By Lim Shan
(1140 words, 8-minute read)
Insatiable, presented by Sigma Contemporary Dance and choreographed by Hong Guofeng, is crafted to explore the concept of choice and its consequences in our current world. As we are embroiled in a system dominated by corporations with their far-reaching influences, how much autonomy do we still retain?
In accordance with the idea of choice, there were many different kinds of freedom present onstage and offstage that evening. As I entered I was directed to the left side of the traverse stage and noticed that the dancers were already on stage, engaging in short snippets of choreography, singing the chorus of Jay Chou’s The Longest Movie. One dancer was entirely enveloped in bubble wrap. From the beginning, it was apparent that the line between the audience and performers was to be blurred.
Before the performance officially began, the dancers untangled the bubble wrap and handed the edges to audience members to pop – which had everyone fixated for the next few minutes. The dancers, meanwhile, teased and chased each other in childish delight while popping the bubble wrap and complaining about their cracked heels or shushing their peers in mock consternation with respect to theatre etiquette. It was clear that this is no rigidly structured performance.
On this fascinating note, the piece begins with a single dancer moving with spasmodic motions. She is only restrained when another dancer comes up to fill her glass with water, and after she empties the glass, she resumes her jerky routine until another dancer comes and fills her glass. This goes on until all thirteen dancers are on stage, twelve of them having their feet planted firmly on the ground, bottles held outstretched against the lonesome her, a crowd of bottle-holders versus the glass-holder and here, she dares them to drink up all the water, in return for forcing her to drink so much before. As they drain their bottles and toss them onto the ground, the echo of the plastic against the ground made me realise that this is the first power struggle presented in the piece: the challenge against the external influences who exert control over one’s own choices.
In continuation with the examination of choice and freedom, the dancer holding the glass is immobilised while the others start to create a sculpture with their water bottles, balancing the plastics in awkward angles, challenging physics and the human body’s ability to remain completely still. When she breaks free of the structures, the bottles fall in a cascade and for a moment, there is a sense of release. But it does not last, as she freezes in a different position, and once again, the others take turns to create their masterpiece. As the piece progresses, the glass-holder weaves through her peers who are on the floor now, and she taps the glass she holds; for a moment, it seems as if they were responding to the sound she creates. However, it becomes apparent that they are listening to something else, and in the silence of the theatre, the sound of the bubble wrap being popped by us – the audience – grows louder. As I take up my own sheet of bubble wrap to participate, I understand what they mean by exploring the notion of choice and influence: are the dancers reacting on stage to the noise/music of the audience’s actions? How much say do we, the audience members, truly have on these performers who have had the time to prepare and rehearse their reactions? I might choose to believe that I have influenced the performance but in truth, they might be responding to something else.
One segment that stood out for me was when one dancer was speaking of words and meaning, while another trailed after her, almost as if translating her words into movements. Words seem to fail her as she is unable to come to any real conclusion except to extrapolate on the function of words, and in the midst of this, two other dancers stand at opposite ends of the stage, with water bottles as microphones, repeating only four words, “I”, “we”, “they” and “you” as she speaks. After the first two dancers leave, they come forward, engaging in conversations limited to those four words, growing increasingly frustrated when the other is unable to process the meaning of their words until they segue into dance sequences that were fluid and powerful. Now that they are speaking the same language, there is no more misinterpretation, no more mistranslation. Mirroring each other at times, they move, almost in relish with the vocabulary they know best, and at the end of their sequence, drink thirstily from the bottles fitted as microphones, and the title of the piece stirs in my mind. Thirst is a running theme in this entire piece, and after such a powerful and energetic sequence, I feel an overwhelming thirst myself. I notice that each time bottles of water are brought on stage, they are never left unfinished. Only dry, emptied bottles remain, both as a testament to the amount of effort the dancers exert in the execution of their craft and the idea that thirst can never be eternally quenched. It can only be momentarily satisfied, and water is but a temporary fix to a constant problem.
The final segment has the group dancing together in formation, with people breaking off here and there to run to microphones at the opposite ends of the stage to shout into them. After yelling for a period of time, they break off to rejoin the dance and this goes on until only one dancer is left on stage, struggling to complete the sequence while swathed in many layers of clothes. They are almost shrieking into the microphones when he falls, much to their disappointment. They then start to strip him of the clothes, and I’m surprised to see how many layers he was wearing; there were twelve layers, just enough for the others to take, and they laid out the shirts and stood on them while the volume of the music – a disconcerting mixture of, by my own assumption, thunder and glass and metal – is raised to a discomforting level. While watching the other dancers peel off each layer, I see audience members sitting opposite me with hands pressed to their ears and as I look through my notes now while writing this review, the only line I wrote during this segment was, “overwhelmed, I am so overwhelmed”.
All in all, Insatiable is a compelling piece that touches on the relevant issue of how much of us can we retain and protect from the encroaching influences of others. It does not simply showcase the issue of autonomy and freedom, it involves us in the process, by simply giving us a sheet of our own bubble wrap.
Insatiable by Sigma Contemporary Dance ran from 2 – 3 December 2017 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
Guest Contributor Lim Shan is a student at the National University of Singapore, majoring in English Literature with a minor in Theatre Studies. She has a background in ballet and contemporary dance, and is active in the university’s theatre club, NUS Stage.