Finding new avenues for expression in a lockdown.
With the circuit breaker and restrictions on performance, staying home has been pretty much all artists can do as they wait for Singapore to open up again. But being cooped up all day can certainly lead to some dangerous mental health issues, from anxiety to cabin fever.
Exploring the effects of lockdown on their artists, Maya Dance Theatre presents Stop & Smell the Roses, a screen dance performance conceived and created during the COVID-19 circuit breaker. The project saw 17 dancers coming together to perform choreography by Shahrin Johry, with each dancer having filmed themselves independently in their own homes (screen directed by Mohd. Yahssir) before being edited and compiled into a single film.
The result is a 15-minute film that takes us through a psychological journey of grief at the loss of freedom, and rediscovery as dancers find new ways of expression even while under lockdown. Stop & Smell the Roses opens on a bleak note, with the screen bathed in monochrome black and white, reflecting the feeling of ennui and hopelessness as Shahrin Johry wakes up to yet another day of staying home. To reflect the title, only objects that are red or pink remain coloured, as if little reminders that there are still things to be happy about, despite them being hard to see amidst the gloom.
As the film goes on, we watch as the dancers continue to struggle with claustrophobia, as they tap their feet impatiently waiting for it all to be over. Dancers plug themselves into music via their headphones, attempting to stave off the boredom and finding all ways and means of coping, be it stretches or finding themselves in increasingly bizarre positions. It is clear that the home space has slowly but surely become unwelcome, as matched by Kailin Yong’s rather menacing music. To further emphasise the mental breakdown, reality itself seems to warp as we see the use of mirrored screens, slow motion, and our sense of time itself mutate.
But all of this suddenly changes, as the music changes, with Bharathanatyam vocals by Ajith Bhaskaran Das and Peni Candrarini. The dancers seem to have a sudden change of heart as they gain control over themselves and the knowledge that space alone cannot keep them cooped up. There is evidently much more confidence in the way they dance, more choreographed now as if they have made a decision to go with the flow rather than fight against it. Inspired by Bharathanatyam, we see a hand movement resembling a flower coming into bloom, and then watch the dancers in their homes all at once across a grid, each one finding strength in self-expression.
Shahrin Johry, alone in his room and clutching his head, is approached by Maya Dance Theatre artistic director Kavitha Krishnan, who offers him comfort as she brings him outdoors, practicing dance movements together. The music is calm, relaxing, meditative now as we see the dancers all synced up across the grid, at peace with themselves and connected through performing the same movements despite being physically apart.
We catch glimpses of each dancer’s home life, often performing with feeling, having learnt how to be expressive even within the confines of home. There is tenderness in their movements, particularly the duets, while at other times, they allow themselves to let go of their fears and simply let their bodies do the talking. And it feels as if we have reached the eye of the storm, knowing that while it is not yet over, we are able to find our centre, calm down, and rediscover the power of performance and artistic expression.
As we watch Shahrin and Kavitha ride off on a bicycle into the unknown, we feel as if the world has opened up again, slowly but surely. The rest of the dancers seem to have hope in their hearts as they look into the future, and not be bogged down by the present, grateful for life and the this strange new way we manage to still coexist together despite being apart. We are reminded that even at its darkest, sometimes what it takes to get through a crisis is a change in perspective, to take a step back, and to find the little things in life that keep us going.
Stop & Smell the Roses is available on YouTube. For more information, visit Maya Dance Theatre’s website. Support Maya Dance Theatre with a donation on Paypal, allowing them to keep going and continue devoting their time to works that bring awareness to social concerns.