Dance In Review

Works grapple with loss of presence

Some items in da:ns festival make strong use of the digital medium to question space and movement

(Above) I Went For A Walk And Took With Me… by Dapheny Chen (pictured) and See Joo Teng, one of seven works presented in Open Call, a showcase of local artists at da:ns festival.Unison by Adele Goh (left) and Bernice Lee (right) was performed again
(Above) I Went For A Walk And Took With Me… by Dapheny Chen (pictured) and See Joo Teng, one of seven works presented in Open Call, a showcase of local artists at da:ns festival.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES BY THE BAY
(Above) I Went For A Walk And Took With Me… by Dapheny Chen (pictured) and See Joo Teng, one of seven works presented in Open Call, a showcase of local artists at da:ns festival.Unison by Adele Goh (left) and Bernice Lee (right) was performed again
Unison by Adele Goh (left) and Bernice Lee (right) was performed against a white background.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES BY THE BAY
(Above) I Went For A Walk And Took With Me… by Dapheny Chen (pictured) and See Joo Teng, one of seven works presented in Open Call, a showcase of local artists at da:ns festival.Unison by Adele Goh (left) and Bernice Lee (right) was performed again
Nirmala Seshadri’s lecture-performance The Problematic Danseuse, is part of Failing The Dance, a double bill at da:ns festival. PHOTO: CHARMAINE POH

DA:NS FESTIVAL

Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Oct 16 to 25

This year, Esplanade's annual da:ns festival took a turn for the digital, with the ongoing Covid-19 situation having necessitated a re-imagining of the festival.

As programmer Iris Cheung mentions in her festival message, "concepts of space and movement have been deeply altered and redefined" by the pandemic.

Taking the festival, which runs until this Saturday, fully online challenges the very meaning of "space" in an art form often inextricably linked with the experience of a shared physical space.

Some works made strong use of the digital medium to question space and movement, but it was chiefly the loss of physical performance that was keenly felt throughout the programme.

This was especially the case with Berlin-based Singaporean dance artist Ming Poon's festival commission, The Intervention Of Loneliness (Lockdown Edition), a Zoombased performance developed from the live version held in the Esplanade's Annexe Studio for last year's da:ns festival.

Poon, the lone image on screen, held up a sign entreating the hidden audience to slow dance with him. If you responded by turning on your camera, he would ask you to strategise with him how you might "dance together" on-screen.

He interspersed the slow dancing with reflections on the effect the lockdown has had on him and what he missed about being in physical contact with another, foremost being the person's smell.

Pairs of the audience left the main Zoom room to "slow dance" together in break-out rooms. If you were not one of them, you could watch by visiting the rooms. Some rooms spontaneously became dance parties for all who visited, with camaraderie that lasted the span of a song.

The work viscerally evoked the awkwardness of trying to connect with another person when separated by a screen.

Another work that effectively used the online medium was Failing The Dance: A Double Bill Of Lecture- Demonstrations by Soultari Amin Farid and Nirmala Seshadri, which juxtaposed performance archival and film footage with their lecture performances in a conflation of times and spaces.

Their struggles with the expectations placed on them as practitioners of traditional Malay dance and bharatanatyam, as well as the rejection they experienced when they tried to push the boundaries of these forms, were palpable through the pain in their voices and the hurt in their eyes, magnified on screen.

The showcase Open Call invited local artists to submit proposals for short works.

Of the seven works presented, the most engaging ones made use of camera angles and close-ups to show movement in ways imperceptible in a face-to-face performance, or to evoke a specific, intimate spatial relationship with the audience, beyond a straightforward recording of live dancing.

Unison by Bernice Lee and Adele Goh, for example, was performed against a white background so bright that the dancers appeared to be floating in a void, reminiscent of early cartoon animations. This setting, together with the light piano music, perfectly supported the dancers' quirky interactions.

In I Went For A Walk And Took With Me… by Dapheny Chen and See Joo Teng, the camera framed Chen's body and precise movements continuously at eye level, following her such that her incessant placing and replacing of ping pong balls on a table of reflective black acrylic highlighted the precariousness of their stillness.

Art Naming's You Are Facing Yourself You Are Facing Me was live-streamed, but a recording of the stream was available for viewing as the last piece in Open Call.

In it, the artist sat in front of a webcam, barely moving and at intervals typed different iterations of the words "what am I facing" into the chat.

It was a brilliant close to the event, cheekily throwing all that had come before into disarray, opening up more questions than answers around what movement and space are.

As a digital festival, da:ns made some compromises with works that did not fully acknowledge the strengths and limitations of the screen medium, but it also made a strong statement about the importance of experiencing dance live in a space together.

One hopes that one will be doing just that at next year's festival.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2020, with the headline 'Works grapple with loss of presence'. Print Edition | Subscribe