Arts Music Review Singapore

Review: Present Past 今后 by RuanAtWorkz

Continuing their journey to promote the art of Chinese instrumental music and showcasing traditional instruments, RuanAtWorkz returned with Present Past, a brand new performance as part of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre’s annual Cultural Extravaganza.

In the same vein as their previous work Night Walker in 2021, Present Past also takes on an intercultural, multidisciplinary approach, bringing together opera, ruan music and bharatanatyam dance. Directed by Jeffrey Tan, the work imagines characters from different timelines coming together in an interdimensional space, and exploring the meaning of the future through self-discovery, and reflecting on the past and present.

Under Jeffrey’s adaptable direction and planning, Present Past succeeds at its attempt to create a dreamy atmosphere, in spite of its limitations as a conference room-type of space, and creating a workable stage. The performance begins by putting the spotlight on the ruan itself, placed in the centre of the stage, before Cantonese opera singer Gary Ong, playing the Scribe and representing the past, arrives onstage. There’s a nostalgic vibe to this segment, and we recall the pasar malams of the past, with wooden stages for pop up shows, all around various neighbourhoods bringing the arts to people. As Gary sings, it feels as if language is no barrier, his expressions and emotions of love, sorrow and anguish clearly articulated through his face and voice.

Neil Chua, playing Muso and representing the present, picks up the ruan onstage, and we enter the first scene proper. Titled Inner Dimensions, Neil enters a reflective state as he ponders balancing his artistic views with practical reality, and we hear soft swirling breeze, an attempt to find the calm. Yet the frustration takes over as he puts down his ruan, sniffling as he slumps down on the floor. Tears flows down his cheeks, and the mood in the space turns from breeze to arctic wind.

But here there is hope, as Neil meets the Nymph (bharatanatyam dancer Sarenniya Ramathas, representing the future). Sarenniya, in a royal white and gold outfit, smiles and brightens up the whole room, and picks up the discarded ruan. She shows it to us, and we realise it contains a ‘face’, certainly an instrument of character. Neil awakens and sees her, petrified as she tries to calm him down. It’s not long before a connection is formed, when they both realise they want the same thing. They face each other, smiling, and together with Gary they begin to perform with gusto, a fire burning in their hearts. As disparate as the elements seem, they all react and synchronise with each other; Sarenniya moves her shoulders and stamps her feet to Neil’s ruan music, while the Scribe pens a new work, a chorus of words of wisdom, all individually in their elements yet together in spirit.

The synergy is now in full swing, but in contrast the beat begins to slow down. Sarenniya’s movements become even more elaborate and deliberate, slow and steady. It feels as if we’re in a state of deep meditation, traversing the universe and able to overcome any challenge. We peak, as Neil considers how to find joy, as the music swells and we imagine flowers blooming around us. We think of new life, new hope, and new dreams. As Neil worries and falters, Sarenniya is unable to comfort him, as a red moon rises, she dances like its her last in spite of the desperate attempts to find hope in the music.

The answer to joy seems to lie in thinking of the past, and as Gary sings, Sarenniya draws strength, defiantly fighting agains the overwhelming urge to give up, and she keeps dancing. As the storm settles, the sun rises, and so does she. But as the sun sets, and Neil plays on, Sarenniya begins to fade away, and they go their separate ways. Even though they’re apart, the future is no longer as terrifying as it used to be, as reflection has brought them the answers they need to find their true purpose. Will they ever reunite, we wonder. But it is with each new day that there comes new hopes and dreams. And with that in mind, we are filled with hope, imagining that they will certainly reunite in the after life, with Neil boldly moving forward, no longer as afraid as before.

Present Past played from 12th to 14th May 2023 at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. More information available here

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