Esplanade Theatre, Singapore
September 25 & 26, 2021
After more months of uncertainty, Singapore Dance Theatre returned to the stage with Masterpiece in Motion. The three pieces, Momentum, Swipe and Jabula, were each in their own way celebratory and joyous. Although they varied in their effectiveness, they were poignant reminders of dance’s ability to create universes with earthly moorings but lined with stardust.
Momentum choreographed by Goh Choo San, and made for ten dancers, alternates between vibrant playfulness and meditative introspection. The statement section of Momentum is the second movement pas de deux which was danced on Saturday by Chihiro Uchida and Kenya Nakamura and on Sunday by Kwok Min Yi and Satoru Agetsuma. The duet has an austere luminosity, a moonstruck quality that feels of this world yet not quite part of it, a feeling amplified by the surreality of watching two bodies move in joint unison after a year where bodily closeness have come to be associated with prohibitive meanings: danger, risk, pandemic.
Uchida and Nakamura were beautiful together but there was an opaqueness to their treatment of time and space. I felt like I was watching them dance through a veil. There was a gauziness to it; a sense that you were watching something at a remove. While the way Uchida drifted through space like an apparition hinted at the pas de deux’s incantatory qualities, the effect she produced on Saturday was a strange in-between; she was dreamy but in a way that was slightly fuzzy, and slightly lethargic.
On Sunday, Kwok was much more musically vivid and together, she and Agetsuma managed to be genuinely transportive. Dance and music arrived as a single poetic gesture and watching their two bodies melt into fluid streams of motion in so public and intimate a moment, felt both like an act of thespian mutiny against our dystopian reality and a reassurance that there is still grace to be found.
Val Caniparoli’s Swipe has wit and ingenuity but after a while the longueurs of its humour wears off and begins to feel repetitious and stale; like a joke that goes on for too long until it bends into parody. The three men were interesting and dynamic but the three women didn’t quite emit the same energy.
Of three pieces on display, Jabula by Natalie Weir has the strongest hints of community life but also of its division along gendered lines. The bare-chested men feel like archetypal representations of warrior heroes, and the women their watchful guardians. The men stomp, slide, fly and toss each other to the sky, and themselves to the ground, in abstract representations of ritual ceremonies while the women are spectators, bystanders; and later, intimate partners. Interspersed in this public ceremony are solos and a central duet.
On Saturday it wasn’t quite clear to me particularly what the duet was supposed to be about. When the physically towering Nakamura dragged the fragile and waif-like Uchida around the stage it all felt rather unsettling, like an act of ritual sacrifice. On Sunday, Chua Bi Ru and Timothy Ng brought a very different kind of physicality to it and the duet felt more like an act of courtship, two bodies embarking on a joint journey of physical discovery.
Jabula derives much of its power from its ensemble moments which the eleven-member cast relished with gusto. Perhaps in some ways Jabula’s pitched intensity is also a reminder of the fragility of exuberant spectacle; this is the intensity of a prolonged moment that elasticated to its fullest and stretched to its limits has to recoil. It cannot last. But to have had this moment, in these times, is itself a triumph.
While Jabula was danced with evident pleasure, I am not entirely sure how I am supposed to feel about it. It makes an etymological claim on an African word (‘jabula’ means joy in Zulu), a claim that extends into its general mise en scene. The allusion to ritual as the piece’s setting is a smart decoy. Ritual’s symbolic dimension means style can matter more than intention and action can be dislodged from narrative and temporal flow. And that too is true of Jabula, in which emotional exertions can feel a little aimless; emotion for the sake of emotion.
Perhaps the tribal setting is just a plot device, something to contain all the ideas that Weir wants to explore. But I find the idea that tribal life is the most immediately recognisable setting to explore these ideas – mating rituals (I think?) in which woman are dragged around – and consequently the drawing of a form of equivalence between a specific form of life and the well-worn tropes on stage, unsettling.
Dance choreography can, of course, draw inspiration from a wide spectrum of life and part of its beauty (and burden) is its ability to resurrect slices of life from elsewhere, to transport audiences into universes that are different and strange. But I am not entirely convinced that Jabula is committed to reimagining tribal life outside of the more trite references. In other words, it isn’t clear to me exactly what sort of tribal inheritance it is claiming (the movement vocabulary feels pretty generic) or how this particular nod to tribal influence departs significantly from quasi-colonial genres (I think particularly of colonial romanticisations of the ‘noble savage’). Rather the tribal aspect of it seems to be a choreographic prop, a remixing of outdated genres for the viewing pleasure of audiences far removed from the lands they were inspired by.
Perhaps I am being overly pedantic but I do think that while we applaud the company’s return to the stage it also bears repeating: when are choreographic devices also acts of representation? What then is due to the communities or people from whom choreographic ideas emerge or are supposedly inspired by?