Stephanie Burridge

2015 came with a dance vengeance in Singapore that astonished me. There was much to see at the start of the year but the main local event this month was the start of celebrations for The Arts Fission’s twentieth anniversary – no mean achievement for any contemporary dance company but redolent with years of dedication and commitment to dance from artistic director Angela Liong through the pioneering years of the arts scene in Singapore. The Arts Science Museum continues to carve a special niche with experimental commissions and I also caught up with the extraordinary Japanese performer Master Guraku Akifusa at the Japan Creative Centre. February heralds Chinese New Year and the Year of the Goat, and will be marked by more from Arts Fission’s palette of interdisciplinary projects before concluding with Lin Hwai-min’s metaphoric “RICE” for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan as part of Esplanade’s “Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts” – there is a ‘heads up’ on that.

  • Master Guraku Akifusa
    Lecture demonstration on Japanese Dance “Nihon Buyo”
    Japan Creative Centre, 4 Nassam Road; January 20
  • “Hypermensia”
    ArtScience Late 2015
    Featuring Composit formed by Shunsuke Francois Nanjo, Kensuke Christophe Nanjo & Nicolas Charbonnier in collaboration with Eisa Jocson
    ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands; January 29
  • “Make it New – “Incidental Performance”
    “Homecoming”: a site specific live performance featuring the Arts Fission Company and guest artists
    National Design Centre; January 30
  • “Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts”
    “Rice”, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
    Esplanade; February 28-March 1
Master Guraku Akifus.  Photo courtesy Master Guraku Akifus

Master Guraku Akifus.
Photo courtesy Master Guraku Akifus

Master Guraku Akifusa embodies Japanese traditional arts from his quietly spoken introduction to “Nihon Buyo” to his beautifully measured and articulate performance of the “Snow Bird”. This traditional Japanese dance dates to the Edo period and encompasses other forms such as Noh and Kabuki; also embracing the tradition whereby men danced female roles.

Before donning the white face and kimono to perform, Akifusa explained that he would present a Japanese ‘version’ of “Swan Lake”- the “Snow Bird”. The analogy was fascinating and he explained that the Japanese style involved circular, round pathways of movement in contrast to the vertical lines of Western classical ballet. The fluttering finger movements and expectancy of his early facial expression of the snow bird/woman duality represented in the dance later gave way to sorrow as the dancer’s body slumped to the floor in despair when she realises her lover was not coming back. As in the Noh and Kabuki traditions props such as a fan, a strip or cloth and a scroll were delivered stealthily to the performer so the dramatic continuity was unbroken. It was an exceptional performance of grace, truth and beauty.

'Hypermnesia' - Remembering the Present (dancer Eisa Jocson).  Photo © Vanini Belarmino

‘Hypermnesia’ – Remembering the Present (dancer Eisa Jocson).
Photo © Vanini Belarmino

How can the arts and science come together in a creative way? There are many examples of this throughout history and it is not unintentional that the exhibition, “Da Vinci: Shaping the Future” that includes many of the master’s scientific sketches is on show at the Marina Bay Sands Arts and Science Museum rather than an art gallery. The Arts Science team have curated some interesting collaborations that push the boundaries of possibilities – this time with contemporary dance and technology. Sensor pads to generate lights and sound have been around the dance circuit for a while but maybe not combined with pole dancing or involving an aeronautic engineer with the creative team.

Filipino choreographer and dancer Eisa Jocson manipulated the installation consisting of the pole that emerged from a circular surround where the sensor pads lit up and sound was produced by body heat and movement. The creation was considerably enhanced by the location that fore- grounded the city lights and harbour that added their own show.

“Hypermnesia” resulted from collaborations across several countries…in such a process the initiation of each moment is a shared responsibility. While there was no doubt the most thrilling aesthetic aspects were the high flung swings at the height of the pole with the dancer’s body extended in flight before folding in and winding down, the sound and light sensors appeared to work best with the dancer located close to the base of the pole as if trying to free herself from a foetal form to a flowing, extended action that ultimately would take flight on the pole.

As an installation that was live, ever-changing and predicated on a number of diverse parameters working together, “Hypermensia” succeeded in offering new challengers to the creators and the viewers.

“The Homecoming” was a celebration of old and new dance to mark The Arts Fission’s twentieth year. It was set in a masterful architectural nod to design at the new National Design Centre which includes a vast central atrium with studio spaces around the edges. Angela Liong instigates dance works within an architectural spatial frame; there is always some sort of a rite of passage through the real and symbolic space, with meeting points along the way, objects and structures to interact with, gaps to be completed – sometimes by another artists or the audience – and an atmosphere that spans the personal and universal.

Dancer-choreographers Bobbi Chen, Elysa Wendi and Scarlet Yu in Arts Fission's 20th Anniversary Project – 'Make It New'.  Photo © Meta Setiawan

Dancer-choreographers Bobbi Chen, Elysa Wendi and Scarlet Yu in Arts Fission’s 20th Anniversary Project – ‘Make It New’.
Photo © Meta Setiawan

In such a scope, as in life, there are intense, magical moments combined with the tedium of parts of the ride that lead to a next episode. The concept of spontaneity and ‘incidental performance’ echoed through the evening and underpinned the various stages where dance occurred. It flowed freely and the audience could mingle with the dancers, move around the space albeit being mindful of some fast pace passages where the dancers flung themselves towards the audience standing on the perimeter. Three floors of balconies provided a bird’s eye perspective but close up moments of faces, breath, sweat and intensity were preferred by most.

The ‘glue’ for ‘The Homecoming” was Liong’s choreography that ebbed and flowed between other insertions by the returning trio of former company dancers Bobbi Chen, Elysa Wendi and Scarlet Yu. It also incorporated an enigmatic installation of tetrahedron design conceptualized by Gabrielle Chan and Bin Ong Kian Peng. This worked in various metaphoric ways to map the dance – they became safe havens, focal points and secretive caves for self expression or for the eroticism of love. Transformation of the site through creating a new site with the National Design Centre space became a symbolic place for reflection on the journey so far while sign posting future directions.

The sound designers created a musical collage that was played live in response to the choreography– like a DJ in tune with the crowd. Mastering extracts from themes in previous Arts Fissions work, regular TAF composer Joyce Koh combined with Per Magnus Linborg and created a soundscape of evocative phrases that the dancers responded instinctively to or that pushed them in new direction.

The voluminous, Japanese-inspired flowing costumes worn with boots gave the choreography a stylised street look and added a frame of moving fabric around their bodies. It also contrasted sharply with the tight, traditional Cheongsam worn by choreographer/dancer Bobbi Chen in her intensely personal solo. As if trying to escape its confines, she huddled in corners, reached up on a rickety stool before finally seeming to find solace inside one of the tetrahedrons.

Scarlet Yu began with a sensuous movement on the floor before sweeping the surface with a twig broom – perhaps a symbolic act of sweeping the past clean and moving on which she did by acting as a tour guide to individuals while she explained the company’s history. A much admired past favourite dancer and choreographer, this allowed her theatricality and personality to shine but was probably a disappointment to her fans.

Similarly Elysa Wendi let others do the talking in a site specific piece devised for students from LASALLE College of the Arts. They reached over the balcony, ran to meeting points and explored the space with improvised, free flowing movements that eventually became chaotic.

The Arts Fission dancers returned to refocus the evening with a stunning site specific section on a caged in, fire escape stairwell the height of the building. They stamped up and down the metal stairs, enacted imagery of entrapment, fear and intimate secrets… it concluded with a dancer in an elaborate ball grown descending the stairs to disappear through an exit door. The vertical landscape for the dance resonated with the idea of apartment living in small spaces with people stacked upon each other.

The quality and artistry of “The Homecoming” reached its zenith with the presentation of a film the company made in Myanmar. The combination of scenery from an old temple, the open-ended image-based narrative of simple life pleasures such as swimming naked in a waterfall, sharing a meal in luscious landscapes, poetically captured the dancers caught in space and time. It was beautifully filmed making the narrative and the dance partners in the landscape rather than a dominant force. It was an appropriate end to the opening of the celebratory season by featuring the East/West binary that is fundamental to this company’s artistic vision.

'RICE' performed outdoors in the rice fields of Chihshang, Taiwan.  Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

‘RICE’ performed outdoors in the rice fields of Chihshang, Taiwan.
Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in 'Pollen II' from 'RICE'.  Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in ‘Pollen II’ from ‘RICE’.
Photo © Liu Chen-hsiang

“Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts” presented by the Esplanade has a history of showing the best Chinese influenced dance in Singapore as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. “RICE” by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan choreographed by Lin Hwai Min premiered in Taiwan in 2013. An apt choice for this festival, it is a stunning work that as part of its making saw Lin take the dancers to the rice fields of Taiwan, to live and create amongst the workers in the fields, and experience the life cycle of rice farming through toiling together in the sun, rain and wind. The company later returned to those same fields to give a special performance.

The videography takes the audience into a visceral space via an extraordinary example of contemporary technology such that you can almost feel the rain and watch the rice shoots spring to life. The movement on stage includes both traditional folk dances from men carrying large bamboo poles to women scattering and gathering in movements inspired by winnowing. Signature contemporary movement inspired by qigong is startling in its originality and flows deep within the dancers. “RICE” will be a welcome return by the company to Singapore in February to celebrate Chinese New Year.