain of exploitation. The last barista not selected by the audience-clientele is buried alive by his colleagues in a giant metal drip filter filled by a shower of more coffee beans.
There is no moment that isn’t disturbing, and each vignette is marked by a strong visual or movement motif: Kow Xiao Jun as a feral animal thrust into a cage (cleverly integrated into the crates of the set); Galih Mahara’s seemingly disembodied head manipulated through space by eight hands; a strongly rhythmic ensemble sequence that develops from a listless shuffle into a series of swooping low lunges, the pack repeating several times a contorted squat where they reach through their crotches to synchronise a frenzy of bum-smacking.
The arbitrary commercialisation of human suffering is a clear theme. The bean-pickers mechanically self-inflict 52 slaps counted in a cacophony of languages. Hasyimah Harith conducts a ritualised inspection-duet of three dancers who seem to be both plant and product. She declares their numeric worth in Malay after comparing their hand weight, arm resistance, and durability to her hand-chops and deep sniffs to the armpit. Ismail Jemaah obediently scribbles the values down on a clipboard, and this piece of paper is laid out on the floor among a series of glyphs marking different stages of the piece: a pile of coffee beans, the number of slaps, the coffee scores, a torn hand-shape (a broken agreement?), the café is open, the café is closed.
The scenes are mostly punctuated by the ominous hum and crackle of an electronic soundtrack by Syafiq Halid, who also occasionally swaggers around the performance as an overseer in fancy shoes. The scent of wood and coffee beans is complemented when Syafiq mics a process of actual coffee brewing at his control platform, creating a soundtrack for a solo dance. I couldn’t fathom how the water could still be hot at that point in the evening, but I’m convinced I caught the aroma of fresh coffee and it didn’t feel like a forced gimmick. What was absolutely forced, however, was the eruption of a scratchy 20s style jazz track for the final café scene, accompanied by equally contrived welcoming grimaces from the dancers.
The didactic objective of the piece is easy to comprehend from the opening scene; most of us don’t usually think about the problems of agricultural production, but when we see them we quickly understand. The subsequent scenes were visually engaging and raised clearly the ethical problems at various stages in the process of production. However, the tone of guilt and pessimism remained at a similar register for the remaining 90 minutes. As an audience member I felt my understanding also remained at a similar plateau. At a certain point I found the onslaught of material fragmentary and overwhelming. By the end of the piece the scenes accumulated to a moralistic tone that was rather indigestible. I hoped in vain for the separate scenes to integrate somehow or offer a catharsis. Could this piece offer some conclusion to the problem, or further questions about how this industry might change, or the role that we can play as consumers? Might the answer lie in some kind of processing via the connection of physicality and conscience?
Ngopi showed Norhaizad’s strengths to evoke other worlds and emotional states, and to approach and engage the audience with a strong narrative context and multi-sensory experience. It goes far beyond the stereotyped collage of the fetishised “traditional” and “contemporary” vocabulary that I find many novice choreographers offer when grappling with traditional vocabulary and an obligation to represent a specific cultural identity. It is also impressive that while P7:1SMA avows its base in traditional Malay dance, the pick-up ensemble here functions well with a cast of local and international dancers of varied dance backgrounds. (Only Norhaizad and Hasyimah are permanent company dancers, although several of the cast are regular collaborators.) The vocabularies of traditional Malay dance, contemporary dance, Javanese-inspired improvisation, martial arts and physical theatre were well integrated.
I am very glad that this company is initiating projects informed by a sense of social justice. Activist agendas are not easy to combine satisfactorily with art, and choreography is one of the most difficult mediums through which to convey non-aesthetic arguments. Yet Ngopi as an endeavor fits well with the thread of contemporary discourse on choreography as an ideal tool for audience activation and empowerment. As a piece on its own I don’t think Ngopi showed the completeness and containment of the shorter work Wrong Geng at the Esplanade’s Joget programme last week, where Norhaizad deconstructed a specific movement vocabulary with a sweet balance of irony and taboo, humour and critique. I am nonetheless stunned that he and Hasyimah should have worked on both shows at the same time to be presented a week apart. Surely fueled by a generous quantity of caffeine and creative juice. I am looking forward to seeing what P7:1SMA produces next.
Ngopi ran at the Drama Centre Black Box from 28 to 31 March 2018. This review is based on the performance of 28 March 2018.
Guest Contributor Chan Sze-Wei is a dance maker, performance maker and sometime trouble maker. Blending conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, performance installation and film, her work is often intimate and sometimes invasively personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender.