PheNoumenon is the latest work conceptualised and choreographed by T.H.E Dance Company’s artistic director Kuik Swee Boon. The hour-long contemporary dance piece looks into the relationship between man and the environment he surrounds himself in. As our sense of the world keeps evolving and changing at a rapid pace, fuelled by technology and greed, what are the habits and cultural shifts man find himself making?
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the seating arrangement is unconventional, with the audience split into scattered islands demarcated by grey electric tape across one half of the Esplanade Studio Theatre or vessels that roam around the performance space. A visual illustration of the world, perhaps, in all its mobility and territory?
The ensemble of six dancers, consisting of Anthea Seah, Brandon Khoo, Ng Zu You, Nah Jieying, Klievert Jon Mendoza and Fiona Thng, are curled up into balls among the audience. Their bodies, pulsating and expanding, remind me of embryos in the womb — growing towards their eventual birth. Under spotlights of warm tones, their muscles can be seen contracting and relaxing while their orange robes flow together with their body movements. With the colour of the robes reminiscent of what monks would adorn their body with, this moment comes across as sacred, ritualistic and contemplative.
Then Nah screams, using her voice to pierce through the performance space. Her body twitches and shakes, while the scream never seems to end. The rest of the dancers join her until the lights go out, only to reveal all of them lying on the floor when the lights gradually come back on.
This structure of building up and then tearing down is repeated in almost of the choreography, where there are several moments of repetition, layering and building upon something before it all peaks and unravels. Understandably, as the way eras have come and gone, human activity and beliefs are generally very cyclical in nature. However, the structure may come across as draggy and tiresome towards the end especially when the roaming audience members get tired, with several of them standing still and obstructing the views of others who may have remain seated throughout the performance.
However, the experimentation for an unconventional seating space is worth commending and dance-wise, there are several moments that I applaud, clever imagery that I appreciate. The dancers are great at their craft and there is no doubt that they are able to express whatever they want with no use of words or unnecessary explanation.
As tops are being introduced to the dancers, Ng’s quality of movement shifts into a light and playful space, which is lovely to witness. Smiling and radiating excitement, he bounces around the performance space in a childlike manner with his body fluid and movements smooth.
His beauty is then juxtaposed by the somber presence of Thng in a different part of the piece. Standing still with a commanding presence, she eventually finds herself standing on a stool, a makeshift pedestal, being dressed in all the robes abandoned by most of the dancers. She stands, as an idol, looking far out into the distance with an unreadable expression. Then Ng comes by to take off his shirt and place it on her, sealing her fate as a god of sorts by literally giving her the shirt off his back.
And when Mendoza learns violence when all hell breaks loose, that gesture of transforming his upper wear into a mask that renders himself faceless and alien, it breaks my heart. His body becomes a weapon, a vehicle to hurt and harm, and a reminder of what the world today has become. He embodies the chaos through his harsh and quick movements, and every swing of the arm makes me hold onto myself a bit tighter.
Finally, my eyes are drawn to the solo moment of Khoo. His duet with the cold theatre floor is the final breath in this work. He rolls, turns and caresses, his body rising and falling back to the floor. This goes on for a while, everyone holding their breath until Seah breaks the fragile silence with the gentle cooing of her voice, inviting Khoo to come into her arms.
These moments, among others, stay true to what PheNoumenon is exploring and definitely brought it back to its conceptual essence.
The big question is, what is human nature or the inherent nature of identifying as a human being? Are the ways we are behaving now just how we are or are they learned behaviours to deal with the systems we are born into? Is anything natural anymore?
I walk out of the Esplanade Studio Theatre with these questions running through my mind, accompanied by the final image of not Khoo and Seah’s hopeful embrace but of the crumpled dusty orange robes lying in a pile on the empty stage floor: lonely, confused and desperate for an answer.