Revealing personal, hidden trauma: Frontier Danceland’s Stage On-Screen

Streamed online
March 30, 2022

Stage On-Screen by Singapore company Frontier Danceland is a film translation of their Milieu 2021 double-bill that featured Unlock by Artistic Director Low Mei Yoke and Re Apple Diary by Chiew Peishan, two works linked by themes of dealing with our inner selves, our fears and struggles.

Unlock is a reworking of Low’s 2012 piece, White. It draws you almost immediately, the mood set inside seconds. Dancers dressed in simple, plain gowns pad slowly through the space, occasionally following a single pathway of light, but mostly appearing to drift in the surrounding blackness.

But it’s far from empty space. It’s filled by whispers that seem to inhabit the dancers’ bodies as if fragments of identity, parts of who they are that are usually suppressed or ignored but that somehow have gained presence. The same feelings extend to the dance itself. When a couple appear upstage, it’s impossible to escape the idea we are seeing a relationship that was.

Frontier Danceland in Unlock by Low Mei Yoke
Still from film, courtesy Frontier Danceland

Dancers stare at one another, eyes wide open providing a conduit into the mind, the soul even. You sense recognition, but equally confusion and fear of what might come from this meeting, this glimpse of another side of themselves that perhaps they would prefer not to meet.

A faster interlude brings temporary relief but even here, Unlock retains its sense of introspection and uncertainty, and it’s not long before the inescapable whispers return.

The choreography shifts easily from beautifully fluid to stuttering and jagged. Arms flow but then thrash. Legs arc gorgeously then quiver. Strange gestures clearly have meaning but quite what remains elusive. Fine performances abound, the movement always clear, the partnering, small group work and timing impeccable.

All the time, Madeleine Tan’s slightly edgy soundtrack urges the dancers on. But there is no escape from our history and who we are.

Frontier Danceland in Re Apple Diary by Chiew Peishan
Still from film, courtesy Frontier Danceland

Also surreal, but with a different feel, is Re Apple Diary, an extended, filmed version of Frontier Danceland Assistant Artistic Director, Chiew Peishan’s 2021 stage work, which juxtaposes personal, traumatic history with the absurd.

Upstage sits a single, deep, white bath tub. In front of it, a man is finishing laying out red large apple-size polyhedrons. The positioning is perfect. They are absolutely aligned. After he leaves to admire his work from above, a woman emerges from the tub, a red apple in her mouth.

As she and other dancers are drawn to the bath and dance over and around it, the choreography is a good watch and inventive. They dive into it, disappear and reappear. Sometimes, legs stick out comically. Meaning and connection to the work’s stated theme is somewhat unclear, however. It leaves you asking why. Do they simply want to cleanse themselves? Or is there more to it? Whatever, as they dispute possession of the space, there is a definite sense of them being on the edge, a feeling emphasised by the strings in Ng Jing’s straining score.

Matters become clearer in the most hard-hitting part of Re Apple Diary. First, a woman appears holding a TV screen. Here, the camera is used to super advantage, first zooming in to its picture, then taking us to what feels like a different time and place. Our female has that apple in her mouth again, which now seems like a gag, as she and a man sit opposite each other at a table. As she traces the edge of the table with her finger, her body language suggests submission. He may be silent and largely unmoving but that only seems to amplify the sense of abuse. A very brief snatch of a happy scene of friends in a park seems to be telling us how close but how easily hidden it can be.

Frontier Danceland in Re Apple Diary by Chiew Peishan
Still from film, courtesy Frontier Danceland

A jolt brings us back. The dance becomes chaotic. Those neatly laid out ‘Apples’ are scattered in all directions. The man who originally set them out tries briefly to restore order but the impossibility of it soon becomes clear. True, the ‘fruit’ is finally, carefully picked up, placed in boxes and taken away but you can’t help feeling all they have done is temporarily put the lid back on the past, its trauma and memories.

Milieu 2022 was an experiment by Frontier Danceland to see if the meaningfulness of live performance and the experience could equally be found when watched through a filmic lens. Although I’ve never seen either work live, while the answer to the former is maybe, that to the latter is surely that it cannot. In theatre, dance is a communal experience, with other audience members but also with the performers. Not only can a screen never replicate that, but it also rarely produces the kinaesthetic or emotional empathy that one gets watching live.

But that doesn’t negate the value of film or filmed dance. Both Unlock and Re Apple Diary make great use of the camera to give different angles, and in the later, to switch time and location in a way that simply could not be done on stage. Importantly, Director of Photography Kevin Yeoh and Editor Natalie Soh do so without losing the sense of the stage performance and with indulging in special effects or over-the-top editing. Their camera does provide an experience. We just have to accept that it is a different experience.