Monday, 29 December 2008

your toes are bad

I love it when pedicurists work on my feet. The first time, a pale wraith of a boy in Shenzhen grimaced delicately as he chipped and shaved the fat calluses on from my balls and heels. Two days ago, the pedicurist in Beijing worked with an air of focused resignation as he examined my soles and my toes. Then he solemnly unrolled a green picture-sheet of various toenails, chipped, bruised, detached. Homemade herbal remedy. He could save my little black toes, before they unfolded in similar contagion across my other eight.

The catch. 200 yuan a toenail.

I said No.

Well, nobody ever died of black toe, did they? That's what dancers' toes look like, whether it's pointe shoes or floorwork. Corns, calluses, bruised nails and plenty of studio-seasoned dirt. The least gorgeous and most essential part of the performing body, the more seasoned the better. I figured as soon as I go back to school in 2 weeks' time they'd revert to whatever damaged state they were already in.

But all the same, it shook me up enough to make me do a bit of my own web research for a professional opinion on black nails. I wasn't anxious to end up like my friend Lu Yi who took her RAD exam with a fungal infection and a fat dose of painkillers. This is from the doctors who write for Dance Magazine, "Foot care for barefoot dancers" and "Foot care for pointe shoes".

Maybe I'll take better care of my feet next year.

Good old fashioned Christmas, batteries not required.

How about some good old-fashioned Christmas? Less of the price tags and catering menus, and more of the excitement and wonder in the eyes of a child.

SDT’s The Nutcracker by Jeffrey Tan is one of those magical productions – a fantastic sleigh ride for children and grown-up kids alike, the dance woven together with convincing character acting and a brisk storyline that makes the two-hour ballet go by surprisingly quickly.

See more of my review at Artzine.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Stop, go.

Time in grayscale
. Stop, go. Stop.

In 7 vignettes, Melissa Quek, Hazel Tng, Jessica Christina and Katherine Chen crept, then hurled fitfully against counting clocks and grainy recorded twin selves. Dancers' hands traced a continuous organic line scribbled in a maze of projected animation, folds of cortex and cauliflower on walls, floors, bodies. As the dancers began air-scribbling on their skin, I read - reminder to self: you are one day older. reminder: achieve what you did not do yesterday. Lyrical solos, shuffled peekaboo, and a game of stop-and-go where each dancer's phrase was punctuated by the spontaneous commands of another. The restlessness was tangible in the confines of an assymetric stage space, and one by one the bodies succumbed, crumpling gently under time's weight.

This was one of the most seamless and meaningful examples of inter-disciplinary collaboration that I've seen. The dance came through as an equal partner with video and animations by Kunyi Chen (astoundingly, created in just 2 weeks before the show), and a pulsating, gurgling score by Joel Ong that was reminiscent of Steve Reich. And in any good dance-video collaboration, credit must also go to the tactful lighting, here by Eugene Tay.

Melissa's self consciousness is an intense internal lens, bringing an unsettling psychological insight to many of her dances. It is also her self-consciousness, however, that undermined this performance. Her experience as a lecturer seems to have made her feel personally responsible for making contemporary dance more accessible to a larger Singapore audience. So for fear that the audience wouldn't "get it", the theme was literal and oversimplified. Dancers moved their arms like clock hands, and said "tick tick tick", against a projection of a giant clock. The programme note pointed out helpfully that Timeline was "a movement based contemporary dance piece that expresses how time inscribes itself on our minds and bodies. Asserting that it is not how much time you have that matters, but how you respond to it."

Melissa admitted in post-show dialogue that at some point she had thought about making dance accessible to a young adult audience; this might be good for an arts awareness programme in secondary schools, but left little for the intelligence of the general audience at an independent black box production. After being hammered with these giant indicators, I waited for a similarly resounding conclusion. In consequence, lying down in capitulation wasn't the satisfaction I'd hoped for.

- Timeline by Melissa Quek at the Drama Centre Black Box on 5 and 6 December 2008.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

the cosmos

Phew! My backlog will finally see the light of day - some shows so great that I have to share them with you:

I have long held a reverence for the classical Indonesian dance forms. The fine control of the limbs and the gaze, the amazing tension with which the dancers shift from one moment to the next turns the space into a tangible substance. I imagine that the air in which they move has become condensed with mythology. Dances created for epics, each phrase flows into yet another development and it seems that it would be simplistic to try and pin down a beginning and an end.

I hesitated only a little before I bought myself a ticket for Infinita, a collaboration of a traditional Javanese dance company with a Korean contemporary choreographer, set to the music of Ligeti. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, since my impression of this contemporary Austrian composer is chiefly from hearing Lux Aeterna (of Space Odyssey 2001) ten years ago - it was discordant, complicated, disturbing stuff to me. Anyway, I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle an hour of that. But I was certainly curious. The performance poster cited an Austrian newspaper critic, "as if they have always been one: Ligeti's music and Javanese dance..." Well, really?

The dance began with a classical enough setting and costumes, an ensemble of five men and one woman, formal patterns set to Ligeti's mercurial piano etudes. The natural harmony in the shifting patterns of that classical dance form, that vision of a universe in flux, does indeed sit well with the whimsical musical phrasing. And what exquisite dancers! Lithe and soundless, they took you through the evening from the traditional to brightly idiosyncratic solos, duets and trios where the classical aesthetic blended with quirky character pantomime and some rather contemporary leaps and turns. They executed with incredible control and personality. Then drawing back to a more classical idiom, three men emerged with a large gilt chair. In near suspended motion, they tumbled it across the downstage horizontal, transforming it into a hillside, a palanquin, a fort and a throne for a monkey king.

The vignettes by the javanese dancers were spliced with interludes by a tall, pale Korean lady who seemed to be a projection from another dimension. Surreal in her whiteness, remote baldness and some incredible costumes reminiscent of Queen Amygdala, she suspended time and space intensely somewhere between the Javanese classical technique, contemporary and Korean dance. In the finale, both she and the Javanese dancers appeared on stage together for the only time. It appeared she would conquer the ensemble on a downstage diagonal. Perhaps she was marking the turn of the seasons in the tropical Indonesian climate. I'm really not sure. (I found out only later that the pale lady was actually the choreographer.)

The lights came up after rapt applause; audience members, me included, surged for the door in search of answers on the programme notes.

- Infinita by Sen Hea Ha and Taman Budaya Surakarta Dance Theatre was staged at the Esplanade Theatre Studio on 31 Oct and 1 Nov 2008.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Sometimes it really pays to stick around! In what appears to be freak coincidence, I landed my first solo role, an indianised adaptation of the Diaghilev ballet l'Apres Midi d'un Faune. Fancy me, playing Pietragalla....

Monday, 20 October 2008

Dans Festival 2008: Why I dance II

I saw the Nederlands Dans Theater I last night. Sitting in the dark with 2000 people for Silent Screen by Lightfoot Leon. It was one of the moments for which I live. Not just a moment for which I dance. The curious opening of a light somewhere inside you such that when you leave the theatre, you know that you leave as a different person.

It made sense to me then that it must be the study of movement. It is movement that we recognise as life - the unfurling of a leaf, the agitations of an amoeba. I was reminded recently by my music lecturer Dr Sharpley that we humans live based on flimsy sensations of thought, communication and perception. As far as we have been able to use those flimsy senses to discover, those thoughts and perceptions of light, sound, and heat are in themselves movement: the eternal spinning and collision of particles. Movement is why we live.

Is destiny a molecule, an atom, a quark?

Today I am reading these stunning quotes from Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais:

"you have to love dancing to stick to it. it gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you are alive." - Merce Cunningham

"We do not have to be educated to understand the abstract language of motion, for motion is the stuff of which our every moment of life is preciously concerned." - Alwin Nikolais

And one of my old favourites from an artist who has also been a dancer. Perhaps why she understands that we start with the physical, with movement.

"Art is why I get up in the morning." - Ani diFranco

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Why I dance

The two questions I have answered most frequently since I started dancing full time are "What is contemporary dance?" and "Why did you choose dance?"

The first question usually comes from people whose understanding of dance is confined to some vague ideas of the "known" quantities of ballet and social dance. Contemporary dance has many definitions, I tell them, but I like to think of it as everything that came from Isadora Duncan and onwards, efforts to express movement outside the strict vocabulary of classical ballet technique. It can have the freedom of abstract art. It can explore the imagination like the many musical compositions that do not describe a specific thing. It can also have the authenticity of a photograph or document everyday life.

I am appreciating the second question more and more. It's made me think again about my glib convictions. At first I said simply, "because nothing else feels as incredible as this." But why incredible? The majority of regular folks claim to be stumped or bored by dance performances and dance is supposed to be the hardest art to sell. So why does this form of communication and expression move me like no other, and why would I be so convinced that this is the best way to touch other people?

Above all, dance is an art. There is something in art (as well as philosophy and the pure sciences) of the search to understand humanity and our world. It may be wonderful for people to spend their lives making widgets, stacking up investment dollars (or crying over them as it were today), getting their breasts enlarged or blindly parroting the tenets of some belief. But I know that's not enough. To be awake, to really live, we need to observe, engage and understand.

While I dabble in creative writing and theatre and enjoy those forms very much, there's nothing else like dance. Dance, along with music, is one of the art forms that crosses all boundaries of language or culture. Anyone able to perceive dance should be able to associate with it directly, because physicality is the most important medium through which we experience our world. The body is our instrument for living. Walking, running, jumping, sitting, the feeling of contact with another human or with objects, sensations of warmth or emptiness, the physical manifestations of emotion. Someone listening to music may appreciate the sound but might not relate to its creation because he has never played the piano or guitar. But someone watching dance can relate to jumping, balancing, or the powerful physical expression of joy or grief - much in the way that we are fascinated with the feats of Olympic athletes because we can understand those superhuman exertions in the context of our own, ordinary, bodies.

I am learning each day that dance is an art that requires immense discipline, conviction and pain. So as of 17 September 2008, this is why I still dance.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Dans Festival 2008

Pocketbuster #2 of the year has arrived for me.

If you are a dance fan, head for SISTIC if you haven't already done so! Do NOT miss Nederlands Dans Theater I.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Pinch yourself

It's true? Three weeks: I have given away my alberto rinaldi suit, moved to the far industrial reaches of this island, corrected my vision of the last 20 years, and disguised myself as a student-card carrying 18 year-old. (Disillusioning my classmates about my age is the best fun. The China posse even screamed in disbelief and seized my IC.) And best of all, DANCING every day. And talking and writing and thinking about dance not on the bus or the loo, but in my focused time.

After my first week at NAFA, my groaning ankles and back are glad to remind me that it's real. Change is good. Change is possible! I'll save my miserable moments for later. Nothing else feels like this.

my new address on Bencoolen Street.
irrelevantly, also one of the worst designed school buildings and logos ever

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

the little company that could

This contemporary triple bill was a pleasant surprise from SDT. They are perking up and saying "I can" by breaking out of the tried and tested repeat telecasts of Coppelia, Maninyas and Lambarena. Instead, they plucked some ambitious pieces from the repertory of top ballet companies of the world - ABT and Dutch company Introdans. And another neoclassical gem, which is my first introduction to the work of the Dutch National Ballet.

The company emerged luminous in A million kisses to my skin by David Dawson and Glow-stop by Jorma Elo, who is apparently the new enfant terrible of neo-classical ballet. Elo is from Finland, of all random non-ballet-powerhouse places. (A nice interview with Elo by SDT. I hope they do indeed commission a work from him!)

What was most challenging about these group pieces is that they are typically set on companies with an outstanding ballet corps. You need more than just a couple of star ballerinas for these - kisses has a cast of 9 and glow-stop of 6, equally demanding roles. SDT delivered. Leaping, exuberant trios and duos in blue flitted across a glowing white stage in kisses. The star of the night was Chihiro Uchida. She took on her solo and duets in kisses with a charming zest and an iridescent presence. Glow-stop was a mysterious aviary in sensuous red, revealed in a series of cold spot lights. Elo's choreography was a joy, echoing the snap-bang of Ratmansky's Middle Duet, and the playful freedom of a boxful of wind-up toys.

SDT did a great job in this show. But at times the rough edges showed. Certain sections looked a little under rehearsed, and at moments some dancers struggled to keep up with the athletic choreography. The heavy and contemplative Evening by Graham Lustig piece proved too challenging; the lifts were stilted and the dancers just couldn't seem to drum up the required dramatic lyricism. The poet's collapse at the end of the piece appeared to be one of boredom.

Okay, who are we kidding. This isn't ABT. But they're ambitious and I think it will take them far. I was proud that evening to be able to say that this is our national ballet company.

-Continuum by Singapore Dance Theatre on 13 June 2008, The Esplanade Theatre

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Possibilities by Melissa Quek
This is my first first full length show. Please come watch!

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

what to look for in a class

I owe you a counterpoint. There are lots of great teachers and schools for dance, yoga etc in Singapore. It's important to pick one that suits you so as to avoid the minefields that can get an adult dancer injured - because the one big problem with starting these activities late is that you can get injured more easily.

Everybody has their own style of learning, and I know plenty of people who adore the yoga drill instructors that I detest. That said, if you are pondering trying out dance classes and have been wondering how to start, there's some basic things that you can look out for:

1. Find a studio and teacher that you feel comfortable with.
I believe in vibes. You won't know until you go down and try the place out - always ask for a trial or walk-in class first. You don't want to be stuck where you don't enjoy the space and the people.

2. Look for a teacher who is approachable.
Some of the greatest dance teachers in history were/are scary as heck, but other great teachers will also help you learn by being approachable and open to your questions. One of the wonderful things about starting dance as a mature student, as opposed to a five year old, is that you can do more than just copy. You can analyse what you are learning, and understand the process. "How can I get my flat back really flat?" and "Why do we turn out our legs?" are definitely not stupid questions. I have found it most rewarding to study with approachable teachers who will take the time to talk to you after class, and share their knowledge of physiology or dance history. (Thank you my first teachers Katie Glasner and Sandra Kaufmann!)

3. Favour teachers who give corrections.
I used to hate getting corrections. It made me feel like I wasn't doing well in class. In fact, there's no better way to learn. Take the corrections given to you (as well as the ones given to your classmates, which you can also learn from) as presents, not insults! There are teachers out there who prefer to just demonstrate the combinations and collect their paycheck. Good teachers will actually make the effort to monitor their students and help them improve. (Also on corrections - I believe that pink tights for ballet actually help you to get better corrections. You might think that they look odd, but they show your muscles and placement better than dark tights or baggy pants.)

4. Pick a studio that fits your schedule.

I know this sounds duh. But if you are rushing off madly to classes and are constantly late (and I have been there), you will be (a) missing the important warm-up or stretch segments and putting yourself at greater risk of injury, and (b) being disrespectful to your teacher and classmates. Do try to give yourself time to change and stretch. As a bonus you can get to know your dance-mates/yoga-chums while you're at it.

Happy dancing! It's like nothing else on earth.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

What not to look for in a class

So their towels are fluffier, the studios more spacious and less endowed with shoe-grease and sweat. But that's just not enough. I'm hanging up my towel and swearing that I will no longer judge a studio by its looks.

Especially not when it has nasty clauses against breaking your year-long expensive subscription, and especially not when my favourite teachers have left and only ditzes and grumpy drill seargeants are left teaching my yoga classes and time-slots of choice. Especially not when they go out of their way to make sure that it is excruciatingly inconvenient to not pay them. Need I even think twice when the erstwhile polite sales staff inform me that to cancel my giro when the contract expires, I must show up at the studio in person and sign a form? (i.e. so they can make another crude sales pitch) I am going to cut them off at the bank. Goodbye Pure Yoga.

Don't just dance!

This year's NAC commission of new choreography was based on the assumption that Singapore choreographers do too much moving and too little thinking. So Joavien Ng, Neo Hong Chin and Ebelle Chong were set the challenge of doing better, with the editorial advice of dramaturge Tang Fu Kuen.

With Body Inquire, Joavien chose to take on that giant of modern dance, Martha Graham. She boxed herself and Ricky Sim in harshly-lit white squares, and set up a game of "Simon says". Each contraction appeared more ludicrous and awkward than the last, interspersed by totalitarian quotes from Graham at her most fanatic (if you get bored with yourself, simply think of dancing towards your death). The dancers struggled and grumbled in a protest of their individuality against a strict technique. The finally sublimated into a pair of cardboard squares, while they described themselves in a recorded conversation and biographies scrolled overhead.

Hong Chin, working with Ebelle as her performer, revisited the birth of their children and the schizophrenia of confinement in MAgic:MAchine (what a great title).I'd never thought of pregnancy as phantasmagoric. In a dim glow, Ebelle emerged, embryonic, in a series of translucent plastic bags. In a wonderfully surreal dark her baby's face hovered, projected, on her plastic body. She writhed and screamed through her delivery and exhaustion, a sort of clinical manufacturing.

Ebelle then swapped places with Hong Chin, and cast her with Melissa Quek to measure w a l l s, an invisible house that appeared gradually in tape on the floor, a la Dogville. In another coup for great budget lighting, the dancers then whirled and wrestled across a grid of laser pointers.

Pushing choreographers to come to logical conclusions sounds like a good idea. The result was fresh, but forced. The ideas still felt unfinished, and I wonder if the movement motifs might have been less belaboured without the editorial intervention. At the post show dialogue, it sounded as if Joavien had been resisting pressures to draw a political conclusion from her diatribe on the oppression of the individual. It would have been a fun point to poke at Singapore governance, but if that wasn't the intent, then why attempt to force it?

Forward Moves, the Esplanade Theatre Studio, 7 June 2008

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Boxing Rings for Butterflies

Did you hear wailing about this year's festival programme being crammed with avant-garde work from unheard-of post-soviet states? Well, wail on.

Maybe it was with a knowing wink that this year's festival began with a Requiem. If you could imagine artistic insanity, it might well comprise an orchestra, a full choir, five vocal soloists, and two major ballet companies in swimwear. Also liberal silence, two divergent requiems and four black couches.

Yet all of it came together in impossible, dark genius. Choreographer Edward Clug harnesses the force of Mozart's requiem and migrates the conventions of beauty into a totalitarian state. Gradually, he strips all human comfort away: off with the skirts, the jackets, the couches. The fifty odd corps de ballet disrobing at dim centre stage formed a lump in my throat. They were just that reminiscent of preparation in a concentration camp. The dancers were transformed into a proletarian swimsuit parade, sweeping in mechanical ranks across the stage.

Out of such brutal uniformity, the ballet strives to remind you that in this cruel arena, we are still beautifully human. Such a soaring, exuberant Dies Irae. Lyric duets conceived in boxing rings for butterflies. Finally, the corps(es) struggle towards you to collapse in a plastic massacre. In the aftermath, a girl in white floats solemnly through, dispensing shining arcs of baptism water. Another dancer discovers her existence half-submerged in a fishtank.

Clug is well aware that his work is steeped in religious and political imagery, and insists that you must take away your own interpretation. But to explain its genesis, he admitted in the post-show dialogue that he wanted to turn the music around, create a requiem for the living, a purgatory, a rebirth. That this was his response to a childhood in Ceausescu's Romania, and his own realisation of a desperate need for freedom.

He found much resonance in Singapore. At curtain call, the audience were springing to their feet in applause. I guarantee you three theatres-full of Singaporeans can now identify Slovenia on the map.

-The Architecture of Silence by the
Slovene National Theatres Opera & Ballet Maribor and Ljubljana/ Singapore Festival Orchestra (Slovenia/ Singapore) blew me away on 30 May 2008, The Esplanade Theatre

counting to eight

Many "grown-up" friends don't know how happy they make me - when they ask me suddenly how they can start dancing. They're not planning on taking it seriously, they say, but they'd like it to be part of their lives. They wonder shyly if it's too late if they're 25, 30, 50? Can they do more than wait for their daughters outside the studio?

I'm so glad to have another opportunity to say: You're not alone! There is no better time to express yourself than Now!

It has been a joy to discover the dance community in Singapore since i returned from New York five years ago. It's a community of people who watch dance, practice dance, teach dance, and above all, love dance. They are present at the performances of classical as well as experimental work, and populating the pockets of adult dance classes across the island. Proof that movement is a language that transcends age, traditions, and languages. I've met dancing doctors, teachers, lawyers, bankers, homemakers.... and I'll admit that till recently, I was a dancing diplomat.

Dear friends, the link page of this site is dedicated to you!