A reminder to live life fully and without regret.
Given its theme of A Question of Time, it seems appropriate that the 2021 NUS Arts Festival opens with NUS Dance Ensemble and NUS Electronic Music Lab’s Past . Presence . Future . Choreographed by Zaini Mohammad Tahir, the collaborative work combines dance, electronic music and film to tell the story of a family, and how Time can affect our perceptions of reality of who we are and the events in our lives.
Time is always of the essence, with the performance reminding us from the moment it begins, as we hear the ticking sounds made by a metronome. The ensemble of eight dancers arrives onstage, and we watch as they keep pace and synchronise themselves to the beat. Tan E-Reng’s electronic music takes over in grand fashion, and we can imagine how it all used to be, a time before the pandemic, a simpler, more joyous time in the past.
Time is inherently linked to memories of the past, and as we hear the sound of a baby crying, one of the dancers, playing the mother, flips through a photo album. It evokes a sense of warmth and comfort in her, yet she seems to feel something is missing. She flashes back to the past, thinking back to when her home was filled with life, and we think about all that we’ve lost to time. It is so easy to dwell on things lost, yet we must remain hopeful strong, continuing to make new memories for the future, starting with the simple act of taking a photo together.
It is through time that relationships fade and we lose our connection to each other. With the stage completely silent, we see two dancers attempting to mimic each other, as if they were mirroring the other’s moves, almost like trying to find a means of connecting and conversing. It is so quiet, we can hear the sound of the dancers’ breaths and footsteps onstage, allowing us to feel closer to both of them, despite being physically distant from the stage.
The dancers then bring out metronomes, each one set to a different rhythm, referencing how different each person is, and how we do things in our own time and pace. We wonder how long we have before our own time is up, as two ‘elders’ begin to walk towards a light. Their emotions are there for all to see, deeply afraid of letting go as they dance around the flickering light, almost signifying how life itself is temporal.
The slippery, esoteric nature of time is also emphasised throughout the performance by short film segments directed by Peter Tan. Over these films, we watch as memories too become lost to time, as a mother and child build up a bond with each other as they embrace, only to lose it later on as the visuals fade into a series of smoky and vague glimpses of distorted memories. Not only do these films showcase evocative visuals, but they also serve a practical purpose by giving the dancers a chance to change costumes and catch their breaths. This seems especially important with how challenging it must have been for 8 dancers alone to perform for the entire duration of the show.
Eventually, we are left with a visual of the mother reminiscing over the past, still displaying the passion of her youth after all these years, as emphasised by the lighting to illuminate the grandeur of the performance. We are left to ponder over life, and just how much of our destiny we can control. With haunting music playing in the background, the show rewinds back to the start, suggesting this intense desire to similarly turn back time. At this point, we realise that everything we’ve seen are just memories in subconscious mind, fast fading and leaving only a wistful hope for having lived a better life. With ominous music playing in the background, we wonder if anyone can ever truly get a chance for a do-over. And even if we did, what would we do different?
Left with a bare stage, its skeletal nature evoking a sense of loneliness in us, we watch the lone elderly woman at the back in her rocking chair. As she holds on to the memories, we ponder over her solitude, and how small she seems as this small figure in a void. It is with this poignant ending that we are left to reflect on the personal stories, struggles and dilemmas brought up by this show, reminding us all to live in the present, and imbue our life with the vigour and hope to create a better future with no regrets.
Photo Credit: Kuang Jingkai / @dancealittleeveryday
Past . Presence . Future . ran from 19th to 20th March 2021 as part of NUS Arts Festival 2021. Past . Presence . Future . will also be screened online in high-definition format between 29th March to 11th April and is free for viewing upon registration.
The 2021 NUS Arts Festival runs from 19th March to 16th April 2021. For more information and tickets, visit their website here