Duration: 20 min
Podcast host Chan Sze-Wei and guest Melissa Quek discuss works they saw at the recent M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival, specifically at the platforms DiverCity, Off Stage and M1 Open Stage. These include H A S E R by Singapore dancer-choreographer Syimah Sabtu and Leftovers by Josh Martin from Canadian company, Company 605. The M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival is organised by THE Dance Company.
This is the first of a two-part episode on M1 CONTACT.
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Podcast Transcript (transcribed by Chan Sze-Wei)
Sze-Wei (SW): Hi, welcome to the ArtsEquator dance podcast. I’m Sze-Wei. And this evening I’m here with Melissa Quek, who is a choreographer, dancer and teacher who’s been in the Singapore scene for a little over 10 years now.
We’re here together to talk about performances that we watched as a part of the M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival, organised by The Human Expression (THE) Dance Company. At this festival, we zoomed in on platforms which are showcasing emerging artists and independent artists, the first two DiverCity and Off Stage focus mainly on Singapore-based artists. And the M1 Open Stage is currently a platform that is very much an international showcase of pieces from independents from around the world. It’s selected by open call, but also in connection with an exchange of festival platforms that THE is part of.
So it was actually quite a tough choice to decide what to focus on, when we come to M1 Contact Festival because there is really just such a range of programming. And that’s maybe, for a start, to point out that it’s a real treat to have such a variety of, of performance, quality of style of different voices to look at, at one time. And that they’re situated within something where you look at companies who are quite established, choreographers who are quite established and then independents and newly emerging dancers.
But I must admit, it’s something that can be quite challenging to take in actually. The whole of the festival spreads over something… just over a month. And we watched three performances in the space of about three weeks. The three performances that we caught this year, were DiverCity which is a platform for the completion of works in progress, this year featuring three pieces by Singaporean independent artists, Amelia Chong with NAMUH, Adele Goh and Germaine Cheng with Disappearing Act. And Edwin Wee and Rachel Lum with DBL.TAP. We also watched Off Stage, which is a studio showing for emerging artists works in progress. And we saw Zunnur Zhafirah and her work Luna(s), Syimah Sabtu with H A S E R, Michelle Lim with H O M E S I C K and Moh Hariyanto from Indonesia with SILA. Then to round it off, we caught one of the Open Stage showcases and just to say that Open Stage programme is now incredibly extensive. There are three programmes so we managed to catch one of them. This was Programme A where we caught Tennis – Now or Never by Nimrod Freed, Leftovers by Josh Martin, Honeybee And The Dandelion by Hong Guofeng and Chua Chiok Woon and The Man by Jan Möllmer and Tien Tsai-Wei. Melissa, how was the season for you?
Melissa Quek: Long. (Laughter) But it was exciting to see a lot of different works this year, I actually felt that the work in DiverCity had a different flavour to it from past years. And it is possibly because of this focus on the independent artists. And it was actually quite exciting to see work by artists who have recently left companies and really branching out in and trying to find their own voices in this work, and it was a good platform for that. So what I found really interesting was this sort of focus on the small movements, the subtle movements that exist within the body, and how did they chart that in their movements, and say this kind of freedom from certain expectations, perhaps, but that they’re really trying to allow in the work that they’re creating.
SW: Thanks for pointing that out. Amelia Chong is quite a new graduate from the New Zealand School of Dance. But Adele, Edwin and Rachel have recently left Singapore dance companies and are stepping out on their own. What really struck me that evening for DiverCity was Adele’s piece Disappearing Act. She began standing at the back of the stage, but we had the feeling she was even further away, almost trapped behind a pane of glass, speaking to a soundtrack that we couldn’t hear. It was quite evocative with this mysterious black skirt hanging in front of her, which later made its way onto her body, and pretty much swallowed her up by the end, it was a really distinctive work and really took me through a sense of progression of different states. I enjoyed it very much.
MQ: I think, for me, that sense of – ‘cause she did use quite gestural, quotidian everyday language, sometimes with the hands and mouthing. And so she, she becomes very much a person and a character, but also very fictional, in some ways like that. So maybe that same sense of distance where, you know, it’s not to the point where you’re calling, you’re saying that it’s like an animal, it’s still, she’s still human. But this is in a surreal way.
SW: Actually, I had a feeling when I was watching her in the beginning scene, I felt like I was watching a deepfake, you know those internet videos?
MQ: No, what’s a deepfake?
SW: Okay, so a bit of a tangent, but it’s where I have a video of Melissa, but I want to make Melissa say something she didn’t say using AI computer graphics. Like I would like reshape her mouth.
MQ: Yeah… Okay. Yes. It has that feeling.
SW: It was really quite a remarkable physicality. Yeah. And it really had this feeling she was quite like a ghost, she was also covered in white powder.
MQ: That’s really nice to put that sense of a distance. Like a ghost. And then as the work progresses, she or the person emerges more. And I see her stage presence. I think Adele has an amazing stage presence. So that starts to come through. And perhaps that’s that humanity also starts to come through a little bit more as the performance progresses for me.
SW: Amelia was quite a nice surprise for me too. I hadn’t encountered her work before. I didn’t see her work, this work actually, when it showed last year at Off Stage. And it was picked for development. It was actually taken by a festival in Australia before she, I guess, rounded it off and then showed it at DiverCity. She’s got a really unique way of moving. She was somewhere between like stick insect and animal and she emerged from this incredible, enormous black piece of plastic tarp. Like some kind of sub-human.
MQ: Yeah, I was gonna say un-human. (Laughter)
SW: Yeah, it was quite gripping. Very simple in terms of props and costume, but very effective. And she was a very intense performer.
MQ: Yeah, there was incredible focus on what her body was doing, even through the repetition. And her physicality also connects really well to her physique.
SW: Mm. She’s an extremely tall dancer.
MQ: Yeah, very. So the lines that were created, and therefore the ripples through the body that you see, as it comes through itself intensified through that.
SW: So moving on to Off Stage, I think it was quite a contrast. The sense that came through for me watching that programme of four works in progress was very much a sense of warmth and bloodfullness and human connection. That was very much the orientation for me. What really stood out for me were two pieces. The first one was by Moh Hariyanto, who was the only international artist in this programme. He’s from Indonesia, he’s from Solo. And his work had a quite ritual sense about it. Ritual, almost maybe animistic. He spent most of the piece seated with his feet folded in, in yoga what you call a lotus position. Kind of constrained to that, but shaking and vibrating with huge intensity, almost like as if he was possessed, rolling around the stage and kind of grunting. It was hugely cathartic to watch. What was your highlight for the evening?
MQ: I think really, the, the highlight was Syimah Sabtu’s piece H A S E R . There were a lot of layers to it, there was a lot going on in it. And I might not know everything that what’s going on in it, but you can feel that richness. I did think it was very brave of her to actually cast herself within the work. I think there was a lot of uncovering of herself through it, also based on the post-show dialogue. And that sense of who is she, is being discovered and how she’s juxtaposing her body with the other bodies in space. And her use, overall use of the space because it is it was an amazing moment to see a dancer really coming in from the carpark through the window.
SW: Maybe we could just describe this a little bit. This took place in THE studio at Goodman Art Center. They have a corner studio, and the audience was seated against the mirrors. So facing a back wall, which has two sliding door windows.
MQ: It’s a ground floor studio.
SW: That’s right, yes. A ground floor studio. And we had Syimah backed up in a corner, almost hidden behind some of the light fixtures, counting in Malay, and falling over leaning against a wall while another of her collaborators was sitting in the middle of the studio, kneeling and imitating other audience members. It started out as this duet and a few minutes into the piece, a third dancer, Jonit, comes walking in across the grass and the car park through that sliding window into the studio, with this great intensity and walks right up past centre stage quite close to us. It was a funny piece. It was a mysterious piece. And I really look forward to seeing how she’s going to take it forward.
MQ: Actually something that’s quite interesting, including, you know, Moh Hariyanto’s work and Zunnur’s work. That sense of meditation. That the meditative doesn’t always have to be still. There was something within it that had movement and yet that ritual sense came through movement rather than stillness. That meditation was coming through that because – Moh, I don’t know how he used his body. But he practically levitated himself off the floor with the engagement of his muscles, just jumping off, it was incredibly intense. And that sense of animism, I think does come from his background. That constant pounding. It’s amazing he didn’t hurt himself.
SW: I think we were all quite worried about that. But he is clearly a very strong guy.
Again, quite a shift, then to come to Open Stage. And I guess, to the festival programmers’ credit, so many platforms for independent and emerging artists were framed in a way that each show was quite fresh in terms of its content, and what we could approach and get out of it. So I actually haven’t visited Open Stage for quite a while. It was a pleasant surprise to see that it’s now very much an international platform. And it was, of course, a much more polished aesthetic – these are completed works that are on show. It was also quite nice, actually, to be looking at local works embedded within an international programme, which I realise we talk a lot about development of local work, and we have a lot of platforms specifically for local work. But it’s rare for us to, I guess, put a local piece under that pressure and that scrutiny to watch it with the same eyes and expectations with which we would watch something from abroad.
MQ: Yeah, I think what’s really nice about doing that is it does help you highlight the kind of language that is coming out from within each country, enerally. Although it’s specific to an artist, sometimes it does have that effect on making you consider, is there something specific to the artists and the art coming of that country or the physicality of people coming from a particular region or area that is coming through. So that was quite interesting to see. Because it was, you know, Guofeng’s and Chiok’s piece has a lightness to it.
SW: And a playfulness and sweetness. Romantic sweetness.
MQ: Yeah, that wasn’t the same in the other pieces. I’m not saying it’s always like that in Singapore. But it’s interesting to see the contrast that makes you ponder those questions. Also, it’s, I think, worth noting that Open Stage tends to be duets and solos, generally. So I mean, that was mostly what we saw.
SW: I guess as a festival exchange type of platform, I guess that’s going to… that’s going to be expected because of the economics – fortunately or unfortunately – of touring small and simple works with not a lot of set. But speaking of very characteristic signatures, which you can identify and sometimes associate with countries. I thought that was especially clear in the first piece.
MQ: Yeah, I really liked the physicality of it.
SW: This is Tennis – Now or Never by Nimrod Freed and performed by Noa Shavit.
MQ: I think there’s a tendency for us to expect work coming out of Israel to be very Gaga-based.
SW: But there’s obviously more.
MQ: Yeah, exactly. So it’s nice to see a larger range of work. But what you do still see this is this sort of quirkiness.
SW: And theatricality.
MQ: There was a lot of theatricality in it. The setting is on astroturf and the soundscape – you hear this tennis match.
SW: They even rigged a panel of floods, but like from a high angle pointing down. So you really have that feeling of being in a sports arena.
MQ: Yeah. And but they weren’t being typical about it. She was trying to capture the emotion, and the intensity, perhaps of a match, versus always the sense of my eyes going back and forth.
SW: And she never mimed any tennis movements.
MQ: Yeah, exactly.
SW: But I had this sense of a struggle within the body or trying to extract something from the body, this kind of angst.
My pick for the evening, I really enjoyed Leftovers by Josh Martin. It was a solo. And you know, I take this point that many dancers now are using popping technique in contemporary dance. But there was something very distinctive about this piece, which was very simple in its construction, but very compact to my memory and to my experience. The dancer comes walking down a diagonal, but with very, very finely graded staccato kind of pauses in each of his movements as he walks coming forward and falling back. So it’s almost as if we’re watching him in a rewind. But on videotape, not on digital. I think we’ve lost that sense now of the jerkiness that happens when you watch something in reverse on videotape, and it had that sort of a gritty quality of it. And the sense that something has already happened. I felt like it was a piece taking us back in time to some kind of cathartic event. He re-emerges after a blackout, on the floor, moving slowly, struggling, with a kind of getting up sequence again, but also intricately broken down and beautifully executed.
MQ: Yeah, his body control was obvious, just the amount of it necessary to be able to stop so cleanly was there. It’s really exciting to me, when we get to see how the different movement languages start to interact and how we, you know, can take something like a street dance style, out of the usual framing with the kind of music that would go with it and really deconstruct it. And use it differently to tell something else or in a different way. And so you get these mergings of the philosophies as well. So you definitely approach the body in a way that we tend to associate with contemporary dance. Right? This questioning of mind and body and the somatic. So it was exciting to see this, where contemporary dance is going in terms of when it takes also from pop culture.
SW: Yeah, I quite enjoyed noticing across the three programmes, the accidental correspondences that would show up like a black liturgical skirt, electric guitars, influences from popping, for example, that are so much becoming really a global currency, but at the same time, that are used in very different ways.
MQ: I mean, I think we see that sort of animation, popping-locking kind of physicality appearing in The Man, in a very different way from Josh Martin’s piece. It created this strange character.
SW: Smoking a cigarette.
MQ: Yes. Repetitively.
SW: That was really quite an interesting piece, actually.
MQ: Yeah, it was a bit, sort of, film noir, right? Did you get that?
SW: Film noir slash dance theatre? Yeah. Dance Theatre in the good old-fashioned Pina Bausch way. And both of them are from Folkwang, by the way, University of the Arts. A couple in coats. Not speaking but having a very sort of bizarre relationship with the telephone and an iron, where they kind of become inanimate objects and composite beings. It was a surprisingly long piece too, for this platform.
MQ: Yeah. But it really keeps you engaged throughout. Just because their relationship kept changing, their relationship to each other, to the body also. And I think that’s what keeps you engaged as well, to constantly guess what’s actually going on here. But it does have that, again, creates that mystery with the lighting and the telephone, which is like a dial-up telephone, right?
SW: Yes. Those old-fashioned, I think what are they called, rotary right, rotary?
MQ: Yeah. And those really big oversized coats.
SW: So one thing that watching these three shows got us talking about was also the nature of the platforms, how they’re selected, how they’re curated, and what effect this can have on the dance community that they are situated in, in Singapore. That’s something that we’re going to take into another podcast. So please tune in next month. Thanks, Melissa.
MQ: Thank you.
The 10th edition of the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival took place from 15 June to 21 July 2019 in Singapore. DiverCity took place on 3-4 July 2019 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. Off Stage took place on 16-17 July at THE Dance Company’s Studio, and M1 Open Stage took place on 18-20 July at Esplanade Annexe Studio.