Theatre review: BITTEN: Return To Our Roots is an insightful site-specific performance

Dr Nidya Shanthini Manokara performing in BITTEN: Return To Our Roots, which the dancer co-created with theatre-maker Thong Pei Qin.
Dr Nidya Shanthini Manokara performing in BITTEN: Return To Our Roots, which the dancer co-created with theatre-maker Thong Pei Qin.PHOTO: ASRARI NASIR OF PARADISE PICTURES

review / theatre

BITTEN: Return To Our Roots

Thong Pei Qin and Nidya Shanthini Manokara

Kampong Bugis / Dec 1

SINGAPORE - BITTEN: Return To Our Roots is a zany, inspiring and eye-opening work of bharatanatyam, verbatim theatre and promenade performance that takes viewers into the past of the Kampong Bugis area and leaves them hopeful about its future.

In a roughly two-hour performance, performers Masturah Oli and Seong Hui Xuan take 15 to 20 viewers around sites such as Kallang Riverside Park and the 130-year-old Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple, as well as the former Kallang Gasworks.

Masturah and Seong play fictionalised versions of the production's creators, theatre-maker Thong Pei Qin and dancer Nidya Shanthini Manokara. Both contracted dengue at different times. Their shared experience of the disease led them to consider what else they had in common.

Both studied at the National University of Singapore. Both are fluent in English and have limited connections to the true "mother tongue" of their ancestors - Thong's father speaks Teochew, and Shanthini's grandparents spoke Telugu.

Also, both their families were rooted in the Kampong Bugis area. Thong's father had a hatchery there, while Shanthini's grandparents volunteered at the nearby temple.

Masturah and Seong move around the area, playing the creators as well as the creators' parents and grandparents, and turn the quiet riverside park into a thriving urban community.

Shanthini and dancer Rachel Lum flit around like the gnats thoughtfully kept away from viewers by bug spray. The dancers are sometimes the ghosts of the past, echoing the actresses' movements. Sometimes they are hints of the future, climbing a banyan tree that has grown out of a derelict house. Renewal is powerful and unpredictable, they show.

BITTEN: Return To Our Roots ended its run on Dec 2 but will hopefully be revived to inspire and entertain even more viewers. Developed over two years, with the support of arts centre Centre 42 and through the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival's Fresh Fringe programme in 2017, the production is filled with quirky humour and an abundance of anecdotes that might need to be trimmed in future. Last Saturday's 2pm show cut two scenes because of rain and seemed long enough.

The production still fascinates. Not content with presenting the search for identity, it also shows that the desire to find a single notion of self is a colonial legacy. Why reject the rojak heritage so many Singaporeans are heir to? Much may be lost when this happens. British colonisers turned the sensuous curves of temple dance forms into the geometrical, restrained version of Bharatanatyam - a reduction beautifully depicted by all four performers - and colonial habit constrains performances to the theatre rather than the open, communal spaces most Asian performers traditionally occupied.

Appropriately, the outdoor performance ends with a dance in the Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple, which is one of several resident supporters of this site-specific work. Viewers can then continue back over the trail to view exhibitions celebrating current and past residents of Kampong Bugis, curated by the BITTEN team. Despite the wet weather, many viewers last Saturday did exactly that, bitten by the history bug.