Pán 盤 by T.H.E Dance Company played at Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre on 22 & 23 May 2021. An excerpt of the livestreamed recording is now available online until 24 June, on a pay-as-you-wish basis. If you require accessibility support, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pán 盤 proposes a larger way of looking at bodies. Performed by the dancers of T.H.E Dance Company, and hosted and co-performed by Wheelsmith (Danial Bawthan) and Tung Ka Wai who are associate artists of Access Path Productions, the work is underscored by the aesthetics of disability.
The work references the creation myth of Pangu, and the concept of transculturation by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. By using the image of Pangu, a colossal being that broke apart to form the elements, the artists seem to suggest that within transculturation – the continual merging and converging of cultures – lies the possibility that underneath all our differences, we come from the same source.
Deliciously, in the first section, the dancers are hooded and cloaked identically in costumes by Loo Anni – they are different, but made to look the same. Until, that is, the cloaks are removed and hung up, left to haunt the rest of the performance like ghosts.
Pán 盤 is structured in three parts, featuring the choreographic voices of T.H.E’s resident choreographer Kim Jae Duk, artistic director Kuik Swee Boon, and the (literal, as well as artistic) voices of all the performers. The performers Wheelsmith and Tung Ka Wai have disabilities we can see, and as the show’s hosts, they frame the performance with their questions and comments – between segments, while the company dancers rest and stretch, Wheelsmith and Ka Wai interview them to reveal stories of difference. (Where did you grow up? What languages do you speak?) Pán 盤 also features live captioning and audio description — the people who turned sound and movement into text, also gave an additional layer of meaning and poeticism. For instance, as a hearing audience member, my attention was heightened, to notice how the “violin grows in power and richness”, or how the electronic beats are transforming “into ritually minimalist thumping”. To read what I hear, my mind made more conscious interpretations. Plus, I could also imagine a culturally diverse audience, including deaf audiences, tuning into this livestream. All our bodies, paying attention to these eight bodies.
The project seems to have begun with the recognition that Kim Jae Duk, as a South Korean choreographer, comes from a more monocultural place, while Kuik Swee Boon, as a Singaporean/Malaysian choreographer, comes from a pluralistic cultural background – and the sense that these positionalities have shaped their artistry. Indeed, Jae Duk thrives on creating complex unisons, of people doing the same moves at the same time, while Swee Boon seeks to feature individuality, and the flow between people. The former focused on precise gestures and nuanced shapes amplified across six dancers, whilst the latter tended to complicate the visualscape with entanglements and multiple solos at one time. Inside these differing approaches, the dancers’ performance displayed a deep listening of each other’s bodies – paying full attention to move together, whether doing the same thing or not. And it seems that it is from this place of difference and full-bodied listening, that the disabled artists Wheelsmith and Tung Ka Wai enter the conversation.
This is groundbreaking work, and backbreaking too. A major dance company turning away from the dance field’s ableist orientation. Conceived before the pandemic, and delayed by a year, and then, again, forced by public health restrictions to move fully online, the exhausting conditions of the creative process must have also shaped this danced exploration of transculturation. For instance, the lighting designer Adrian Tan lit the stage such that the show would work on- and off-camera. Not being able to work in-person would have created an additional layer of mediation. Not only would people be trying to understand each other across cultural and linguistic differences, their bodies would only perceive each other via screens. With Wang Yu-jun’s music, perhaps not working in the same 3D rehearsal space shaped the sounds. Certainly, my flattened audio experience was interrupted constantly by household cacophonies (crying baby, slamming doors).
But the inability to do a thing – or a disability – creates other possibilities. In Pán 盤, Wheelsmith and Tung Ka Wai bring the performance to a close by entering the stage. Two bodies confront six. Energy ripples through the collective, like waves through a primordial ocean. The two performers join the dance, as now eight bodies move in eight individual ways, sometimes coagulating into a clump. Their disabled bodies inject a new perspective on the able-bodied dancers, as now a new choreographic possibility begins. When they moved together, silhouetted against the light, the possibility of all bodies sharing space felt affirmed. The epilogue felt like the beginning, and not the end, of something, as the performers communicated wordlessly and silently.
Emerging from the waves, came Wheelsmith’s plaintive cry “My way? Your move? Your way? My move?” – words from his Malay language poem, a moving reproach of a fractured and divisive culture, and of doomed fights for dominance. In the final moments before the stage went dark, we were left with a vision of how things could be. Different people with different bodies, facing their audience. Their hands, reaching towards each other, always and forever seeking to connect.
Bernice Lee is a contemporary dance artist whose practice extends beyond her field. She sees art-making as a form of social activism and roots her labours in improvisation, driven by spontaneity and eccentricity, vulnerability and grace. She can be found on Instagram as @bleelly. She has written for FiveLines from its beginning, and been published in ArtsEquator and the Straits Times.