As part of this year’s M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival, T.H.E Dance Company presents InterBeing, a double bill consisting of Desidium by Dimo Kirilov Milev, and Contactless by Jos Baker. A meditation on the interdependent ways of being and coexisting that have emerged amidst our still-shifting reality, InterBeing invites us to take an introspective look at our interactions to, and relations in, the current present. Although not initially intended, both pieces were rehearsed remotely over Zoom and presented for a blend of live and virtual audiences. I found that this added a layer of reflection, on the way the virus has forced certain human adaptations, to shift our practical realities.
Performed by the ensemble of six – Brandon Khoo, Ng Zu You, Klievert Jon Mendoza, Nah Jieying, Fiona Thng and Haruka Leilani Chan – the evening begins with Desidium. A single bell suspended at face level swings, and Ng and Mendoza nonchalantly dodge the bell, engaging in a deadpan, sometimes cheeky exchange. The bell gains traction and momentum, its rings a tantalising tease in the silence of Esplanade’s Theatre Studio.
Music seeps in: an atmospheric, echoey pulse. Dancers stretch and unfurl upstage, sequentially bringing bells forward with varying movement qualities that seem to indicate individualised relations between dancer and bell. Khoo even goes as far as to carry the bells in his shirt, pouring them out thunderously. Curious yet cautious, Ng seems trapped by the paradox of choice, futilely trying to distinguish one from the pool at his feet. The moment is well-paced and suspenseful, though the significance of the bells or the relations between dancers still seem uncertain.
The bell seems weightier as it takes Nah on a journey with wild, expressive limbs and momentous turns, but her movements force Ng’s body to navigate and shift. Juxtaposing them, Khoo and Thng seem equally magnetised by the bell’s presence, moving in melty, honeyed tandem. The bell poses a precarious balance from forehead to elbow to cheek, to tailbone to inner thigh to big toe, but the balance tips when Khoo holds – pushes – the bell to Thng’s abdomen and she is helplessly backed up to a wall. It is an abrupt tonal shift, but well-supported by the lighting onstage. Milev’s post-show revelation that the bell represents desire lends an inkling of illumination to this venture into the darker side of the bell’s affect.
A gong sounds, the lights fade out and in again. The ensemble assembles, flocking and circling the stage, underscored by a distinct rhythmic plod and the jingles of the bells. Held like lanterns, the dancers seem to hint at the dual nature of desire as dangerous temptation or as an instinctive guide, but this is unfortunately drowned out by the sinister undercurrent of the piece. In a deja vu moment, Thng falls back to the wall, and Khoo breaks out into a solo that drives him through the ensemble before fitting back in, with Thng still left on the outskirts. It is a pity that the complexity between Khoo and Thng – between desires, desired, desirer – is not elaborated here, which could have potentially offered more clarity to the work’s trajectory. Mendoza stands out with a frenetic solo, jerkily diving towards the pile of bells at the front of the stage, and the stage darkens.
Despite watching it live, I found the scenes’ composition and transitions rather cinematic, perhaps a result of having this piece’s conception mediated through the screen. I imagined this to be more effective for those watching at home. However, it seems that the creative process for Desidium was slightly hampered without in-person rehearsals with Milev, with salient moments that could have been better leveraged upon, to flesh out a clearer thematic stand and structure.
Where the screen flattens in Desidium, it enlivens in Contactless. Baker makes use of the supposed limitations and subdued liveness of digital mediation as an active agent of performance, reimagining the screen as an extension of the body. A live camera feed is set up, and the dancers gather downstage. Thng begins, positioning herself in front of the camera as if ready for a Zoom meeting. Behind her is a projection of her face, framed and caressed by the other dancers as her facial expressions subtly change. With flowering arms and flowing limbs, the dancers are focused on the camera while, out of frame, their lower halves expertly navigate each other. It is amusing to watch, and ever so slightly, jarringly, familiar, reflective of our evolving body language in this new world order.
The camera pulls back to reveal and capture the stage and screen in a wider shot; the dancers begin a series of spirals and turns along the lines of light on stage. Lags and echoes arise in the translation from live to screen, creating evocative, enthralling canons on stage: a murmuration of movement and bodies, each live gesture creating pixellated ripples. The digital trails of the dancers prolong their presence, allowing for moments of encounters that seem to transcend the distinction between physical and digital. An outstretched arm on stage meets a residual one on screen – it speaks to the blended mode we find ourselves operating in nowadays, our virtual selves no less real or valid, increasingly intertwined with our physical selves. Baker further employs this sense of fractured time and space, recreating and stretching the present in a series of enthralling duets. Despite the challenges of dancing with counterparts that cannot be seen or felt, the dancers’ skilful delivery lent to the illusion of permeability between flesh and projection, leaving a sense of yearning for touch and physical connection.
A response to the digitised spaces and interactions that we have been forced to turn to in the past year, Contactless successfully physicalises some shared sentiments of these turbulent times. The coopting of technological time-space reinforces the painful gulf of physical distance, but also offers alternatives to preconceived notions of the body, self and identity as moments present and past collide and intersect in a pixellated expanse.
Contactless and Desidium emerge from different approaches and lenses, examining shifting physical-virtual spaces and the very human instinct of desire respectively. Billed together, they explore how we grapple with and relate to the world around us, particularly in notions of past, present and future: how the present consists of and constitutes past and future moments; how focusing on absence detracts from the present. InterBeing is then a contemplation on our ways of being and seeing, undeniably intermingled with, and interdependent on, environment and community.
Amidst the trying times for live performance, the CONTACT festival remains resonant and relatable in its programmed works, which bodes well as it gears up for new chapters ahead.
InterBeing was staged on 25 and 26 June at the Esplanade Theatre Studio for matinee and evening shows, with real-time livestreams available for the evening shows.
Yixuan is a movement creative who enjoys dabbling in multiple disciplines and capacities through an embodied approach. She graduated with a BA First Class Honours in Dance and Choreography from Falmouth University (United Kingdom), and now freelances as a performer, maker and teacher amidst other in-betweens. Her artistic practice stems from a sense of curiosity and urgency towards the self and the world around, and she finds the body to be a way of seeing through which new perspectives and greater understandings emerge.