Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Photo: Susan Sentler

Susan Sentler’s “Roof Response” to Danh Vō at National Gallery Singapore

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By Gavin Maughfling

(620 words, 6-minute read)

In what ways does an art institution inhabit the stone mausoleums of two former colonial structures; how can citizens take ownership of those immaculately preserved halls?

Susan Sentler trained at the Martha Graham School in New York, danced with the Martha Graham Ensemble and is currently based in Singapore, teaching at LASALLE College of the Arts. The fusion of body, object, sound and moving and still imagery lie at the heart of Sentler’s artistic enquiry, frequently explored in durational installation. Her commission in response to Vietnamese-born Danh Vō ’s sculptural installations at the National Gallery Singapore has given her the chance to further explore this language in the context of a grand national space that is still in the process of growing into itself.

The dance has two elements. In the first, nine dancers from LASALLE perform on the gallery roof, amongst the fragmented wooden puzzle blocks of Vō ’s piece. The choreography in this piece reflects Sentler’s own creative lineage: the work of the Judson Theatre Group and of Yvonne Rainer’s ‘No Manifesto’, in which spectacle, sentiment and narrative are stripped away to leave – pure performance, body and collaboration. The work is built on a tripartite repeat structure whose almost mathematical harmony echoes the puzzle-piece installation it occupies; within this form the dancers improvise alone and in pairs, the only sound their footsteps on hot metal, their sweat-darkened grey costumes echoing the encircling towers of Singapore, mute and similarly stained by recent rain. I watched this work on a searing afternoon; gradually the arena filled with viewers who, initially reluctant to cross the heat-shimmering deck, found themselves drawn into the space and were rapt in a segment of time.

Photo: Susan Sentler

In one particularly lovely sequence the nine dancers swirled together in slow motion down into a crouched position, their arcs contrasting with the rectilinear rhythms that had preceded them. As I watched the young dancers, serious and intent on each move, and free of any imposed romantic or gendered narrative even as they embraced, music and painted images floated into my thoughts – Satie’s piano pieces Gymnopédies, Degas’ painting Young Spartans Exercising; the formal building blocks of dance, music, sculpture and painting all seeming to reach for classical ideals of youth, purity and structure.

The second component of the response takes place in the Coleman Street entrance, and has a very different feel. Vō ‘s fragment ydob eht ni mraw si ti lies, apparently abandoned, on the entrance floor. In the carnivalesque atmosphere of the concurrent Yayoi Kusama show, this placing suggests the Abject – the state of being cast off that Julia Kristeva expanded on in her 1980 book Powers of Horror, and which carries additional resonance in the former colonial and patriarchal power of these stone halls.

Photo: Susan Sentler

Here, amongst the buzzing crowds, two dancers are still for extended periods, or move slowly, to embrace the walls or themselves, each movement a going into itself. Their varied bodily embraces echo the sculptural fragment’s rounded forms and the wooden box that contains it. To watch the reaction of the crowd is riveting. The dancers become achingly intimate and vulnerable, as around them and almost touching them, visitors, echoing their positions, pose for selfies, and young children stand open-mouthed in awe.

Apparently contradictory forces seemed to be pulling here; the age of the spectacle, in which we are all our own actors and models, coming up against a tender piece of improvisatory choreography and the dancers’ vulnerability – they kept their focus admirably. And yet something quite wonderful began to happen, answering the question posed earlier. Visitors, no longer the passive props in awe of the surrounding splendor, became instead free agents, occupying the space and improvising their responses, becoming their own choreographers, creating experience.


Roof Response, choreographed by Susan Sentler, was performed by dance students from LASALLE College of the Arts, response to Danh Vō’s sculptural installation at the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery. It was performed on three consecutive Saturdays, 26 August, 2 September and 9 September. This review is based on the performance on 9 September.

Danh Vō’s sculptural installation is a commission from the National Gallery Singapore and will be on view until 12 November 2017. Alongside Susan Sentler’s Roof Response, the Gallery presents other programmes taking place in conjunction with Vō’s installation, incorporating different mediums such as sound art and poetry.

Guest Contributor Gavin Maughfling is an artist and lecturer based in London, United Kingdom.

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