“Edgy, current and fiercely independent” …was the catchphrase I attributed to the company in 2013 – exactly midway through its ten-year journey thus far. Founded in 2008, T.H.E has become a litmus test for Singapore’s contemporary dance ecology. This article looks back at reviewing the company over the last decade and includes excerpts from my writings for Flying Inkpot, Straits Times, Asian Dance magazine and Critical Dance UK. Reflecting on these reviews some patterns emerge as to why T.H.E has managed to sustain and build on its position as Singapore’s go to contemporary dance company.
Astute artistic direction by founder Kuik Swee Boon, training and developing a unique movement vocabulary based on the dancers’ individuality and the ‘hollow body’ approach; exciting repertoire with a collaborative emphasis; faith in local dancers and including the audience in the journey are all major contributing factors. Some key features also stand out. Resident choreographer Kim Jae Duk is an inspired choice. The Korean artist produces work that is so creative and current that over the years it has left the audience (and the dancers) gasping. His break-neck speed repertoire is a perfect foil for Kuik’s more reflective and contextually layered pieces. Other choreographers have been an intrinsic part of the T.H.E mix. While wisely allowing breathing space to Kuik’s and Kim’s creations they have challenged the dancers, and audience with different perspectives. The initiation of the M1 CONTACT CONTEMPORARY DANCE FESTIVAL that brings together local and international artists via multiple platforms is also integral. Ultimate honours go to the company dancers; particularly the early core group of Lee Mun Wai, Zhuo Zihao, and Yarra Ileto, and Jessica Christina joined later with Wu Mi and Sherry Tay who were the muses for Kuik’s evolving choreography as well as establishing their own creative voices during this time as performers and choreographers – all left the company at various points by 2017. The current group featuring Anthea Seah, Brandon Khoo, Lynette Lim, Ng Zu You, Klievert Mendoza (apprentice) and Billy Keohavong have taken up the challenge and moved T.H.E boldly into the future.
Public classes, workshops, and outreach programmes enable education and insights into the company process as well as profiling company artists. The formation of T.H.E Second Company is also a thread of this development straddling its own identity as a platform for emerging artists and an important connection to the main company where some of the current group of choreographers and dancers have sprouted.
T.H.E is extremely active with multiple annual seasons across now well-established platforms. Unlike repertoire in classical ballet companies, contemporary works are rarely repeated although the company has made some exceptions to this, particularly in re-staging the classics As It Fades and Silences We Are Familiar With. Contemporary dance is created in a collaborative spirit and what one dancer contributes does not necessarily translate to another body or persona; there is also a desire to keep moving forward rather than revisit past works – again this is in part, the nature of contemporary dance. To remain current, of the moment and reflect contemporary issues.
The company’s first full-length work, Old Sounds, was commissioned by the National Heritage Board in 2008 followed by an extraordinary year in 2009 producing Kuik Swee Boon’s Within.Without and Silence. I wrote… T.H.E Dance Company is a welcome addition to the local dance scene, and each season shows increasing maturity and refinement. They are young and willing but need to be given moments to shine, taking emotional risks and revealing themselves as performers rather than dancers who simply move well. This will be the challenge for the company as it progresses and takes a giant leap in its ambitions to be a contemporary dance group of an international standard.
Added to the 2009 list was Indonesian choreographer Boi Sakti’s Void – Jendela Peradaban for Esplanade’s da:ns festival. It painted a bleak, pessimistic picture of globalization in an unapologetic treatise on a world that has descended into a state of moral decay, materialism, loss of culture and spirituality. The dancers were caged, trapped, chained, provoked and humiliated through a number of devices – the most disturbing being a museum exhibition-like glass case that was eventually inhabited by seven dancers. This was a scary and confronting image for the audience who became genuinely concerned for their safety as the glass steamed up… I surmised…Singapore’s T.H.E Company was superb in holding its focus and intensity in this dark, alienating work. The dancers brought their youthful energy and strong technique to the dance floor but really had to dig deep emotionally to deal with many of the scenes.
2010 was notable for The Man In The Centre at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore. As the company moved forward on its journey the core group became quintessential to the T.H.E style that became cemented through intensive training and risk-taking repertoire. Key production elements contributed significantly as an equal partner; notably the genesis of focused lighting designs by Anna Maria Rouhu. Like nocturnal animals, the dancers of T.H.E. Dance Company like to live in the half-light, emerging from darkness into pockets of light on foraging expeditions to explore their surroundings before retreating to the safety of a dark hiding place – or the inner world of a personal comfort zone. These forays into the light revealed fragments of their inner thoughts. At this point, I concluded that…sombre, introspective works seem to be the trademark of this company.
2011 brought two defining moments to the company. The staging of Kuik Swee Boon’s classic work As It Fades, commissioned for the Singapore Arts Festival and the selection of Korean musician-choreographer, Kim Jae Duk as collaborator for RE:OK… BUT!, for M1 CONTACT 2011. Since these groundbreaking works, the pairing of Kim and Kuik have forged the creative spirit of the company working together across annual platforms. As It Fades. I wrote; the innovative vocabulary had distinctive Chinese features such as turned in ankles and wrists, deeply bent knees and occasional flat-footed shuffles forwards and backwards. Heavy, deconstructed phases that moved outwards from the center of the body initiated by an audible breath deep in the centre were deliberate and often surprising. The groups of dancers became like hybrid, animistic forms capturing the sense of a surreal world where we skim the surface rather than digging deep into our roots and connecting with it. Kuik hits hard and to the point in As it Fades. It was both nostalgic and immediate, leaving little room for sentimentality.
As the group became more established the dancers were definitely drawcards as performers and choreographers across company platform opportunities and were inspirational for the many visiting artists over the years. Solo/Duet March 2012 showed the versatility and appeal of the group as they ventured into comedy, dialogue, sensuality along with the flung movement, muscular athleticism, and creativity… the hallmarks of T.H.E Dance Company were present in abundance. Company favourites Lee Mun Wai and Zhuo Zihao showed impeccable comic timing and another side of their personalities as they raced through Taiwanese Wu Yi-San’s joyous Crosstalk. Full of local jokes, repartee and dazzling movement they jousted verbally and physically with each other in a crowd-pleasing work. Hey Man! Logical Complex with choreography and music by Kim Jae Duk for M1 CONTACT 2012 was another milestone for the group… Futuristic, intense and aggressive, the powerful music created by the choreographer repeatedly drove the dancers on in a dance about obedience and submission…questioning our obedience to convention, the loss of communication and meaning in the lives we lead and the readiness to comply with existing structures.
For the 2013 Solo/Duet season, T.H.E danced their way into the Singapore conversation to explore some tough questions in response to the NUS Arts Festival theme of “Open Questions”. Artistic Director Kuik Swee Boon drew the most intimate portraits from his dancers in Un-form, a collaborative work that shared the journeys of the dancers, their aspirations and fears about being an artist and the Singapore context – pragmatism and idealism jostled for space. It was also a turning point for these artists and for the company as over the next couple of years the group would transition from the founding members to a new group of dancers. Would it sustain these changes? Would audiences come on board and keep supporting? Questions were raised in the dance community about what defines a company.
In 2014 As It Fades was restaged and 2015, Silences We Are Familiar With. Renegotiating past works is a challenge for contemporary dance choreographers as much relies on the input of dancers and this material does not necessarily transit to new members. 2014-2016 was a period of difficult navigation between farewelling dancers who had inspired so much of the company repertoire and endeared themselves to the Singapore public; while nurturing new talent. The M1 CONTACT festival continued to be a focus for this transition over the next couple of years as core dancers like Zhuo Zihao continued their links with the company through creating work and generally mentoring new dancers.
2017 Three Kin, a triple bill featuring choreography by Kuik Swee Boon, Kim Jae Duk and Dimo Kirilov Milev, exemplified the company ethos of contemporary exploration via bodies and minds that are honed to transform large ideas into nuanced performance. This seemed to be a transition moment before 2018 saw the T.H.E team emerge with extraordinary confidence and vision across several platforms. The first was the collaboration Cut Kafka! with Nine Years Theatre (NYT) for the Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts. In a seamless blend of voice and movement, the performers probe the physical, emotional and spiritual state of the mind through clever cross-references to extracts of Czech writer Kafka’s text. Cut Kafka! embodies transmigration of east and west in a provocative response to the writer’s work…I wrote.
“Double Bill – Earth in June for the M1 CONTACT Festival 2018 was perceived as…Yin and yang coexisted in this double bill from The Human Expression (T.H.E). EARTH by Rudi Cole and Júlia Robert Parés, collectively known as Humanhood, explored a spiritual realm that juxtaposed Asian mysticism with grounded realities; while Filled with sadness, the old body attacks by Korean resident choreographer Kim Jae Duk exploded with frenetic disruption revealing the insecurities of the current age. Kim Jae Duk continues to surprise with his imaginative take on the contemporary world and has found willing partners in T.H.E who have it under their skin and synergise with the disturbing currents of layered meaning embedded in the choreography. They achieved a plateau of excellence in this double bill that is alive with artistry and thought-provoking thesis on the state of the world. The company continues to transform, evolve and respond to disruption of the current times and sensibilities – this is its passage to the future.
In celebration of T.H.E Dance Companys’ 10th year anniversary, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay has commissioned a new work by Kuik Swee Boon for da:ns festival Invisible Habitudes 11 & 12 October.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.