I’m experimenting with critical writing as critic-in-residence at the Southernmost festival organised by experimental performance company Emergency Stairs. The festival, which emphasises artistic process and intercultural collaborations, runs from Nov 3 to 11, 2018 at Centre 42 in Singapore. You can read my official blog here.
I'll be running a performance writing mentorship for two participants from September 2018 to March 2019 – please apply if you might be interested in watching theatre and performance with me and having meaty discussions about them after. This is a pilot programme for me and we'll see how we can adapt this to your needs and what you want to get out of the programme, whether it's deepening your knowledge of the theatre, honing your voice, or experimenting with new ways of engaging with performance. I still chafe a little at the term 'critic' because it doesn't quite encompass the way my writing has been shifting and evolving over the past few years; I now feel like I'm in that little overlap between observer and practitioner of the Singapore theatre scene. I welcome you to explore that in-between space with me.
Here are the more technical details about this programme, which can also be found here:
How does it work?
You’ll attend six performances between September 2018 – March 2019. Within three days of watching each show, submit a 500-word review to ArtsEquator’s Resident Theatre Critic, Corrie Tan. Based on Corrie’s feedback, edit & resubmit the final review within two days for publication on ArtsEquator after the articles are approved for final publication by us. You may also co-publish the piece on your own blog/publication.
– The programme is open to Singaporeans/PRs who are above 18 years old.
– Previous experience in reviewing performances is necessary.
– The ability to write well in English is a prerequisite.
– The means and desire to contribute to the local arts writing scene in Singapore is a requirement.
– Knowledge or involvement in the Singapore arts scene is an advantage but not required.
– Bloggers, freelance writers, students and writers employed by offline or online media are encouraged to apply.
To apply, send the following to contact(at)artsequator.com
• Your CV.
• One sample of an unpublished article, essay or review you have written.
• One sample of a published written work by you.
• A brief outline (150 words) of how the training received will help you to contribute to the local arts writing scene in the future.
All applications must be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5PM on 15 August 2018. The two successful candidates will be notified by 10 September 2018.
If you have any questions or need more information, email us: contact(at)artsequator.com
TheatreWorks' ongoing Curators Academy formally opened on Wednesday evening with the video installation Capture Practice by choreographer Arkadi Zaides (b. 1979, Belorussia, former USSR). It's a dual screen installation on an 18-minute loop; the left screen presents archival video material taken between 2007 and 2011, the right screen presents Zaides' performance of the movements enacted by Israeli occupiers and soldiers in the Palestinian occupied territories. I found it a riveting, harrowing work examining the body as an archive and site of trauma, resistance and occupation in a Gordian knot of a political conflict. Academy director Ong Keng Sen, former artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, has had a consistent interest in how dance is archived, and his Archive Box programme at SIFA, for instance, interrogated the memory of the body and how dance and movement is transferred and interpreted/translated from one practitioner to the next.
I've been thinking about the attempts to choreograph empathy in performance (influenced by the fact that I'm reading Susan Leigh Foster's Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance) and how we the viewer might trace different trajectories of movement when watching dance or performance, and "rehearse movement pathways that are specific to our history of moving". By that same notion, one could also choreograph movement that evokes visceral fear, anger and distrust.
In one scene in Capture Practice, we see an Israeli soldier on the left screen in full gear, his assault rifle an extension of his arm. He rocks forwards and backwards around the corner of a crumbling building, lifting and lowering his gun as he responds to a possible threat. On the right screen, against the blank, neutral walls of the dance studio, Zaides almost seems to be doing a box step as he imitates the soldier's stance. The authoritative walk, backwards and forwards, the firm grip on an invisible weapon, the hunch of the shoulders as the gun lifts, then lowers, the unquestioned ownership of the ground upon which he stands. The scene repeats, and we can see Zaides learning the soldier's choreography, and inheriting the power structures that come with inhabiting that body.
Andrew Hewitt inverts the conventional idea of choreography in his text Social Choreography, insisting that "choreography is not just another of the things we 'do' to bodies, but a reflection on – and enactment of – how bodies 'do' things". The choreographer is not only creating a pattern of gesture and movement that instructs the body on how and what it should dance; this dancing body is also the everyday body, drawing inspiration and instruction from how the body walks, eats, sleeps, stumbles, runs, skips, falls – shoots, kills, maims.
In displacing each body from its original context – shepherds being chased from their grazing fields, protestors being forcibly removed from a road – Zaides' re-enactments in the empty studio compel the viewer to isolate each gesture and what that gesture means. Which gestures are those of power and authority: the legs apart, the firm centre of gravity, the straight back? Which are those of disempowerment: the flailing arms, the prostrate body, the contorted torso? And which are gestures of protest and resistance: the bent knees pre-empting possible violence, the arm curling back to cast a stone? In embodying the movements of the Israeli occupiers and soldiers, Zaides is also examining complicity in conflict – there are echoes of the gestures we use from day to day in these re-enactments as our bodies respond to our environments and play different roles in different circumstances.
Because this isn't a live performance, there's a sense of the documentary about it and how a video might reconstruct or be proof of "what really happened". It's a permanent record, not a fleeting, unrepeatable movement. But even permanent records may be interpreted in wildly different ways. With the screens set at an angle to each other, there are some startling moments of juxtaposition, with the horizon lines of each screen either diverging or tapering to a point. Perspectives meet and veer away.
As I flicked between the left and right screens I found myself comparing each archive: the archive of the camera and the archive of the body. I think what guts me about this work is that what the camera records isn't what the body records; what we see is not what we feel. Susan Sontag argued in Regarding the Pain of Others that the brutal carnage of war photography isn't always straightforward: one photographer's call for peace may be another's call for war depending on the history and context of the conflict. We may never even begin to feel the pain of others, but I wonder if embodying and re-enacting the gestures of both the oppressed and the oppressor might give us a concrete sense of "what really happened". Zaides' own body remains trapped in this loop on tape, doomed to lift and lower the gun time and time again, to remove the protestor from the hood of the car, to give power and to take it away.
Capture Practice | 2014, video installation, 18 min loop
Archive materials (left screen): Volunteers for the "Camera Project" of B'Tselem The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: Ahmad Jundiyeh, Issa 'Amro, Abd alKarim J'abri, Abu 'Ayesha, Raed Abu Ermeileh, Iman Sufan, Mu'ataz Sufan, Mustafa Elkam, Oren Yakobovich
Videography (right screen): Amir Borenstein
Video consultants: Effi & Amir
Artistic advisor: Katerina Bakatsak
Commissioned by: Petach Tikva Museum of Art, Israel
I arrived back in Singapore from London a week ago, and promptly presented a paper at the Southernmost theatre festival's Open Forum organised by the new experimental theatre company Emergency Stairs. The two-week festival first seemed to me an over-ambitious undertaking for a brand-new company, with some major hiccups in marketing and ticketing (both poorly done – and hopefully rectified by their next instalment). But the festival has its strengths and insights, and I'll be looking at its culminating event – a triple bill of performances directed by Liu Xiaoyi (Singapore), Makoto Sato (Japan) and Danny Yung (Hong Kong) in the Arts House's Chamber.
I'd watched several experiments with the One Table Two Chairs format at the annual M1 Chinese Theatre Festival organised by The Theatre Practice, the vanguard company that Southernmost festival director Liu Xiaoyi spent many years with before starting his own group. These were usually staged in a black box or flexible studio space, and the experiments were often both intriguing and frustrating, with some incredible movement and revelatory, high-concept imagery bookended by what felt a lot more like 'in-process' trial and error to see what might stick. It felt like a safe lab for directors to test out new directions, catering for an informed audience with the patience for challenging work. Xiaoyi has extended the One Table Two Chairs metaphor to an entire festival, and there's a clear cross-cultural backbone to its programming that emphasises dialogue – two chairs standing in for two different cultures, perhaps, or two different art forms, or two different approaches to performance, and a shared table between them. As to whether that table is a bridge or a barrier to communication is the question that the triple bill poses.
The production places the audience in the steep public gallery overlooking the former parliamentary chamber, the very chamber where Singaporean parliamentarians and its early iterations of government debated policy. It's a setting redolent of centralised authority and decision-making – the dark, imposing wooden panelling; the rows of stiff-backed seats arranged like the opening to a chess match where opposing political parties might square off – which necessitates reading the production as a site-specific work.
(The following images are by Tuckys Photography.)
The production opens with Xiaoyi's piece, a meeting between Javanese dancer, choreographer and mask performer Didik Nini Thowok (Indonesia) and Kunqu master Wang Bin (China). Stripped of their traditional attire, they're suited and briefcased instead – my mind wandered briefly to the idea of Japanese salarymen trapped in a parliamentary setting – drifting through the rows of seats with a fragment of a beautiful gesture or movement from their own art forms. Behind them, projected over the double doors leading out of the chamber, are broad statements in English and Chinese about decision-making. (I didn't take notes because I was watching this show for pleasure, so I hope I remembered this right.) This begins with choice, and free will:
"To become an artist was my own choice."
"To become a cultural leader was my own choice."
"To become a eunuch was my own choice."
And so on, with other roles. This decision-making eventually leads to questions of fault, responsibility, and burden:
"To cross the border was your own problem."
"To become an artist was your own problem."
I couldn't help thinking of these statements as part of a parliamentary debate, where a piece of legislation can be construed in one way by its proponents and in another by its opponents. Did we choose to view the artist as troublemaker and rabblerouser, or were we coerced into seeing the artist that way? Did the cultural leaders we admire choose the path, or did they wrestle with reluctant moral obligation to play the part – and does it matter?
Didik Nini Thowok eventually removes a mask from his briefcase and puts it on, drawing on the archetype of politician as masked trickster; later, the two of them laugh and converse in their individual languages with the help of some charades (I catch, from my meagre understanding of Bahasa Indonesia, something to do with makan, eating). It's a callback to the themes from the late Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, where the Admiral Cheng Ho embarks on a journey of personal and cultural discovery, and Kuo's multilingual work such as Mama Looking for her Cat where characters also converse across languages, unsubtitled. In this case, the meeting of cultures moves beyond the Singaporean context to a larger Asian one, but I wasn't quite convinced by the marriage of images and text. Xiaoyi's construction of associative relationships between image and text has had some rich, delightful results – as was the case with one of his previous productions, Fluid (2014). But in this case the text didn't feel quite as resonant beyond a clever bait and switch ("choice"/"problem"), and the extended riff felt tangential rather than integral to the performances of the two master traditional artists – and vice versa.
The subsequent performance directed by Makoto Sato felt even more unsubtle in its overtures to interculturality. Sato-san's piece involves Wang Bin and Xiaoyi as torchbearers of two generations of performance, one traditional (kunqu) and one avant garde (experimental theatre). In showcasing two markedly different forms and cultures thrown together in the same environment, and relying solely on the friction produced from their widely differing physical vocabularies rubbing up against each other, the novelty of the juxtaposition quickly runs its course and the audience is left to contend with large swathes of stasis when all the symbolism from the encounter has been fully read. Because the piece is relatively brief, this intercultural commentary feels even shallower. A recorded voiceover in Mandarin Chinese is played over their performance in a strict binary:
"I am Liu Xiaoyi."
"I am Wang Bin."
"I am not Liu Xiaoyi."
"I am not Wang Bin."
"Do you know Emperor Yongle?"
"Do you know Emperor Jianwen?"
Some historical context might be useful for this cultural reference; Ming dynasty emperor Yongle, desirous of the throne, overthrew his nephew, the Jianwen emperor, at the turn of the 15th century on the pretext that he was executing powerful rivals. There is an obvious analogy for artistic succession here, whether by revolt or by hereditary decree, and in one particularly heated scene both performers attempt to drown each other out – Xiaoyi convulsing, shrieking and laughing; Wang Bin belting out an operatic solo at the top of his lungs.
Of the three pieces, Danny Yung's closing work felt the most satisfying and complete, juxtaposing the extraordinary physicality of Cambodian dancer Nget Rady and the measured stillness of Thai dancer Junior Dearden. The lights go up on Rady sitting in one of the parliamentary seats (was it LKY's?), and I felt an immediate physical reaction to his near-nakedness in the sacrosanct space of the chamber, even if it is a space that's no longer in official political use. It's a pointed and arresting visual statement – I understand that during the open rehearsals, Yung had initially planned for Rady to be sheathed in a pair of adult diapers, but they went for plain white briefs in the end. As Dearden keeps close to the red line dividing the chamber down the middle, putting one stately foot in front of the other, Rady tumbles and flips across the rows of chairs – he's the reckless mischief maker and airborne provocateur to Dearden's grounded, careful presence, all straight lines and right angles.
Yung continues with the triple bill's refrain of repeated text, and this time he's chosen idiomatic Chinese phrases containing the word 道 (dao), or 'way'/'path' – 旁门左道，胡说八道，大学之道, and so on – with English translations that occasionally felt like they'd been run shoddily, and deliberately, through a poorer version of Google Translate. I couldn't quite tell if he was trolling us or testing us (perhaps both). Is there a single path to follow, or are we all making and remaking it as we go along? Yung's piece contained the most interesting physical counterpoint between the two figures, with a running commentary on authority and subversion, on the dictated path and the desire paths around it. His direction revels in the use of the parliamentary space and the meanings we immediately associate with it – and I could see the threads of inspiration that Xiaoyi has drawn from his body of work.
In a sense, all three pieces are encounters between performers, between cultures, between text and image, between movement and stasis – but I longed for a piece that would go beyond the novelty of the encounter to some sort of deeper engagement. The Southernmost festival has been an interesting introduction to Emergency Stairs' identity in the Singapore theatre scene – it's a niche occupied by groups such as Ang Gey Pin's Theatre OX and Beverly Yuen's In Source Theatre, and the work of Noor Effendy Ibrahim and his collective Akulah Bimbo Sakti (which will be doing some very interesting site-specific work on Pulau Ubin in January) – blending the heavy use of abstraction and physicality with an added emphasis on the academic rigour of interculturality and cultural exchange through masterclasses, workshops and public forums. This triple bill feels like an early greeting, an exchange of pleasantries, and I'm curious to see what comes next as the group begins to establish themselves and dig a little deeper.
- Because of building conservation stipulations, the venues in The Arts House have typically been challenging to design and light, and this production was no different. I found myself straining to make out some of the precise movements by the performers, particularly in the dimly lit first segment.
- Incidentally, Ang Gey Pin is one of Emergency Stairs' associate artists.
- Had a really good time at the Open Forum on Dec 20. I drew from pretty specific literary theory by Mikhail Bakhtin and looked at monoglossia and heteroglossia in Singapore theatre (special thanks to Felipe Cervera for the excellent feedback) and I was paired up with the inimitable playwright Alfian Sa'at, whose topic was 'The Work of Intercultural Art in the Age of Cultural Appropriation'. We had a meaningful discussion after and some really thoughtful questions from the audience. Thank you all for being there, and thank you especially to Xiaoyi and the team for inviting us to be interlocutors of interculturality.
Even more stray thoughts:
- I've been thinking about this festival a fair amount in the past week, and the more I turn this over in my mind, the more I think the festival confuses ideas of inter-, multi-, and cross-culturalism with transnationalism. When we speak of the former, we're usually referring to cultural exchange and pollination within the framework of a specific society or in the case of Singapore, the city-state. Southernmost privileges transnational exchange (Chinese opera, Javanese dance, Hong Kong avant garde) over intercultural exchange (as, one would expect, between the various language and racial groups and cultures in Singapore), which leads to further confusion over representation, e.g. why were almost no Malay-language or Tamil-language groups or artists from Singapore (or other representative languages and cultures resident here) represented in the artist and panellist lineup? Is it because Southernmost is marketing an intercultural dynamic when it is in fact emphasising transnationalism? If the festival was indeed striving for an intercultural dialogue, does it draw too comfortably, even lazily, from its own networks, without venturing further?
Full disclosure: Ellison Tan, who co-created this immersive theatrical production for pre-walking babies, is a friend of mine – she invited me to watch this performance at the Artground on December 22.
The Artground, a new multi-disciplinary arts and play space for children under 12, opened in July this year. It's run by a new company, The Ground Co Ltd, in collaboration with the National Arts Council; The Ground is headed by Luanne Poh, formerly a producer with the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay who's been especially involved in programming for young children. The Esplanade's popular Playtime! series, for instance, caters to toddlers and children aged two to four. I remember having a long conversation with Luanne a few years ago about the need for performances that focus on narrower age ranges: 18-24 months, for instance, instead of ones targeted at, say, five to twelve-year-olds that will almost inevitably bore or elude some portion of that demographic because of their widely differing developmental milestones.
Ellison and Myra met in April to begin work on You Can Reach the Sky. They had worked on several Playtime! shows together and had wanted to create a show specifically for babies for some time. By August they had embarked on a devising phase with the cast, bringing in an early childhood development specialist as a consultant, visiting infant care centres to get a sense of their audience and test out elements of the show, and experimenting on Ellison's young nephews to see what stuck and what didn't. Then they ran a couple of test shows in November to see what worked and what didn't. Here's my (adult) take on the experience.
Gurgling babies and their sets of parents are making themselves comfortable around a large mattress in the middle of the performance space. The centre of the room is heaped high with soft textiles, from bubble wrap to a collapsible play tunnel. It feels like the magic hour in the womb of Artground's White Box, that brief dusky moment between day and night where setting sun bathes the landscape in purples and oranges. Together with about ten pairs of parents and their infants, we've ducked out of the harsh afternoon sun for a half-hour of magical, suspended time.
As each baby-in-arms enters the space, they're inducted into the experience by the three performers, all dressed and made-up uniformly in dungarees and neat braids. The performers never loom over the tiny children; they approach them on hands and knees, mimicking the body language of each child – some shyer, others vocal and gregarious. Each baby gets a one-on-one introduction to the performance team to ease them into the space and the unfamiliar people in it. There's been a recent push in Singapore for more sensory-friendly and relaxed performances for very young children or for children on the autism spectrum who may not cope well with over-stimulation, and You Can Reach the Sky's gentle pre-show feels as crucial to the experience as the performance itself. The babies who were well-acquainted with the environment and performers prior to the main event always seemed relaxed and comfortable in the space, and more willing to explore; a child whose parents arrived late, about halfway through the piece, was nervous and fussy for a few minutes before eventually settling in, lulled by the music and coloured lights.
It quickly becomes clear to me that You Can Reach the Sky focuses on building fine motor skills – reaching, grasping – as well as gaze guiding, with parents encouraging their children to follow the dramatic imagery around the studio. There's a loose arc to the six segments of the 30-minute production, starting off with gentler visual and aural stimuli – a folded accordion of rustling paper – before steeping the babies in more percussive rhythms and brighter lights. There's infectious live music courtesy of collaborative team Stan x Soap, who have also created lush soundscapes for the Esplanade's Playtime! series. The performers alternate between climactic moments of action – waving swathes of glittering cloth over the heads of their teeny audience members like a large passing cloud or ocean wave – and intimate exchanges – handing incandescent lamps wrapped in soft white cloth to their young charges to hold.
But it isn't all about holding on; parents are encouraged to let go, and let their children venture into the world of the theatre. Because the babies share the staging area with the performers, they are immediately part of the action, and eventually some of the bolder, more mobile infants begin crawling around the mattress, approaching their peers, vocalising, and observing them keenly. This participatory, social element is another cornerstone of the immersive production, with parents reminded to put their smartphones aside and be in the moment with their children.
You Can Reach the Sky heightens that sense of communality about the theatre I've always loved, when you can feel the audience member and stranger next to you stiffen, gasp, giggle or sniffle and revel in that shared experience. Too often as adult theatre spectators we modulate our responses to those around us and question the responses expected of us; there is none of that here, with the babies free to turn their gaze to whatever engages them, even if it isn't the performers but their fellow audience members. It's a beautiful, profound experience, and one that infant amnesia will chip away at but also completely preserve, uncorrupted by the process of memory recall and retrieval that contaminates all adult memory. You Can Reach the Sky is a work in progress – theatre for babies is a nascent movement here and Ellison and Myra had little local work to go on in their research and development – but it feels like a confident first step in the right direction.
- I highly recommend listening to this episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia called 'The Personality Myth' that touches on infant amnesia and memory, and how the experiences and events that enter our lives before the ages of two and three are key to our development.
- Ellison and Myra are planning to bring You Can Reach the Sky to various communities and are looking at how to make the show as mobile as possible. Follow their Facebook page for more updates.