Exercise in masochism




72-13 Mohammed Sultan Road

Last Friday

The title of Joavien Ng's latest offering, Incarnation Of The Beast, alludes to Satan, the Christian adversary, "beast" being one of his various names.

The piece itself makes no bones about it, evidenced by the sketched row of human-bodied, demon-headed figures in the programme notes.

However, Ng's fixation is less with supernatural demons than with personal ones.

Starting with the Greco-Roman idea of tragedy as epic and dramatic, she has her own version of the nine muses, recruiting nine performers of both genders and of various ages.

They enter the space one after another, repeatedly striking the same poses before congregating to enact scenes of love, violence, death and happiness, mimicking the sterile nobility of Roman statues.

The performers then come together to form a writhing orgy of bodies that keep feeding off each other, wrestling and climbing atop one another as if attempting to form a human Tower of Babel at one point, complete with a pose lifted a little too obviously from a cheerleading squad.

Individuals, unable to break free from the succubic mass are each rebirthed as twisted, morbid versions of themselves, some broken, some beckoning menacingly, some rolling on the ground with flexed feet and splayed fingers, pained and foetal.

This could be a commentary of the unrelenting hell of being trapped by one's personal demons or - whether unintentionally or not - an expression of the choreographer's personal malcontent.

Ng shuns the structures of traditional dance forms, and in the programme notes, reveals her jadedness towards contemporary dance and the industry; and this springs to mind when watching the performers constantly get swallowed up by the sinister, writhing collective.

With a troupe of untrained individuals and a determination not to dance, what Ng is left with is movement. She has the ability to coax interesting shapes and forms out of her hardworking performers based on their bodies and ability, but much of the movement lacks dynamism, even emotion.

A piece that is so morbid and discomfitting should not be tedious, but endless posing makes it precisely that - it is not a good sign when audience members flip through their programmes or check their smartphones midway through.

The piece ends with the performers each holding a pose familiar to dance, such as a backbend or plie, for an interminably long period of time. As their agony becomes apparent, the audience applauds, hoping that by signalling the end of the performance they will stop.

But the performers persist until the audience finally gets up and leaves.

Maybe it is supposed to be a statement of how uncaring society can be in the face of suffering. But personal tragedy is unasked for and undesired, whereas this just seems like an exercise in masochism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'Exercise in masochism'. Subscribe