Arts Dance with Me festival Music Review Singapore Arts, Theatre. Theatre

★★★★★ Review: Abyss by Hyerim Jang (SIFA 2023)

an orchid standing by the window
has beautiful scent of leaves and branches
once it fronted the Autumn wind,
fades by the frost
although lost its flower
the scent lasts forever
it breaks my heart
wipe the tears with my sleeve

Sorrow and pain are difficult feelings to escape, often embedded within the body and subconsciously passed down from generation to generation, growing to dangerous levels if not dealt with. In Hyerim Jang’s Abyss, the Korean choreographer turns that internalised darkness into a visual spectacle, and urges us to learn to speak of it, cry over it, and hopefully, resolve it as a means to heal.

Performed at the SOTA Drama Theatre, Abyss is set with a single white circle onstage, a safe space while surrounded by darkness threatening to encroach and consume all within it. The stage lights lower, and as large as the theatre is, it now feels more compact and intimate, closer than ever to the performance as we observe it in all its intricacies.

A single dancer comes onstage, reciting the Joseon-era poem 감우 (感遇) (Gam Woo (As It Occurred To Me), by female poet and painter Nanseolheon Heo, reflecting on the death of a flower, and how its memory and grief persists in the minds of others. Holding a paper boat, she softly recites this poem, repeating the same line over and over like a mantra, while we hear the harrowing music of the violin lend a sorrowful voice to the performance.

Our dancer begins to perform ebbing and flowing movements, bobbing up and down with the highs and lows of the the sea of life. We think of Korea’s own relationship to the ocean and seas, and how it not only brings them sustenance and economy, but also acts as a potentially dangerous journey each time they venture out. She is joined by the other dancers, and they perform the same, moving as one. This is a journey of life, turbulent and unstable. She continues to recite the poem, and from the corner of our eye, we notice singer Jinsirl Suh in an all-white Korean hanbok, who begins to sing the story of her life to the dancer. In her voice, we hear familiar anguish and joy that we can connect to and latch on, and we feel her emotions in their entirety, as does the dancer, who is now ready to begin her healing process.

The medley of dancers joins her onstage, each holding a Tibetan singing bowl with a lighted candle, symbolising hope amidst the storm. Jinsirl Suh strikes a bowl, producing a clear, resonant sound that fills the theatre as if signalling that a meditative ritual is about to begin. The light lifts, and the space opens up, and the dancers are ready to begin. Under Hyerim Jang’s choreography, each dancer is given an opportunity to show both their individual skill, telling their story of trauma and pain through movement and dance.

Yet, in spite of their varied experiences, the dancers also reunite with each other, performing well-synchronised choreography together, slow and solemn as they perform and express their sorrow, with faces of despair, as if signifying that they are all going through this together in solidarity. As they move, Jinsirl continues to strike other bowls, each one producing a unique tone, as if each one is the voice of an individual. All together, these sounds echo, and together form a chorus.

Inhaling deeply, we hear the swirls of water, breath released to form bubbles of oxygen floating to the surface, as we imagine them drowning, yet fighting to live. Their posture maintained, the dancers sweep gently across the stage like waves. They now enter a meditative state, an unwavering quest for peace, as they learn to let go of their fears and frustrations.

The lights dim, and they now pick up their bowls. They approach us, exiting the safety of the white circle, and daring to push beyond their comfort zones and be vulnerable in front of us. All this is part of their ‘ritual’, as they sing and hold an individual note that forms a harmony, all while the sound of wind swirls in the background, frequency and tone. They seem to be praying for strength, their voices crying out like whales singing to each other, a secret language known only to those belonging to this community, understanding and conversing with each other about their pain and suffering as a means of letting go.

The music (Youngjo Leem on keyboard, Hangeul Kim on violin and Shinkwom Choi on drums) mimics their cries, and from these depths of sorrow, you feel them surfacing at last, hope bubbling up from the depths. The musicians are integral to Abyss, leading and guiding the dancers, like captains of the ship, ensuring safe passage. The music becomes warmer, building up to present more emotion and expression, and the sense of renewed hope and strength is there for all to feel as it crescendos. At the peak of the music, the musicians passionately play their hearts out, inspiring, gently caressing and comforting, as they convey to us not to give up, and to rise above adversity, confidently and powerfully cheering the dancers on.

Jinsirl Suh’s voice rises with the music, and is filled with sincerity and forwardness. It feels as if she is addressing not just the dancers, but everyone in the theatre, her voice touching our soul and filling it with love and hope. We watch the dancers continue their fluid movements, and appreciate the live music and soundscape so carefully woven together. Watching all this, we feel so privileged to bear witness to it all, appreciating this visually poetic work, a perfect choreography that highlights the journey towards recovery from the darkest of places within us.

By its end, we realise that in life, as much as we ride different vessels to cross our respective oceans, each on our own individual journeys, we are not alone in this. Abyss is a reminder to find empathy with others, to cherish each other, and to have love and compassion in all our struggles, possible only through the support of kindred spirits. Most important of all is to remember the power of life itself, and how we can draw strength and the will to live from this solidarity, and by its end, we are left on a note of hope that there is a path out there for us to carry on, no matter how much we’ve been through. Abyss begins SIFA on a serious but hopeful note – that we can exit the undertow of pain and trauma, and to recognise that some people, in fact, all people, co-exist not as individuals, but as a species who can guide each other out of our personal suffering.

Photo Credit: Jaehoon Jeong

Abyss played from 19th to 20th May 2023 at SOTA Drama Theatre. More information available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

Production Credits:

Hyerim Jang | Artistic Director & Choreographer
Gowoon Lee | Dancer and Singer
Hyoyoung Song | Dancer and Singer
Hyerim Jang | Dancer and Singer
Seoyi Jang | Dancer and Singer
Seryoung Choo | Dancer and Singer
Seung-A Lee | Dancer and Singer
Sookyung Lee | Dancer and Singer
Joohee Lee | Writer
Jinsirl Suh | Vocalist
Youngjo Leem | Keyboard
Hangeul Kim | Violin
Shinkwon Choi | Drums
Jean Uh | Project Producer
Seoyi Jang | Rehearsal Director
Jinsirl Suh | Vocal Trainer & Chorus Composer
Keonyoung Kim | Light Designer
Youngjo Leem | Music Director & Arranger
Kyoungsul Bae | Costume Designer
Jongsuk Kim | Scenography
Yujin Kim | Prop Design

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