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Review: Bitten – Return To Our Roots by Thong Pei Qin and Dr Nidya Shanthini Manokara

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Blood ties run deep as this production gets bitten by the history bug.

Dengue fever may seem like an unexpected and morbid inspiration to create an entire show around, but for Bitten: Return to Our Roots creators Thong Pei Qin and Dr Nidya Shanthini Manokara, it’s an affliction that doubled as a metaphor and the beginnings of an ongoing exploration into their past, present and future.

Inspired by the concept of the way dengue mutates one’s blood, Bitten takes the form of a unique theatrical experience in which audiences tour the various sites of Kampong Bugis, as the performance unveils the stories of Pei Qin and Shanthini’s families who grew up here, in turn leading to a larger discussion of the area’s history and bloodlines in general. Starting off at Camp Kilo, audience members are provided with an audio device before being introduced to our tour guides – Dong Xi Yan (Seong Hui Xuan) and Yamuna Devi Chathrapathi (Masturah Oli), fictitious versions of creators Pei Qin and Shanthini, as they provide a brief insight into their friendship (Theatre Studies), and their individual lives as a freelance theatre practitioner and dancer respectively.

While initially somewhat slow-moving, once our guides segue into a recount of their shared dengue nightmare, Bitten finds the momentum and energy it needs to really get moving, aided by Sandra Tay’s soundtrack comprising music to set the mood and clips of interviews and narration across time periods, as well as Erika Poh’s evocative monochrome photos set up around while we begin the walk around the area.

Packed full of information, Bitten’s script can be difficult to follow at times, playing out much like memory itself as it meanders from one unexpected association to another. What Bitten excels in however, is its attention to the visual aspects of the production, always offering audiences multifaceted sites and sights to take in at every step. Bitten’s route isn’t particularly demanding, and the perimeter not big, but each of the landmarks chosen feel significant in their own right, from an ancient Banyan tree to what remains of the old Kallang Gasworks, each coming with their own weighty histories. Throughout the performance, Xi Yan and Yamuna at times come together to recite a playful, rhythmic rhyme, citing old wives’ tales and advice their mothers gave them, a reminder of how we inherit the past through stories, songs and sayings to form our identities today.

As Xi Yan and Yamuna take turns to discuss their family histories, dancers Rachel Lum and Shantini herself provide a second performance to accompany the text, each performing contemporary and bharatanatyam dance sequences respectively. These choreographies are intricately linked to the text, as we watch Rachel dance agitatedly and forcefully while Xi Yan discusses her personal struggle with her lack of connection to her dialect-speaking grandfather, while Shanthini performs quick changes and swift, precise movements as Yamuna speaks of her childhood forced to learn bharatanatyam dance and how she grew to love it.

These choreographies tie back to our guides’ journey of growing up and coming to terms with their understanding and acceptance of their own changing identities, even given physical form at one point, as both actors and dancers engage in a four way struggle as they wrestle against each other, connected by a length of red cloth (representing blood). The dance sequences are perhaps some of the most thoughtful, well-integrated aspects of Bitten, and considering how hot and humid the weather was throughout the entire 90 minute performance, no easy feat to perform so precisely and emotionally as well.

Bitten’s most powerful scene however, comes at the end, when we reach the final destination of the 150+ year old Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple. As we find a seat, eating vadeh and sipping some coffee from the temple, we are given tetra pak ‘boats’ with writing on them, to signify things we wish to pass on to future generations, a kind of boat that earlier on, Rachel had released down the longkang to lands unknown. There is both pain and relief in the art of letting go, and it comes through fully as all four performers come together for one final sequence, the now familiar rhyme about their mothers’ advice repeated once again, but now adding friends, relatives and strangers into the mix, representing a life determined not solely by the past, but by the present.

Bitten returns to its creators’ familial roots for answers, but through its exploration, comes to realise that the power to change the future isn’t set in stone. Like how dengue has the power to change the bloodlines that have been running through family trees for generations, so can we break free of these roots, a reminder that our ancestors too were once guided by the past to shape a future with their own hands.

Photo Credit: Asrari Nasir, Paradise Pictures

Performance attended 24/11/18 (11am)

Bitten: Return to Our Roots plays at the Kampong Bugis Outdoor Theatre on 24th and 25th November 2018, and 1st and 2nd December 2018, with the meeting point at Camp Kilo (66 Kampong Bugis, Singapore 338987). It will be performed mainly in English, with a mixture of Tamil and Mandarin. Tickets available here

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