The thrill of the dance

REVIEW / THEATRE

SOFTMACHINE

Choy Ka Fai

Esplanade Theatre Studio

Last Saturday

Part exposition, part storytelling, the performance dances between art and knowledge, accords a more active role to the audience and shapes what it makes of the work. This is pedagogy as a medium of expression, dance through the lens of visual artist and performancemaker Choy Ka Fai.

Spanning three years, his Soft- Machine project has seen him travel to five countries, gathering research on contemporary dance artists.

Here, he presents four documentary performances on and with dancers from India, Indonesia, China and Japan. They range from casual to formal, mischievous to serious, staged to spontaneous, splicing documentary video footage with live action.

With Surjit Nongmeikapam, from Manipur, India, he presents their collaborative process by interrogating the dancer about the history of his dancing body, one riddled with influences from a myriad of traditional and contemporary dance.

Their banter draws laughs, some of it is pretentiously ignorant but nonetheless highlights Nongmei- kapam's dilemma in navigating his dichotomous sensibility.

At the end, he performs an extended solo - a fusion of all he knows, making the audience realise that each individual dance form takes from and gives to the other through the internal dialogue of his body.

Choy is knowledgeable, but this information resides purely in his mind. He is eager to translate it to his body in the segment with Japan's Yuya Tsukahara, founder member and leader of Contact Gonzo, whose movement vocabulary is an excruciating, thrilling mix of contact and combat.

Choy asks to learn, but the intimate understanding of the body proves all too perplexing for him, until they bond in the childish exhilaration of projectile oranges aimed at a human target. It draws easy laughs, but the humour trivialises what the pain symbolises. To laugh at and to laugh away pain - these should be distinguished.

These are extraordinary artists in their own right and they can tell their stories in the best way they know how - dance. This is evident in segments by Indonesian artist Rianto and Chinese duo Xiao Ke x Zi Han.

Rianto's skill and conviction are undeniable. Gilded in gold, he plays the mythical princess in a Javanese Topeng (or mask) dance, sculpting his body into stately, feminine postures. The characters he transforms into have indubitably transformed him. In his closing solo, he seeks to erase all he knows, presenting the naked body as his blank canvas.

It is rather heartbreaking to hear of Xiao Ke x Zi Han's plight as artists in China where the axe of censorship is brutal and stifling. Dancing on a large red fabric, Xiao Ke wrinkles it as she draws lines and circles with her feet. Her gestures are bold yet fragmented, and she languishes in this indecision.

Eventually, the pair cut the fabric up as an act of rebellion against the state's control and a homage to the bloodshed of the atrocities which still casts a shadow on the nation.

The interrogation of such issues challenges and enriches the work of not just these artists, but also others with similar origins.

The fifth country Choy visited was Singapore - a comparatively younger nation, with a largely different demographic and heritage.

What would the Singaporean dance artist be preoccupied with? Perhaps the omission is intentional, and with dance here on the rise, it is an invitation to local artists to ponder the issues which both plague and charge the work they do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'The thrill of the dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe