Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Maybe I will see a kite looking for its string...

I hadn't realised till last Friday how absolutely beautiful the Bengali language is.

Musical phrases spilled from the lips of a lovestruck youth, wandering in a forest of airy bamboo frames. As the stanzas repeated, four female dancers who had sat listening rose to take the centre of the stage. Their steps wove a decisive counterpoint around his words. His companion, another poet, reclined in the background, making a bed next to a rustic bench and...a yellow hard hat. A reminder that this dreamy poet longs not only for love, but for his home and family in Bangladesh, while he spends lonely days hammering in the hot shipyard.

"From Another Land" is choreographer Raka Maitra's collaboration with dancers she has trained at the Chowk Academy of Dance, poets Rajib Shil Jibon and Zakir Hossain Khokon, musician Bani Haykal, and set design by Kiran Kumar.

I've studied and worked with Raka on and off since 2010. Of the many works that I've danced and seen so far, this is by far her finest.

Over the years Raka has developed her distinctive contemporary dance idiom - a blend of classical Odissi, martial Chhau, and evocative tableaux of restrained movement and fragments of storytelling set to abstract soundscapes.  What struck me right away with this new production was the sophisticated layering and interweaving of the various elements. I am quite amazed that the work was so integrated when two of the performers - the poets - had been able to join rehearsals only on their one precious day off every week.

In terms of visual composition, each tableau had an impressive depth of foreground, background and texture, with the casual lives of the poet-workers backgrounding the vivid dancers, then surfacing again as the poets stepped forward to share their words with animation and sincerity, anchored by subtle chords and drums.  A series of contrasting lighting scenes by Josiah Yoong transformed the simple decor from town square to metropolis, to a technicolour vision of Bangladesh.

Choreographically, I had the sense that Raka had chosen to pare her building blocks even more carefully than previous works - from the simplest of Odissi steps, the dancers patterned from unison into rhythmic canons and counterpoints. They danced solos and movement-chatter as they discovered a new universe (migrants arriving to Singapore? Singaporeans discovering Dhaka?). Raka herself danced a couple of the impeccable solos that she has always done so well - expressive, precise, coloured with modulations of dynamic and gaze. But she also took moments to retreat into the layered background, leaving the stage open to the other dancers' fluid grace and the poets' tender narratives.  Karishma Nair stood out from the ensemble with a magnetic focus and clarity of movement. Poet Zakir seized my heart when he rushed forward, laughing, with a child's excitement, recounting his son's letter, to end in a bittersweet embrace from his proxy family - another migrant worker.

During the performance, it mattered little to me that I don't speak Bengali.  It reminded me of how many people say they love to hear French spoken even when they don't understand it - the words take on a musicality and rhythm. Before the show I was already astonished by the translated poems in the programme notes (excellent translations by Subir Nag), and I was able to transfer their poignancy when I heard the words spoken by the poets themselves.

At no point did I imagine this as a token charitable project to glorify the "underprivileged" stereotype of the Bangladeshi migrant worker. It was apparent that each performer was fully an artistic contributor in their own right. Both Rajib and Zakir are published writers in Bangladesh. The biographies and post-show dialogues were a potent reminder of the richness of the lives and talents of individuals who are often invisible to the more privileged here in Singapore.  I appreciate that private donors had made it possible for a significant number of Rajib and Zakir's Bangladeshi colleagues to attend the performance when they might not otherwise have had the means. I sat among a group of them, refreshed by their bafflement and absorption at what seemed to be an unfamiliar form to many of them. I realised that I am from another land, too.

*The title of this post is an excerpt from "Shades of Light and Dark", Rajib Shil Jibon.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The worst performance EVER

With my chum Kasia we saw the WORST performance one evening two months ago in London. I don't think that there's a need to name the place or the group. We agreed wholeheartedly on its badness. In future it will be our reference: "That show was bad but it wasn't as bad as THAT show."

Then pressed by another friend to explain what we thought was so bad, we floundered for words. I suggested that this was a task we could persist in. What made something bad, SO bad? Took us a little while to get it together between two countries, continuing via comments on each other's text, but here it is now.

K: To be in a really administrative language: lack of investigation, lack of depth in the movement itself.

S: My first words were useless, meaningless, obvious, amateurish, literal, cliched!  Unfortunately I know that these are really not very concrete.

K: It was cheesy. I said cliched!

S: I said it last night too! Double cliche. Double cheeseburger. Yuck. But these words don't actually tell us very much. I'm still very frustrated.

K: It was embarrassing. Didn't you feel embarassed? Don't you feel that when you watch bad work?

S: A news review once said that about one of my best friend's work in Singapore. Later she won an award in Prague for that same work.

K: Really? Well S.N. loved the show last night.

S: She loved some things about it.

K: She only disliked some things about it. As opposed to us hating the whole thing. I felt so uncomfortable that I had to go on twitter, online on my phone because I didn't want to watch what was happening.

S: It was cringeworthy. But the piece before it was cringeworthy in a very intelligent way. (Bravo!)
In contrast, horrible shows like that second piece are pretty much the only times that provoke me to resorting to the vocabulary of traditional dance composition studies.

K: I know what you mean. Maybe that’s because it seems like they might have made it with a choreographic handbook in hand? (Not Burrows though... ) And it read like a choreographic handbook too.

S: First, my pet peeve. It was so OBVIOUS. In case they didn't announce the theme into the mic, they danced it, they mimed it, they said it again and again. Without much development or elaboration. Well...what's the rest of the show for?

K: Has it also struck you that they were almost always facing us (the audience)? Yet they were looking completely past us... One of the things I dislike most in theatre.

S: The physical vocabulary was predictable. Really packed-with-cliches literal and predictable stuff. A text about the enforcement of prudish social mores: a naked dancer is looked at disapprovingly by clothed companions who grab her, paint her, and clothe her. There are several scenes where the dancers pretend to be embarrassed about being naked and try to cover themselves up. The naked girl returns and there is a fuss about trying to get her to keep her dress on. Next section, a text about futility in capitalist working culture. Dancers make repetitive working gestures and conform, thanks to surveillance by boss.

It was 30 minutes of a sort of lousy pantomime without going deeper to examine the illustrative cliches, comment on them or contrast them.

K: Question is: how do you dig? What is your way for digging deeper Sze? Do you let things take their own course as you improvise around the subject and see what unfolds? Do you transfer questions onto different aspects of life? I just don’t know...

S: Digging! I mean reflection, development, tension.... The music use too, was really cliched, it was a bit of a silent film where the orchestration mickey moused the action or vice versa.

K: Well put...

S: And it was incoherent. The scenettes were just two of something like seven or eight "stories". Generally on the theme of anti-neoliberal frustration. They were rarely linked, but they weren't very juxtaposed either.  Or do I mean too coherent.

Gratituous spectacle. I am generally all for running around naked. I am all for body paint and powder and wrecking the stage. But wield these sacred tools judiciously and wisely! They easily lose their impact. Or maybe they are the medium and the language of the universe that you are creating, they might mean something. They might influence the texture of the movement...
["Nudity is no more neutral than a large hat" - Jonathan Burrows. ]

I wanted to leave so many times but I kept trying to find something redeeming. Something surprising or at least mildly interesting.

K: I do admire you for that. I must admit I stopped trying pretty early on...

S: It didn't have any of the following - of which I'd like to think that I am a proponent of not thinking that any of these are necessary to a performance when there is a strong idea or aesthetic.

1. Pretty dancing - I am really not a pretty dancing person. I am the first one to jump at working with pedestrian movement and performers who haven't been poisoned in a conservatoire (unlike me). But I can watch that in the absence of anything else. In this case... absent! It was ugly...and it wasn't even authentic! It was so overdone!

K: Do you think that what this performance was, was due to the fact that they were in fact non dancers (which could have been honest and beautiful) desperately trying to create a piece which could be read as dance. That it was desperate in their attempt to fall into a category of “physical theatre” - gosh i really don’t know. It’s mind boggling...

S: 2. Pattern. Even the most unspectacular elements would make for me a genius composition if thoughtfully patterned. Repeated, alternated, varied, progressed... which brings me to

3. Arc or trajectory. Whether in narrative, energetic quality, or visual richness, Rhythm of the show?

4. Tension/Irony (as I said earlier about not digging or reflecting deeper).

S: If you can't do any of these... at least 4. some surprise? Please? Even if it's the surprise that you stick to your guns and never change a pattern that nobody dreamed that they'd be able to watch for 60 mins? (Maguy Marin. Xavier le Roy. Yes.)

K: At least the performers were completely committed and spent the whole time really trying to make it work. Bless them.

S: Bless these guys at the Edinburgh Fringe. Really.

K: A last word: to be brave and perform a piece of work of your own, to take it on stage where work is mostly harshly criticised and have guts to be feisty and proud about it - I RESPECT THAT! More than I ever do.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Archive box

I only realised when I came home that I'd worn the perfect t-shirt for the arts fest "Archive Box" event this evening!

Archives and archival have been quite in fashion in certain circles in contemporary dance - I'm thinking of Xavier le Roy's Retrospective, Jerome Bel's Veronique Doisneau, Siobhan Davies' Table of Contents, reconstruction of Judson Church pieces.... it's a terrifically rich subject because archiving dance is really paradoxical and complicated.  Videos and labanotation scores only capture the physical/spatial/visual aspect of performance and partially at that. Those can't come close to representing the experience of the live work, the temperature in the room, the emotional content and background to the piece, needless to say the process of creation.

What becomes particularly tricky in dance archival as opposed to many other live performance forms is when the archive is used as a tool for re-creation and replication. There is no gold standard for notation, no score sheets or script book. The priority in replication rarely specified - we know it's not the sound (as in music) or the text (as in theatre) - in my experience as a dancer with old-fashioned repertory, there's a kind of unrealistic expectation that everything must be re-created. That's the steps, the timing, the dynamics (quality/energy), the spacing, the theatricality, the facial expression, the costume, the makeup, the lighting, the set... as far as humanly possible.

Video is often regarded as a secondary source, or just a starting point.  The generally recognised best source is the dancer and their body: when a major work of (Western contemporary dance) is restaged, the choreographer or an anointed assistant is preferably flown in to give corrections and clarifications to the movement, convey key points about intention and aesthetic, make decisions on casting and staging. Learning a repertory work in Bharatanatyam or Odissi (as I have experienced it anyway) can only be done via a teacher or a guru.

In my experience of conventional conservatory-style training (I mean western here but I'm guessing this is true for many other dance cultures), faithfulness to the source is a priority for reconstruction or re-staging of repertory, but also a sacred tenet of dance training and in working with choreographers who transmit material by demonstration. My collaborators in other disciplines are often surprised to find out that one of the main components that I was graded on in dance technique training was "Replication". One of the most offensive things that a dancer in conservatory-style training can do in front of a choreographer or a teacher is "change" (in my case, forget) the choreography.  I am in great awe of dancers who meet these standards as perfect repertory machines.

On the flip side of the conventional coin, when you're a choreographer, or when as a dancer you put your choreographer hat on, you inherit license and obligation to be original/individual/in control/wilful/responsible/unpredictable and to have your own ego and demand that things should be a certain way because that's your vision.

Some companies still operate that way, but thank goodness for times a changin'. For post-modern dance. For improv. But I think the baggage still hangs around. I think of the story of how Yvonne Rainer went from saying Trio A was a piece that anyone could dance... till she saw a Trio A she didn't recognise. She now requires that it be learned, from her or one of a handful of certified "transmitters" who will coach you in the very fine details. Certainly not from the 1978 video, as even she made mistakes in that one.

For the arts festival Archive Box project, artists who presented their own works at the festival's Dance Marathon (unfortunate reference, see They Shoot Horses, Don't They) were also requested to either make an "archive box" of one of their dance works, or to be a "user" of a box made by another artist. Intriguing, because of the impossibilities, especially when the originator-user pairs were mostly from different countries, different dance traditions and had never met. The boxes took the forms of actual cardboard boxes of production-linked material, stage designs, props, and in other cases a website, a letter in a glass bottle. Tonight three pieces were presented, between wine and cheese breaks. There was some great stuff! I'm not reviewing here, but as far as I could tell from watching the official programme shows by the same artists, there were  no "copies". The boxes presented this evening turned into stimuli for a new work, new interpretations, new ideas and sometimes new working processes as well.

The showings were followed by a discussion, which festival director Ong Keng Sen urged in the direction of considering the significance of the archive, questions about ownership, loyalty to the transmission, transmission across different cultural contexts, and possibilities for copy-left in dance. He provided a very interesting tidbit about the legal arrangements that had been made for this Archive Box project, specifying the intellectual property rights for each box and each new interpretation. He ended it off by paraphrasing a lesson from law school that a contract itself does not have a significance; it is the relationship between two persons that has a significance. (I am also paraphrasing very loosely here. Please correct me if you were there.)

Incidentally, I spent a week exploring the transmission of dance material as "gifts" (open to re-interpretation) as opposed to "copies",  at a choreolab facilitated earlier this month by Danny Kok for the Esplanade dan:s festival.  We had some great discussions about the impossibility of a perfect copy, the specificity of the author or transmitter in setting the priority for certain aspects of the copy, the leakages and transformations through  receivers/transmitters with different physical facility, different personality, and varied intellectual and artistic interests.

For a while I fiddled around in my head with the artificial dichotomy of "making copies/reconstructions" vs "making interpretations". But originals, copies, interpretations, collaborations... so much potential in each and in between!

In the end I noticed that the post-showing discussion this evening ended up like many post-show dialogues that I have been in. Rather than a wider discussion on issues of archival, copy-left and ownership, there was a great desire for the audience (and in this case the artists themselves as well) to simply uncover the creative process and the personalities of the author(s). Human relationships remained the pull of gravity.

Friday, 4 September 2015

SIFA Shock

I was really excited to learn that my trip back home this September coincided neatly with the arts fest (sorry, SIFA, I really prefer the old name and it doesn't confuse with an Indian classical arts association).

I think the programme this year is delicious - varied, with interesting and challenging choices. I was really excited about the use of the Tanjong Pagar railway station for dance programming (Maybe art could make a contribution to stalling the erasure and commercialisation of whatever Singapore has been), and the out-of theatre experiences like "It won't be too long" and the open homes series. I love that the dance programming focuses on Asian artists and includes both pretty movement and "interdisciplinary" and conceptual work. I've seen some great shows in the last two weeks, that tickled my senses and made me think, including Wall Dancing, Traitriot, and A Grand March. (missed Goh Lay Kuan because I wasn't back yet.)

Okay, tickets are a little expensive, but this is usually my investment for the year. The arts fest has been instrumental in helping me grow as an artist since I was a teenager. Maybe for that reason, I also carry some pretty high expectations not only of the curation but the presentation and the role of this event as a sort of public good.

Then I got a shock on 28 August.

I was at Tanjong Pagar for A Grand March by Zan Yamashita, and Some Experiments in a Decade and a Half by Natsuko Tezuka. With the unexpected bonus of some pre show dance films thrown in.

Even before the show, I'd been warned that the station was uncomfortable - too hot and limited seating. I figured, no sweat, I'm a dancer from the tropics. I made sure I dressed light and hardy (or as my mum in law would say, 'kum lar zar').

Yamashita's piece was staged on the railway track, strewn with debris. A powerful setting that suited the work visually and conceptually. We were encouraged to sit right in front of the set. Sitting on the tracks or damp grass was marginally uncomfortable, and many people chose to perch on the platform edges instead, even if that meant not hearing his text completely. Being still young-enough and spry-enough, I wiggled around on the steel track through the 40min piece and decided it had been worth it.

The shock was in the next piece, a lecture-demonstration by Natsuko Tezuka. Set up against one wall of the ticket hall, she danced, standing and lying, referred to and wrote on a wall projection, and spoke and responded to questions relayed through an echoey mic system. The audience was encouraged to pick up plastic chairs and arrange them freely in the space, which ended up in a sort of semi-circular lecture hall format around her of about five or six rows.

The view from the first row. Now sit down and put a lot of heads in your way.

I thought this was a very interesting work, with a unique vocabulary and investigation. But audience members began to stream out from about 15min into the 75min performance. After 40 minutes I began to question whether I would do the same - and this is something I very very rarely do. 

My partner was fidgeting too. I told myself that I would decide on whether or not to stay, if two out of four of these criteria were fulfilled to make the time bearable:

1. If I was able to see the performer.

2. If I was able to see the projections.

3. If I could make out the dialogue.

4. If I could breathe.

1. Five minutes into the show, I realised that I could hardly see the performer's body, even though I had managed to pull up my chair in the fourth row, just next to the stage manager (who necessarily has a clear view). So I stood up and watched, and with some wandering around I managed to see a bit more. A bit of an endurance act to keep up for 75 minutes.

2. White text-on-black slides were projected to a ground-level screen, maybe 3x2m, made from a sort of reflective paper like the back of a printed poster. It clearly had to be ground level because Tezuka wrote on the screen surface with a whiteboard marker at several points in the show. The audience on plastic chairs from row 3 onwards would have been able to see only about half of the screen at a time. Visibility was better when I stood up, but quite a lot of the projected text wasn't big enough to read clearly. There were reflections on the surface from the lighting. When Tezuka started to add diagrams and text to the screen, the reflections made the visuals simply illegible.

3. Tezuka spoke mainly into a mic, but was not easy to understand. Part of this had to do with an adorably heavy accent. But I believe more to do with the fact that the sound engineering was downright awful. It seemed that neither the acoustics of the room or the sound system had been adapted or tested.

4. Air. Or lack thereof.
Got heat? How about stuffiness. I suspect that the combined discomfort was the main factor driving folks away. I think I spotted some box-fans at the entrance to the space, but I'm quite sure I didn't feel any during the performance!

Score: 0.5/4.
At the 40min mark we bailed, and I started drafting this post in my head.

Was it limited resources that had forced such poor conditions for performance at the Tanjong Pagar railway station? In 10 years I've never experienced such disadvantageous conditions for an artistic work or for an audience at the Singapore Arts Festival. I might imagine something like this at the dance festival I've worked with in Laos and where sponsors and conditions change by the hour... but this at the Singapore Arts Festival?!

Poor ventilation, poor stage/seating concept and set up, poor acoustics,nd poor floor... On that evening the movement material wasn't very high impact, but the tiled floor is clearly punishing or even dangerous for any highly physical choreography. As an unfortunate contrast, I recall one of the earliest events held at the station after it was closed - a large scale Hermes pseudo-art installation show. The extensive structure built in the ticket hall was air conditioned and comfortable even in the day. Clearly it's possible to adapt that venue suitably with a sufficient budget.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen was there on 28 August, presenting bouquets to the artists. I wondered how he was able to account to them for these conditions - he didn't even choose to stage his own show (Border Crossers) at Tanjong Pagar. Did the festival get this venue for a song but not have the budget to adapt it? If so why did they choose to proceed? Was this mess one of the points of tension that rocked the SIFA team? I hope there's a reasonable explanation for what happened, but right now I can't imagine what it might be. That said, the other events that I attended at 72-13 and the SOTA studio were comfortable and seemed to have adequate technical conditions for the works. How did this slippage happen at Tanjong Pagar?

If it was a question of resource-shock..the evening wasn't done with me yet. On the way out I took some time in the considerably cooler station foyer answering a festival survey (apparently conducted this year by an external consultancy instead of the usual festival volunteers.) I paraphrase this question:

If there was a possibility that SIFA could not continue because of insufficient funding, would you be prepared to pay $100 for a ticket?
Me: $100?!!!! No. I'm an artist!

Would you pay $50 for a ticket?

Me: Probably not either!

So how much would you pay?

Me: I would apply to perform or to volunteer in the festival if that's what it took to see some shows.

(Lady says as she writes, "Not willing to pay more for tickets"

What is going on, folks? In 2014 the arts festival was reincarnated as a commissioned event run by a private enterprise (The Arts House Ltd). If I let my runaway imagination out on the expressway - Is the arts festival teetering on bankruptcy? Is it about to be privatised into a commercial luxury event?

I'm going for my next performance at Tanjong Pagar tonight. Oh boy.