Dance review: Alpha challenges pole dancing by staring at it straight on



Esplanade Theatre Studio/Saturday

A steel pole emphatically bisects the Esplanade Theatre Studio, occupying its central role in the space and the performance. Alpha, the festival commission of da:ns festival this year, has its entirety wrapped around this metal finger, which protrudes from the ground. This new work by Singaporean Daniel Kok, Filipino Eisa Jocson and Belgian Arco Renz (who only co-choreographed with Kok and did not perform), seeks to throw new light on pole dancing - its shady associations and unimaginably demanding physicality.

By blurring the lines of gender in a cognitively discordant hybrid, Jocson undulates from one sexually suggestive pose to another. Her eyes are focused, but they do not call. Bathed in the red glow of disco bars, she exudes an implicit sensuality with the balletic curl of her fingers, her indulgent pace and the occasional closing of her eyes.

Jocson, also a trained macho dancer, then goes topless as her cocked head, clenched fists and thrusting pelvis are curiously juxtaposed with her feminine physique. There are beautifully dynamic moments when Jocson snaps into bodybuilding poses, however the sequence is overlong and its overt come-hither off-shoulder glances grow tiresome.

A sudden blackout later, Kok appears on stage in neon yellow shorts and socks and a glittery gold cap, performing diminishing undulations against the pole until he seems to be furiously pecking at it. He mounts the pole, precariously cuddled in foetal position as though clinging to the handle of a giant umbrella. 

Amid the improbability of the physicality, Kok's humanness is revealed through the apparent effort and strength required to sustain his upturned position and the sound of skin against metal which unsettlingly punctuates the silence. 

In both the performers' solo sequences on the pole and floor, they are starkly un-amphibian, not uniting the two realms beyond their athleticism. Pole dancing, by virtue of its physical demands, is performed here in stunning yet short-lived sequences of revolution and balance. This constant interruption and preparation to re-mount sits oddly alongside the extended sections of posturing and preening on land.

Jocson, in the evening's most evocative sequence, strikes poses of the virginal goddesses in Italian Renaissance paintings while balanced at the peak of the pole. Here are images given new meaning with the extension of a pole. Takayuki Fujmoto's dizzying LED lights evoke a carousel on steroids, creating shadows which hypnotically revolve around the performers' bodies.

Alpha challenges the loaded nature of pole dancing, not by inventing an alternative movement language, but by staring at it straight on. Its 70-minute duration grates, its questions fade, its ambiguity intrigues yet frustrates. Alpha is an eagle which spreads, rather than soars.

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