Culture Vulture

Look for the extra in the ordinary

Staleness can come with repetition, so it is important to break one's routine and look at things with fresh eyes

Two weeks ago, I set foot in a theatre for the first time in more than three months.

I was at Goodman Arts Centre's Black Box to review a contemporary dance performance by Raw Moves, titled The Fleeting Moment.

In July, I moved from Life, where I had covered the arts, to the technology section of The Straits Times.

The last couple of months have been a bustle of getting used to a new department, an unfamiliar subject matter and a different workflow, which unfortunately means that the arts have taken a back seat in my life.

So when I was asked to contribute a one-off review, I was glad for the chance to return to the theatre, if only for a while.

I will admit that initially I was hesitant about taking up the reviewer's mantle again. The months spent away from the dance scene had left me feeling out of touch and beset by the nerves of a rookie reporter.

But as the darkness of the theatre washed over me and I descended into the comfortable pre-show silence, I realised I need not have worried.

Instead of the awkward tension of the unknown, stepping back into the theatre came with the ease of meeting an old friend; one that I had not talked to in a while, but with whom conversation and laughter still flowed easily.

But this time, compared to the last time I watched a performance, something felt different.

The theatre felt more alive and my senses were sharper, keener. I began noticing the smallest things, from the pressure of the seat against my body to the gentle creaking of the floor as people made their way to their places.

The months away from the theatre left me feeling like I was doing everything again for the first time and layered a greater appreciation of the entire reviewing experience.

As the dance began, I found myself sinking deeply into the choreography, acutely aware that each moment was precious and evanescent.

I drank in the performance with a fierce, narrow focus, my gaze pinned firmly to the stage and the tendrils of my mind coiled around each detail of every dancer's body.

When the hour-long show ended and the house lights came up, I felt like I was emerging from an ensconced underwater realm and snapping back to the solidity of everyday life.

That sort of intensity and sense of wonder was something that I had not felt in a very long time.

I do think that after a while - especially if something is part of your job - it is easy to lose appreciation for even the most beautiful and genuine of things.

This dullness that can come with repetition does not relate to just theatre.

Anything can be a victim of staleness - the kind of music we listen to, the food we eat and even the people who are part of our everyday lives.

When something becomes comfortable and broken in, it is easy to become oblivious to its shape, its faults and its strengths.

This neglect is because of habituation or, in psychology speak, the diminishing of an innate response to a repeated stimulus.

Humans are wired to crave novelty, and anything that is out of the ordinary, or new, immediately attracts attention and focus.

There are areas and pathways in the brain, such as the substantia nigra, that see greater activity when a new stimulus is presented.

There has also been research that shows that new, fresh stimuli are positively related to learning and motivation, such that it is easier to pick up and digest information which is out of the ordinary.

This novelty-seeking behaviour makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it rewards constant exploration and discovery in what may be an unstable or ever-changing environment.

In the modern world though, where every day is everyday, and most days, weeks and months fit into well-defined, comfortable frameworks, it is not easy to take a recess from routine.

I do think that making the effort to change things up is important, as timely breaks can furnish us with a fresh pair of eyes, and may possibly jolt us out of the rut we sometimes find ourselves in.

Even if it is impossible to wrangle enough time off for a holiday or some time away from the daily grind, I now intend to look for the small novelties in the big picture and to tease out the newness in the normal.

Instead of expecting the ordinary, I will look for the extraordinary. And if I search hard enough, I think I may just be able to find it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Look for the extra in the ordinary'. Print Edition | Subscribe