Arts Dance with Me Review Singapore

Review: M1 Open Stage 2021

Four works shine a spotlight on Southeast Asian contemporary dance.

The M1 CONTACT – Contemporary Dance Festival has always been a champion for Asian contemporary dance artists, particularly with their annual M1 Open Stage programme. As always, this year’s edition curates a selection of new work from over 150 applicants, and this time, distils it into a final performance of four choreographies, each one focusing on personal stories and our psyche.

Performed at the Esplanade Annexe Studio, this year’s edition opened with Hasyimah Harith’s Nak Dara, a Malay term which refers to a young and sexually attractive girl. Hasyimah’s goal is to use her work as a way to claim ownership over her body, and celebrate the concept of ‘nafsu’ or insatiable appetites. As Hasyimah arrives onstage, she begins to wear a sarong, her silhouette clear against the darkness. From there, Nak Dara sees her slowly and deliberately putting on one item of clothing after another, each movement carefully calculated, all the way to the final headpiece she dons.

Completely clothed and covered now, all we can see are her eyes, as the music suddenly turns ominous. Her eyes and body language are the key to seeing her emotions, as she expresses a mix of isolation, loneliness, pain and sometimes, even joy. The performance ends as she waves a piece of clothing through the air, as if trying to dispel bad luck and her frustrations with the world. She lets her hair loose, spreads her legs as if about to give birth, and shrieks in agony. Her face locked in anguish and fear, all we have left are the clothes she leaves behind, as if a reminder of her story to be told, a representation of femininity she chooses to show the world.  

In Aiden Tan and Cheng Wei’s 10-6 into the SKIN, the work explores the curiosity and desire to dive deeper into the unfathomable. The piece begins with the sound of water cascading down, before performers Aiden Tan and Reneejo Euriel Villarosa arrive onstage. We imagine them as aquatic creatures – Aiden begins tossing himself around like a fish out of water, and the two play on and react to each other’s movements and energy, as if portraying life’s journey. Telling this story through their bodies, it feels as if they’re diving deeper and constantly exploring the uncertain future, going ever further to plumb these murky depths and find the light at the end of it all.

Inspired by the story of Lazarus coming back to life, Wayne Ong and Leia Ong presents an excerpt of their work Lazarus Parable Movement, which explores the consequences of his resurrection. In the background, we see photos and news reports, and we begin to wonder about how there are always multiple perspectives to every issue. These two sides are shown through the more “apparent” clear air at the top and the rubble that is under. One wonders then about where the rest of the piece would go, perhaps going deeper into finding the “right narrator” to tell a story, making it both compelling and truthful.

In the final piece of the evening, Pat Toh performed her work Topography of Breath, as she calls to mind sports culture, and takes inspiration from high intensity interval training to present ideas of exhaustion through her body and breath. To show this, Pat is dressed in sports gear, showing off her musculature while a wallpaper of pictures of her body are displayed behind her, emphasising the complete and total awareness and control over her body. Onstage, Pat immediately starts breathing in and out profusely, as if catching her breath after an intense exercise. It’s hard to watch – her breaths are sharp and don’t seem to stop, pushing herself to the brink of exhaustion. Even as a bell rings, almost signalling her to stop, she carries on, and we become increasingly uncomfortable watching her.

Every breath seems to count, and Pat showcases total commitment to the task, steadfast and never ceasing. We want to ask her to stop and take a break, but she is completely concentrated on her breaths, unable to think of anything else at all. We wonder about the concept of time itself as we feel it slip away, as if it doesn’t matter for Pat at all until she completes this performance. We wonder about her physical limits, and just how far she can go before she collapses, and how we too might not know our own limits. As the bell rings more urgently, she finally comes to stop, and goes into a monologue about what time and her body means to her. Caressing her body, kissing it, we reflect on how the body is a temple – how we hone it and care for it is entirely up to us, where we end up destroying it or bringing it to new heights.

M1 Open Stage played live from 28th to 30th June 2021 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio, and will be available online from 18th to 31st July 2021. More information available here

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