By Joelle Cecilia Quek
(900 words, 6-minute read)
I sit cross-legged on the floor in Goodman Arts Centre, the beat from the speakers thumping my chest as I watch the forms in front of me twist and writhe. Their pounding energy sucks me in, the clashing cacophony sweeping and buffeting as it reverberates from wall to wall. Six dancers are doing their final rehearsal for the day under the watchful eye of Kuik Swee Boon, artistic director of T.H.E Dance Company. He is also the choreographer of PheNoumenon《现·象》, the company’s last show of the season, and one which tackles an issue that is larger than life.
Outside, the rain is pouring, but it is no match for these artists. They are preparing for a preview of the work for a test audience, which is being done in the lead-up to the show happening from December 12 to 14 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. The weather adds a nice touch to the proceedings. PheNoumenon examines the relationship between Man and the natural phenomenon surrounding him, peeling away the layers in a call: look out, look carefully; what do you see?
Kuik’s latest work assembles insights gleaned from 2018’s Invisible Habitudes and its subsequent Europe tour. The tour was their largest one yet, covering six cities in three countries, Italy, Latvia and Poland. With PheNoumenon, Kuik builds on the strengths of the “hollow body” methodology and the company. Where Invisible Habitudes was a questioning of personal identity, belonging and one’s relationship with authority, PheNoumenon looks at the world around us and dissects the way we live and our relationship with our living environment and the people who surround us.
The tour also led to an important realisation for Kuik, that he was not immune to “making assumptions about people based on their nationality or passport”. This was something particularly resonant for him, having grown up in Batu Pahat, Malaysia, and spent the last 30 years living and working in Singapore. He adds: “A starting point for PheNoumenon was this conscious effort to identify with or relate to a person by the values he lives by, rather than just where he comes from.”
Kuik was inspired by The Box, (2017) an animated short film created by Dušan Kastelic that plays on the meaning of the phrase “out of the box”. It tells the story of a group of flat-headed elderly humanoid creatures with roots instead of legs, living in a dark box. A youngster emerges and rebels against the oppressive environment created by the rest of the box’s inhabitants. “I was very inspired by this animation and I shared it with all my collaborators… It resonated with me because I felt that it’s true, we are all living in the same space,” Kuik tells me. For PheNoumenon, he is working closely with Singaporean lighting designer Adrian Tan, costume designer Loo An Ni and Malaysian sound artist Kent Lee, whose beats had arrested me moments earlier.
The work’s title already warrants a closer look. Its English title is a combination of the word ‘phenomenon’ and ‘noumenon’, a term from Kantian philosophy that refers to knowledge independent of the senses. “If we believe that humans are part of nature, then of course everything we make also affects nature and everything in it,” Kuik says. “So when I say ‘phenomenon’, I refer to everything that’s happening around us.” PheNoumenon’s Chinese title is a play on words in itself: together, the two characters mean ‘phenomenon’, but apart, 现 means ‘appear’, and 象 could refer to many possible words including similarity, shape, law, calendar (which Kuik correlated to weather), dance or music.
As the dancers stretch and prepare for the start of the show, I walk the perimeter of the space, clocking where the audiences choose to sit. The way PheNoumenon is staged is fluid, with audiences free to sit in marked out areas or move amongst the dancers if they wish. The decision to do away with conventional seating, besides allowing the audience to be fully immersed in the performance, is to also confront them with the idea that we are all equally culpable in the phenomena that surrounds us.
WHAT DO YOU SEE?
Some people immediately choose the safety of the walls, others sit in the islands in the middle of the space. The air is filled with a quiet tension. The dancers are already in place, waiting for the cue for the pre-show segment to start. Their arms and backs are adorned with lines of henna which are meant to symbolise frequency waves, and the idea of technology being so much a part of us. They don bright orange garments, described positively by costume designer Loo Ann Ni as “unreasonably saturated”. The hue is at once alarming yet warm, drawing a boundary around them and yet inviting us to look closer. I am told the costumes have been upcycled from thrifted garments, a commentary on the climate crisis.
Throughout the show, the dancers move with a controlled fluidity, seemingly in sync and yet not, reminding me of the division between individual and society in The Box. They spread out, unafraid to weave within the audience, their raw emotion charging the air. The performance at Esplanade promises to engage not just the audience’s sense of sight, but also smell and touch, which suggests a desire to connect the trifecta of dancer-audience-atmosphere in a whole new way. PheNoumenon thus confronts and exposes us to the idea that we are not alone, whether we like it or not. As Kuik muses, “Humans thought that we could control everything around us but actually we did not know everything. Now we are realising the limitations of our knowledge and our control because all the effects of our decisions are coalescing.”
PheNoumenon《现·象》 takes place from December 12 to 14 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. For more information, click here.
Joelle Cecilia Quek is a freelance writer and photographer born and based in Singapore. Her work is fuelled by her pursuit of capturing nostalgia-tinged memory-like imagery. She likes cats and dogs equally and enjoys a good cup of Thai Iced Milk Tea. For more information, visit joellecq.co.