Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay and National Theatre & Concert Hall
Online, Sept 18, 2021
On screen, in black and white, Taiwanese dancer Liu I-Ling looks directly at the camera. She carries it around with her as she sets up her space on the empty stage of the National Taichung Theatre.
The audience is confused as to whether the performance has begun. Liu begins a countdown to the start of the show - stretching at 15 minutes, speaking at 10 minutes as the absent stage manager would, marking her steps at five minutes. The lights start to dim and the house announcement is made.
Liu's is the first of 19 solos by independent artistes filmed in empty theatre spaces in Taiwan, Thailand, Italy, Indonesia and Singapore, and streamed over five hours.
Conceived by Taiwanese artistes Chen Wu-Kang, artistic director of contemporary dance company Horse, and video designer and director Sun Ruey Horng, 14 serves as a prelude to the Esplanade's da:ns festival next month (October).
The project seeks to answer the question of how dancers around the world are responding to the uncertain conditions of the pandemic.
The Esplanade had intended to live-stream all the solos, but alterations had to be made due to Covid-19 restrictions in various territories.
Some works, particularly those in Italy's Centro per la Scena Contemporanea, Lavanderia a Vapore and Spazio Kor theatres, had to be pre-recorded.
In a nod to the 14 days typically required for self-isolation, the performers are alone for 14 minutes without any visible crew or audience in abandoned theatre spaces, which they attempt to reclaim with their performances.
Each solo depicts an aspect of what dancers have endured during the past 11/2 years, though the overlaps and resonances between works serve as a reminder that they are not alone.
Kornkarn Rungsawang sits outside Thailand's Chang Theatre, surrounded by posters of past performances, and writes in black ink the years there were performances from 2010 onwards, but switches to red for 2019 to this year (2021), with the lost year of 2020 represented by a dash.
Indonesian Siko Setyanto rocks violently back and forth in the empty seats of the Salihara Arts Centre in Jakarta, mourning the loss of audiences.
In an Esplanade dressing room, his image repeated infinitely in the mirrors, Singaporean Rizman Putra emits ear-piercing, gut-wrenching sounds that echo the anxiety of the times.
Yet, there is also hope. Borrowing from the conventions of live-telecast sporting events, the project makes use of live commentators who introduce the performers and the works, make connections to past works and give cultural context to the performance. Some eat dinner while online and admit to exhaustion towards the end of the five-hour marathon.
A rolling banner beneath the performers' window encourages viewers to type their comments.
In the final performance - Singaporean Daniel Kok's ironic reprise of his 2012 cheerleader routine, this time in quarantine - all the commentators join Kok in cheering the audience on. Taiwanese commentator Yu Yen-Fang even dances along.
While 14 highlights the sense of isolation brought about by the pandemic, it simultaneously builds a community in the virtual space, one that culminates in an upbeat celebration that artistes and audiences alike can partake in.