There is a palpable excitement in the foyer of the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, where I stand with other audience members. Since this is organised Singapore, we have formed buzzing lines in front of the two entrances to the auditorium, awaiting the opening of the house for Infinitely Closer. This work, by Kuik Swee Boon & The Human Expression (T.H.E) Dance Company, is an Esplanade commission for the highly anticipated opening of the new theatre, as well as part of Esplanade’s da:ns festival 2022.
Finally, we are ushered into the theatre auditorium, a no-frills, black-walled space with exposed lighting beams. In the middle of the floor are three large structures arranged in a triangular formation—each consisting of two translucent scrims separated by a narrow gap in the middle through which performers can pass—mounted on castors enabling the structures to be moved. Around this main triangular centerpiece, chairs are arranged and cushions are strewn on the ground in three discrete blocks. The audience has been informed by means of a postcard given out at the door, that we are free to choose where to be in the space, and to move around at any point during the performance.
It is hard not to notice the party atmosphere during the first few minutes after entering the space. People are clearly excited to be part of history in the making, experiencing one of the first performances in a new theatre, but also being given free rein to move about anywhere on the set, perhaps a somewhat unconventional notion in dance performances in Singapore. There is a good amount of milling about on the set and chatting amongst friends; all while the dancers have commenced slow, unobtrusive movements dispersed across the space. Almost on cue, however, the audience settles down after five to ten minutes of mingling. Most choose a seat on either a chair or a cushion, and only a small minority remains standing.
Infinitely Closer by Kuik Swee Boon & T.H.E Dance Company. Photo by Crispian Chan. Image credit: T.H.E Dance Comapny
Infinitely Closer broadly addresses freedom and boundaries or restrictions, as the work’s synopsis conveys. These ideas are more complex than they first seem, and the work brings to mind hefty long-debated topics like human free will, societal constructs, and the human condition itself.
The idea of being restricted by something already appears, in a literal sense, near the start of the performance, where Guest Performer Billy Keohavong appears “trapped” within the small triangular space formed by the three scrim-structures. He performs inside this tight space, barely large enough for him to extend or swing his limbs without hitting the scrims surrounding him. Outside this space, the rest of the dancers perform energetic, unison movements while the sound has correspondingly increased in volume and intensity; the arresting contrast between inside and outside does make one feel sorry for Keohavong.
By the end of the performance, however, this pattern has been reversed. The six other performers end up inside a (larger) triangular space in the middle, while Keohavong alone remains outside. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, the freedom to take control of one’s life, the reversibility of fates, or a questioning of what freedom even is?
As I ponder this, I also notice that interestingly, during the performance apart from the first few minutes, very few audience members choose to continue moving around and change their position; most remain glued to their seats throughout. Despite the accompanying postcard explicitly stating that “we will be embarking on a journey through the idea of freedom together,” it seems as though very few people want to exercise their freedom! I wonder if this is because we are so used to the codes and conventions of the theatre, especially when, in this case, there are indeed clearly demarcated “audience spaces” making it harder for audience members to actively cross the traditional boundary between performance space and audience space.
Aspects of the performance also strike me as invitations to contemplate the human condition, or the idea of being human. In one of the earlier sections of the performance, on the scrims are projected extreme close-ups of parts of the human body, for example the skin with clearly visible body hair, or a very close shot of a face. In some projections, the body is distorted, for instance with elongated arms. Such images could be disconcerting for some, yet they highlight our common humanity, again quite literally.
In the dancers’ close proximity to the audience, some of that idea of a common humanity also comes through. These are not dancers put on a pedestal on a stage far, far away, as especially happens in more conventional dance performances on a proscenium stage. Here, these are human beings moving on the same level as everyone else, so close at times that I could feel the vibrations of the floor as a performer passed by.
In a section about two-thirds of the way in, the performers manipulate a video camera that transmits a live feed, projected large on the scrims in the middle. The video camera captures a feed of the audience, such that we are watching ourselves on screen, despite being in the same physical space and close enough to actually see one another. I am reminded of Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra and hyperreality – we are faced with an illustration of how, in today’s world of media proliferation, simulations precede the real and become “more real than real.” How do we make sense of our humanness and the need for human connection in our world today?
In the making of the work itself is perhaps where Infinitely Closer demonstrates the beauty of connection with others. Emerging from the two years of COVID-19-induced drought for the performing arts, this work is a collaboration of rather epic proportions – between designers based in different parts of Asia, the T.H.E team of Artistic Director Kuik Swee Boon and performers, and dramaturg Kok Heng Leun. The final experience is complex; I find it extremely challenging to think about and describe one production aspect in isolation. Such is how adeptly the sound, lighting, movement, costumes and projections have been melded together in a tight choreography to be experienced as a whole.
At the performance’s close, the image that stays in my mind is one of warmth and conviviality. Some of the audience has been drawn into the middle of the set by the performers, where a projection of falling snow encircles them. I am one of those remaining at the sidelines, watching the gathered party chattering away in a celebration of human closeness that we have perhaps been missing for some time.
Infinitely Closer by Kuik Swee Boon & The Human Expression (T.H.E) Dance Company was comissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay for da:ns festival 2022. It was staged at the newly opened Singtel Waterfront Theatre, from 13 – 16 October 2022. Jocelyn Ch’ng watched Infinitely Closer on 16 Oct 2022 at 6 pm.
To read more of ArtsEquator’s coverage of da:ns festival since 2016, go here.