Arts London Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: IMAGO by Travis Clausen-Knight and James Pett

Capturing the beauty and pain of love gone bad.

If the pandemic is anything to go by, nothing good should be taken for granted, and it’s likely, never lasts forever. In psychoanalysis, the term ‘imago’ refers to an unconscious idealized mental image of someone, which influences a person’s behaviour. Using this definition as a starting point, UK dancers Travis Clausen-Knight and James Pett attempt to portray the breakdown of a toxic relationship through dance, in IMAGO.

Streaming online as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, IMAGO begins with two characters in a blank white room, a single white plinth in the background with a bunch of flowers atop it. Sean Pett’s music is pulsating, vibrating as Travis, then James arrive onstage. Both donning crisp suits, one imagines the initial formality of two people meeting, as they begin to dance with one another, learning the rhythm of each other’s movements and bodies, as they come into sync and drift apart to represent the ebb and flow of a new relationship.

But the performance seems to take a dark turn, as the music shifts to Concerto No. 4 for Violin Strings and Continuo in F Minor, from Vivaldi’s Winter segment in The Four Seasons, and Travis is left alone, his movements distressed and rapid, almost exhausting with how fast he moves. The two dancers suddenly seem to be vying for power and control, and as the music rises, the relationship too seems to become increasingly violent, as Travis seems almost dragged by James at times.

Turning our attention to James’ character’s side of the story, he performs a solo to Tchaikovsky’s The Sick Doll, falling to his knees and stretching himself into beautiful, seemingly impossible positions. James’ body is light, malleable, and ethereal as he lifts himself by the hands, precariously balancing atop a plinth. One wonders if this is the truth, or simply the idealised version of his partner that Travis is imagining in his head.

Segueing into Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12, it feels that the relationship has taken a significant turn, signified by the dancers moving the plinths to almost form obstacles in their path. A new set of flowers is brought in, and we wonder if after the violence of the previous scenes, it represents some kind of apology, or hope for reconciliation. Yet it is clear that their bond has been strained, as the music abruptly distorts without warning, and the dancers are no longer as in sync as before, while the green light feels almost sinister with how much tension is in the air. The amount of physical contact they share increases, and for a moment, they’re together again, the notion of happiness just on the horizon.

As the piano picks up the pace, the volatility of the relationship returns, and we become aware of how fractured both dancers have become in their relations. They remove their blazers, and it seems that the formality of the start is now lost, their real selves plain to see in the yellow light, perhaps symbolising the twilight of the relationship, with the romance all but gone, and a single lonely flower remaining on a plinth. James grabs and pulls and desperately wants Travis back, but it feels as if Travis is no longer as invested as before, either limp or resisting, perhaps no longer possessing as much trust in him as before.

In the final segment, we hear Mercy by Max Richter, a composer best known for his emotionally devastating tracks, and the room is filled with soft white light. One might even describe it as heavenly, if not for our knowledge of what has transpired before. Travis and James now seem to be in a recovery phase, both halves of the relationship broken beyond repair, but trying to take things back to how they were anyway. There is a tenderness to it all, as they lift each other, showcasing a degree of care, and almost but not quite embracing. As the violin rises, we realise there are no more flowers in the room, and the love has been all but erased. Whether this is an idealised version of what could have been, or the sad reality of two people who have finally fallen out.

In the pre-recorded post-show explanation, Travis and James explain the rich use of symbolism throughout the piece, where the plinths represent the architecture of the relationship, while the flowers hold their own special language. And with IMAGO, whether one understands the subtle symbolism or not, we are reminded of how every couple has their own secret language, one that is understood only by each other.

From this, we imagine that in spite of all the tragedy, IMAGO is in fact, a hopeful piece that suggests some kind of recovery by its end. Yes, the struggle and hurt is real, but it is only through the pain that one is finally snapped back to reality, and realises the toxicity of the environment all around. If trapped in a toxic relationship, regardless of how much others tell you to leave, it is only when you yourself see the signs pointing you to your own flawed view of the relationship that you can finally save yourself, step aside, and begin your road to recovery.

Photo Credit: Erminando Alia

IMAGO streams online from 12th to 23rd January 2022 as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here

The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here

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