Monday, 19 December 2016

Mattie Do: Horror Film? It's all ballet.

Still from Dearest Sister. Photo by Mart Ratassepp

Many things have been written about Mattie Do, the pioneering female film director from Laos. She’s put her country’s horror films on the world festival map. She wears international laurels including the BFI London Film Festival and is an alumni of the Cannes Film Festival’s Les Cinemas du Monde with a sassy badass sense of humour and glamorous heels. But I’m curious about the intersection of Mattie the director and Mattie the ballerina, whom I met five years ago at a small dance festival in Vientiane, and in whose living room I practiced tendus and jetes with a home-made barre.

Read at ArtsEquator

Monday, 21 November 2016

Coming Home

Formal training in dance school is a mixed experience for many people. Stepping into the studio and theatre where you have spent every waking hour (or every waking hour commuting to) for three years brings a surge of memories. For me, camaraderie and excitement, but also tears, pain, disappointment, humiliation and a lot of anger.

There's a new dance alumni performance platform at NAFA opening this weekend. Talking about it with my former schoolmates Pam, Gretel and Viv brought a lot of those memories back.  

I recall that there was always so much to fight for. Fighting to be seen in auditions and exams, fighting injuries and exhaustion, self-doubt when toiling along at the back of the class, frustration as an understudy with no chance of being put on stage. Fighting for my choreographies when they weren't making the passing mark. What I was most grateful for was that instead of the cut-throat jealousy and pettiness that you see on "Centre Stage" or "Step Up", the dancers I went to school with were really a caring bunch. We knew that we were in it together. As our class size shrunk over three years, we cheered each other on and comforted each other when we were struggling with injury or getting a shelling from terrifying teachers (for our own good). We trusted each other to stay in time, to catch us when we jumped, and to know the combination so that if we blanked out we could copy it out of the corner of an eye.

In a competitive professional setting after graduation, I must say that sometimes it seemed like those deep bonds were one of the few comforting things to hang on to when I felt like an absolute nobody. Today, it is also nice to know that the positive vibes transcended different years. When I meet a more experienced dancer and discover we were both from the same school, it usually occasions a friendly chat, the sense that yes, you too had enough toughness and love for the form to survive! 

So when she was asked to support the new platform, Gretel took time out from other commitments and volunteered to be part of the organising committee alongside Max Chen, Peter Teo, Pamela Leong and Viv Phua. The title 归 ("Gui", loosely translating as "home coming" or "return") was chosen because it carried a strong sense of belonging and physical return. That sense of solidarity was very important for Gretel. "I feel like our local industry has much talent, but we're all seemingly on our own journey. So why not pool resources, ideas, friendships, to contribute to something bigger?" 

I am aware that the camaraderie can translate as clique-ish exclusivity for some of my professional dance colleagues who have not come from a conservatory-style background. It does trouble me sometimes, and I question what it means to declare that I am proud to be an arts school graduate. For sure, this isn't the only way to come to this vocation. It's a very specific mode of training, and a huge test of commitment. I'd hope that this new platform doesn't perpetuate the same kind of discrimination that some dancers feel they experience while in training.

Viv recalls that not everybody gets a chance to show their performing or choreographic potential while they're in their formative years. There are only so many solos and competitions to go around. A microcosm of the professional world, the selection for parts is unavoidably subject to highly subjective preferences of the choreographer or director. Sometimes X-factor isn't apparent until the dancer strikes out on their own after graduation. Viv was motivated by the knowledge that the pieces would be created by alumni passionate about their work, and that there was an inclusive spirit in the open call for alumni dancers. 

Rehearsal photo by Jeff Low. Dancers Mus Fitri Suhaimi and Natasha Neo.

The performance comprises five new pieces, choreographed by Elizabeth Lee, Seow Yi Qing, Goh Jiayin, Kenneth Tan and Wiing Liu. Gretel is excited about the ways in which the programme challenges and overturns our notions of dance in different ways. At a recent full rehearsal of the show programme, Pam was moved to tears. "Not because the pieces are sad but rather, I'm so proud of everyone." 

"Gui", 25-26 November 2017 at the NAFA Campus 3 Studio Theatre. Email for tickets.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Substation Spaces: As if we've been living here forever

Signs of a Nest by Susan Sentler is meditative and sophisticated in its simplicity. When I arrive, the room seems empty with only one dancer and an iPad humming and whooshing with a minimalist pensive track. The other two spectators in the room have also chosen to sit along the walls, respectfully vacating themselves from the space as much as possible. There are little tiles of black and white photographs littering the floor. The photos are tender microscopes of HDB living. Fragments of gates, corridors, laundry, a shirtless tattooed man reclining in a void deck. I don't know why I'm surprised by Susan's sensitivity to the details of heartland life, as if she's been living here forever.

The dancer Valerie (last name?) has been carrying the iPad and gazing at it intently. She now places the iPad on the floor next to me. Her internal universe suddenly offered visibly amongst strewn photo fragments, another fallen piece of the world. She folds her body to the floor, wrapped around a door frame, and becomes part of the architecture.

In the colour images scrolling through the iPad, I recognise the Rochor flats slated for demolition. On the wall in negative, there are poster prints that I'm told are from Dakota crescent (pending demolition also) and Marine drive.

I'm suddenly aware of the empty shelves lining the wall. I know this space well but never have those shelves occurred to me to be HDB corridors like the one where I live. Not until the dancer props the iPad up on one of the shelves, injecting a contained life among the rubble of photo tiles next to it. The door opening the room to the alley is ajar, and the street and construction down the street aptly filter in.

This work gives us the space, almost without time. Its breath and its dimensions, in the patient time of the body. Earlier this week, I heard Susan talk animatedly about the Deleuzian fold. Look at the space. Look at it shatter, forms and architecture splintering. Look from the outside in, and be sensorially absorbed into this dear little space that I fear will also soon be remodeled.

Valerie is making attentive decisions and changes of pace and space. Her quiet presence leaves the room, and scatters photo fragments in the hallway outside before she returns to peer through the window. Is she really just a second year undergraduate at Lasalle? Susan is there, happily clicking her tongue and her camera, and for me it's an integral part of the piece. The urgency of the photographic moment leads me to relish my consumption of this space and time.

The dancer draws a pair of flip flops from a small shelf that I suddenly identify as a shoe rack. She slips out the open door into the street and the night.

Signs of a Nest with Susan Sentler at the Substation/A Home for the Arts, 17 November 2016.

Post-script: It's a perfect closing for my hour of visual meditation, but on the way out I discover the game room across the hallway. I spend the next ten minutes whooping and batting coloured ping pong balls with a badminton racket at Ang Song Ming's family of drum set and electric guitars. What a wondrous evening.

Piece for 350 Onomatopoeic Molecules

Monday, 8 August 2016

not dancing for nobody

written in response to Kiran Kumar's "There is no dance", on 6 July 2016

I'm pretty sure that one day soon, we'll be not dancing, for nobody. Dance will have arrived as a disembodied concept and will not even need to be seen, to be experienced. If nobody is watching, is there dance? If nobody or nothing is moving, is there dance? If there is there dance?

I once cancelled a dance workshop because only three participants had signed up. It was our company's pre-arranged supermodel equivalent of "I don't get out of bed for less than $XX000 a day".  The cultural centre director in that small town in France called to beg me to change my mind.  The three girls who had signed up were a trio of friends, and they would be disappointed... No, I said. They could do their dancing somewhere else, with someone else. (We weren't actually paid for the class anyway beyond the residency stipend for the work we were making, but I did get a couple more hours in bed.)

A friend of mine, if I understood him then, used to insist that Contact Improvisation performance did not exist. That the improvisation should be as it was, between the improvisers, and if someone happened to be there, they would be witnessing but would not be a performance. I think that adamance was about a product. The expectation of entertainment, the spectacular. For CI, all the jumps and lifts and flying through the air. Performance would turn the participative/active/multidimensional  (and hopefully primarily somatic) experience into something else.

"You come, we'll show you what we do."

It might be about research first, and entertainment/curiosity of the onlooker, second. But still clearly, us and the. You don't want just anybody walking in to join the dancing, wouldn't that be dangerous? Or might it be about sharing, about community. It might just be about the joy of first flight.

It's a dance that changed my work profoundly, because it was a dance that was by nature relational. By nature unwritten and creative and challenging in its surrender to the unknown. In its possibility to be everything, really. That dancing is exploration.

Monday, 18 January 2016

"perhaps there is something similar about making dances and writing descriptions."

"...perhaps there is something similar about making dances and writing descriptions. There are so many words in a writer's vocabulary and many combinations are possible. You weigh words and use one or another, depending on what you are trying to express. And that is the way it is with movement, too: you try to weigh things, to see the importance of this gesture and that one - placed and measured in time, of course. Time - music and silences - makes gesture mean something. It's dancing presented in a certain way. To make every step look different by the way it is presented. A writer chooses a word. I choose a gesture. Economy is the point, learning what we can do without, reducing to essentials."

"Ballets have short lives. Compared to books, paintings, to plays and pieces of music, they are ephemeral indeed. The ballet audience, like every audience in the theatre, always wants something new. When a ballet is a success, it sometimes remains for three or four years, perhaps ten, seldom more."

- George Balanchine, Introduction to Balanchine's New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets (Francis Mason ed.)