A new work for Singapore's da:ns festival experiments with fashion, music and poetry
Performing arts festivals around the world no longer simply present old works that have yet to be seen by the domestic audience. Increasingly they are commissioning, or co-commissioning with other festivals or arts centres, new works that have never been seen anywhere. By commissioning collaborations of artists who have never worked with one another before, they are able to take more risks, both in the artistic and financial sense. After all, they reason, it’s a festival and audiences expect something special.
Such was the case for the Esplanade’s da:ns festival 2012, which commissioned a new contemporary dance work “Silences We Are Familiar With – An Ode to Love” by THE (The Human Expression) Dance Company, in collaboration with poet and musician Bani Haykal and fashion designer Sunny Lim and his luxury brand MILS.
THE’s founder and artistic director Kuik Swee Boon explains that the idea for the interdisciplinary collaboration came from Esplanade’s CEO Benson Puah.
Kuik adds that the clothes supported the dance performance as “social identities”, as the dancers took on the roles of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. “You may notice at the beginning that they’re wearing one another’s clothes before taking them off and putting on their own,” he explains.
As for Haykal’s music and poems, Kuik says that they shared ideas back and forth before Kuik started his choreography, then THE’s dancers pitched in their various experiences of love, and both adjusted accordingly.
“His poems are about the relationship with his mother while my choreography is about me and people around me,” says Kuik, talking about different aspects of love that occasionally share similar meanings.
As a result, “Silences We Are Familiar With – An Ode to Love” was another memorable contemporary work which, as a signature of THE, left considerable space for the audience’s personal readings and appreciation. The six highly skilful dancers put all their energy into their performance as their characters tried to connect with one another – some actually did – yet finally parted, with the tone varying from solemn and melancholy to feisty and sultry. I couldn’t help thinking of my efforts in finding and keeping romantic relationships for more than two decades – and this is a single middle-aged man lamenting.
In fact, Haykal himself, having accentuated the performance with different moods from his music and poems, didn’t seem very comfortable when he left his comfort zone of his guitar and microphone upstage right and came downstage centre to join the dancers towards the end.
With this work, THE, only four years old, reconfirms its status as one of the leading contemporary dance companies, not in Singapore but in the region, whose works aim to be, to use Kuik’s word, “universal”. THE is a professional dance company, with six dancers on employment contracts working five days a week and receiving a full salary. There’s also a second company with 20 young dancers and students who join classes three evenings every week and who can be featured in larger works and may one day develop to a point where they can be absorbed into the first company.
“That sounds like NDT [Nederlands dans theatre],” I comment and Kuik laughs.
That’s truly unheard of in this part of the world, where artists usually get paid only when they perform. It’s also a good example of how artists are determined to work in a field that is underdeveloped – like their Thai counterparts, Singaporean audiences still prefer classical ballet to contemporary dance. It also reflects how Singapore’s government and national arts centres have been supporting the development of contemporary arts.
The writer wishes to thank the Esplanade’s corporate communications team for all assistance.