Weak link in contemporary dance work

10 Singapore-based dancers from diverse dance and ethnic backgrounds attempted to present their perceptions of existence in the city state.
10 Singapore-based dancers from diverse dance and ethnic backgrounds attempted to present their perceptions of existence in the city state. PHOTO: SAMARPANA FESTIVAL

REVIEW / DANCE

THROUGH THE EYES OF MY CITY

Esplanade Studio Theatre/Sunday

The third day of Samarpana - The Asian Festival Of Classical Dance saw the premiere of a contemporary dance work created by Europe-based choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman.

In this piece, 10 Singapore-based dancers from diverse dance and ethnic backgrounds attempted to present their perceptions of existence in the city state.

While four dancers were of Indian ethnicity and trained mainly in bharatanatyam, five dancers of Chinese ethnicity were from varied and primarily Western dance backgrounds. Indian dancer Neha John bravely attempted straddling forms.

The greatest strength of the piece was the scope for individual and collective conversation and expression. However, by placing the entire onus of representation on the dancer's body, it drew attention to the weakest link - the disparity in dance standards.

The contemporary dance practitioners were clearly ahead of the bharatanatyam practitioners in training and experience.

 The show opened with the repeated sounding of a gong, after which a group of dancers dressed in everyday attire performed contemporary dance moves to rhythmic music that had a modern feel.

Hand gestures of classical Indian dance drifted in and out. While they danced, the other group was seated at the back of the stage, watching.

 At one point, they stood up to dance, gradually claiming the space through bharatanatyam steps, relegating the first group to the margins. The classical dance form seemed to slowly inscribe itself onto the other bodies in space.

As the first group adopted the movements and stances, the hand gestures, which began as embellishments to movement, were used to communicate. The theme was presented in abstraction, at times appearing cliched. One wondered if this was deliberate.

 Jereh Leong was stunning, constantly drawing the viewer's gaze to his strength and fluidity. He seemed to move in an interstitial space, subtly absorbing and reflecting the various influences. He was superb as the quintessential hero in the energetic and playful Bollywood dance segment that the entire group performed.

 The final scene proved to be most dramatic, with the dancers walking back towards an image of a huge, grey and stark concrete jungle with its many lit windows.

 Apart from the brief but arresting abhinaya segment by Smita Ashok, the production suffered from a minimal use of facial expression, an integral aspect of bharatanatyam.

 The music for the production had energy and was emotive in parts, but it did little to incorporate Asian influences that are part of the landscape here.

In its overall visuals, the work appeared caught in an East-West binary, perpetuating the Western framing of contemporary dance in Singapore. It resembled closely works presented at tertiary arts institutions here. 

 The festival booklet indicates that the Indian dancers in this production and the festival, in general, were mainly from Sruthilaya, the organisation linked to Samarpana.

The production would have benefitted with the inclusion of bharatanatyam dancers from the wider Singapore scene.

This would not only have raised standards and provided a truer reflection of the Indian community, but it would also have furthered Samarpana's stated agenda of "enabling the Singaporean dancer to collaborate with foreign talent and present both in Singapore and internationally".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'Weak link in contemporary dance work'. Print Edition | Subscribe