Visual by S Venkatesh Naidu (Royston)
by Ho Rui An
5 December 2010
The line-up for the Graey Festival this year features a rather eclectic mix of artists. We see the usual suspects – classically trained Asian dancers who have made the leap into the avant-garde -, but also included are theatre practitioners Noor Effendy Ibrahim and Elizabeth de Rosa as well as sound artists Philip Tan and Zulkifle Mahmod, all of whom come from home ground. I would, however, not be so quick to say that the festival has gone interdisciplinary. It is still very much about dance, except that its definition of the discipline has definitely broadened to consider other forms of practices which revolve around movement. In fact, when watching the performances, there is very little sense that the artists take explicit reference from whatever discipline they hail from; they move in the most primeval sense.
Given that a number of the works, the collaborative pieces in particular, were highly improvised and worked out only during the span of the festival, the end products were often sketchy vignettes. Despite the lack of polish and at times, incomprehensibility, they did offer close, intimate encounters. What is lacking, however, is the requisite edginess which one would expect to emerge from the chaos of experimentation. Granted, it is much more difficult to appear cutting edge and radical these days, but some of the performances simply lack gumption, relying on idioms which have already been tried and tested before.
The opening performance of the first evening by Effendy and Elizabeth De Rosa is suffused with the dark overtones typical of the former’s theatrical productions. It starts with the two of them standing under dim lighting with a round marble table in between them. Draped in identical black outfits and with painted fingernails, their feet are tightly bounded in bandage, used to fasten a specially devised footwear (heels on wheels, as it seems) to their soles. They appear epileptic, wobbling their limbs restlessly while making strange gurgling noises with their mouths. They then charge towards you, the heels clonking away noisily. What then ensues appears like a ritual of self-inflicted cruelty. They throw themselves upon the floor, exposing their stark red undergarments, and hit themselves against the table, which goes on until they reach a certain point of exhaustion. They settle upon the floor, slowly unwrapping their bandages, showing no signs of leaving even after the emcee has returned to take the stage.
The piece is a mercurial brew of incongruous sensations – the carnal evocations of the red nails, undergarments and gurgling noises are mixed with the hollow clonking of the heels and angular, mechanical body movements. The two performers almost feel like Frankensteinian monstrosities – part-automaton, part-beast. Furthermore, the coffee table, a place for harmony and reconciliation, is subverted as an instrument of torture. There is also something wicked to be felt in the dynamics between the two performers. While they are not physical mirrors of each other, whatever state one performer is in is often doubled in the other, despite them being apparently oblivious of each other. Absorbed in their own worlds, they never make contact, yet their similar states of being suggest a morbid commonality of their fates, as if controlled by an unknown and thus all the more insidious (pathological? metaphysical?) condition. In a way, the work is yet another one of those pieces about the bleakness of our human condition and what not, but nevertheless, the charisma of the performers keeps you entranced.
The second piece by Thailand’s Pichet Klunchun Dance Company is intended as a subversion of a highly popular Khon classical dance piece which reenacts the episode in the Ramakien in which Hanuman pursues Nang Benjakai. The choreographer, Pichet Klunchun, intended to surface the sinister undercurrents of this seemingly innocuous game of flirtation in response to the abuse and violence towards women in modern-day Thailand. The dance opens with the female dancer, Sunon Wachirawarakarn, alone on the stage, waiting – a scenario taken directly from a reported incident in Thailand in which a lady was sexually violated at a bus stop. The male dancer, Julaluck Eakwattanapun, arrives and attempts to entice her. They travel in circles around the stage as the male fervently pursues his desired other half. The female enters his grasp; she appears constricted and frightened as he manipulates her body. Competent work is done by both dancers who sustain the tensions throughout, but it is hard not to find the treatment of gender issues here a tad bland and simplistic (though admittedly, as mentioned in my earlier commentary, the provocative nature of Pichet’s choreography could have been lost on a Singaporean audience).
The second evening opens with a series of five works performed variously by India’s Tripura Kashyap, Indonesia’s Eko Supriyanto and Singapore’s Raka Maitra. The quality is rather uneven, with the strongest moments coming from Supriyanto’s and Maitra’s arresting duet, titled Return. The piece is based on an episode in the Ramayana in which Ravanna expresses his desire to return to his mother’s womb. Supriyanto moves with such unfettered impetus that it brings to mind the boyish energy of Cupid, or in the Hindu tradition, Kamadeva. It beautifully complements Maitra’s more measured and serene gestures. Magic happens when the two bodies come together to enact a series of breathtaking frames that map the transformations in the supportive relationship between the mother and her man-child: from perching freely atop his mother’s hunched back, the man-child eventually morphs into a column of support as an upturned, erect body which the wizened old woman clutches on to.
Meanwhile, Kashyap performs graceful work in her solos, carefully teasing out the visual and choreographic possibilities of the props she works with. In Ocean, she delicately plays with a circular blue cloth while in 120 Footsteps, she examines the duality of constriction and freedom with a length of rope that has a set of classical bells attached at its end. The latter piece is a specific expression of the tension she feels between her classically trained body and her desire to venture into contemporary dance. The devised rope-bells which combines the physical and aural heft of the bells with the supple qualities of the rope interacts with Kashyap’s body in various interesting ways, although it would have been better if this appeal had been coupled with some inventiveness, for many of the motifs used were far from original. Supriyanto’s solo, Warrior and his untitled duet with Kashyap are also problematic: too little is happening in the former while the latter lacks tension.
The evening ends strong with a captivating piece by Scarlet Yu and Tan from Singapore. The collaborative piece has the most developed ideas of all the works shown in the festival, examining the unsettling relationship between the monumental and the catastrophic. It starts with Yu balancing herself upon a high stack of stools; her situation is precarious but she attempts to maintain a dignified air. The image powerfully expresses how implicit in our perception of any monument is an apocalyptic vision of its annihilation. Here, the inevitable does happen: the dancer and the monument collapses, letting off a gigantic ash cloud of powder. Amidst the ominous sounds emanating from around the theatre, Yu then tosses herself around the debris, while in the background a tall column with a small light source at its tip accentuates the bleakness of her circumstances. The work materialises the tenet of classical tragedy, that the great excites our pity by the height of their fall. My only qualm is that it is perhaps a little too distracted by its desire to create spectacle to the extent that the suffocating ash clouds and the enveloping soundscape obscure the dancer.
Yvonne Ng from Singapore/ Canada opens the final evening with one of her past works, Collection #3: Headdress. The piece revolves around a Chinese Opera headdress festooned with little articles gleaned from her personal collection. She remains on the floor for the entire duration, arboreally bolting from one place to another. There is a certain child-like caprice in her motions, which perhaps relate to how she is excavating her personal memories of childhood.
For the final performance, India’s Navtej Singh Johar and Zulkifie take the stage with an improvisational piece. The performance clearly has a very exciting premise: two artists coming from different countries and disciplines to work together. There are some interesting moments when some form of tacit exchange occurs between the dancer and the sound artist as they respond to each other. In one instance, Johar’s spasmodic palpitations move in near-perfect synchrony to Zulkifie’s thumping rhythm. It is generally an exciting feat to witness, although most of the time it is hard to appreciate the work beyond its immediate aesthetics.
While there were certainly many moments to be savoured over the three evenings, as previously mentioned, the best parts of the festival were the open rehearsals. After all, this is a festival about process and discourse, and in this light, I wish that programme notes had actually been provided for the performances. While the intentions on not limiting audience interpretation are commendable, it can become quite pointless to talk about dance in a contextual void. In fact, the relationship between dance and the discourses surrounding it is certainly an area future editions of the festival can seek to investigate at greater depths.