Stephanie Burridge

September was marked by Dance Marathon: Open with a Punk Spirit! at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). A platform for independents, it threw up a slew of interesting ideas and ways of approaching dance – a common thread was storytelling; looking back to look forward. The season culminated in two Archive Boxes, an imaginative way of exploring preservation of dance; the most ephemeral of art forms. SIFA opened in August with Returning that is also reviewed this month.

Singapore’s 50th anniversary arts offerings included an insightful, interdisciplinary work, From Another Land from CHOWK, created and directed by Raka Maitra, and this month’s Scene also has an update on the October da:ns festival at the Esplanade.

  • Singapore International Festival of the Arts

Returning, conceived and directed by Goh Lay Kuan Choreographers and collaborators: Meenakshy Bhaskar, Jenny Neo (梁杰妮), Osman Abdul Hamid and Low Ee Chiang (刘怡湘) Drama Centre Theatre, August 18

Dance Marathon: Open with a Punk Spirit! Eyes Open. Eyes Closed (A.K.A. Traitriot) by Venuri Perera My Mothers and I by Chey Chankethya SOTA Studio Theatre, September 1

Archive Box 2 Venuri Perera responds to Natsuko Tezuka’s ‘Archive Box’; Rani Nair responds to Chie Ito’s ‘Archive Box’; Chey Chankethya responds to Tsuyoshi Shirai’s ‘Archive Box’; Venue 72-13, September 5

  • From Another Land CHOWK (concept/choreography: Raka Maitra) Esplanade Studio Theatre, September 12
  • da:ns festival Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, October 9-18 (see
Returning, conceived and directed by Goh Lay Kuan Photo Ng Yuan Jie

Returning, conceived and directed by Goh Lay Kuan
Photo Ng Yuan Jie

Looking back on the past to inspire new choreography for the present poses many challenges. For a group of pioneering artists led by Goh Lay Kuan the memories and responsibilities to dance and the next generation lie firmly grounded in the past.

The ideology for Returning echoed a post-colonial sensibility where Singapore resolutely broke away first from British rule and then the Malaysian Federation in 1965. The new work was a special commission to mark the celebration of Singapore’s fifty years of independence and the national embedded stance for racial and cultural equality for the composite of ethnic groups that make up its population: Malays, Indians and Chinese.

Perhaps it was inevitable that looking back to the past where performances often took the format of a variety show with a democratic stance towards these cultural forms marked the creative impulses for Return. While looking somewhat dated in the context of SIFA, it is acknowledged that in earlier times, these intentions resonated with political stability and were reassuring as the nation emerged from turbulent times.

The story of the salmon from egg to spawning adult was conceived by Goh as a metaphor for a journey by an individual artist, a group of dancers, a nation and the audience. This eloquent idea required a less literal, melodramatic approach to enable parables and myths to emerge that resonated with the dancers and the audience.

The opening scene of illuminated pink balls with dancers trying to break free signals the trend to overt literalism that pervades every section of the choreography. The structure is formulaic, generally relying on a large group of dancers in lines working in unison and the return to such past models simply did not work aesthetically or conceptually. Segueing from an Indian Bharatanatyam based section into a Chinese and then Malay is not only at odds with the overriding concept about the salmon life cycle, but the music, costumes, production values and ultimately the dancers’ abilities to cross aesthetic borders and be expressive in unfamiliar forms was also lacking.

Julian Wong led an impressive small orchestra of Asian instruments and innovative players that navigate the space between abstraction, rhythm and the strains of traditional music. It is a unifying presence in a dance piece of many disparate parts of varying quality. Dance-wise there was some innovation as hands evoked a swimming gesture that was akin to the Indian classical vocabulary where hands tell the story; and curving pathways initiated by the spine that echoed the purposeful, grounded vocabulary of the Malay zapin dance. Although not high art in terms of an international festival offering, the large cast of enthusiastic performers certainly embraced their moment.

Eyes Open. Eyes Closed (A.K.A. Traitriot) by Venuri Perera (Sri Lanka) and My Mothers and I by Chey Chankethya (Cambodia) shared a double bill.

Eyes Open. Eyes Closed (A.K.A. Traitriot) by Venuri Perera. Photo Rahul Giri

Eyes Open. Eyes Closed (A.K.A. Traitriot) by Venuri Perera.
Photo Rahul Giri

Perera has a bubbly personality that belies deep wounds and thoughts beneath the surface. The premise for Eyes Open. Eyes Closed is based around the audience opening and shutting their eyes on the commands of the artist. They may, of course, rebel or be obedient to the call. It was a striking metaphor for the evening contextualising the artists hailing from civil war ravaged Sri Lanka and the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

Opening and closing the eyes frame episodes that become static images disconnected and dismembered from a wider whole. The fluidity and transition from one point to the next is systematically cut and fractured by Perera. The progress from A to B, and when we were allowed to see, is restricted and restrained; muscles are taught, hands locked behind the back as if handcuffed, feet flung out initiated by an awkward hip thrust as if a shot had propelled the body reluctantly forward.

The choreography encapsulates the epistemology of a body empowered by social and political awareness – a body tuned to obedience, suppression, restriction and ultimately submission. As the commands to shut eyes are obeyed, Perera shuffles to the next viewing point reappearing in often surprising configurations, although, and unfortunately, the sound of pattering feet in close proximity to the audience deadened some of the surprise. However, symbolically the point was clearly made. A section with a projection onto a box suggestively transfigures from a large eye wide open, to lips, to a vulva and inescapable bodily subversion. Ultimately, Perera returns to the audience and asks, “Are you Happy?” It was a poignant end to a powerful work that confronted the notion of being free to be happy.

Chey Chankethya of Amrita Performing Arts in My Mothers and I Photo Isaac Oboka

Chey Chankethya of Amrita Performing Arts in My Mothers and I
Photo Isaac Oboka

Chey Chankethya bared her body and soul in a riveting performance. My Mothers and I must be one of the most remarkable productions of the year. The tiny dancer embodies her stern, bent over teacher that shaped her life and destiny; her mother who she adored and who was violated by the Khmer Rouge; and her own yearnings as a young artist who became educated, moving to the US before returning home to Cambodia in contemporary times.

Underpinning the storytelling is Chankethya’s finely tuned body encoded with years of harsh discipline in the exquisite aesthetics of Khmer classical dance, a free spirit that could embrace the nuances of contemporary or the brashness of hip-hop and a raw honesty in the dramatic portrayal of the at times, harrowing tale.

Silence is a leitmotif both in the script and pacing of the performance. Chankethya did not know what her mother’s degree was in – intellectuals were killed; neither did she speak when she heard the soldiers coming for her in the night; her teacher told her to be silent; no one would talk about the past. Yet there was humour, light and shade, and ultimately joy as she emerged from the shadows of the past into the peace of the moment. Rarely has dance had the power to move people as profoundly as this solo.

I followed these two artists to the final Archive Box presentation – a new initiative by the festival involving selected artists responding to an “Archive Box” left by other artists. This could take the form of concept notes, scraps of fabric, props, photos and the like suggestive of personal, emotional codes that exist beyond the usual recording of dance works. Like the game Chinese Whispers, it passes the inspiration down the line to create something new. Dependent on the generosity and creativity of the donor and recipient, it is an experiment that adds to the spectrum of dance creativity rather than being profound. Some artists became intent on wondering what the original dance might have looked like, others worked spontaneously through improvisation; all invited the audience to be involved with them on stage in some way. The “Archive Box” concept clearly resonated with some artists, and audience members, more than others.

After the depth and purpose of My Mothers and I it seemed a little frivolous to watch Chey Chankethya playing about with plastic tableware from her Archive Box and asking the audience to participate. Venuri Perera fared better taking a ritualistic approach that encapsulated her stance to performance and the body. Rani Nair cut loose, venturing into a 1970s mood depicting the punk spirit of the festival with crowd dancing reminiscent of the punk era in a fun, less serious tactic that engaged the audience.

Those who had seen the original works that these three responses replied to were left to contemplate the connections and threads between the past and present works. I found them to be entirely separate and distinctive pieces coming from each artist’s imagination, creativity and above all, personal experiences. The event also proved to be an intellectual marathon in which a large amount of time was devoted to pre and after show discussion between SIFA artistic director Ong Keng Sen and the artists. Although this is a growing trend in dance it was a reminder that despite continual dissection, analysis, discussion and opening of the dance space to all-comers, the text of an encoded body in space can unequivocally stand alone.

From Another Land (dancers: Raka Maitra, Sandhya Suresh, Namaha Mazoomdar, Rajib Shil Jibon, Zakir Hossain Khokon, Karishma Nair) Photo Grace Kalaiselvi

From Another Land
(dancers: Raka Maitra, Sandhya Suresh, Namaha Mazoomdar, Rajib Shil Jibon, Zakir Hossain Khokon, Karishma Nair)
Photo Grace Kalaiselvi

In From Another Land, another production to mark Singapore’s fiftieth year of nationhood, CHOWK’s artistic director Raka Maitra uses the poetry of Singapore’s migrant workers as inspiration. Foreign workers who build the infrastructure of nations are rarely looked at as multi-talented individuals who have depths beyond the labourers that are seen building roads, train stations and the like. This displaced work force is essentially ‘invisiblised’ and redresses this in an interdisciplinary dance-theatre work that places them centre stage.

The workers’ stories are encapsulated through the moving poetry of Rajib Shil Jibon and Zakir Hussain Khokon. On stage, aspects of their lives are played out as they share their hopes and dreams in an intimate platform that juxtaposes immediate moments against a wider world view where the gulf between rich and poor across class and race is an ever expanding chasm. The heart of the human experience, nevertheless is still shared – the need for love, acceptance, home, family and dignity. Maitra’s collaborators bring this into sharp focus for the audience to contemplate.

CHOWK is an Odissi based company that seeks to expand the parameters of this form and work in collaboration with other artists in interdisciplinary projects. From Another Land encapsulates this mission. The overall concept and dramatic pacing of the show combines to support the poetry (spoken in Bengali with some translation) and acting of those representing the inexperienced foreign workers. This subject was sensitively handled through clear direction, evocative lighting, a simple but superb set by Kiran Kumar, and a contemporary soundscape by Bani Haykal that is immediately contemporary; yet somehow resonates with the ancient musical traditions that accompany Odissi dance.

Kumar’s set of simple poles connected by strings created an environment where the actors had many small tasks to occupy them so they felt comfortable; hanging out washing, pinning up scraps of paper with poems written on them, and attaching family photos completed a picture of lean domesticity. At other times they simply slept or read a book on the benches that constituted humble furnishings.

In the totality of the show however, the dance and choreography was the weakest element. Possibly through being over respectful to profiling the poetry and working with the other elements, the choreography could be much more expressive, varied and attuned to the moods and narratives of the poetry and complexity of the music. It creates an atmosphere of quiet stillness rather than being an equal partner. Much of the movement requires experienced performers who can give intensity to something as simple as pointing out landmarks and commenting on the photos through gesture and facial expression – Maitra was superb in her rendering embracing the choreographic intention.

Overall, in the context of SG50, From Another Land is an empowering concept that resonates with the idea of building a nation and recognizing the foreign workers as partners in this. The collaboration of all elements is a significant milestone not only for the company, but the evolving traditional arts in Singapore.

Sylvie Guillem in Bye Photo Johan Persson

Sylvie Guillem in Bye from her Life in Progress programme
Photo Johan Persson

Singapore’s October da:ns festival is the highlight of the year for dance lovers uniting local and international artists through productions and initiatives such as workshops, mass participation dance jams in a host of genres, educational lecture demos of dance forms around the region, free outdoor performance and much more. In fact dance takes over for two weeks in October. The June “Scene” looked at the local productions and commissions that will take place alongside shows by students from local tertiary institutions NAFA and LASALLE in The Next Generation and Asia Pacific Dance Bridge, a regional independents and small companies showcase that is part of the concurrent World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific conference. Singapore also hosts Sylvie Guillem’s farewell tour Life in Process; Nederlands Dans Theater 2 in an evening of five works; the entertaining Tango Legends and Akram Khan/Israel Galván’s flamenco/kathak face off Torobaka. Amongst this stellar activity I am awaiting the call of Cry Jailolo by Indonesian choreographer Eko Supriyanto who always brings magic and poignancy to the stage through intense examinations of universal, yet touchingly personal concerns.