Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Cheeky memories - Flip Book

For the first half hour, I swore that Cunningham and Cage were turning in their graves.

Charmatz and co. looked like a gang of merry bandits stuffed into the most merciless unitards to do a massive spoof a la the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The arena-like stage was filled with incomplete contractions, sloppy balances, and careless lines paired with cheesy grimaces. A pathetic mime imitation of Cage doing old fashioned analog editing while the music alternated between Cage-y noises, static, and period pop of the 50s and 60s. I found myself laughing, but in horror. Among the sound crew seated just in front of the stage, the namesake picture book was being flipped as they danced, but even in the small Drama Centre theatre I couldn't see a thing of it. The house was half full, and one chap walked out. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or even more pissed off when the dance seemed to end in a premature curtain call at what felt like thirty minutes. Billed as a memorial to Cunningham, Flip Book seemed to be no more a tribute than Joavien Ng's bitter take on Martha Graham in Body Inquire (2008).

Then they started again! For two more rounds, each faster and sillier than the last. Then I had some time to relax a bit and start to enjoy the nonsense, and get prodded to think about my discomfort. What is this awe which my Western contemporary dance training has given me for the work of Cunningham? What has he really left to us? The strict precision of form and direction that I studied with Larry Clark (two generations from Cunningham via Viola Farber) is one way to remember Merce, but these philosophies about movement and space also influenced a great part of the dance world even if you didn't actually study with him. In the 50s and 60s his company struggled with great resistance from audiences, but his work has now become canon. What would it take today to innovate like him? To surprise, shock, disgust and delight in the way that he used to do?

It made more sense as I heard more about Charmatz' underlying concept for the piece. This wasn't one of those pleasing shows where the audience can get its satisfaction in one go and understand everything just from seeing the work. It is very specific in this case, as Mayo Martin has pointed out it is a work that references something that references something. And Cunningham may be a giant in the contemporary dance world but you just can't compare it to the anglophone world's access to Shakespeare. This is one of those shows that requires a fair bit of audience work to grasp. I don't think that's bad, but it's also not easy.

I was interested in how Charmatz insists on working out each edition of Flip Book in only five days, and that he recreates it simply from the visual impression of the pictures, with groups of very different experience - high school kids, Cunningham veterans (incidentally very Pina/Kontakthof). Here was a strong reflection on history and how we receive and replicate it, and a deliberate contrast to the usual methods by which we study dancing - directly from the master's body, precisely, painstakingly and unfortunately too often without questioning.
Flip Book by Boris Charmatz/Musee de la danse, Drama Centre Theatre on 16-17 May 2011

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Hungry Stones

My first production out of NAFA is with Raka Maitra's Hungry Stones, this Saturday 28 May 8pm at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

When I studied calligraphy and seal carving at NAFA, Wee Beng Chong was adamant that stones have life. He showed me several examples of the marble blocks that we use to create seals, regenerating themselves in crazy crystalline forms! It gave me a whole new way of looking at why we engrave them, and seeing Huang Laoshi's style of recapturing the look and feel of ancient time in the present. Then a couple of years later, I have gotten cast as a living stone, full of stories!

Tickets available through SISTIC. Details here.

As it Fades

Pick of the week!

This is the most powerful piece to date from T.H.E, and Swee Boon's most focused statement on the emotional content of lost Chinese dialects and personal histories that the present has received from past generations, set among a mobile city of frosted glass towers.

The climax of the piece was a quiet one, with the dancers' parents emerging from the darkness and taking the hands of the company dancers, sharing a very private moment of connection and gratitude, the vision then filtered through playful silhouettes of a chain of girls. The dancing by members of the first and second companies was of all the virtuosic physicality that we have come to expect of T.H.E dancers, with a fresh element of a more gestural and even comic vocabulary.

It was clear that Swee Boon's muse in this piece was the newest, tiniest and youngest member of the main company - Indonesian-born and Singapore-trained Jessica Christina. Of the many commendable performances of the evening, Jessica simply shone. She carried the piece from opening to closing with a frenetic precision and fragility, and a maturity in performance quite beyond her years and experience.

It was however a pity that Swee Boon has not managed to find a composer to work with on this piece - though each of the contemporary music selections were appropriate to the choreography, I wasn't able to hear them as a coherent soundtrack or connect them to the haunting Hainanese song that opened the piece.

As it Fades, T.H.E Dance Company, 21 May 2011 at the Esplanade Theatre

I want more people to remember - Singapore Arts Festival 2011

The Arts Fest has just begun, but already I feel like I've been running a marathon. Back to back with the Singapore Biennale, overlapping with the World Dance Alliance's free dance events of Singapore Dance Week, and the Esplanade programming of the Hungry Stones smack in the middle of the Arts Fest programme. It's a crazy amount of art to take in (and give out)!

Sadly, I've had to give away half my tickets because of my production schedule, so I'm counting on friends and blogs to tell me about the rest of the shows. I also don't have the time to churn out full length reflections on everything, so am giving the arts fest blog a miss. I will however be posting snippets here on what I've seen.

Apart from my rant about the festival website, my overall feeling is that the arts fest programming is quite interesting this year. The theme is simple but has the personal, sociological and conceptual dimensions. I have been surprised at the number of non-artist friends who have actually noticed the festival theme this year, and told me that they like it very much. There's a good mix of accessible and experimental work this year, which I am enjoying, and if I had more time I would definitely have caught the selection of free programming and public-friendly work. Choir Karaoke and Filem Filem look brilliant! The outdoor festival village has a nice energy to it after the post-show crowds start coming in at 103opm, although I am disturbed that the main feature of the village seems to be the Shiraz bar and kebab stand, and that from the exterior, the outdoor theatre has the feeling of a fortress against the un-ticketed.

So what happened to the ticket sales? It is painful to go to the dance performances and see the Esplanade Theatre and even the smaller Drama Centre at 50% house, when the performances have been excellent. I can imagine how tough it must be for the performers to look out into rows of empty seats, even if the other half of the house is moved to a standing ovation. On the other hand, what I hear from the music and theatre programming (that I had to give away my tickets to, bleah) though, is that the houses are doing just fine.

I actually like the concept of this year's dance programming - tributes to three dance greats Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham and Kazuo Ohno - and thought it would work well with audiences by banking on the names of the inspirations while bringing audiences to new work. This as opposed to the blockbuster-type programming we had last year with Sylvie Guillem and Cloud Gate. But it wasn't to be. It can't help that right now there is an esplanade publicity bombardment for the Nederlands Dans Theatre and the Mariinsky Ballet in the next few months, which aren't part of the arts festival (or dans festival, for that matter). I suppose that a large part of the Singapore audience, both local and expat, have yet to mature from the celebrity recognition phase. It's like visiting Paris so that you can show off your photos of the Eiffel Tower - and whether you liked Paris doesn't have to matter very much - but the Belgian or Cambodian experimental interpretation of the tower isn't going to interest you very much. And god forbid that you have a Korean superstar concert to compete with at the same time... my mum would have taken over my ticket for the Living Dance Studio from Beijing, but she was watching Rain. Of course.

A part of me hearkens a little to the sleepy arts scene of the 1990s, when it was possible to see pretty much everything in town, of all artistic disciplines. I love that we have such vibrancy today and a much larger audience base overall, but it really feels like all the events are cannibalising each another.

I sincerely hope the dance film component is doing better. I shall see next week!

On a tangent about Pina Bausch memorials. I enjoyed Ballets C de la B's Out of Context very much (snippet on the way), but I did wonder why we couldn't have gotten Pina's own Tanzteater Wuppertal, which is currently on its memorial tour around the world. I saw them in Hong Kong in March, and realised what a waste it is that the dance audiences of Singapore have never seen them here. Not when she was alive and the company visited Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2008, either.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Dancing can change your life

It certainly has for me. I can hardly believe that my three years at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) are over. In the past month I sped through a daze of impossibly long days. Rehearsals, technique examinations, final year choreography project, bump in for our final performance in the department showcase. Thank you cards. Editing weepy videos all night. Final year end party. It was so hard to imagine it all coming to an end, that we sat in the park with each other and a lot of vodka until the wee hours of the morning.

This is gonna be the sappy posting.

I think I knew what a huge gamble I was taking three years ago when I handed in my resignation letter in the civil service and headed to full time dance school. What I had no idea of was how my life was going to change. I find it really difficult to imagine myself in my old life now. Hard to imagine ironing my shirts, jet setting in suits and heels, scribbling in long meetings and drawing a comfy paycheck. I am surprised how uninteresting it sounds to me now. The thought of long meetings and laptop-lugging is enough to make my back twinge.

I am really grateful that a lot of good people gave a chance to an unlikely dancer - starting with friends and teachers who encouraged me to perform and choreograph when I was still working full time, and the faculty at NAFA who auditioned me and accepted me, even though I was over the age limit. A dance diploma programme is no joke. I wondered many times if I would survive the sheer misery of the technical training, the pain every day, the injuries that took me off my feet. I don't think I would have even passed the attendance requirement if I hadn't had a faithful partner to wheedle me out of bed every morning at 6am to make the long commute to school.

I encountered a lot of scepticism when I chose a local school for my dance training. Were the students of good caliber? The faculty of international standard?

In the first few weeks of school I realised that of my cohort of 22, none of us were "perfect". Most of us didn't have perfect bodies for dance, many were late starters with little dance background, some didn't have the finances (to complete the NAFA education), and many in my batch were to me really young and lacking in focus. I believe now that it was exactly the right place for me. In a programme full of imperfect dancers, we were there to encourage each other. I want to give credit to the faculty at NAFA for their dedication to nurture anybody with the commitment to try. However unlikely all of us seemed, our teachers believed that we could be transformed. Believed that from the passion that each of us showed at audition time, each of us could beat the odds and make it to a professional level.

I was able to work with some wonderfully diverse faculty, both local and international. Graham and Limon classes actually felt like coming home to my earlier training in New York. It was meaningful to work with Asian artists on their own journey to reconcile the contemporary and the traditional. The NAFA signature curriculum that I went through exposed me to both Western and Asian art traditions, and different disciplines such as music, calligraphy and fashion. It gave me many avenues for reflection on history, identity and society. I am especially grateful to those teachers who urged me to see myself as an artist, not a student, and to demand quality work from and for myself.

We ended our programme with a graduating batch of just 9 of us. I think each of us fought tooth and nail to make it through - through to yet another beginning.