By Casidhe Ng
(1,156 words, 7-minute read)
The first thing one notices about the space is its fluidity. I am part of the second set of audience members to enter the Esplanade Theatre Studio. It is bleak, dark, and saturated with red lights. An enigmatic mass of scarlet hangs from above, suspended in mid-air. I am told that I am allowed to move around the theatre freely, though there are demarcations between “performance zones”, within which one ought to remain as mobile as possible, and “non-performance zones”, where audience members may sit. A bare dance stage occupies the other half of the theatre. Divided into such segments, the space appears to already be in play, with members walking about the static figures of the dancers, ambiguously part and not-part of the piece. I seat myself in front of a frozen Ng Zu You, whose body, like the rest of the dancers, is inked with curved lines, much like those bordering our non-performance zones. It is against such a backdrop of redefining limits that PheNoumenon begins to take place.
One by one, the dancers come to life with impulses originating deep within their bodies, twisting and contorting in a frantic mesh of internal implosions. Ng’s lithe body flows with a primal freedom, unbound by structure or routine. A foot is clenched, relaxed, and twisted, before its heel is lifted off the ground. A hidden struggle comes to the surface, a forceful tension inherent within each dancer across the space. Then, as if embodying some primordial scuffle, the dancers unleash a deafening scream that fills the entire theatre, a collective release. The act feels like a primer, an encapsulation, of T.H.E Dance Company’s “hollow body” methodology, emphasising “turning down…the volume…[of] your rational thinking mind” and to “trust the… [instinct] to take over”. Simultaneously, the act seems to assert that liberation comes hand-in-hand with struggle, pain and internality.
Post-release, then, the dancers contend with various objects and modes of clothing. The figures coalesce into one, achieving a communal harmony. A red object once passed around lovingly is pulled apart to reveal multiple tops of orange and black, courtesy of costume designer Loo An Ni. The garments are clasped by each dancer with a strange alienation. I am particularly transfixed by Brandon Khoo’s encounter: a still image of confusion. He is uncertain of how to approach this thing, before he enters into an odd duet with the shirt strewn over his upper body. At one point in his peculiar dance his head is entirely wrapped by cloth, and there is a glimpse of his eyes in the hole of the shirt where his head should be. Yet there is glee, and lightness, and hints of delight. An embedded curiosity in a new discovery.
In another scene, a female dancer reaches for the red mass above. The object is unspooled to reveal a bundle of slippers and shoes. They acquaint themselves with its function, which appears to be just as foreign as the shirts. The dancers’ relationship to clothing as unknown things to be familiarised with, then a thing to be distanced from, travels throughout the entire piece as former instincts are wiped away to form an engagement devoid of restrictions. The ensemble’s experiences with the occurring phenomena slowly gives way to an increasing unity. We bear witness to a heated sequence where Khoo controls the bulbous mass of bodies, a reactionary whole in which every instance of external interference, such as a dancer attempting to enter the mass, results in a chain reaction of minute variations in multiple bodies. Impulse begets impulse as dancers split away and return with a force that shakes the rest into sequential collisions, culminating in the shedding of the same shoes they had once chosen to wear. The footwear is tossed onto the main dance stage. Dancers Nah Jieying and Anthea Seah rush toward the back wall of the theatre before collapsing into foetal positions, as Kent Lee’s sonic, thumping bass heightens to a brilliant crescendo, to an overwhelming degree that I myself almost feel impelled to move. This, as I saw it, was the piece’s second release. If the clothes and shoes were drawn boundaries, each dancer found a way to transcend its predominant influence.
In the ensuing silence, Nah and Seah begin a captivating exploration of object and body by incorporating the slippers into their routine. They writhe and shift with flip flops on their hands and in their mouths, a parody of the slippers’ use, and are at once distinct and inseparable, singular and collective. In one sequence they uproot themselves from the floor with mutual reliance, both bodies anchoring upon one another as they begin to walk in a circle, following each other’s steps like an ouroboros, until they are upright, remaining tied as though through an umbilical cord. Meanwhile, dancer Fiona Thng is encumbered with more and more sets of clothing by Ng and fellow ensemble member Klievert Jon Mendoza, juxtaposing Nah and Seah’s mobility with the stoic intensity of physical inertia. Later, Ng begins shuffling, frantically, uncontrollably, as his legs follow a prescribed motion but his hands flail in all directions, as though innate impulses were now being fully embodied. Finally, Khoo takes on the mantle of embryonic free spirit in battle as four other ensemble members begin a process of walking across the stage. Against their practiced, combined order, Khoo curls and twists into himself, returning to the struggle that first characterised the performance’s “prologue”. Still present is undirected force, still present is a conjured pain, still present is a body at war with itself. In its suffering and strife, Khoo slowly walks to a fellow female dancer, producing the first instance of lasting mutual acknowledgment. Khoo bends at the hip, and they have a comforting embrace. For the first time throughout the piece, contact breeds endearment, gentleness, and serenity.
PheNoumenon marks T.H.E Dance Company’s first work since their landmark Invisible Habitudes, one borne from director Kuik Swee Boon’s desire to understand an individual through the fundamental values “he/she lives by”. He further adds in the performance’s message that the piece examines “the relationship between Man and the natural phenomenon that surrounds him”. In PheNoumenon, this relationship is fraught, combative, and tense: boundaries are drawn and crossed constantly, bodies rarely appear in control, and homogeneity is fluid and inconsistent. Yet amid this tug-of-war, the dancers execute their movements with a concordant sensitivity, treading the fine line between messiness and order, control and lack thereof, restraint and selfless abandon. Lee’s earthy, reverberating sound design itself both anchors and complements the shifting dancers’ forms. Above all, the performance showcases the company’s present frontier-pushing stage: a unified collective of remarkable consistency in its embodiment of Kuik’s honed aesthetic, taken to its synergistic extreme. PheNoumenon feels like, and almost instils, a call to action to our bones: What restrictions and restraints have been imposed by our modern world? And how can we transcend them? How can we, in an age of shackles, begin to attain release?
PheNoumenon was presented by T.H.E Dance Company at Esplanade Theatre Studio from Dec 12 to 14. More info here.
Casidhe Ng is currently studying at Yale-NUS College. He is deeply interested in cultivating and contributing to critical discussion around contemporary work, with a keen eye toward historical material and modes of overlap between various art forms, especially that of dance and theatre. His reviews can be found at centre42.sg and The Flying Inkpot.