Contemporary dance often has the unfortunate association with descriptors like ‘enigmatic’ and ‘abstract’, and too easily, one fears walking out of the theatre having understood nothing but beautiful movements and choreography.
Not so for The Royal Dance-Off Company (TRDOco). Under artistic director Ryan Tan, the company’s 2018 annual production has started off the year’s dance calendar on an incredibly hopeful note, having found a way to effectively meld both artistry and accessibility to create a fantastic beast of a show.
Titled We, The Singaporeans, TRDOco’s annual production zooms in on the image of the chair, a surprisingly relatable and relevant structure to all Singaporeans. From attempting to ‘chope’ seats with tissue paper to staring down commuters who dare use the reserved seating, We The Singaporeans deftly touches on these issues while delivering sharp choreography that pushes its dancers to their physical limits, at once reflecting on and laughing at our countrymen’s strange idiosyncrasies, and pushing for us to grow as a nation, learning to live with one another in spite of our different perspectives.
Artistic director/choreographer Ryan Tan himself opens the show on a comic note, entering the stage to take his place on a lone chair with a big blue plastic bag in tow. From the moment he sits, he begins to tease the audience, and like a magician, begins pulling one familiar snack after another out of said plastic bag (to many audience members’ ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’). Through this movement, the show already forges a connection with the audience, almost as if clearly establishing that this work is going to be completely relatable, not to mention thoroughly fun.
When Ryan leaves his seat momentarily, the true action begins, as seven company dancers emerge, all dressed and styled to look exactly alike, representing Singapore’s tendency to appear like a ‘factory’, churning out ‘ideal’, ‘perfect’ copies of one another. Yet beyond the similarities, each of these dancers is distinct in their stylized movements as they ‘chiong’ for the one empty seat, showcasing a myriad of dance genres with each step and sequence, effectively moving as a single, co-ordinated unit at times while displaying technical brilliance as they work ‘against’ one another, with precise reaction timing and priceless expressions on their face.
The remainder of the sequences separated the dancers into smaller groups, focusing instead on different types of Singaporeans and their interactions with chairs. In the next sequence, Fiona Thng and Wang Wenhui played rivals fighting for the lone seat. The twist here is that they were essentially ‘racing’ in slow motion, stretching out a simple run into a far more extended movement. Displaying completely control and poise throughout, this was a surprisingly complicated sequence, as each girl constantly attempted to thwart the other’s efforts, be it tripping the other up, or even resorting to far crasser methods. There was no doubt plenty of hard work and effort put in here, evident from the physical difficulty of the piece, yet kudos to the dancers for making it look so effortless and smooth.
We, The Singaporeans even managed to tackle the somewhat hackneyed theme of social media addiction and obsession with a fresh take, with Nikki Chan, Beryl Tay, Clarice Ng and Joelynn Yeow coming together to compete for a seat based on each other’s online popularity. Utilizing a smart, unique soundtrack that blended classic, contemporary and pop music with the all too familiar pings, rings and alerts of a phone, the four girls committed entirely to their characters’ competitive spirit, making even actions like posing for photos look far more elegant as they stretched out their bodies and moved from one position to another. Each girl was given their own ‘solo’ during this segment, and was visually exciting use of Ryan’s jazz and contemporary background, well executed by each performer and with impeccably rehearsed snap movements that synchronised with every ping and snap on the backing track, always maintaining the high energy and intensity required of the piece.
In the final ‘group’ segment, Jacqueline Yap took the spotlight. The most distinctive of the dancers for her height and her lanky body, Yap puts her physique to good use, fully stretching out her legs and frame to command attention onstage and executing each movement beautifully as a woman in a reserved seat facing the wrath of fellow commuters (played by the other six dancers). Even the tiniest of movements in her feet flow with a rhythm that feels urgent as she taps them nervously, her character’s self-consciousness completely evident in both her face and body, played with finesse and professionalism.
All seven dancers return in the finale of the entire performance, a demanding piece that saw them running circles around chairs, crawling up and down them as they continued to fight amongst themselves for a seat amongst the limited six. Through witty movements and with a troupe of skilled dancers, Ryan Tan has crafted a thoroughly enjoyable phantasmagoria of a key element of the Singaporean condition, pushing his dancers to their full potential with his demanding choreography. As the cast come together in a happy ending and find a final, creative solution to the chair problem, one feels as if TRDOco has done something similar in making contemporary dance less of a daunting form, yet no less powerful in its message and spellbinding in its visual splendour.
Performance attended 12/1/18.
We The Singaporeans plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio till 13th January. Tickets are sold out.