In the first of what is planned to be a regular column covering local companies and international visitors, Stephanie Burridge casts her eye over recent dance happenings in Singapore.

  • Raka Maitra and Chowk – “You Cannot Look Away”, Drama Centre Black Box, National Library
  • Frontier Danceland – “Slides All Over”, School of the Arts (SOTA) Black Box.
  • T.H.E Dance Company (The Human Expression) – “As it Fades”, SOTA Theatre
  • MAYA Dance Theatre – regional collaboration, creative development for August site-specific season
Gayathri Gopal, Raka Maitra, Aparna Nambiar, and Meera Gurumurthy in Chowk’s ‘You Cannot Look Away’.  Photo © Ngiap Heng

Gayathri Gopal, Raka Maitra, Aparna Nambiar, and Meera Gurumurthy in Chowk’s ‘You Cannot Look Away’.
Photo © Ngiap Heng

May 3. A pioneer of Singaporean Indian contemporary dance, Raka Maitra continues the momentum in her experimentation to redefine the Odissi classical Indian form as a contemporary force in the 21st century. One of Singapore’s most articulate, creative dance solo artists, Maitra has recently established a new company, Chowk, which translates to the square, bent-kneed posture that is the basis of the Odissi style. The title reflects the historic roots of the form and its malleable interconnection between tradition and contemporary dance.

The inaugural production, “You Cannot Look Away”, linked Maitra’s three areas of interest in making and performing dance: literature, contemporising the Odissi classical dance form, and live music. Following the performance of two traditional classical pieces that were statements of cultural heritage rather than artistically profound, there was a contemporary interpretation of two poems from Sri Lankan poet Cheran’s contemporary Tamil anthology, “You Cannot Look Away”. Words about the land, the sea, waves and stars provided evocative imagery to accompany the choreography about cultural roots, heritage and loss.

Golden light lit multiple tableaux of the dancers who metaphorically represented rocks, the waves or the sand as they looked meditatively into the distance. As photographs of the moment, these images also evoked the past, enabling a universal perspective of a complex world through dance.

A signature of Maitra’s choreography is the portrayal of the strength of women in the face of disruption and adversity. In previous works such as “The Hungry Stones” (2012) and “Circular Ruins” (2009) she showed this through the use of stillness, placement of groups and calm serenity juxtaposed against fast phrases of rhythmic dance that ebb and flow. Similarly, “You Cannot Look Away” gave space to harsh realities faced with a spirit of joy and optimism – these tantalisingly short sections were beautifully realised and could well be developed into a full-length work.

T.H.E Dance Company in Kuik Swee Boon’s ‘As it Fades’.  Photo © Bernie Ng

T.H.E Dance Company in Kuik Swee Boon’s ‘As it Fades’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

May 8. “As it Fades” saw T.H.E. Dance Company artistic director/choreographer Kuik Swee Boon work with composer/arranger Bani Haykal and music collaborator Natalie Tse to create one of the most complex, aesthetically coherent contemporary dance works staged in Singapore in recent years. It was a towering treatise on culture, memory and loss expressed through dance that seamlessly united the language of the body with intense emotion and storytelling. The kinetic energy of the dancers touched a chord with the audience in an immediate, visceral way with the duality of movement and story interconnected and reinforced by lucid interactions between them.

It opened with a gramophone on a chair upstage playing a vinyl record of an old Hokkien folk song. Dancer Zhuo Zihao listened while a large group of black clad figures began what became a relentless vortex of movement that powered on in an exhausting flow. Flung yet contained and carefully controlled, these symbolic black ‘shadows of memory’ were like stylized puppets trying to break free of restrictions while the extremities of their bodies seemed to be spatially fixed in an aerial cube that was anchored to the ground.

The innovative vocabulary had distinctive Chinese features such as turned in ankles and wrists, deeply bent knees and occasional flat footed shuffles forwards and backwards. Heavy, deconstructed phrases that moved outwards from the centre of the body initiated by an audible breath deep in the centre were deliberate and often surprising. The groups of dancers became like hybrid, animistic forms capturing the sense of a surreal world where we skim the surface rather than digging deep into our roots and connecting with it. At times, the abstract dance sharply contrasted with literal realities, such as a dancer emerging from the pack to tell a story. Often someone leapt up to perch on another’s shoulders to survey the scene. There were suspended lifts that echoed people passing by each other and through life in a transient, impermanent progression; dancers touched their thighs, stomachs and radiated their fingers across their bodies in fluttering motions…but heads down, hair covering their faces they powered on in an introspective journey. This individualism was portrayed as a stark contrast to the spirit of community of a previous generation whose heritage is fading in a rapidly changing world. There were many jagged edges reflected in the bodies, the set and the music creating a discordant atmosphere.

The second section was less intense and coherent than the first section. Amongst myriad ideas some simply worked better than others. Clad in street clothes like young people in an urban landscape, the dancers’ sense of isolation and disconnection from cultural roots led to some aimless episodes of soul searching by individuals that were juxtaposed against the larger group – like faceless people in the street rushing on while someone comes forward to tell their story. There were funny parts such as a line up in a corridor of light downstage where T.H.E revealed something quirky about themselves through spoken words and movement phrases. It released pent-up tension for the dancers while offering a chance for the audience to get to know them. Other intimate touches occurred in several love duets – some were carefree like Wu Mi and Sherry Tay who flirted and joked. Another was heart-wrenching and poignant. Zhuo Zihao and Yarra Ileto portrayed an old couple supporting each other as they make their way slowly forward. Ileto’s stooped posture whereby she could barely walk on the sides of her feet suggested the old Chinese foot binding tradition while Zhou, also bent forward, supported her as best as he was able with an arm around her shoulder.

Kuik hits hard and to the point in “As it Fades”. It was both nostalgic and immediate, leaving little room for sentimentality. The collaborators reinforced this with a soundscape ranging from soft spoken words by dancer Lee Mun Wai in Cantonese and phonograph records of folk songs and Chinese opera to blaring electronic music of our time. Bani Haykal’s high frequency contemporary sounds gave no space for reflection reinforcing life lived at a frenetic pace. The volume throughout the choreography fluctuated between this and very soft, fading sounds, cleverly suggesting loss as time passes.

Frontier Danceland in Olé Khamchanla’s ‘Akalika 7’.  Photo © Bernie Ng

Frontier Danceland in Olé Khamchanla’s ‘Akalika 7’.
Photo © Bernie Ng

Stylized triangular frames on wheels with fractured shards of glass denoting window panes were at once buildings, cityscapes and playgrounds, safe corners to hide in or for lovers to woo. These moving frames re-imagined a city where there is constant flux of changing certainties – the known disappears and the new is unfamiliar. The other prop that became a symbolic player in the dance was a single chair that was integral to the narrative. From the outset, with the gramophone placed on it playing an old folk song, it represented tradition. At one point it was placed downstage, again with the gramophone, to play a Chinese opera record before being rudely pushed aside and added to a moving frame like a piece of discarded junk. Finally it resumed its place at the heart of the dance when dancer Jessica Christina gave an emotional performance of superb artistry in the closing moments. The company physically stopped Christina’s relentless search for self and sat her in the chair. In fading light the company moved the chair backwards into gradual darkness overtly echoing the themes of the choreography.

“As it Fades” was a milestone for contemporary dance in Singapore for its innovation, creativity and local resonance. Every moment of dance, piece of prose or music, and the unfolding synergy of set, lighting and dance told a story in a narrative that weaves between abstraction and literal translation that confronted our senses and demanded reflection. It was also an ‘Everyman’ metaphor of current times – where are we going as a society and why? The choreography asked many questions and left the answers open ended for the audience to fathom and reflect.“As It Fades” will be performed in Kolkata, India on September 14, 2014 as part of the INTERFACE Festival, organised by Sapphire Creations Dance Workshop.

May 10. Frontier Danceland, led by co-founder and artistic director Low Mei Yoke, staged “Slides All Over”, an annual season emerging from residencies by international choreographers.

Noa Zuk (Israel/USA) premiered “After Chorus”, an idiosyncratic exploration of gestures and rituals we invent in our everyday lives; and company dancer/choreographer Jereh Leong created a Surrealist influenced work, “sic” (“Thus was it written”). Although both relied on lighter, comic moments each had structural and contextual weaknesses and struggled to resonate with both the performers and the audience.

Alex Dea (composer), Danang Pamungkas (choreographer-dancer) and Sheriden Newman (dancer) in ‘Angst Angel’.  Photograph © MAYA Dance Theatre Ltd

Alex Dea (composer), Danang Pamungkas (choreographer-dancer) and Sheriden Newman (dancer) in ‘Angst Angel’.
Photograph © MAYA Dance Theatre Ltd

In sharp contrast, French Laotian choreographer Olé Khamchanla’s “Akalika 7” pushed the company to breath-taking performances in an extremely current work drawn from multiple dance genres including street dance and Brazilian capoeira. Thematically it was loosely inspired by Dutch water colourist Gilbert Cam, and required the dancers to fling themselves relentlessly through the space denoting splashes of ink. They also faced personal demons and purged themselves through repeated physical slams to the floor before rolling out to repeat the action as if invisible magnets forced them to the ground. It was high voltage, innovative choreography with standout performances from the elastic form of Hwa Wei-An and the precision of Christina Chan. “Akalika 7” marked a milestone for Frontier Danceland who were pushed to their limits in this emotional, stamina draining work and is slated to be developed into a full length work for the 2015 Avignon Festival in France.

Early May. Finally, an intensive creative development period early in the month saw MAYA Dance Theatre working with Solo, comprising Indonesian based artists, choreographer Danang Pamungkas and composer Alex Dea (Indonesia/USA), on the creation of “Angst Angel”.

The site specific work is to be staged in Little India, 20-23 August 2014 at Singai Tamil Sangam, 02 Kampong Kapor Road, Singapore.

Look out for more from Stephanie on dance in Singapore and beyond in the coming months.