A makeshift altar welcomes the audience at the door. In the studio, a rock lamp is seen on a column under a mandala tapestry, along with whiffs of incense smell that sets the tone for the evening. Before the opening message is delivered, two performers take their place on stage, one standing at the back facing the wall, another on a pedestal, with several tie-dyed cloths draped over her legs. There is a sense of sacredness within the walls of the studio. This edition of Offstage, an experimental platform of M1 CONTACT Festival featuring works-in-progress of emerging choreographers from around the region, brings viewers on a spiritual journey through four distinctive dance works.
Luna(s), the opening act choreographed by Zunnur Zharifah, plays around with notions of tantrism and energy, where there are many moments the dancers soul gaze at each other and the audience. At the start, the duo appears to be generating or gathering energy separately. Lyn Hanis, seated on a platform, had her hands curled up like a lotus flower, and her body gently vibrating. Against the deep percussion soundtrack, her counterpart Chloe Chotrani moves around in a ritual-like sequence. As the thumping sounds build towards a climax, the pair halts suddenly and begins strutting across the space as creatures learning how to walk and move with dignity and power. The two circle each other, before finding synchronicity in their movements, then dropping into an abrupt, silent pause that led into the intriguing third part of the choreography, where the dancers engage in fight-like sequences against a soundtrack of Spanish beats. The dancers got into a prayer-like ritual, then into a sequence where the two contest for power over the each other, switching roles intermittently as the controller and the controlled, appearing like a showdown between an angel and a devil.
In Homesick by Michelle Lim, the confrontation becomes introspective, with the logical mind in a showdown with one’s emotional side. Along with sounds of sea waves, performers Charlene Clyde and Maybelle Lek starts with a tap dance sequence, although not entirely in-sync. When they find a connection with each other, they allow the audience to guess their relationship, which floats between being two estranged friends that are at odds with one another, and a pair of twins that finds familiarity and comfort in each other’s company. The relationships expressed are akin to our memories when being in a foreign land, where the notion of home becomes ambiguous as time goes by. Memories are but transient, and we cling onto familiarity and found warmth like a precious stone. The sounds of passing airplanes (the studio is near a military airbase) coincidentally adds a layer of melancholy to the piece. At the tail end of the choreography, the duo’s ballet-inspired sequence appears to be forceful, expressing a sense of unwillingness to let go of certain memories. Homesick feels like it would be a great site-specific work, with more focus in the themes explored.
Another work that has the potential to be developed as an outdoor performance is Haser, choreographed by Syimah Sabtu. Syimah performs in this piece alongside Syarifuddin Sahari and Jonit On. The glass doors at the back of the studio is left open, in a bid to connect the space with nature outside. However, what the audience sees is a carpark instead. Still, Haser presents interesting dynamics on this stage. Central to the work is the duality of the human body, as well as the larger system we live in. In the beginning, Syimah is at the corner of the studio space, contorting her body into strange shapes, sticking herself to the walls as she counts in Malay. Syarifuddin kneels silently at another corner while observing her, before he himself falls on his side, and evolves into an animal-like being, taking to the barre, not unlike a monkey to a tree. There is an interesting shift in dynamics when Jonit enters the space from the open door, engaging with Syimah like an external force intruding a private space. The work questions the limits of man versus nature, probing the binary nature of the human body, and the power of control from within and without of our bodies. As the trio enters a synchronized routine, there is a sense of energy building up, and soon the three individuals evolve into one single being (or a three-headed creature), where the power of control gets even more ambiguous. Like this one single entity that stands on stage at the end, the dance work itself also holds the potential to take on different shapes as it continues to be developed in different venues.
In a return to the spiritual side of things, the closing act of the evening is an intriguing and exciting one-man act, not for the faint-hearted. Unlike Luna(s) where there are props and scent to lead into the show, Sila is an intimate ritualistic solo that awed (or shocked) many in the audience. Choreographer and performer Moh Hariyanto from Indonesia stood at the side of the stage, removed and dropped his sweater to reveal his toned body, before lights went off, indicating the start to the ritual. When lights came on again, he took his seat at the centre of the stage, then folding his legs tightly together, before putting on a black songkok (traditional cap commonly worn by Muslim males). As he closed his eyes and sat in meditation, a power of higher-being seem to slowly take over him, and his body begins to vibrate gently. Soon after, Moh enters a trance-like state. With his legs crossed, he appears to be a legless creature, but that doesn’t obscure his agility or nimbleness. He hits the stage in some incredible movements, twisting, turning and contorting his body in incredible ways unimaginable to the average audience. There is a vague sense of a struggle, like a butterfly eager to wrestle its way out of a cocoon. Respectfully, he beats himself with his hands, as he shouts and chants in his own language, altogether looking like an attempt to cleanse himself, or perhaps to bless the people and space around. He ‘stands’ on his knees, in a bid to reach out to a higher power, seeking a transcendental connection. Removing the songkok from his head, he uses it as a mask, performing an operatic sequence with his hands. Threading on a thin line, Sila never becomes offensive to any religion or spiritual beliefs. What the audience sees is the unleashing of the wildness of an inner-being, unlocked through a body.
As the audience slowly exits the space after the showcase, there is a sense of calmness in the atmosphere. The altar at the door remains silently. The four works-in-progress presented not only allows us to reflect on our lives and our being, but also invites us to connect with our inner voices and any higher beings. It would be exciting to watch them again in the near future, taking on another space and time.