Singapore Arts Festival 2006
The Esplanade Theatre, 1st June 2006
By Richard Chua
2 June 2006
Singapore has found its way to penetrate into the international arts market. Like many other countries, we have identified the importance to put Singapore performing arts on the world arts and cultural map. It is a big public relations exercise on the part of the government to show the world how this small country could have such a vibrant arts scene. It is in line with the grand schema of things under nation building and development. I don’t see it as a bad thing since many arts groups are clearly enjoying themselves, riding on the government’s PR bandwagon. This is not uncommon in the international arts market. Artists such as Robert Wilson and Philip Glass were a-must on every international festival invitation list a couple of years ago, and now Lin Hwai Min, Marie Chouinard, Rosas etc, took over as current “stars” in the international arts scene.
The National Arts Council has also identified Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Chinese Orchestra as two of the best in the local performing arts scene. These companies have since traveled to many countries under the support of the government.
While the National Arts Council continues to find ways to further establish themselves in the international arts market, not to mention the economic dollars they could get from it, Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) and Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) have also been working hard to align themselves with what’s going on in the international scene.
Alignment does not mean replicating what others have done.
Quest, the opening dance production for 2006 Singapore Arts Festival, is one of those telling experiences that show how hard artists try to conform to international arts market needs, rather than to find new avenues in artistic development in their works.
There are many other projects by these two companies we could cite to illustrate this trend. But, since it is my intention to use this piece of writing as a review for Quest, I am going to illustrate herein why Quest is unoriginal in its artistic content.
To quote a fellow dancer who sat on the next seat to mine, “To present a technically adept production is one; but whether the production can touch an audiences’ heart is another matter altogether.”
I agree with her whole-heartedly on that statement.
Quest was the former; it is only a visual display of beautiful elements.
Gao Yan Jin Zi’s choreography INTO started with an unoriginal choice of music entitled 《镜花水月》, an imagery that has been tried many times in Chinese dances. One notable production that has used that imagery is Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai Min’s Moon Water. If we were to put the two productions alongside each other for comparison, Gao Yan Jin Zi’s INTO seems to be a cacophony of mixed images and themes.
Lin Hwai Min’s Moon Water has a similar theme. Unlike Gao Yan Jin Zi, Lin Hwai Min was not interested in its literal meaning. His focus was on the deeper meaning of the two images, where these images are in fact illusions created through nothingness, as the Chinese statement aptly puts it “镜花水月毕竟总成空”. This is a strong anchor point in Moon Water. To top it all, Lin made Bach’s stately sarabandes became whole with the dance. That’s what I call “total integration”.
Unfortunately, Gao’s INTO has no strong anchor points. Her choreography was a fusion of Chinese and contemporary dances, for the yuppies. Her point on gender politics was weak, only to manifest itself in a man in drag in front of the mirror.
I hope she could focus on just one idea and develop it fully.
Conversely, I prefer Kim Eun Hee’s The Illusion better. It has the verve of Japanese group Pappa Taramuhara’s Spring Day in Singapore Arts Festival in year 2000. The Illusion has an edge that does not lose itself in trying to be different. My only gripe with the production was the lack of allusion made to the shrine like structure on stage, which could be an interesting counterpoint to the effects religions have on persons’ life choices. The best thing about ritualistic dances is the freedom of form a choreographer and her dancers could use in their choreographies.
In a nutshell, The Illusion is a beautiful cultural dance piece that does not fall short of irreverence.
At this point in time, I would like to go back to my main point in my opening paragraphs – [Alignment does not mean replicating what others have done].
Jeffrey Tan’s choreography, sadly, “exemplifies” the statement. F.U.S.E was a bad copy of Lin Hwai Min’s Songs of the Wanderers and Nine Songs. I am not sure what to make of it, only to say that the choice of music was a limitation. The use of folksongs in a dance piece can be a boon or bane, depending on the cultural background of the choreographer. The use of sand and fire cauldrons provided references to a rural tribe. But, which is it? The music does not provide any references to any specific tribal traditions either, only with references to our “forefathers of China who address the Heaven as Huang Tian and Earth as Hou Tu”, which itself contains no meaning.
Jeffrey Tan’s choreography was trite. The dancers obviously had physical limitations to what they could do. In one scene likens Lin Hwai Min’s 《云中君》in 《九歌》, a dancer showed obvious physical limitations in performing a routine on the shoulders of two other dancers. It undermines the scene where the valour of the god is the most important ritualistic representation in a tribe.
In conclusion, the production was made to the taste of the masses, which is, in itself, a harmless move; general audiences love beautiful scenes in dance productions. Lin Hwai Min has no qualms about that too, as he does create dance productions for aesthetics. But, the difference is, Lin Hwai Min, with Cloudgate Dance Theatre, comes with a cultural depth that SDT is trying to catch up with. This precipitates another question – What’ s SDT trying to be in five to ten years time?
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