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NUS Arts Festival 2018: On The Shoulders of Giants by NUS Dance Synergy (Review)

A high energy, ambitious performance opens the 25th NUS Arts Festival.

Just as the generation before them, the youth of today are caught in a state of flux as they fast approach adulthood – at what point do they stop following the rules of the past, leap off the proverbial ‘shoulders of giants’ and the greats who came before them, and carve out their own identities, taking full pride in their positions as millennials in all their beautiful flaws and courage?

Inspired by Goh Poh Seng’s novel If We Dream Too Long, artistic director Yarra Ileto attempts to do just that as she leads 32 young dancers from NUS Dance Synergy in a movement-based exploration of dreams and identity. Choreographed by Ileto, Albert Tiong and Goh Shou Yi, throughout the 60 minute performance, we see these dancers learn to come to to a compromise with both their past and their present.

The performance begins with a projected video of two hands coming together, each sizing the other up cautiously, before two soloists emerge onstage, mimicking that same movement as they interact with each other, with one almost feeling the static emanate as they attempted to identify each other via measured movements, giving us a clear idea of what was going on.

As the screen lifted, the dark, bleak set of On The Shoulders of Giants was revealed as a cold, desolate world as the remainder of the massive ensemble entered the space to absorb the two into their fold. With a few towering, tree-like sculptures amidst them, the dancers used the light and space to create giant, shadowy figures on the walls, as if their generation were being haunted by these spectral ancestors constantly keeping watch over them.

Moving their bodies in sync as a single phalanx, the dancers, each dressed in identical grey jumpsuits, appear to be part of a dystopian, uniform group as they rush to perform the same movements, uncertain of their own identities as they join the fray and learn to jump onto the bandwagon as a single, functional machine-like unit. At times, the emphasis on how dead and heavy the idea of conforming is literalised through the directorial decision to pile four dancers on top of each other to create ‘stone-like’ set pieces, literally become part of the landscape.

It is evident that there is a lot of anger and frustration in them as they perform these choreographies, particularly as a tongue-in-cheek voiceover begins to play, launching familiar criticisms against these phone-addicted, Supreme collecting, acai-bowl consuming millennials, prejudiced against simply for establishing a lifestyle so far removed from the generation before them. Visibly and audibly struggling from their weary movements and panting, one becomes aware of the contradictory demands of this generation as they attempt to both follow the past and establish the future.

Although the choreographers have done their best to make full use of the massive UCC stage, the huge space proved far too challenging to allow these dancers’ performance to feel close, leaving it airy, detached and distant from the audience.

As bleak as it begins, On The Shoulders of Giants still offers a spark of hope – as the two soloists return once more, the female soloist reaches out as if asking for help. These dancers are fully committed to their actions, supporting each other as they leap across the stage, finding comfort in each other’s applause each time, a need for validation that rewards them with the strength to carry on.

Towards the end, as a disembodied voice delivers paradoxical instructions to the ensemble, each obediently performing as they’re told, from clapping without the hands touching to running without their feet leaving the ground, the performance seems to have lent itself towards the absurd.

But it is in this absurdity that we see something real finally emerge. Now bereft of their uniform jumpsuits, a soloist jumps and finds himself ‘floating’ (as he is supported by the strength of the entire ensemble), a neutral space as he moves through the air almost as if finding the mental space required to find peace with himself and be his own person and come to terms with his own identity.

Partway, the dancers are given the space and time to be themselves as they perform tiny improv movements, showing how during the rehearsals they are encouraged to be themselves. We end off with a soloist dancing fervently in the shadow of a giant, on and on even as the curtain comes down, determined to carve his own identity even while remembering the past. He is courageous, he dreams, and he remains alive.

In spite of some limitations of the space provided, On The Shoulders of Giants tackles a relevant topic to the youth of today, and in fact, any generation going through the struggles and fears of impending adulthood. There is obvious synergy between both current students and alumni involved in this production, and the amount of effort that has gone into putting on this show is testament to their love and commitment to dance.

Photo Credit: Justin Koh

On The Shoulders of Giants played at the NUS University Cultural Centre on 7th September 2018. If We Dream: NUS Arts Festival 2018 runs from 7th to 23rd September 2018. Tickets and full programme lineup available here

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