Singapore’s T.H.E Dance Company in a triple bill of short works

Coronet Theatre, London
January 10, 2024

After their impressive UK debut last year, Singapore’s T.H.E Dance Company (The Human Expression) returned to that most quirky of London venues, the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill Gate, with Rethinking Co-existence, a triple bill of signature works: Un-form and Pure by founding artistic director and main choreographer Kuik Swee Boon, and Present by resident choreographer Kim Jae Duk.

All three works consider the individual against the backdrop of relationships with others, although this is most obvious in Unform and Pure, which both feature dancers as soloists, largely physically apart from others, yet with a clear connection.

In Un-form, from 2013, three dancers individually give glimpses into their pysche as they draw portraits in movement on and around a rectangle of artificial grass. While it’s difficult to decipher the precise inspiration and intent of each, all the solos suggest states of mind, aspirations and fears, poignancy and tension, as moments of calm jostle with splashes of faster, dramatic action.

Billy Keohavong (left) and Klievert Mendoza
of T.H.E Dance Company in Present by Kim Jae Duk
Photo Mayumi Hirata

First up is Klievert Jon Mendoza. As he crouches on one knee and puts a hand to the floor, it’s as if he’s communing with the Earth. His dance of twists, turns and falls, all confined to the grass, combines speedy moments with graceful slow motion, not unlike water tumbling down rapids, its flow occasionally slowed by deep pools.

When he gives way to Fiona Thng, calm ensues. Continuing the river metaphor of the, we have reached the plain in our journey of the subconscious, the watercourse now wider and slow-moving. Haruka Leilani Chan takes over for a final solo. Now it feels like the river has reached the sea, her movement suggestive of being tossed by waves, which I’ll swear are also audible in Zai Tang’s soundscape.

All three dancers are quite compelling, their dance amazingly detailed, superbly performed and clearly with great personal meaning. Towards the end, Boon brings it all together with absolutely synchronous unison sections that spring from nowhere, suggesting that the journey is over and that a new shore has been reached.

Many choreographers have attempted to work with Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. In part due to the music’s power, the way it inexorably builds, few have succeeded. But Present, Kim Jae Duk’s 2013 duet to his own arrangement of the score, is a delight.

While Kim picks up on the rhythm of the music, and certainly the energy and expressiveness of the dance builds with it, he never attempts to match or mimic it. Rather, he plays with it in a humour-tinged duet for Mendoza and Billy Keohavong that opens quietly, with their backs to the audience. So quietly that Keohavong appears to be nodding off. As the music drifts in, the dance is full of quirky percussive tics. Again, detail is everywhere, all picked out by Adrian Tan’s superb lighting. When they switch to a downstage table, as close together as is possible, there’s a hint of dark humour. They are so deadpan it cannot fail but raise a smile.

Billy Keohavong and Chang En
in Pure by Kuik Swee Boon
Photo Mayumi Hirata

Apparently, the physical dialogue discusses existence and being. I didn’t get that. But Present is so good simply as great movement to great music, it really doesn’t matter.

Boon’s 2016 visceral duet, Pure, looks at the complexities of living together. As Keohavong and Chang En dance around each other, there initially seems to be little that connects them apart from the shared space. But look closer and bonds start to appear, in movement and in looks. We are all part of what is around us so it’s no surprise that each cannot escape the actions of the other and the effect those actions have.

Once they escape designer Jamela Law’s lace hooded coats, which really do look like lace curtains thrown on (quite what they add, I am not sure), moments of physical contact start to appear. Tension builds and there are cries of frustration, perhaps of frustration for greater freedom that is desired but in reality unattainable. Whatever, the couple increasingly resemble a single shifting being. When unison appears from nowhere, as in Un-form, it is again perfect.

T.H.E Dance Company recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. That’s quite an achievement for a contemporary dance ensemble in a small South-east Asian city-state. But then look at the quality of the dancers and what the choreographers put on stage. T.H.E really are very impressive. Let’s hope London gets to welcome them back for a third visit sometime.