cont·act Contemporary Dance Festival’s platform Off Stage is a work-in-progress sharing, a platform whose value lies in showing choreographic process and experimentation. After two years of the pandemic and having recently returned to Singapore after some time away, I was excited to see what new ideas were brewing in Singapore’s choreoscape.
We entered the T.H.E studio to see Sonia Kwek already in the space for her work mise en femme. A reference to theatre’s mise en scéne, or the arrangement of bodies on stage to create a specific image, the work reveals the performance of the feminine through an interrogation of various dance practices. Kwek, dressed simply in nude undergarments, rotates 45 degrees at a constant pace as audiences streamed in, allowing her body to be viewed from every angle. This neutrality of the body was broken when Kwek began to assume various positions from classical Indian dance, Chinese dance and the Malay ronggeng, accompanied by audio clips of dance teachers providing corrections as to the “correct” way to dance female roles within these dance traditions. I particularly enjoyed these use of dance practices as sites of gender interrogation, as the transformation from a “neutral” body to images of femininity becomes something deliberate and trained, honed and practiced. I was also intrigued by Kwek’s use of dance traditions familiar to Singapore, especially when she then continued to perform these traditional movements to party music along a “runway”, a reference to the ballroom scene – a dance culture associated with the subversion of and resistance to heteronormative understandings of gender. Kwek seemed to hint at a similar subversive potential within these traditional dance cultures found in Singapore. I am looking forward to seeing how she might further develop this idea in the future.
At seventeen, Jozef Chua is the youngest choreographer featured in this year’s cont·act line up. His work, Gekko, brings audiences into a whimsical world where geckos dance and establish relationships with one another. It was almost like watching an episode of the Cartoon Network show Ozzi and the Cockroaches. The lizards/dancers revolved around a red body on the floor (it was Chua in a red full-body suit) as they competed for it, interacted with one another through an unintelligible sign language, got distracted by a fly and then broke into a dance of sensual crawling and inhuman flexibility. The establishment of the lizards/dancers’ identities and relationships to one another went on in a similar vein (perhaps for too long for my liking) until, near the end of the piece, we were finally introduced to the red body on the floor. Chua approached the audience – it was strangely terrifying, like a demon emerging from the pits of hell with his broken lines and awkward stances, and yet there was a sensuality to his movements (made me think of Her from the Powerpuff Girls!). He slowly unzipped the suit and emerged topless from it, like a reptile shedding its old skin. There was a sense of liberation as he exited the space, similarly sensual and awkward, but this time in his new human body (his “true” self?).
In the post-show dialogue, Pat Toh shared her journey with underwater submersion – during lockdown, she discovered a new way of swimming and being underwater where everything seemed to slow down. Her performance, Aqua Lung, positions audiences as onlookers to her research practice of holding her breath for incremental periods of time, first out in the air and then gradually submerging the entire top half of her body into a water tank. It was a very regulated practice – a robotic female voice and a beeping timer counted down the time left for Toh to hold her breath. I could imagine how this sense of regimen and structure created a space of calm underwater, even if it might induce stress in the onlookers hoping she does not drown.
Even though I did not get the full experience of being underwater like she was, I got snippets of cathartic insight witnessing this live practice. Toh emerged from the water and leaned over the tank as she tried to catch her breath. At one point, she was gasping for air as she haphazardly lifted her restrictive top over her stomach. She seemed to do it spontaneously to allow herself to breathe easier; seeing her belly balloon in, out, in, out, in out, I felt my own breath growing and shrinking in my own belly as well. I remained fascinated witnessing her practice, through feeling echoes of her somatic experiences within my own body as well as hovering between concern and curiosity as I wondered how far she can take this. The show came to an end when Toh stood up, gave a thumbs up and assured the audience, “I’m okay!”
Off Stage, part of cont·act Dance Festival, was performed on 20-21 June at T.H.E Dance Company’s Studio (Goodman Arts Centre).