C Arts, Edinburgh (online)
August 21, 2021
In the introduction by Tung Ka Wai and Wheelsmith (Danial Bawthan), the artists of T.H.E Dance Company (The Human Expression) from Singapore are described as a “platter of different cultural cuisine all on one table.” Although a consideration of the ongoing process of the merging and converging of cultures (transculturation) in general, Pán (盤), can equally be seen as a reflection on the company, and of positionality, inclusion and diversity.
Linking to the cultural roots of company Artistic Director Kuik Swee Boon and fellow choreographer Kim Jae Duk, ‘pán’ (盤) is a word found in many East Asian languages. In Mandarin, it draws on the ancient Chinese deity Pangu (盤古), who emerged from an egg that held the entire cosmos as the first living being in the universe. That story is the starting point for an absorbing work that also uses the voices of Taiwanese music artist Wang Yu-jun (王榆鈞), lighting and spatial designer Adrian Tan (陈俊兆), and costume designer Loo An Ni (羅安妮).
It is superbly danced. The performers may have different backgrounds and skills but they come together in a delicious whole. While it starts slowly, and with an almost minimalist feel, it almost imperceptibly draws you in as it gradually uncoils and the choreography develops and absorbs new elements. It does initially feel abstract, but the makers leave plenty of space for personal interpretation and meaning.
It opens with Kim’s contemporary take on SeungMu or monks’ dance, a well-known Korean dance performed during Buddhist ceremonies. The traditional long-sleeved and conical hooded white costumes are replaced by sombre, hooded black trench coats, and while the movement feels modern, it retains a quasi-religious air.
With their faces hidden, on black floor and against a dark background, the dancers are shadowy figures in the shadows. Amid this, their hands flash briefly, catching the light as the dancers change direction at speed, their coats swirling as they do so. The harmony of movement and contrasting stillness is impressive.
When the lights come up, so do does the mood. Previous, at first abstract movement becomes familiar as it is repeated or referenced. Yet while there is a greater sense of freedom, it still seems tightly controlled.
Hoods are removed but the religious feel continues in intense, gesture-driven, seated choreography that frequently brings the hands together in prayer. Coats come off next and are hung up in a line across the back of the stage in what feels like a slow reveal of themselves. Another change sees the stage fall silent save for the sound of their breath in what almost looks like physical training. For what is unclear but there is a powerful sense of building towards something both in the increasingly dynamic and complex dance and the austere music with its foghorn-like siren, strings and drumming.
After an interval in which we join Tung and Wheelsmith chatting with the cast backstage, each dancer revealing a little of their origins and roots, we rejoin the dancers for Kuik’s ‘The Notion Of Transculturation’ in precisely the same positions we left them. At the back, the coats remain too, a trace of what was.
There is a slow awakening. Bodies undulate as if drawing a figure or a character. But we while now see each dancer as an individual, in common is a continuing deep focus and intensity, movement seeming to flow from deep inside.
Out of this near-dream state, Ng Zu You begins to dance vigorously. He twists, spins and turns as if a single piece of clothing in a tumble drier as the others form a protecting circle of calm around him. When the whole ensemble comes together in a line, dancers burst to the side as the formation explodes.
The highlight of the section is a quite sublime extended duet for Nah Jie Ying and Klievert Jon Mendoza. It’s incredibly supportive, one leading as the other follows. They hold hands. The dance has wonderful balance and buoyancy and they rise and fall together as if riding a gentle swell. Even when they pull away, they appear in conversation, bodies as voices as the connection remains.
There is so much to take in. When the others return, there are cultural references in abstracted gestures. A subsequent moment sees a collective struggle as they are all blown buffeted and churned in an unseen maelstrom; all apart from Brandon Khoo, who stands alone amidst the mayhem
Out of chaos comes order and peace, however. The deeply meaningful ‘Epilogue’, a collaboration between both choreographers and the performers, closes the work thoughtfully and with a sense of calm. Having drifted on and observed a scene of meandering, twisting but connected bodies, the whole cast comes together as one with human touch and connection very much to the fore. We are, as the text spoken in Malay by Wheelsmith says, “all made from the same wool and body,” even if we are “woven into different clothes…by centuries of tradition”
Presented by C Venues at the Edinburgh Fringe, Pán is available online until August 30, 2021.
Running time: 90 minutes including introduction and interval.
Visit res.cthearts.com or tickets.edfringe.com for tickets.
Audio described and captioned options are available.