Arts Dance with Me Esplanade Theatre Studio Preview Singapore

Review: RawGround – Reference by RAW Moves

Screenshot 2020-11-12 at 12.32.45 AM

A marathon of process-driven and exploratory works showcasing the range of topics and issues RAW Moves is ready to tackle. 

RAW Moves has never been one to shy away from big, ambitious works, from a three-hour durational piece, to even hosting a ‘living laboratory’ of dancers. And even with the COVID-19 pandemic putting a dampener on the arts scene, that was never going to stop the contemporary dance company from carrying on anyway, with RawGround: Reference – a whopping 12-video series of short films delving into topics that better help us make sense of the world around us, and ourselves too.

Particularly in the strange new normal the pandemic has brought us, RawGround: Reference seems to gain new poignancy, as we search for new ways of coping and understanding the complicated rules and workings we have been thrust into. Certainly, to devote one’s self to watching all 12 videos is a commitment in itself, but the payoff and food for thought worth it.

Viewers may watch the 12 videos in any order they wish, but ideally, are to be viewed across a 12 hour window, with one video every hour, so as to space out the viewing experience and give enough time in between to reflect on each one. In a sense, one could even see it as a digital art festival of a sorts, with each of the 12 works offering a unique perspective on a topic you would never expect a dance company to tackle. In the first piece, Titisa Jeamsakul (Ice)’s My Pa’s Colors, dealing with her father’s colourblindness. Presents almost like a documentary, we begin with the colour white representing purity. We are now at a ceremony where they are preparing a body for the funeral. As they perform the rites, it is interesting and insightful to see the process documented. The pink flowers were beautiful as they were her favourite, but it is at this juncture that we ask ourselves, what exactly are colours, what colours can we see, and do colours really dictate our lives. “When I am outside, I would still buy the food she loves and bring it back for her.” It is not colours that define us, but how we feel and react to someone, and how we love.

RAW Moves company dancer Stephanie Rae Yoong’s A Whimsical World reflects on the idea of positive self-affirmation, using it as a means to understand herself better, and why she desires these traits. In her bedsheet fortress, Stephanie plays with fairy lights, symbols of her words of self-affirmation, such as her gratitude for being alive, or her commitment to be kind and forgiving to herself. Through this practice, we initial feel that she will be all the better for it. Yet she seems discomforted by it, as if realising by having so many phrases, it reveals what she instead lacks. There is some inspired use of stop motion and beautiful and creative use of the fairy lights, and as the piece draws to a close, she sheds a tear, cuts holes in her bedsheet, collapsing it and reforming it into a flower. It seems she has decided finally released herself from the prison of her own thoughts to embark on a journey of healing.

Writer Akanksha Raja’s It’s Hard To Explain gathers three Singaporeans who fall outside of the standard issue CMI racial spectrum, each with their own complications on race and language. Featuring ‘too pretty to be Filipina’ Danielle Cutiongco, Peranakan-Eurasian, Malay-speaking Jaclyn Chong, and Muslim-Indian, Urdu-speaking Gosteola Spancer, the work grapples with the micro-aggressions they face from their peers in society from assuming they must fit into certain boxes or stereotypes, and their attempt to ‘fit in’. What is interesting about these interviews is how the camera often isolates parts of their body, be it their hands or their eyes, and layers a different interviewee’s voiceover with the face of another, such as Gosteola’s words while showing Danielle. This serves to further emphasise the increasingly complex definition of a Singaporean identity, and that one can no longer pigeonhole Singaporeans into a specific set of traits. At one point, details begin to get censored out, and it soon becomes clear that who they say doesn’t really matter, so long as they consider themselves Singaporean, cemented by the final scene of the three of them playing a game as they attempt to squeeze onto a piece of paper (folded in half each time they succeed), and highlighting their unique struggle of fitting in. 

RAW Moves company dancer Matthew Goh’s The Board sees him become a modern day Atlas, as he balances and holds up a lighted board for the duration of the performance. It is clear that the board is not light, as he struggles to hold it up and change positions while under it, representing the immense pressure he feels to live up to expectations from both society and himself, a test of how he reacts when under such stress. A particularly beautiful scene sees a close-up of Matthew facing the mirrored board, his real face pressed against his reflection, as if looking back at himself, his own weight and body a burden for him to bear. Even though he does seem to have gotten a grasp on how to manage the weight, by the end, the fly bars lower down and seem to crush him, highlight the immense difficulty and weight of expectation.

Autistic 17-year old artist Lee En Jie sees him embarking on a more whimsical piece in Faces. Seated across a desk from a series of guests, En Jie and his various guests take turns sketching each other’s faces. En Jie even has his own folder filled with transparencies, each one with a different hairstyle or face-shape etched onto it that he can combine as a frame of reference to draw his guest’s face. The result is surprisingly tender, as the two exchange the final drawing with each other, almost like swapping each other’s viewpoints, and understanding how they perceive and see each other.

In Timothy Tan’s Displaced Mathematics Articulated, the sound artist explores forgotten mathematical systems, displaced by history. His own voice modulated to sound deeper and more distorted, he compares these systems to languages that have been forgotten, and digs them up in the form of ‘chaotic maps’. Dressed like a scientist with his white overcoat, he then explains the idea of Gumowski-Mira maps, audio chaotic oscillators and vuza canons, bringing together twin knowledges of math and music. The result is fascinating, if a little obscure, and makes for an interesting experiment, as we wonder how other theories might be presented through sound.

Aneesha Shetty’s Mimos: Extended Bindings sees the young artist playing with jute, the material used to make burlap sacks, as she cuts it, flattens it, manipulates it, and glues it to a sheet of plastic, before tearing it off and moulding it into a fibrous ‘shell’. Even the process of creating the piece feels performative in nature, and when she wraps the corset-like ‘shell’ around herself, restricting herself. She seems to almost become one with nature as she figures out how best to ‘wear’ the jute shell. Towards the end, she runs it through the grass, and begins exploring the space around Goodman Arts Centre with it, learning to manoeuvre the space, the cultural history of jute (a key material in Indian domestic life), and her own modern urban landscape.

Sculptor Chok Si Xuan’s you and i is all about systems, as she showcases the design process behind one of her creations. Mechanical in nature, close-up shots of the the individual parts and her screen make it seem almost like a nature documentary, as we observe her in her natural environment, bestowing life into these machines, the beep of their pulse evident on the screen, and perhaps, gives us a glimpse into what the future looks like.

En Jie returns in Tea Party as he charts the process of preparing for a tea party, inviting his fellow RAW Moves colleagues and documenting his research, his planning, his supermarket shopping and his actual baking process. There’s a relaxing, almost joyful quality to this piece (helped by the jaunty music), especially once the tea party itself actually starts, with En Jie family and RAW Moves colleagues encouraging him, praising him, and learning more about his home life.

History teacher Edward Tan leads us on a virtual tour of the Changi area in Changi 10th Milestone, cutting across both history and our modern time, covering everything from cemeteries to community centres. Whether it’s exploring the kampongs of the past, or dropping a new fact about Changkat Changi Primary School, there’s evidently plenty of enthusiasm from his end, infectious enough to inspire us to visit these places ourselves, and rediscover not just Changi, but the areas we never knew had a hidden history to them.

Christoven Tan’s BLIP is possibly the most disturbing video of the series, as it imagines us within a mother’s womb and how we experience music from there. Bathed in red lighting, Christoven plays a violin, his notes often erratic and shrill, while distorted images manifest on the screen behind him, whether it’s pixel-like squares or disembodied eyes staring back at us. In defamiliarising what we know to be music, BLIP suggests going back to our very origins to reimagine what an ideal sonic experience can be like, and offers up the opportunity to see and hear from a completely different perspective.

Finally, Melyn Chow’s To Hold and To Have presents her own parents as the performers, as it reflects on the concept of marriage by examining her parents’ relationship. Beginning with silence, we watch as her parents lie in bed, rolling around in the middle of the night, their natural movements seemingly choreographed. The film then delves into the absurd, as it presents images of her parents each seated at a fixed spot, their clothes swapped continuously with each other in the scenes that follow, as if they have spent so much time with each other, they become interchangeable. Although they’re meant to spend 4 minutes in silence making eye contact with each other, they cannot hold it, and instead begin to talk to each other. Towards the end of the piece, the camera travels through the house, and begins to find the same framed image of her parents’ wedding in literally every corner (including the washing machine). It’s evident that somehow, her parents have managed to make their marriage work as their love continues to survive all these years, bearing with each other, learning to live with each other, and ensuring that they are a part of each other’s lives.

As a whole, what the pandemic seems to have done is allow RAW Moves and their collaborators the space to reflect and the freedom to explore their craft in increasingly experimental ways. Video work in particular allows both dancers and non-dancers to present different facets of themselves and their subjects through this new medium, and each work, despite being physically distant from us from being pre-recorded and behind the screen, still feels oddly intimate, as they present fiercely individual perspectives and experiences of each artist. Inclusive, empowering and innovative, RawGround: Reference reminds us that there is always something new to learn as we attempt to understand each other’s perspective and frame of reference, and allows us a chance to disengage from our lives and fully immerse ourselves in these ideas for 12 thought-provoking hours.

RawGround: Reference is available to watch till 13th December 2020 here

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