Review: Goh Lay Kuan's Returning is a flawed return to traditional dance forms

Returning, a large-scale dance piece conceived and directed by Goh Lay Kuan, takes inspiration from the life cycle of the salmon.
Returning, a large-scale dance piece conceived and directed by Goh Lay Kuan, takes inspiration from the life cycle of the salmon. PHOTO: NG YUAN JIE


Goh Lay Kuan
Drama Centre Theatre

Conceived and directed by Singapore dance pioneer and Cultural Medallion recipient Goh Lay Kuan, this performance marked an emphatic return to traditional dance forms of the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities in Singapore.

As the opening show of this year's Singapore International Arts Festival on Thursday, it stepped back into the "gotong royong" spirit of closeness and co-operation, a feature of kampung or village life in Singapore, to underscore the value of looking back in order to move forward.

Inspired by the treacherous and miraculous journey of the salmon, the work represented the aftermath of colonial rule and the onslaught of neo-liberal capitalism. Divided into five segments to reflect the various stages of the salmon's lifecycle, Returning acknowledged that much has been lost.

The performance lent emphasis to local traditional dance forms. In an artistic landscape that has prioritised Western forms such as ballet for a few decades now, it was refreshing to witness a shift in focus in this production. 

However, Returning had its flaws with its uneven quality of dance and choreography in different segments with some outdated parts. Its tight casting within the official ethnic classification gave it a feel of a racial harmony performance at a community centre.

On the whole, the production came across as being literal in its various aspects with the costumes appearing televisual. The high point of the show was the music.

The performance opened with a soulful musical rendition by the team of musicians from diverse backgrounds. This was followed by an Indian dance segment choreographed by Meenakshy Bhaskar in which eight dancers, dressed in grey costumes, wore reddish circular lantern-like objects over their heads to represent translucent salmon eggs. These were gradually removed to depict the development of the embryos into alevins, which are newly spawned salmon.

Although the fluffy translucent appendage at the back of their costumes was meant to represent alevins, it appeared somewhat disjointed, calling to mind less serious and lyrical contexts such as puppets in children's television shows.

The second and third segments featured Chinese and Malay dance choreography by Jenny Neo and Osman Abdul Hamid respectively. The dancers were dressed in similar grey outfits and conveyed the life cycle transitions through minor additions in the costume, such as changes in the appendages on the back and head gear that looked like shower caps.

Overall, the costumes would have benefited from more subtlety. The use of the "Matsya" (fish) gesture from the classical Indian dance idiom in each segment also became literal and repetitive beyond a point.

The first 45 minutes were nostalgic performances of ethnicity, seemingly rooted in historical platforms such as the Aneka Ragam Rakyat of the late 1950s. The dancers moved with grace and ease, and their passion was evident.

However, it was like sitting in a time warp since much has happened by way of cross-cultural exploration, exchange and collaboration in the dance scene in Singapore. 

The last two segments by Hamid and Low Ee Chiang were vibrant and stirring in the ways that the dance and music blended. There was a contemporary feel to the choreography here with the traditional forms barely glimpsed in the movements. It appeared to be aimed at projecting the present reality, that of the traditional Asian forms being buried in Westernised frameworks.

The reintroduction of the "Matsya" gesture in the final scene as the dancers walked forward suggested a resurgence of traditional forms as a means of moving into the future.

The music for the production, directed by Julian Wang, was nothing short of brilliant, and the musicians selected were experienced and of a high calibre.

While it is commendable that the young dancers were stretched to learn and perform the various forms, the dance did not effectively convey the overall theme.

Returning marks Goh's return to choreography after a hiatus of 20 years to reclaim what has been lost in the scene.

"Do we need to reclaim a lost past?" is the question that lingers. Rather than seeking return and reclamation, there might be a wealth of possibility in acknowledging our roots and present realities, and moving forward from here.