In ‘Earth’, T.H.E. Dance Company premieres two new works – ‘Earth’ by choreographic duo Humanhood, and ‘Filled with sadness, the old body attacks’ by resident choreographer Kim Jae Duk. Kim has worked with the company since 2009, cycling through different ensembles of dancers, whereas this is Humanhood’s first time. Artistic director Kuik Swee Boon has paired the two works, it seems because they each deal with a sense of the “Eastern”. Humanhood works with astrophysicists, are deeply enthralled with Eastern mysticism and are taichi practitioners. Kim is South Korean, has studied and played creatively with Korean classical dance for a long time. Earth as abstract, embodied, scientific idea, and as land, territory, geopolitical location.
Background and thematic intention aside – how do the works stand on their own feet?
When “Earth” begins, the effect is visually stunning. Bronzed padi field hats, faceless people. Spotlights from above as if these glowing, amber beings have been beamed down from elsewhere. At first, I think the dancers are attached to the ground by a pole, so still are their pelvises, as their spines perform undulatory, rippling movement. The work evolves in this way: the dancers move primarily in unison, with occasional ripples like a stadium wave (known locally as the Kallang wave). The group moves together, apart, along a diagonal, which seems somehow important. I decide I am more interested in the dancers’ persistent groundedness and liquidity, in their relationship to oppressive electronic sound. The compositional plainness becomes didactic; some pre-recorded words are heard as the dancers remove their hats to face us for a briefly impactful moment (unfortunately the words feel also didactic, “I have arrived… Space does not hold me. Time either.”) I prefer the space they made for my own reverie – to me they are terracotta soldiers masquerading as Vietnamese farmers, dutifully repeating rituals in an underworld.
In “Earth” I see compact bodies, moving within contained kinespheres which sometimes overlap and interact, but barely. Intellectually I read a sense of the body as particulate in nature, or as dark matter, pure consciousness, anonymous. Emotionally I come up empty.
The second work begins with an impactful sound. Kim’s familiar, delightful explorations with gibberish, grunty and gaspy noises, manifest quite fully in the work, as does his movement vocabulary. There are hints of classical and folk dances, as well as the languages of Korea and Japan. The dancers are proficient, relishing the rigor and coordination skills being pushed. When a deity-like figure, guest tenor Leslie Tay, appears seated, elevated upstage, appears to control where the dancers go, my immediate thought is that he is the choreographer’s ego, controlling these artists like pawns on a chessboard. It is a relief when the game of “rocks! zacktai!” (synonyms for right and left) becomes ignored by the dancers and madness ensues. The dancers fling themselves around, rock in a trancelike state with limbs knotted and twisted, they take off their blazers, they form duos and trios nonsensically, crawl around in a red square of light. They cannot escape the frame, this power dynamic – it is a machine they belong in, even when the rules are not clear. In this chaos emerge several memorable images – the dancers in a line looking up and stroking from chin to clavicle – a man and a woman perform some invented kneeling and standing ritual – two women draw circles on the ground with their legs, and repeat it again later without their blazers, interrupted by men who pick them up and turn them upside down. I feel like I am meant to read some kind of gender politics into it but the work’s primary forces of nonsense and chaos obfuscates the roots for my opinions.
There is something disconcertingly satisfying about the work’s messiness. It proposes multiple configurations, cycles through the grid, the diagonal, solos, duets, repeating motifs, the choreographer’s skillful manipulations – but it cannot resolve itself except to fizzle out. Is the choreographer exhausted with choreography? Is dance exhausted? Has the machine already overtaken the human?