The audience becomes the performers



Raw Moves

Goodman Arts Centre Multi-purpose Studios 1 & 2 Last Friday

Choreographer Chiew Peishan and photographer Caleb Ming's collaboration, On Display, was a conceptual work that dealt with ideas of seeing and performance. It sought to place all bodies present in the space under the scrutiny of some sort of gaze.

Staged in a gallery-style white cube, notions of who was performing and who was watching became fluid in this sparse and unhurried three-hour durational work.

Dance was not used to create a dramatic and narrative situation. Dance, or rather, the act of performing a dance, was used in an attempt to delve deeper into ideas of performativity and the objectification of the body.

On Display shifted neatly from section to section, each one tackling a specific aspect of these salient themes. The work also attempted to stretch its title drawing from ideas and situations such as photo- taking, portraiture and sculpture.

Beginning with Ming's act of conspicuously filming the audience and performers using a hand-held video camera, the invasive aspects of seeing kicked in. Unabashedly, he brought his camera close to the bodies of those present, intruding into their private spaces in full view of the rest, teasing out uneasy and awkward reactions from those caught within the lens.

Just as I began wondering where all that filmed footage would go to, performer Lee Xinzhi began ceremoniously opening up a series of dividing panels, exposing the other half of the space. Then, the footage was projected onto a wall at the far end of this space. It was a series of jump-cut style shots that showed the reactions and behaviour of those filmed. Sometimes, their reactions were candid, sometimes, they were conscious of being filmed. Besides the eye of the lens, the performers also engaged in making different kinds of eye contact with members of the audience. Through these acts, the power and politics of gaze became apparent.

An attempt to investigate performativity was also present in this work. For instance, through subtle observation, one soon noticed that certain sections were designed according to an improvisational structure in which sounds or movements from the audience would trigger a specific movement response from the performers.

In a way, the audience also had some responsibility in choreographing the piece. For example, an unintended shuffling of one's feet audibly would cause some of the performers to change the direction of their gaze. Other times, instructions such as how many steps to take or which direction to turn would be called out by audience members.

The presence of Ming filming the proceedings of the work and then showing the footage also made the audience performers. Watching behaviours change when people became conscious of the camera was interesting. Projecting the footage in one section of this work then ingeniously cemented our roles as performers within the choreography of the work.

But while the work does make sincere attempts to give in-depth insight into these themes, there were times when it felt like the work could not quite decide whether to foreground these rather conceptual themes or the formal aesthetics of dance. Perhaps such conceptual themes do demand the paring down of dance to investigate it more closely.

But at points, as if fearing to go in to such demanding territory, the performers would launch into long phrases of dance movement.

When put beside the investigative thread of the work, these movements end up looking superfluous. The work also tried to examine too many aspects of these inherently complex themes.

A bit of editing would help narrow the focus of the work, thus giving it more clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'The audience becomes the performers'. Print Edition | Subscribe