Pallavi through Abstraction is Chowk Productions’ first face-to-face performance since the gradual re-opening of theatres in Singapore. After having presented a recorded version, Pallavi through Abstractions, at the Esplanade’s Kalaa Utsavam in November 2020, this work finally returns to the black box, where it belongs. Besides being the culmination of the company’s Pallavi Series that began in 2016, Abstraction is perhaps also loaded with particular meaning for the company in the context of our ongoing pandemic situation.
Besides seeing dancers face-to-face before me, the magic of which I cannot fully articulate in words, what elevated this performance of Abstraction was the collaboration with musicians Rizman Putra and Safuan Johari from NADA. As I have reflected elsewhere before, the live venue sound is one of the key aspects that makes watching a performance in a theatre so special and different from watching one on my laptop at home. NADA’s music for this work is haunting and intricate, looping and combining in different ways various percussion instruments, vocal chants, birdsong and other ambient sounds. I would never have noticed all that detail without being in a darkened, enclosed space and enveloped in the sound. Being able to watch NADA perform is itself a treat – there is something delightful in seeing performers so immersed in what they are doing.
As is typical of Chowk’s work, Abstraction is a challenge for the dancers, all four of whom are onstage for the entire one-hour duration of the piece. Like in their filmed version of the work, I applaud the dancers’ impressive stamina, both physical and mental. The slow movements, involving deep knee bends and pronounced hip articulation, require particular control. Being in the same space as the dancers allows me a direct, kinaesthetic experience of their challenge, a quality that I am still struggling to find a replacement for, in works experienced through a screen.
The work comprises several distinct sections, with different movement qualities and speeds. While the percussive, energetic sections drive the piece along, the slower, reflective sections provide time and space for calm and introspection. The sections that I find the most joyful to watch are in the middle of the piece, where bird songs, various drums and chimes combine in the sonic atmosphere, interacting with the dancers’ percussive foot movements. It is a delightful conversation between movement and music, between the visual and the auditory.
With current safe distancing regulations in Singapore, most face-to-face performances can only accommodate about a third of the venue’s regular seating capacity. Quickly glancing around, I estimate the night’s audience at about40, in the Drama Centre Black Box, which has a total seating capacity of 120. A dilemma that frequently occupies my mind is whether it is possible to square the resources of time, labour, and the environment that go into putting together a performance with the meagre number of people who get to experience it. It is a question I have no answer for. But did I enjoy myself that night? Yes. And perhaps simple, pure enjoyment is all we need, today more than ever.
Pallavi through Abstraction by Chowk Productions played at the Drama Centre Black Box between 26-27 February 2021.
Jocelyn Chng is a freelance educator, practitioner and writer in dance and theatre, and has written for various platforms since 2013, including The Flying Inkpot and Centre 42. She holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (Dance Teaching). At the heart of her practice, both teaching and personal, lies a curiosity about personal and cultural histories; writing about performance allows her to engage with this curiosity. She sees performance criticism as crucial to the development of the performance landscape in Singapore, and a valuable opportunity to contribute to ongoing discussions about performance and society.