M1 Open Stage is a platform within the annual M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival, for emerging contemporary work from across Southeast Asia. With most of the 2020 edition of the Festival having been disrupted due to COVID-19, this year’s edition was greatly anticipated as the dance community sought to return to the stage. M1 Open Stage 2021 showcases four works from within Singapore, as most international travel remains on hold. All are intimate and thought-provoking; most began their conception pre-pandemic, and have continued to evolve through the past year’s uncertainties.
The evening opens with Hasyimah Harith’s Nak Dara, a candid, sensitive exploration of the female body and questions of ownership and intimacy. In her solo piece, she ties on colourful sarongs one by one, only to shed them again. Her body is the subject of the audience’s gaze and fascination, yet there is something discomforting about her movements. At first slow and decisive as she ties on the sarongs, gradually mounting a platform centrestage, she ends up on top of the platform where her squirming and vibrating movements are the central and sole focus of the audience’s attention. Finally, the discarded sarongs in a neatly arranged pile, Hasyimah steps down from the platform and exits the stage. We are left pondering the prominence of the colourful cloth coverings, and the absence of the body.
Next, Aiden Tan and Cheng Wei’s choreography, 10-6 into the SKIN, performed by Aiden Tan and Reneejo Euriel Lascano, offers a contrast to the previous piece in terms of tempo. Continuously moving, the two performers are always in close proximity with each other, sometimes coming together in a lift, or using their bodies to counterbalance and test each other’s limits. In the soundscape are intriguing soft pops, reminding one of bubbles bursting or lip popping sounds. These sounds are sporadically heard throughout the piece, but I wonder if more could be made of them, to connect more closely to the movements or inspire a closer relationship to the idea of introspection mentioned in the work’s synopsis.
In Lazarus Parable Movement by Wayne Ong and Leia Ang, we see two bodies separated by a row of tables, Ong stepping over the tabletops, and Ang twisting and writhing beneath. As the title suggests, this work is an interpretation of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in the bible. The visual separation of the two performers is apparent throughout, and the reversal of fortunes is clearly dramatised at the end, with Ang on top of a table while Ong lies flat underneath another upturned one. My curiosity is piqued by the row of nine panels lining the back wall, covered in newspaper clippings. It is a pity that the clippings are too far away for the audience to make out their content, but I do get a sense of overwhelm and excess from the sheer volume of text that forms the background to the piece.
With a clever turning around of the panels, the stage is set for the last piece, Pat Toh’s Topography of Breath. It is an exercise in endurance, which indeed all four pieces are in some way. Toh performs extremely repetitive, abrupt and intense movements, while a workout timer runs with a bell signalling one-minute intervals. In the middle of the piece, she launches into a frenzied tirade about productivity and competition in work and daily life, points that would be familiar to most contemporary audience members. Finally, the workout timer announces “activity completed,” and Toh leaves the stage nonchalantly, without returning for a curtain call. My mind goes back again to Nak Dara at the start – contemplating the power of the absent body to evoke visceral emotions.
While Open Stage is also planned to be shown via video-on-demand at a later date, I am not sure how well these four performances, perfect for an intimate space, would translate on-screen. Even watching from the small balcony of the Esplanade Annexe Studio, I felt rather removed from the action because of the top-down view and greater distance from the performers than at ground level. Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to have been able to watch this in-venue, and applaud the performers and producers for seeing these independent works through such trying times.
M1 Open Stage played live at the Annexe Studio from 28 – 30 Jun 2021 and online as video-on-demand from 18 – 31 Jul 2021. Presented by T.H.E Dance Company in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
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.