Rice not enough

Multimedia elements in Arts Fission's latest production centred on the Asian staple fail to gel

In Future Feed (above, in a rehearsal shot), the choreography of Angela Liong oscillates between gestures of eating and harvesting, and modern dance vocabulary of kicks, spins and dips.
In Future Feed (above, in a rehearsal shot), the choreography of Angela Liong oscillates between gestures of eating and harvesting, and modern dance vocabulary of kicks, spins and dips.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO



Arts Fission

Victoria Theatre/Last Friday

Arts Fission is no stranger to rice, having based its inaugural production in 1995 on the humble grain, which is the lifeblood of Asia.

Future Feed, its offering this year, harks back to those beginnings as it brings together a formidable team of collaborators to expound on similar themes of physical and spiritual sustenance. 

The programme notes paint a scenario where famine sets in as Earth decays. This is a dystopia where people do not just starve physically, but are deprived of the relationships that are forged from communal eating.

However, Future Feed is ultimately fixated on an idyllic past where its dancers lift their feet as they walk through an imaginary rice field, shouting to spur one another on.

The multi-modal work, spanning nine scenes with cumbersome transitions, is cyclical in nature, with the opening ensemble scene being reprised twice.

The six denim-clad dancers tread resolutely around the stage to emphatic drumming by musicians Benjamin Boo and Cheong Kah Yiong. These are urban citizens barrelling through rural landscapes, swivelling through choreography that is both abstract and impersonal, especially when presented on a large proscenium stage.

These movement sequences find root in an earlier iteration of Future Feed, which was presented at site-specific performances for Arts Fission's 20th anniversary two years ago.

Much of choreographer Angela Liong's spatial design involves dancers encircling one another.

In one scene, dancer Geraldine Phang plays a water buffalo revolving around dancer Cao Ngoc Tuan's shamanistic figure. She crouches low and mimics some of his movements before being subdued in a vapid duel of lifts and balances. 

The choreography throughout oscillates between gestures surrounding eating and harvesting, and banal modern dance vocabulary of kicks, spins and dips.

About midway through the evening, it almost becomes a distraction to the work of Liong's collaborators, which run concurrently.

Jasmine Ng's stunning films show the dancers being engulfed in a downpour of rice grains. This is perhaps an image of greed that overwhelms, but as the rice drains away, the dancers are revealed to be wearing masks depicting the mythical characters of the harvest. These Asian legends have been a staple in Liong's work and Ng enshrines them in her films as an integral part of the cycle of human sustenance. 

Joyce Beetuan Koh's score for a host of Chinese percussion instruments is fuelled by a similar idea of cycles as evidenced in the call-and- response interactions between Boo and Cheong.

Not only do they drive the evening at a steady pulse, the duo are compelling to watch as they scrape cymbal against cymbal, carving their own bodies into the rhythms they produce.

A particular highlight is when they recreate the sounds at a dinner table by sensitively handling and playing with artist Suriani Suratman's ceramic vessels. 

Unfortunately, these components of Future Feed have dance superfluously layered on top of them and are not given the space or attention they deserve.

The work's various elements, while based on common themes, do not converge. They leave one hungry for richer collaboration and a full-flavoured product.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'Rice not enough'. Subscribe