Remember When … is NUS Dance Ensemble’s contribution to the annual college arts festival, featuring two new choreographies and its disciplined dancers.
Helmed by award-winning founder and artistic director Zaini Mohd. Tahir since 1992, NUS Dance Ensemble (NUS DE) is an artistic institution with its memories and stories, peopled by collegiate and alumni dancers.
If you have attended NUS DE performances before, or, chances are, performed in Zaini’s choreography before, in Remember When … the usual elements apply in his work. His movement language ought indeed to have its name, perhaps “Zaini-isms”, for it is colloquial and full of borrowed ideas, with a structure and dynamic entirely his own.
Obviously, some similarities apply for Kow Xiao Jun’s “RE-memorari” as her brief is similar. Her work is architectural, creating lines and topographies for visual impact. To me, the musical choice was oddly jarring in contrast with the comfortable spatial flows, although as a result, the sounds will stay with me more than the visuals.
Zaini’s work also entitled “Remember When …” provides immense satisfaction. This is true particularly in the first 15 minutes or so. He builds anticipation through repetitive marching groups. All this comes after a video interview with someone reminiscing about his days in the kampong and at the demolished National Theatre. The video ends with him saying it was “kinda sad” but immediately he qualifies by saying “for me”. The dancers appear. They march — organised, disciplined, attentive. It is self-assured, sexy yet asexual. They are carbon copies of each other, tidy gestures holding coffee cups, handbags, calling for a taxi. Everything is a fashion show. Art imitates life. Everyone is deadly serious, busy moving on. So when suddenly the soundtrack is interrupted by the click of the camera and the stage lights flash, and the dancer’s freeze, the comic timing is priceless – happening a few more times, much to the audience’s satisfaction.
There are influences from the aggressive cakil in the male solo dance, and the gentle inang in the dance to “Fatwa Pujangga” by popular 80’s artist Sharifah Aini. The dancers play hopscotch to the theme song of “Aiyoyo! Laoshi”, an iconic local TV show for children. A hit 70’s single, “My Fair Share” by Seals and Crofts, features too profoundly nostalgic, imported and embraced by a generation across the globe.
This is a calculated work, a storied work, tightly controlled and easy to follow. If you felt numb because of the sheer amount of obvious repetition, remember that feeling living through your days in this city. If you felt nostalgic, remember the images of the city as a waterbody and then reclaimed to become Supertrees. If you felt exhilarated, remember the repetition was frequently doctored to retain visual excitement – with more displays of virtuosic dance tricks over time. At the end of the day, there is a folksy wisdom to the philosophy driving Zaini’s choreography. He aims to teach, as he seeks to entertain, and somewhere in between lays his signature craft.