Sunday, 14 June 2009


"Sweat, you know, is for most sensible human beings not quite nice. Not quite delicate, nor mannerly, and to be avoided wherever possible. But a dancer lives-I use this verb in all its implications and with all emphasis-lives in it, with it, around it, soaked with it, permeated by it, marinated in it." - Jose Limon

It has been a sweltering three weeks since the end of my first year as a dance student. Nice of the weather to make sure I still feel like a dancer even when I'm not in the studio! With a break from evening rehearsals, I've gotten the chance to catch a bunch of shows, including one while I was away in China. Here's one little write up to start!

Forward Moves: Body Swap/Joavien Ng and Dani Brown; Q&A/Danny K

Thank you, NAC, for once again commissioning local work with a mandate to prove that dance, too, can be intellectual. It can be conceptual. That it need not be just movement. Okay, there were a couple of walkouts, perhaps some of these people just not evolved enough to figure out what was going on. Where the dancing was. (The editors of the festival programme have my empathy. Wouldn't it be odd to have a section for "not just dance".) But the majority, like me, did stay to be constantly puzzled and thoroughly entertained.

In the first piece, the festival commissioners put ultimate faith in German dramaturg Jochen Roller to navigate the triple minefield of (a) the old trick of two people swapping into each other's lives, (b) intercultural collaboration, (c) collaborators who had never met and seemed to have little in common. I feared the worst when the show opened with two women lolling side by side on a rug conducting an aimless conversation about a flight to Dubai. The Chinese dancer clad in yellow, the American/German dancer clad all in white. Most of the piece was talking. Joavien and Dani excavated parts each others' histories, and took commercial break type segments to ask the audience if they thought that Americans bathed enough, or if Asians weren't expressive. Interspersed with some matter-of-fact video clips of their week of living uncomfortably in each others' families and sleeping in each others' beds (partners included). For the remainder, they wrestled each other energetically and finally swapped clothes that turned out to be too small on Dani and too big on Joavien.

What made it work in the end for me was that the collaborators gamely sized up the invisible beast in the room, and grabbed it by the horns. We might like to pretend that we live in a perfectly globalised world, where one artist can speak the same language as another halfway around the world, and we suppose, simply step into another's shoes with brilliant effect. But for these two choreographers, the body swap experiment made it very clear that at a fundamental level, another culture is simply incomprehensible. As a result, we inevitably fall back on stereotypes of race and culture, including third cultures (at one point the two blended bodies to make a series of Hindu-ish live sculptures, in response to Joavien's having learned a "Hindi Dance" as a child). Joavien and Dani executed their analysis with personable charm and focus, and none of the pseudo-lofty conclusions that a lot of other inter-cultural explorations try to foist on audiences. But I found that I wasn't quite satisfied. A conclusion seemed to be missing to follow from the observation that cultural divides continue to exist. I also would have hoped that in a dialogue on culture, both dancers could have gone deeper than the stereotypes and looked into the complications of their own multi-cultural identities.

The second piece by diskodanny was a delicious satire on the number-crunching approach to cultural planning, or the art also occassionally known as pandering to the masses. At intermission, ushers distributed a study that Danny had commissioned, whose thesis was that it is possible to aggregate and pinpoint the formula for the contemporary dance piece that audiences want to see so that "audience's satisfaction will be maximized when their expectations of the performance are met". He then showed a seven-minute solo of lyrically modern mush set to Madama Butterfly, which he had choreographed based on the numbers, namely that audience preferences were for:

i. movement travelling across space
ii. earthly lighting
iii. recorded classical music
iv. costumes revealing body form
v. simple or no set design at all
vi. multimedia unncessary

After taking the audience through the statistics while flouncing around in a series of fantastic costumes, Danny offered amiably to adapt the movement, costume and music to better suit the audience's tastes. The result of a show of hands vote on that evening was a techno-mechanical recasting of the piece, with the artist wrapped in yellow and black hazard tape, "if you like, like a censored Singaporean".

Why annihilate an artist's individuality like this? "Because," he declared flamboyantly, "the artist desires to be desirable". Bravo.

Forward Moves on 6 June 2009 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Survey results quoted from
Q&A: A Performance by daniel k.

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