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M1 Fringe Festival 2018: The Immortal Sole by Edith Podesta (Review)

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A confident, powerful performance to kick off the 2018 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

By now, Edith Podesta has firmly established herself as the mistress of just about every performing art form. From her years of experience as a theatre director leading up to the award-winning BITCH, to her stint as a choreographer in RAW Moves’ Indices of Vanishment, Podesta’s breadth of work has grown from strength to strength, each subsequent production only becoming more ambitious. So when it was announced that she would be choreographing an all new dance piece that would have performers stepping through a literal body of water, it was almost inevitable that the 2018 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival would open with a tsunami-like roar with the premiere of The Immortal Sole.

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Somewhat paradoxical to the festival’s theme of “Let’s Walk”, Podesta instead invites visitors to dive into the deep end with this all new take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, retooled as a cautionary tale (or perhaps, tail?) that warns of falling victim to society’s expectations of women, amidst other feminist themes. In many ways, “The Little Mermaid” feels like the perfect launchpad as an example of everything a strong, independent woman shouldn’t be doing. If one thinks about it, sacrificing one’s ‘tail’ and voice, making dodgy business contracts with sea witches, and racing against the clock to seduce a man in the name of true love (failing which results in death) is the absolute antithesis to everything modern day feminism seems to stand for. Here, Podesta uses the framework of the original fairytale while adapting and expanding on its characters to a modern day context, expounding upon the perils of girls growing up in a world of fake news, toxic masculinity and perhaps worst of all – MTV.

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In The Immortal Sole, the Esplanade Theatre Studio is transformed into a black sea, with Podesta’s four performers (Ma Yanling, Dapheny Chen, Koh Wan Ching and Yarra Ileto) quite literally making a splash as they glide, stomp and writhe their way through Adrian Tan’s oceanic set. Every action has been choreographed to perfection, with each audible splash forming a soundscape of movement that one can practically visualize even with eyes closed. Already, watching the dancers confidently maintain their poise and grace in what must be freezing water while clad in sheer, skin-tone costumes proves one of The Immortal Sole‘s major messages: these women are incredible by virtue of their skill alone.

With perfectly synchronized actions to represent their shared sisterhood and choreography that stretched them to their physical limits, it was evident that each dancer had put their entire heart and soul into this performance. Like the tempestuous nature of water itself, a tender, light splash or raging wave is all one needs to feel the surging emotions that emanate from their very bodies, each movement planned to precision. One might even say that they perfectly embodied the very idea and fantasy of a mermaid’s femininity in all their glamorous sophistry and sultry nature. Despite the small space of the theatre studio, the dancers effectively manipulated it they manoeuvred around the space, making the set look much wider than it actually was, sinking in and out of the darkness. Towards the end of the performance, Podesta’s eye for the theatrical is on full display as in her dying moments, Koh Wan Ching exuberates exhaustion as the moon-like light ebbs and flows away, her struggles in the water slowing to silence as she lets go a final gasp to signify an end.

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Throughout the performance, each dancer goes through their own set of trials and tribulations, from self-objectification by taking on MTV style personas (read: Toxic/Work Bitch era Britney Spears) and dressing ‘sexy’ from the social pressures of pop culture, to the thankless, unseen work they put in with domestic chores as simple as washing clothes, to the crushing feeling of watching a man choose another woman, and taking drastic measures thereafter. In the all too real world of The Immortal Sole, women are defined by the man they are in love with, never truly able to stand on their own two feet without seeking the crutch of socially ‘acceptable’ behaviour, and suffer all the more for it.

As pessimistic a world as The Immortal Sole depicts, it becomes clear in its final scenes that it is a call for real change: we watch these characters, broken and beaten by the cards life has dealt them come to their senses, realizing that all this could be avoided if they take a stand and swim back against the current, allowing their true selves to define them. There’s real power in this beautiful and darkly brilliant dance piece, and a stark reminder that as a society, we still have a long way to go in our need to come together and support each other in the unending fight to undo centuries of harmful social programming.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Performance attended 17/1/18

The Immortal Sole plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio till 20th January. Tickets available from SISTIC

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