cont·act Festival’s Open Stage Programme B opened with Chloe Chua’s Limbo, an improvised solo. Chua seemed to be dealing with extremes – hence the title of Limbo, that uncertain space of the in-between-states. Her performance moved between excruciatingly slow, minute movements and beautifully dynamic isolations of multiple body parts all at once. Detailed are her facial expressions – as she crawled slowly across the front of the stage, her lips slowly twitched into a small smile, which then gradually morphed into a look of distress.
“I thought it was a pretty jellyfish. I swallowed. It was called a balloon.” These are the opening lines to the synopsis of Seo Jeong Bin’s piece There was no room for food, which immediately alerted me to the work’s environmental concerns. The performance started off with Seo embodying a wild, animalistic, but still vaguely familiar and humanoid creature. The almost-inhuman hypermobility in her joints defamiliarised her choreography that was rooted in a familiar contemporary technique, adding to the animal likeness of her crouches, her wide-legged waddles, her twitchiness. Now and then, a leg raised in a ballet attitude or a developpe a la seconde broke through the animalism. Such moments contrasted the familiarity of ballet, that which is man-made, with the unfamiliarity of her creature. This choice to represent a hybrid creature that is both familiar and unfamiliar allows audience members the experience of empathising with the animal Other, to put themselves in the shoes of another creature and understand their plight rather than turning a blind eye as they choke on ocean garbage.
This came to a head at the climax of the piece: out of Seo’s mouth ballooned a bubble. It turned out to be a plastic bag that expanded and deflated in tandem with her breath. There’s something strange about seeing someone’s breath confined to a container of sorts that creates a sense of claustrophobia and breathlessness. The discomfort continued as the inedible plastic bag disappeared back into her mouth as she proceeded to “eat” plastic, freeze up and slowly collapse to the floor. With the current climate crisis, the arts is an essential avenue through which we question our actions and attitudes towards our natural world, so I am extremely pleased that this year’s Open Stage lineup included one such work.
In art naming and Caroline Chin’s I have nothing to do with explosions, a circular lighting fixture takes on various significances during the duration of the piece. At first, it seemed to represent the Sun as art naming swung it round and round their heads, the duo’s faces appearing and disappearing almost like a fast-forwarded clip of them looking at the Sun rise and fall. Another time, it became a beacon for Chin as the duo ran in concentric circles in the performance space. In the blackness of the studio, the light was the only visual aid for Chin to locate herself within the space and in relation to art naming (who was holding the light). Just as the light revolved round and round (swung round their heads or ran round the space), the dancers also revolved around the light, establishing relationships to it that change and shift.
The last work of the night, Soliloquy in Sweat by Katrina E. Bastian, tasked Bastian with collecting 0.5 litres of sweat by the end of the half-hour performance. Whilst attempting to work up 0.5 litres of sweat, Bastian delivered a wonderfully candid soliloquy about the financial realities of the dance industry: she calculated the annual costs of dance classes, the price of a dance degree, and the average salary of dancers in Singapore (“Who! Can afford! To become! A dancer!”). Dancers work extremely hard but financial reimbursement is so scarce. What is the value of our sweat? The body is always suspect in the world we live in. Brain over body. The base functions of sweating, pissing and shitting make us no different from animals, except our minds set us apart. However, inside the Esplanade Annexe Studio, Bastian proposed an alternative, subversive world in which success is measured by 0.5 litres of sweat and not monetary value, the body’s proof of work done rather than the economy’s quanitifiers. Like Seo Jeong Bin’s There was no room for food, in which Seo demonstrated the suffocating effects of modern capitalism’s disregard for life and nature, Bastian’s work critiqued (late-stage? neo-? post-?) capitalism’s devaluation of the body and the work it is doing.
There was a voyeuristic pleasure in watching her attempt to dance and talk and sweat as she got increasingly out of breath. At one point, she stripped bare to reveal her naked body, her sinewy dancer’s muscles flexing and extending as she moves almost hypnotic. Even so, there was still the inescapable knowledge that despite the subversive system of value that Bastian created in her work, economic realities invaded the studio. We were still paying audience members. Paying her. The words that spilled from Bastian’s mouth refused to let us enjoy the spectacle, to detach from the financial realities that the body we see onstage experiences.
Open Stage Programme B demonstrated a variety of different choreographic approaches – improvisation, embodiment of a subject, repetition and slowness, and endurance as practice and political statement. With cont·act being Singapore’s largest contemporary dance festival, Open Stage remains the stomping ground for those interested in exploring the rousing variety of work being created all over the dance world.
Open Stage, part of cont·act Dance Festival, was performed on 17-19 June 2022 at Esplanade Annexe Studio. This review is of Programme B, which took place on 18 June 8pm and 19 June 3pm.