Arts Dance with Me Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo) by Compagnia Zappala Danza (cont·act Contemporary Dance Festival 2022)

Photo Credit: Serene Nicoletti

A history of violence, and the start of forgiveness. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting The First Mourning is so named for its depiction of Adam and Eve discovering the body of their son Abel, slain by his own brother Cain, and marking the first human death in the Bible. What is striking about this image is to see Abel arched over in death, completely vulnerable and stretched out, and perhaps a mark of our mortality and susceptibility to violence.

That image of Abel is also one that appears several times throughout Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo), a work by Italian dance company Compagnia Zappala Danza that explores the original Cain and Abel conflict. Conceptualised by Nello Calabrò and Roberto Zappalà, with the latter also choreographing and directing the piece, Caino e Abele #1 interprets the story as the beginnings of evil and the origin of strife, and acts as a warning against the ever-presence of conflict in these contemporary times.

From the start, Caino e Abele establishes its link to violence through the imagery of boxing, a motif that continues to express itself throughout the performance in various ways. With the sound of a bell marking the start of a round, two boxers (guest performers Miguel Miranda and Mohammed Narish Bin Mohamed Noh) in the corners of the stage stand up, and begin a match, viciously jabbing and punching as they go at each other with all their might, until the bell signals for them to stop at last.

The corners are now occupied by dancers Fernando Roldan Ferrer as Abel in red, and Joel Walsham as Cain in blue, their contrasting colours symbolising their differences. Dressed also in earth-tone skirts reminiscent of ancient civilisations, the entire stage not only resembles a boxing ring, but also now reminds us of battlefields throughout history, or a ring where great wrestling matches might have been held. Watching the two dancers, one imagines they represent the biblical brothers, or perhaps they simply represent two opponents at odds. In any case, their relationships starts innocently enough as they run on the spot – when one person stops and stoops, the other picks up where he leaves off. It feels cooperative at first, almost as if one is passing the baton to another in a relay race, looking out for and supporting each other. But it’s not long before it escalates into a competition, the two locked in an intense rivalry.

This surges into outright engagement, as the two of them grab on to each other, rolling across the floor as they slowly grapple, throw, lock and choke each other. With how graceful and smooth their movements are, alongside the relaxing classical Brahms track, it is hard to tell if they are truly causing violence to each other, or simply boys play fighting, perhaps a precursor to the actual conflict that takes place only later in their lives.

Photo Credit: Serene Nicoletti

But that ambiguity becomes undeniably aggressive in the next scene, as the music dies down, and they get down on all fours, growling and barking at each other, as if metamorphosed into dogs fighting for dominance. The choice to have two male dancers isn’t just limited to conforming to the genders of Cain and Abel; it also makes for a truly threatening presence, as they begin to yell a series of declarations at the top of their voices towards the audience. “I am the good,” claims Abel. “I am the bad,” replies Cain. The remainder of the shouts begin to complicate these easy stereotypes, as they begin making declarations about each other, so loud and so much force that their actual words begin to distort, and we begin to ponder over how difficult it actually is to point a finger at a clear hero and villain in any given conflict.

What is surprising in the next scene is how they begin to tango with each other, bathed in a swathe of red light. We think of blood, of passion, of love, and all these mixed emotions swept up in a heady miasma of action, the tango, intended as a romantic dance, is reappropriated to represent the push & pull between two people, constantly shifting. For the remainder of the show, this unpredictability continues to present itself as they separate themselves once more, a temporary truce as they begin to pour salt around the perimeter of the ring, while muttering the same lines they were shouting several scenes ago. Even though they are apart, they continue to watch each other warily, preparing themselves and pre-empting the next attack.

Even though the salt ring has been established, with salt believed to be able to ward off evil and promote purification, the two nonetheless return to scuffle once again, this time to the sound of Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’. Slow and melancholic in its melody, the lyrics speak of the end of a relationship, almost a prayer to watch over a partner in the wake of a break-up. It is in this final scuffle that seems to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Too-bright orange lights flashing around the perimeter of the ring, hurting our eyes and adding drama to the conflict, causing them to dart in and out of shadows, and leaving them as darkened silhouettes where we cannot tell one from the other, while strobe lights slow down the action, harsh and hurtful to us as the audience to represent the pain that’s happening onstage. There are so many angles and dimensions from which to see the fight, locked in combat as their faces twist into new expressions. It doesn’t matter who started it – all that matters is finding an end.

There is so much control seen in how both dancers lift each other, capturing moments in their bodies stretched out, elongated, as if pushed to their physical limits. As much as there is violence being dealt, there is love behind it as well, hurting each other out of jealousy, of misplaced hate, of confusion. At one point, they seem to recall having once run the race with each other, and for a moment, return to that memory of innocence, as they synchronise their movements and practice punches, jabs, hooks and kicks side by side, not at each other but together as one.

It’s a memory that eventually fades away, as the performance ends with a ‘death’, the symbolic ‘Abel’ slain and lying sprawled under the punching bag. There is a sense of loss and immediate regret that emanates from ‘Cain’, realising the unimaginable sin he has committed of killing his own brother. He does not cry, but instead, squeezing the punching bag, lets loose a shower of salt upon Abel’s lifeless body, in the hopes of forgiveness and an end to the cycle, and beginning the process of healing. Arresting in its imagery, and contemplative in the complexity of violence mixed with love, Caino e Abele may mourn the first death in history, but effectively, and beautifully uses it as a poignant message to patch the fault lines between others, and perhaps, eventually put an end to devastating conflicts once and for all.

Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo) played from 24th to 25th June 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the cont·act Contemporary Dance Festival 2022. More information available here

cont·act Contemporary Dance Festival 2022 runs from 17th June to 1st July 2022 across various locations. More information and tickets available here

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