Singapore International Festival of Arts

Eyes shut, hear the dance

My Mothers And I, choreographed and performed by Chey Chankethya.
My Mothers And I, choreographed and performed by Chey Chankethya.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

In this diptych of riveting female solos at the Singapore International Festival of Arts' Dance Marathon, the moving body is placed firmly in the spotlight. It is a mouthpiece for the dogged defiance of the individual and the resolve of a people in times of trial. Sri Lanka and Cambodia's histories have been coloured by bloodshed and the work of their artists demonstrates a clear vehemence against these atrocities.

The deliberately fragmented nature of Venuri Perera and Chey Chankethya's pieces suggests the choice to remember and forget, as fissures of traumas are embedded in their memories. These women demonstrate remarkable courage, trusting the audience to journey with them through the pieces. They imbue the work with an undeniable individuality and candour.

In Eyes Open. Eyes Closed. (a.k.a. Traitriot), Perera invites the audience to open and close their eyes, making complete blackouts voluntary. With eyes shut, her footsteps are amplified and she reappears in the aggressive stance she held before, one first raised in protest. A long blink later and she is kneeling with her head between her elbows and her hands locked in prayer.

She appears to be trapped in and by her own body, rooted to the spot yet holding her hands up in defence. Clenched with a tension that courses through her body, her fists hold within them her spirit, one of hope amid despair.

Near the close of Eyes, Perera stands and smiles, eventually breaking into hearty laughter. This abrupt contrast is disarmingly awkward, until her expression of glee morphs into one of apathy and agony. Her body is quaking with laughter, but her inner being is hurt.



    Venuri Perera, Chey Chankethya

    School of the Arts Studio Theatre Tuesday

Similarly, Chankethya reveals herself in My Mothers And I through a process of subtle, beautiful disintegration. Her slick ponytail becomes dishevelled and her ordered Cambodian classical dance steps develop into a liberating expanse.

Using the language of flexed feet and delicate fingers, she delves into the relationships between herself, her mother and her dance master to shed light on conformity within oppressive societies.

Chankethya shares stories from her childhood. Text and movement are independent of each other, but she binds them with threads of rhythm and breath. Gestures seem to evolve from the specificity of the classical vocabulary.

With a change in lighting, she goes from the casual to the intense and the performative. Taking on the stance of her mother, her spine curved by the weight of age, she holds up a warning finger to the audience. She repeats a sequence of movements as though being admonished by her dance master, her body being willed into submission as her mind is purged of the violence of the Khmer Rouge.

But it is impossible to forget, especially for a woman liberated by education and exposed to the world. Chankethya cannot deny her roots, she questions them all the time.

In sections of the work where she swings and suspends with the sweep of a contemporary dancer, she is distinctly graceful, tilting her head with a touch of regality.

Traditionally performed for deities or royalty, Cambodian classical dance relies on the body to express sentiments of admiration and gratitude. It is devoid of personal narrative, which highlights the audacious deviation of Mothers, making it a gripping tour de force.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Eyes shut, hear the dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe