The known and the unknown

Art November 23, 2015 01:00

By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to

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Different Asian styles are explored and investigated in Singapore's da:ns festival



NOW 10 YEARS young, the Esplanade’s dan:s festival’s residency programme, which provides ample time, space and budgetary support for artists to create new work, has kickstarted many performances and projects, among them Pichet Klunchun Dance Company’s “Black and White”, still on tour after premiering at the event in 2011.
This year, Singapore-born Germany-based multidisciplinary artist Choy Ka-Fai presented the two-part documentary performance series “Softmachine”, focusing on five artists from four countries and based on his research into contemporary dance in Asia, which has seen him interview 88 choreographers, dancers and curators since 2012.
In Part A, Choy worked with Manipur’s Surjit Nongmeikapam, a contemporary dancer trained in traditional Indian dance and martial arts, and Banyumas’s Rianto, a lengger (traditional erotic dance) performer and traditional Javanese dancer. 
In Part B, “Softmachine” featured Shanghai’s contemporary dancers Xiao Ke and Zi Han and Osaka’s Yuya Tsukahara, founder of the internationally acclaimed group Contact Gonzo.
Given substantial time and space, with video interviews and performance excerpts on screen in addition to monologues, dialogues and live performance on the stage of Esplanade Theatre Studio, each of the four sections was presented differently. Each artist was able to explain, verbally and physically, his/her background, and the ideology behind as well as the restrictions faced in their work. Choy’s participation in each presentation was also varied. For example, he operated the videos from his table in Xiao’s and Zi’s presentation and performed in the physically demanding work by Tsukahara, where he injured himself, fortunately only slightly.
 In the process, Choy, as well as the audience, came to know and understood the artists and their works and what they’re interested in and working on now. I’m also sure that all of the artists have learned how to articulate their thoughts and present their works precisely to an international audience.
In fact, it’s not only about the artists and their works. In Nongmeikapam’s section, his dialogue with Choy on how to create the so-called contemporary Indian dance or how to mix various aspects of Indian culture in order to attract European festival curators also offered a sharp criticism of the European perception of Asian performing arts. For their part, Xiao and Zi proved how difficult it is to work in a genre that’s known for its artistic freedom in a country that’s not known for freedom of speech.
Of course, while each artist and his/her work is representative of contemporary dance practices in their countries, none officially represents the country. And that reminds us that we need to look carefully at and explore the specific context in which each artist works in order to understand what contemporary dance actually means in this culturally diverse and complex region. It is also evident that anyone taking on an intercultural practice, especially a pan-Asia activity, needs to act cautiously. 
The World Dance Alliance’s (WDA) Asia Pacific section also held its regional conference in Singapore at the same time as dan:s, and the Alliance’s one-off “Asia Pacific Dance Bridge” concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio formed part of the dan:s festival’s programme. Obviously, the conference participants enjoyed it more than the festival goers. 
With companies and performers from Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and Canada, the 75-minute performance offered a glimpse into works by lesser-known choreographers. Put together in a programme that had little curatorial input, it was difficult for the general audience to shift its perceptions, not least because each piece lasted for less than 10 minutes. And while the skills of most the performers merited praise, the choreography typically focused on the beauty of the movements rather than posing questions to the audience. And again, although the programme illustrated the diversity of contemporary dance in this region, one can only wonder if the gap between dance scholarship and dance practice here is as wide as in other fields of performing arts.
 
SINGAPORE EXPERIENCE
- T.H.E. (The Human Experience) Dance Company’s “M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival” continues until December 13. 
-  In addition to performances, there are workshops and masterclasses. Find out more at www.The-Contact.org.