After two weeks of devising, open rehearsals, masterclasses and workshops, Emergency Stairs’ inaugural Southernmost experimental theatre festival finally comes to a stunning conclusion with a triple bill. Consisting of three all new works directed by experimental theatre veterans Makoto Sato (Tokyo), Danny Yung (Hong Kong) and of course, Emergency Stairs Artistic Director Liu Xiaoyi (Singapore), the artists presented their final pieces to a public audience at the Arts House’s Chamber. Tackling issues of identity, inheritance and influence, and ultimately intercultural exchange, each of the three works presented critical looks at art itself through abstract means. This is by no means an easy watch for the lay theatregoer, and we attempted to interpret the deeper meaning behind each one in our review below:
Journey to the South dir. Liu Xiaoyi
Inspired by the historical figure of Eunuch Zheng He, Journey to the South sees performers Didik Nini Thowok and Wang Bin analyze, deconstruct and re-appropriate his journey from over 600 years ago, and rediscover the lessons that still remain relevant even today. Framing Zheng He as a mover and shaker who kickstarted sea trade and commerce, Journey to the South begins as Indonesian dancer/choreographer Didik, dressed in drab office attire, is roused from sleep and takes to the stage. Didik plays to his strengths and performs a slow, elegantly choreographed routine, his moves transcendent of culture and gender. Meanwhile, words are projected onto the wall behind him, mashing both his and Zheng He’s voices into a single entity as they assert agency and authority in making claims that becoming an eunuch and a cross gender artist was entirely his choice (Didik is known for carrying on a tradition of Javanese female impersonation by a male dancer).
The initial assured gait with which Didik moves is interrupted by the appearance of Chinese Opera veteran Wang Bin. The words onscreen are no longer powerful, instead evoking fear and doubt as they blame Didik/Zheng He’s problems on himself, framing them in a negative light. A haunting male version of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ begins playing, and Didik puts on a literal mask, hiding his identity as he continues his routine, perhaps now in shame, in fear and in hiding. Regaining confidence in his craft, almost as if awakening from a dream/nightmare, Didik returns to his initial seat, and Wang Bin sits across from him. Each performer then speaks to each other in his own respective mother tongue, yet seemingly able to communicate via reading each other’s body language and gestures, and engaging in intercultural exchange, each artist now fully realized and having suppressed the doubts raised in the second part of the piece.
While it does highlight the often tenuous journey of an artist daring to be different and how fraught with insecurity and loneliness it can be, Journey to the South represents a quest for an artist’s passion and continued pursuit of their craft, finding the drive to carry on in spite of the self-doubt they may have. By presenting both the initial confidence and midway fears, the performance is transformative, reconciling both sides of an artist’s life with each other in the insistence of each performer’s use of language. In pursuing their own ideals, they have progressed beyond lonely provocateur; they are reassured in their choice as artists, dancing on their own at first but finding a following in due time.
Station 2017 dir. Makoto Sato
Station 2017 expands upon the idea of intercultural exchange briefly introduced in Journey to the South, revolving around the traditional Wang Bin encountering the contemporary Liu Xiaoyi in an abstract setting. Station 2017 feels almost as if watching two animals meeting for the first time, sizing each other up as they find a curious affinity in their similarities, yet remain wary of their difference.
Recorded dialogue from each performer is played over the speakers, with Wang Bin speaking in a higher pitch, almost Chinese Opera style, before Xiaoyi mirrors his words, spoken naturalistically instead. As they take turns pacing wildly or taking slow, measured steps, each performer references an emperor who succeeded the other during the Ming dynasty, and the message behind Station 2017 becomes especially clear when Teresa Teng’s 忘不了 plays – the contemporary and traditional must co-exist in the canon of art, neither can reject or deny the other, and needing to continue to grow and develop by learning from each other..
As the two performers retreat to one side of the Chamber each, they converse across the room to each other – Wang Bin sings in a crescendo, while Xiaoyi makes animalistic, almost guttural noises. Although it initially appears that they are in competition, much like the state of art, it is instead, a form of collaboration, a common understanding that has been reached as both performers simultaneously reach fever pitch, their voices coalescing into something brand new as past meets future, and new forms and methods of making art are born.
Deep Structure of Chinese Culture dir. Danny Yung
The final part of the triple bill, Deep Structure of Chinese Culture presents a contrast of movement. A monotonous, American-accented voice speaks of various objects being ‘barometers for human behaviour’ over and over and variations and iterations of 道, or ‘ways’ are projected onto the wall. These seem like prescribed ways for living, a thing that performer Junior Dearden conforms to onstage as he holds a piece of paper in front of him, dressed in a suit and slowly walking backwards, unseeing as he follows a red line of tape that bisects the stage, locked to a fixed path.
On the other hand, Nget Rady sits at the side, dressed only in white underwear as he watches Dearden walk before him. As Dearden crosses his line of sight, Rady springs to action, moving across the stage to try various new positions, seemingly uncomfortable in this claustrophobic space that has been established. He mirrors Rady’s movement across the red line, but instead of walking, poses dramatically, cartwheels and dances across it. With a need to clamp down on a rebel like Rady, Dearden activates a mechanism, and the voice disappears, leaving only a confused cacophony of crashing sounds and erratic, strange corruptions of 道 being projected. Rady becomes more energetic than ever, springing nimbly from seat to seat, almost as if he is pursued by an invisible force. But escape is futile, and as he is worn down from the running, his actions become increasingly defeated, fainting from the effort.
As Rady returns to his original position on the seat, Dearden rips up his script. One could interpret this performance in multiple ways – are Rady and Dearden two opposing forces in society, where Rady is a dangerous source that must be stamped out? Or are Rady and Dearden two sides of the same coin, a single character who conforms on the outside while struggling to remain artistically free on the inside? Either way, Deep Structure of Chinese Culture is a pessimistic but powerful performance to end off the triple bill, a criticism of society’s negative take on alternative art forms that do not comply with established ‘rules’ and a call for increased receptiveness at these alternative ways of doing art.
Deeply self-reflexive and reflective, the final triple bill of the inaugural Southernmost festival displays experimental theatre that pushes preconceived notions of art while fully utilising its veteran performers’ training. Although not an easy watch, experimental theatre continues to leave plenty of food for thought and certainly, leaves behind visually memorable performances that you’ll be thinking about even when you’ve left the theatre. Experimental theatre in Singapore is becoming increasingly rare, but with the advent of theatre companies like Emergency Stairs, it might just be making a comeback. If this is the kind of work that Southernmost produces, then we’d be more than happy to welcome both it and similar experimental theatre programmes making a return in subsequent years, and keep on expanding the boundaries and limits of our pre-existing concept of art and theatre.
The final triple bill of the Southernmost: One Table Two Chairs Project plays at the Arts House Blue Room from 22nd to 23rd December, while the Festival Debrief takes place on 24th December. Tickets available from Peatix.