Bidding a Home Farewell: On Space, Gratitude, and Spirit

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Stamford Arts Centre, April 2016

To many, the Stamford Arts Centre is a quaint building where art happens. But for Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), it is more than a sum of the things that happen within it; it is home.

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Mrs Santha Bhaskar

It is home not simply because she spent half her artistic career there, or that she feels a surge of sentimentality with the centre’s impending closure. Rather, it is home because the space is sustained by a community and, in turn, the space allows for art to grow and evolve.  She explains:

“It was in 1988 that we moved here, and we were the first tenant. The National Arts Council (NAC) did not give us a grant to renovate the place, but we needed to convert some of the bigger rooms into smaller rooms on the third level for music classes. What my late husband, Mr K.P. Bhaskar, did was to borrow money from our students’ parents, wrote IOUs, and we returned the money when we made some profit,”

Another significance of the space is that it marked a new phase of development and growth for BAA and its training arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society (NAS).

“Our group is in this place. When we were at the National Theatre and Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, it was Mr Bhaskar and I who taught dance. We didn’t have any teachers. I taught most of the classes, and Mr Bhaskar handled all the administrative tasks. We only taught and performed Bharatanatyam, that is all. Coming here, we really grew and we brought teachers from India to help with the music classes. So all that happened here. The school has become big now.”

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According to an earlier interview, NAS  has around 2000 students learning a plethora of Indian art forms. Courses in dance (Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi), music (various instruments and Carnatic singing techniques), and visual art are offered. More importantly, NAS has its own syllabus for Bharatanatyam and students who complete it are awarded a diploma, and offered teaching and performing opportunities at BAA. “We are self-sustaining in the sense that we have our own pool of dancers and are not dependent on India. We have Singaporean dancers, that’s our specialty,” says Mrs Bhaskar as she beams with pride.

Courses offered by NAS.

Courses offered by NAS

But space and community are not limited to the boundaries within Stamford Arts Centre. “We are opposite two temples and there’s a lot of good energy for the space. So whatever we do, we offer it to the deities, the people, and the space around us.” She adds, “We have very good neighbours. Although we are near to a food court and HDB blocks, no one has complained that we make a lot of noise. We stay here with a lot of harmony.”

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Nearby HDB Blocks

Nearby HDB Blocks

It is with this sense of gratitude that led Mrs Bhaskar to conceive of Na Mah as the first production of the year for BAA. “We will be saying goodbye to this building. It is my way of thanking the space, and the dancers who have learnt from me. While some of them have stopped, their presence and support have sustained the company.”

In fact, gratitude lies at the heart of her practice. “For me, it’s very important. I’m grateful to a lot of things which surrounds me. Even the dancers, they pass energy to me when they perform. I consider this to be my philosophy of performing and teaching.”

Mrs Bhaskar giving instructions to the dancers

Mrs Bhaskar instructing the dancers

The show mostly consists of Mrs Bhaskar’s favourite pieces that were performed by the company. “I can sit and watch those items for any number of times. Some people might get bored and say, ‘I’ve seen this already. Why are you watching it again?’ For me, it’s not like that.”

However, there are other pieces in the show that hold a deeper significance. Two pieces in the line up are from a previous production, Xpressions, which was performed three years ago. This was the last production that Mr Bhaskar watched before he passed away. “We had two nights, and he couldn’t watch the performance on the second night as he was unable to walk up to Esplanade. Three days later, he passed away,” recalls Mrs Bhaskar. “As these two pieces have not been performed since, I am putting them in this show to pay homage to him.”

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Mr TK Arun on the veena

Yet, long-time fans of BAA have something new to look forward to. Apart from the opening number, there is an item that is based on a contemporary Tamil poem. Mrs Bhaskar elaborates: “It is about love and anger between two people. Who is getting angry with whom? I am in love with this space, the clouds love the sky, and the flowers are also spreading their scent. But who is angry with whom?”

She also points out that the pieces are not connected together and audience need not be intimidated, if they are unfamiliar with the Indian epics, as they can be appreciated on their own. Thus, Na Mah is a tribute to those who have come before, and a celebration of the artistic trajectory that BAA has taken.

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Dancers in rehearsal

Despite the understandable sadness of bidding the centre farewell, Mrs Bhaskar is accepting of NAC’s decision. “Singapore is changing, and we have to change accordingly. The building is very old and its stability is a big concern for all of us. If it has to be changed, it has to be changed.”  To the best of her knowledge, the centre will be converted into a space for traditional arts.

While NAC has yet to announce any concrete plans, she hopes that the NAC and other government agencies are mindful of the centre’s surroundings. “I told them that we are opposite two temples, and a lot of devotees go there. I believe that there are a lot of energies around, both positive and negative. It is important that they consult both temples before going ahead with any plans. Personally, I believe that there shouldn’t be any tall buildings in front of the temples.”

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Looking forward, BAA and NAS will be relocated to the fourth floor of Bras Basah Complex. The new space will host rehearsals for their next production which will be choreographed by Mrs Bhaskar’s daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, in collaboration with Balinese dancers.

Apart from new productions, Mrs Bhaskar is also looking at starting a research programme in the near future. It will introduce a systematic way of archiving, researching, and analysing the artistic practices of BAA. For a start, Dr Wong Chee Meng, post-doctoral fellow at Nanyang Technological University, will research on BAA’s upcoming performance of Ramayana in Thailand.

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Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam (flute), Mr TV Sajith (violin), and Ms Ampili Pillai (vocalist)

When asked for her hopes for the future, she has this to say:

“I hope the younger generation will take it seriously. Apart from dance, they should learn music, literature, and visual arts because these elements are interconnected with any traditional Indian dance form.

But the present situation is that they do not have time to learn other things because they are busy with their studies or work. They can only do that if they are a full-timer, but somebody has to pay them a decent salary. I don’t think Singapore is ready for that. So they have to resort to teaching, but the body will become lazy. You’ll think that it is enough and say, ‘I’m making a living already, so why should I do other things?’

If you really want to be an artist, you need a lot of willpower. I don’t know how the next generation is going to be as they are quite pampered. But maybe, someone will come forward.”

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

While the future may be uncertain, there is still a lot to be thankful for. “Mr Bhaskar used to say, ‘Although we didn’t make much money from practising art, we have a lot of good karma.’ We are able to give our students a little bit of knowledge about dance and music, and that itself is a big thing.”

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Directory of Stamford Arts Centre

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Catch Na Mah at Esplanade Theatre Studio on 16 April, 2pm and 8pm. Please contact Bhaskar’s Arts Academy at 6336 6537 to book your tickets.

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[Listing] Na Mah by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

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After years of rehearsals in the the nights, the walls of the studio at Stamford Arts Centre will witness the last major production rehearsals by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA). With this palpable air of nostalgia, BAA thought it apt to stage Na Mah, which is essentially a salute to the space they called their own for more than 25 years.

“We are so at home in this space. But now the final countdown has started. So many creations, so many laughter, tears and sweet memories are embedded in these walls. Soon, all these will be like a forgotten piece of art when its memory is nothing but dust,” shares Santha Bhaskar, Artistic Director of BAA.

Na Mah, which means salutation,  is a collection of repertoire items found in the vocabularies of Bharatanatyam and Kathak. It features 10 of BAA’s best Bharatanatyam dancers and our in-house Kathak soloist in demanding and exacting choreographies. All this work asks of you is to appreciate the visual beauty of movement, and the emotive aesthetics of abhinaya. Nothing more—no storyline, no characters, and certainly no complex philosophical concepts. Sometimes all you need is to see, feel, and live the dance.

Na Mah 

16 April 2016 (Saturday)

3pm & 7:30pm

Esplanade Theatre Studio

$20 & $25

For more ticketing information, kindly contact BAA at enquiries@bhaskararts.com

[Dance Review] Not That Magnetic

Magneta

¡Magneta!

Flamenco Sin Fronteras

13 November 2015

Goodman Arts Centre Black Box

13–14 November 2015

Spanning ten different items and six different palos (styles), ¡Magneta! strives to showcase the versatility and creativity of the company. Unfortunately, the attraction is not consistent.

The programme starts off with two weak performances. The first item plays on what the public would think of as flamenco music—Gipsy Kings. Against the sultry rendition of Volare by Toshiaki Konno, most of the dancers ignored the meaning of the song title as they dance with their wings clipped. Apart from Tilly Wong and Cheryl Ng who exude joy, the other dancers are extremely cautious and look as if they are counting the rhythms or recalling the next step. Thankfully, this feeble item ended quickly.

As the dancers leave the stage with a slight flourish, Saori Otsuka enters to perform the Cantiñas. While Otsuka is technically excellent, her guarded approach to the dance is puzzling given that she personally adapted the dance from a choreography by Alicia Marquez and Pilar Ogalla. Whatever attraction one feels to her strong and steady footwork is neutered.

To break the slumber, Toshiaki Konno bursts in with a barrage of footwork as he performs the Solea Por Bulerias. Konno exudes sheer confidence as he communicates with the musicians and the audience. Alternating between sleek moves and fiery footwork, he even finds time to toss a stray hair clip aside with nonchalance. The floor of the black box does an injustice to Konno’s dancing as it fails to convey the full timbre and musicality of his footwork.

Guitarist Sergio Muñoz lets us down gently from the euphoria of Konno’s performance with a heartfelt solo. As he strums and plucks the guitar strings, there is a sense of deep searching. In response, the faces of the audience light up. Unfortunately, this is not due to Muñoz’s virtuosity, but to their imbecility as they treat him like a street busker and fix their eyes on their phones. This selfish vigil also occurs in the latter half of the show when he performs another guitar solo.

Tilly Wong and Nobuyoshi Nakane kick the show up a notch as they take turns to perform different letras (verses) of the Alegrias. Wong radiates a quiet and infectious joy with her slight smile and her ease in handling the bata de cola (skirt with long train) as she sweeps across the stage. Nakane’s steely reserve serves as a nice counterpoint. His letra starts off quite conservatively as it consists mainly of ‘marking steps.’ He breaks away from that in his escobilla (series of footwork) with a lovely variation of the standard steps and takes more risks towards the end. The short duet in the end is wonderfully playful and the chemistry between both dancers is apparent. Wong and Nakane successfully capture the spirit of the dance.

Over the years, Carmen has become everyone’s favourite gypsy girl. Dark, mysterious, sensual, desirable, and exotic. Rather than presenting the usual seduction scene, Daphne Huang-Vargas (Carmen) and Pedro Simoni (Don José) take on the ambitious task of condensing the whole story into a few minutes.

Unfortunately, it is a few minutes too long.

Instead of using the language of flamenco to intimate what happened between the couple, Huang-Vargas performs a pointless scene in which she acts like a rebellious teenage gangster girl and asks us why we are staring at her in an exaggerated Singaporean accent. The script is as pointless as it is literal—later on, we see Don José saying how much he loves Carmen and asks why she has decided to leave him.

Any more literal and the stage manager will have to read the stage directions out loud.

Thankfully, Yuriko Kurose performing the Farruca returns us to something we can appreciate and enjoy. Attired in a red suede crop jacket, high-waisted black trousers, and hair tied into the ponytail, Kurose pays homage to Carmen Amaya (the Carmen we should all remember rather than the monstrosity popularised by Bizet). While Kurose does not have Amaya’s energy and magnetism, her Farruca is technically flawless which is enhanced by her crisp angular lines.

Mamiko Nakane’s Bulerias is surprisingly too short. However, she makes use of every single second on stage in giving a delightful performance. When the Zorongo started, I thought it was still part of the Bulerias. Despite the slight confusion, the synchronicity of the mantones (shawls) adds a certain visual spectacle as the show ends on a good note.

While the choreographies in ¡Magneta! are relatively traditional, it offers the audience a broad overview of the variety and colours that flamenco can offer. This is a small but important step to break flamenco away from the stereotype of it being merely about passion and sensuality.

[Dance Review] Capturing the Ephemeral

raw moves the fleeting moment

The Fleeting Moment

Teresa Ranieri & Raw Moves

5 November 2015

Goodman Arts Centre Black Box

5–7 November 2015

Choreographer Teresa Ranieri and I face a similar challenge in our respective endeavours. How do we capture an ephemeral experience and convey its impact in a way that others can experience it for themselves?

The first fleeting moment we see is dancer Kenneth Tan walking into a darkened room and behind a screen as a pastiche of images is projected onto it. A soundscape with repeated motifs fills the room as five other female dancers (Chiew Peishan, Neo Hong Chin, Melyn Chow, Liu Wen-Chun, Sherry Tay) emerge and observe Tan. Observation and mirroring dominate this piece as Tan navigates this mental and emotional landscape.

The ephemeral is suggested through the melding and separating of the dancers and media artist Bruno Perosa’s projection of the dancers’ images splintering. The amorphicity of memory is evoked through a repeated sequence of a dancer adopting a pose of another dancer while a third observes and reacts to it. Apart from the ephemeral, are there intimations of—as Ranieri puts it—instances that define our existence?

Throughout the course of the show, we see snatches of what could possibly be interpreted as death, rebirth, freedom, and struggle. Such vague terms, along with my qualification of providing possible interpretations, do not satisfy the reader and there lies the flaw of the show.

While there is a clear synergy in the way the dancers react to each other, they fail to achieve the “wild carousel of feelings and emotions” that Ranieri is gunning for. At times, this may be due to the guarded approach of the dancers. At others, the beautiful movement work simply fails to capture anything.

Ranieri also misses out on a couple of moments to develop on an interesting premise. At one point, the dancers suddenly split up as four square plots of light are thrown onto the space. I initially thought it is trying to evoke how we tend to compartmentalise our memory or emotions. However, no elaboration is provided apart from a couple of movement sequences and the dancers sliding into the square plots. This leaves me questioning my initial interpretation.

Fortunately, the show gains momentum in the second half which is signalled by a dancer tossing the paper cranes as the ensemble go on to evoke a sense of struggle. Perhaps, the most affecting moment appears towards the end as we see Kenneth Tan trying to gather the pieces of confetti while preventing another dancer from messing it up. He evokes a sense of pathos in salvaging the pieces of memory and emotions as he tries to make sense of it all.

While the choreography is sometimes conceptually hazy, The Fleeting Moment does offer glimpses of beauty that are worth waiting for.

[Dance Review] A Parley of Traditions

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Photo: Jean -Louis Fernandez

Torobaka

Akram Khan & Israel Galván

16 October 2015

Esplanade Theatre

16–17 October 2015

There is something uncomfortable about Torobaka. How is it possible for two dancers to collaborate on a show with the bull as its main metaphor when one of them comes from a culture which reveres the animal, while the other slays it?

“Anarchy” says the programme notes. The only solution is to go against tradition and come together as two dancing bodies.

The result: Two phenomenal dancers in a bullring that duel, complement, and play with each other.

One of the main impetuses of this performance is a response to a problem in most intercultural collaborations. Rather than digging deep by investigating the vocabularies and limits of both traditions, most performances are often a sophisticated version of dance school recitals. Both traditions are placed alongside each other and the audience is asked to draw up a list of similarities and differences between them.

Torobaka is definitely not one of them. In this work, we see Khan and Galván rolling up their sleeves, giving all that their traditions offer, and summarily tossing them out as well. In many ways, the dances are respecting their traditions in their truthful assessment of what they can offer.

The show starts off with both dancers performing moves inspired by both traditions but expressed in their own way. While Galván’s angular flamenco lines and Khan’s fluid lines are still somewhat discernible, the audience will be hard-pressed to tease out which moves belong to which tradition. And that is the point.

The performance then progresses to a series of solos where both dancers openly defy both traditions. If “purists” were seething at both dancers before, they will go into cardiac arrest this time.

Think Khan dancing with hands in flamenco boots or silencing the jaleos (shouts of encouragement) by the Spanish palmero (rhythm clapper), Bobote.

Aside from his usual fare of breaking the lines expected of a flamenco dancer, Galván’s ferocious and primal solos were ornamented with playful squawks and gestures. At one point, I gasped as he stomps on Khan’s ghungaroos (ankle bells) and performs a series of footwork. However, with the jingling of the bells to accompany his footwork, it feels as if he is performing a duet with Khan.

In other solos, it is clear that both men are going back to the roots as if to remind the audience of where they came from. The show ends with the dancers coming full circle by locking horns and combating each other in the only way that they know how.

If the choreography is complex, the music that accompanies it tops that. It is a wondrous amalgamation of classical kathak and flamenco rhythms that are lyrically guided by songs from western classical and folk traditions.

Percussion enthusiasts would revel in B. C. Manjunath alternating between vocalising kathak rhythms and counting in Spanish while playing the pakhawaj (percussive drum comprising two kettle drums tied together) or duffali (hand drum).

Vocal and choral lovers will enjoy the interweaving of David Azurza’s counter-tenor vocals with Christine Leboutte’s lower range. Add Bobote’s clapping into the mix and we get music that is profoundly meditative, dramatic, and playful at various times.

Torobaka puts creativity, energy, and passion back into dance as it excavates the dynamics of human interaction as well as forming new movement vocabularies. In essence, Khan and Galván show us how anarchy and tradition can co-exist within the realm of human expression.

Other Reviews

“da:ns Fest 2015: Akram Khan, Israel Galvan go mano a mano” by Mayo Martin, Today

“Duality in Harmony” by Germaine Cheng, The Straits Times Life! 

“Torobaka Review” by Five Lines

[Dance Review] A Dazzling Constellation of Bodies

NDT2

An Evening of Five Works

Nederlands Dans Theater 2

9 October 2015

Esplanade Theatre

9–10 October 2015

The youth wing of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) graces the Esplanade stage again with five fresh works which premiered within the last five years.

The programme opens with Schubert and Some Other Time by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot. In Schubert, the choreographic duo mirrors the motifs of the music by creating motifs of angular and flowing actions that extend throughout the pas de deux. While it is an exploration of love, it refuses to fall into extremities. What unfolds is a meditative rumination of love that is enhanced by the beautiful lines and perfect control of the dancers.

Despite the monochromatic set design of Some Other Time, León and Lightfoot colour their dance with various movement vocabularies such as mime, contemporary, and ballet. The dancers are tasked to embody the feelings of oppression and breaking free set against screens being pushed around the stage which adds another layer of movement. The dancers showed superb versatility and flexibility as they coalesce into a constellation of bodies. At times, it is hard to pick out which represents oppression and which freedom because—apart from being too transfixed by the dancers—what constitutes either sometimes depend on one’s perspective.

Sharon Eyal’s and Gai Behar’s Sara opened the second segment as several dancers appear in nude tights while pulsating to trippy music. The set up consists of one girl mouthing the words of a song while the others forming a series of pseudo-tableaus but each dancer repeats a particular action like a cog in a machine. This is interspersed with synchronised movement sequences.  It is surprisingly wonderful that Eyal mentions that “[i]t springs from the subconscious, but is very humane at the same time” because there is a primal quality that emanates from the piece. Sara eludes any intellectual interpretation but there is a sense of it coming from a deep place in oneself that is seldom the focus of introspection.

To be able to seek and achieve mutual comfort requires a great deal of interaction. Edward Clug’s Mutual Comfort is like a physics experiment of how one body reacts when it comes into contact with another. The dancers handle the technical demands with aplomb and the crispness of their lines is something to behold. This piece presents the facets of human interaction at its most beautiful.

NDT 2 pulled out all the stops to ensure that the show ends with a bang. Cue dazzling lights, sixteen dancers, synchronised movement sequences, and baroque music at its most dramatic. These elements come together to form an extravagant presentation of…

Cacti.

An earlier review of this piece says that Alexander Ekman’s ability to be genuinely funny through the medium of dance is an achievement. Unfortunately, that sentiment is myopic. Ekman’s genius lies in the ability to satirise one’s art form and yet the audience will still takes what he is doing seriously after having a good laugh. Cacti is a riot of fun which showcases not only the physical abilities of the dancers, but their creativity as well. The voiceovers which include a monologue expounding on a supposedly profound fact and the running commentary of the silliness of the dance moves show how the production elements can really enhance the dance. More importantly, it also boasts of the dancers’ non-kinetic talents.

Rather than just being a showcase of five recent works, NDT 2 offers an exposition of the potentials of contemporary dance and the human body. One can only hope they formulate their next exposition as soon as possible.

[Quick Dance Review] Lord of the Looks

n.b. There are times when I am quite busy and would not be able to write a full review of the shows that I have watched. Quick reviews are meant to file my main impressions of a certain show.  

Lord of the Dance

Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games

Michael Flatley

4 September 2015

Grand Theatre, Marina Bay Sands

3–6 September 2015

It should be called Lord of the Looks. Dancers are wonderful but there’s something odd with everyone being absolutely good looking. It’s exactly the same format as Flatley’s Feet of Flames and Lord of the Dance. Only minor tweaks were made to the choreography and new songs were added.

Those familiar with Flatley’s work will be absolutely disappointed as the way he markets the show is as if it’s a completely new show. What a horrible way to end a glittering career.

Surely he can look to various stories from America (where he was born) or Ireland (where his family comes from) to come up with something wonderful. What a waste of his talents.

Go if you are completely unfamiliar with Flatley’s work or are willing to blow your cash just to look at eye candies for a bit.

[Listing] The Fleeting Moment by Raw Moves

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Italy meets Singapore in Raw Move’s latest contemporary dance production, The Fleeting Moment.

Italian choreographer Teresa Ranieri, who has worked widely throughout Europe, will be in Singapore for a 6-week residence with Raw moves to collaborate on a new creation that explores the meaning of dance and life.

Ranieri’s concept is inspired by a quote from Merce Cunningham: “…dance gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

Through a collaborative creative process, Ranieri’s exploration of ephemerality seeks to direct the audience to, as she puts it, “observe closely this complex  mechanism of surrendering, non-acceptance and maybe get a step further in the art of mastering the challenges of life. Or simply witness a poetic act.”

Ranieri’s The Fleeting moment journeys into the recesses of our emotion and mental landscapes in search of meaning: The meaning of our daily existence; the meaning of this moment that passes; the meaning of our lives. It promises a stimulating blend of styles and ideas set to provoke and challenge the way we look at dance and life.

Catch The Fleeting Moment from 5–7 November at Goodman Arts Centre, Black Box. For ticketing information, please visit  Peatix.

[Dance Review] Stunning Life Cycles

Returning

Goh Lay Kuan

14 August 2015

Drama Centre Theatre

13–15 August 2015

Ostensibly, Returning shows the life cycle of a school of salmon and the trials and tribulations they face. Artistically, I see a life cycle of a tree—drawing nutrients from the roots of tradition before bearing fruits that are expressive and confident.

The dance piece is divided into five segments with the first three segments portraying the salmon developing from an embryo to a smolt and the final two showing the salmon returning to the streams to lay eggs.

Choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar, Jenny Neo, and Osman Abdul Hamid drew on the movement vocabulary of the Indian (Bharatanatyam), Chinese, and Malay dance traditions to chart the developmental stages of the salmon’s life cycle.

As the embryos become alevins, their movements are limited and they struggle to make sense of the environment. The structured and grounded Bharatanatyam movements , conceived by Bhaskar, lends a firm but quiet energy to the piece. The striking facial expressions and footwork of the dancers exudes the eagerness of the alevins that are full of potential.

Neo’s light and youthful Chinese dance choreography captures the energetic fry as they zip around, avoid predators, and pick up the necessarily survival skills. Despite the perilous situation, the dancers punctuate their quick movements with a momentary pose and let out a playful kiss—the fry call out to one another to ensure that they stay together.

The fry become fingerlings and the process of smoltification soon occurs. After this transition, the smolts emerge with a silvery coating. This appears to be a rite of passage and the Malay dance choreography by Osman Abdul Hamid celebrates the fulfilment of the rite. A sense of joy fills the air as the dancers sway gently and gracefully to the lush tones of the accordion.

Reaching maturation and confident of survival, the smolts navigates and overcome all sorts of obstacles with aplomb. This is mirrored by the dancers as they—gaining all the needed technique and strength through their traditional dance training—come together and showcase their versatility in Osman Abduls Hamid’s contemporary choreography. All of them are consummate dancers as the audience is treated to a sequence that is engaging and dramatic. The swirling blue rays of the intelligent lights, designed by Dorothy Png, evoke the tumultuous depths of the ocean which heightens the tension.

The final choreography by Low Ee Chiang continues the drama that culminates in all the dancers taking to the stage. Their synergy is palpable for the renewal of the next generation of salmon depends on them. In one striking moment, they all fall to the floor as the lights goes out. The meditative sound of the flute creeps in slowly as the dancers emerge from their foetal position. The process is consummated and life begins again.

Despite its structure, Returning does not feel segmented and kudos to Mdm Goh Lay Kuan (artistic director) for ensuring that all the choreographies coalesced into a cohesive whole.

The same commendation must go to Julian Wong (music director) for the same achievement with the music. In fact, the structure of the music complements the dance as well. In the first three segments, music from the Indian, Chinese, and Malay traditions take their respective centre stage and instruments that do not typically belong to the tradition serve as accompaniment. However, in the final two segments, composer Ho Wen Yang really brings out the best in all the instruments as they chorus as a wondrous whole.

For us—the younger generation—whatever is known of Mdm Goh’s legacy is probably through interviews and books. With this latest offering, she beckons us to relook at the artistic roots and the possibilities of dance with fresh eyes.

We cannot help but follow her on this journey of return.

Other Reviews

“‘Returning’ Delivers Visual Delights” by Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, Blouinartinfo

“Goh Lay Kuan’s ‘Returning’ is a Flawed Return to Traditional Dance Forms” by Nirmala Seshadari, Straits Times Life!

Adieu Flying Inkpot: What Now?

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And just like that, one of our cultural institutions in its own right has decided to call it a day.

The theatre and dance arm of The Flying Inkpot has been consistently reviewing and assessing a large section of the arts scene for the past 19 years. In its own quiet way, it amassed a decent following and stands as an alternative source to our newspaper critics and a whole crop of glossy lifestyle websites of more recent vintage. The most unfortunate thing is that only those invested in the arts scene will understand the gravity of this loss.

While Corrie Tan (The Straits Times, Life!), Mayo Martin (Today), and Helmi Yusof (Business Times) will undoubtedly continue their wonderful work, their professional commitments mean that they will not be at the forefront of theatre criticism. One must understand that they are journalist-critics—journalists first, critics second. The focus of the newspapers probably require them to prioritise industry stories over the reviews. To compound the problem, they have to shoulder the lion’s share of the arts beat as they have few colleagues working with them.

As such, their role in criticism is limited to being active writers and providing occasional feedback during industry consultations conducted by the National Arts Council (NAC). They neither have the time nor energy to promote the standing of critics, spark thoughtful discussions about the arts scene (beyond the allotted column inches), and improve the quality of writing (apart from their own).

That is where The Flying Inkpot comes in and its departure has left a gaping hole in the eco-system.

I have been reading Inkpot‘s reviews on and off for years. It started out as getting a second opinion on whether a particular show is good or not. However, having developed a strong interest in theatre criticism over the past two years (hence this blog), The Flying Inkpot has become a benchmark for me. My reviews have to be as good, if not better than what Inkpot puts out. Additionally, it has been an interesting experience to see if the writers there agree with my opinions of a particular show that I have reviewed. Behind the computer screen, I have occasionally let out exclamations of, “Hear! Hear! What’s with all the hype by people on Facebook?” or “Are you serious!? Did you even watch the show?” Indeed, I feel an odd sense of camaraderie just by yelling at my computer screen after reading the reviews.

As the performing arts scene show gratitude for services rendered, a pressing question looms: What is next for theatre criticism? Here are some initial ideas.

Taking Stock

For starters, before we decide our next step, we have to lay the groundwork for current and future critics. In acknowledging the value of the reviews for researchers, practitioners, and aficionados, the editors of Inkpot—Kenneth Kwok and Matthew Lyon—have decided to make the archive available to all even after the website has shut down.  The mainstream media should do the same.

Rather than subject interested individuals to squinting as they scroll through microfilms or settle for heavily watermarked copies online, the NAC should partner with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Esplanade Library to start an online portal which contain all the reviews by our newspaper critics past and present.

NAC should also commission a book which will be a general survey of the history of theatre criticism in Singapore. Drawing from the newspapers and The Flying Inkpot, it will feature some key reviews of various productions over the years. Perhaps it can include an introduction at the start of each section which analyses writing styles of reviewers or interesting insights about theatre history that can be gleaned from these reviews.

If there is enough academic and artistic interest, an academic book can be published which contains various essays about theatre criticism. They can range from in-depth analyses of particular critics to how theatre criticism fits in our local arts eco-system. Practitioners could contribute essays about their views on critics or how they made use of past reviews to inform their research while creating a new production.

Looking Ahead

In the best of all possible worlds, we should work towards having full-fledged critics or at least actor/dancer-critics (some feel that there will be a conflict of interest but I disagree—another post for another day) a reality. Criticism is not just about watching something and voicing one’s opinion. A critic should be as knowledgeable about the performing arts as possible. Ideally, he or she should be reading up on latest trends and research in the day before rushing off to review a show at night. It is a proper career and not something you do when you have some time to spare in the evenings.  

However, even if all relevant parties were to work together on this (and that is a big if), it would take at least 10–15 years to achieve this. What can we do now?

Well, a critic is nothing without readers. Apart from The Art of Review talk organised by the Esplanade Library this year, there was no forum on theatre criticism in recent memory at all. I would like to see discussions comprising both practitioners and critics on the same panel and get views from both sides of the curtain. A public talk will give the audience a chance to weigh in on what they think the role of criticism. It would also benefit the critics as, speaking from my own experience, they hardly get any feedback from their readers and the conversation borders on being insular.

Of course, one might point out that it is a lovely exercise of preaching to the choir. This might be true in some respects but a realistic goal of such public outreach is to encourage those who might be willing to engage at a deeper level rather than “convert” the uninterested. Besides, even within the arts scene—and I will be really pleased if I am wrong—the engagement seems to be between the reviewer and the reviewed; the choir needs some encouragement to expand its repertoire and sing louder.

As for more “concrete” measures, the easiest route to take is to ask all the writers to start their own blogs or, for those who are interested in journalism as well, join The Muse (a rather good arts website). Alternatively, they could join the glossy lifestyle websites and improve the quality of criticism there (I shall not bore you with a list of their inadequacies).

While that is all well and good, a central website is still necessary. If everyone does their own thing, who does a theatre company choose to offer press tickets to? Will they shun critics whose tastes and proclivities do not incline towards the genre or dramaturgy that the company is known for? We cannot all flood The Muse and there is something to Inkpot resolutely standing as an alternative—not necessarily against—to the soundbites galore offered by glossy websites that seem to be spawning exponentially.  

Matthew Lyon is on to something when he mentioned that if Inkpot were to be revived in any way, shape, or form, it will have to expand its scope to include videos, podcasts, and feature articles. However, it would take a generous funding model to sustain this. On top of that, it would require a full-time team which would not be possible for him and fellow editor, Kenneth Kwok, to be in charge of. He does not think corporate sponsorship or advertising might be a good idea as the site should not be beholden to commercial interests and that most companies do not want to be associated with an activity that is generally (and most erroneously) seen as being nasty to people.

I sympathise and somewhat agree with Lyon. But there are a lot of things going on here. In the beginning, this website will still have to be on a voluntary basis for a while but it can steadily progress to a model in which contributors are paid a nominal fee.

While it might probably be true that big corporate sponsors do not want to be associated with the website due to the negative perceptions of what critics do, it might not be true for smaller establishments. Perhaps one should woo restaurants and bars that are near performing venues for advertisements. Why would it matter to them if it is a eulogistic or slamming review as long as the readers—who form a reasonable section of the theatre-going public—glance at their advertisements and learn about their promotions? The only clash of interests here are companies who serve as official caterers or are involved with certain promotional tie-ups with a particular theatre company. Even with them off the list, there are still many companies available.

Aside from that, why do we have to limit ourselves to direct funding/ advertising/ sponsorship? Online advertising revenue has progressed quite a bit. There are “indirect” advertising revenue streams such as Google Adsense in which the website can earn some revenue based on the number of unique views or clicks on the advertisements displayed. If the website starts a YouTube channel, the videos can also be monetised. Hopefully, after a few years, the revenues will be substantial enough to remunerate the contributors.

Speaking of YouTube, the sky is the limit in terms of content. It could be a panel talk-show setting (see Theatre Talk) in which various critics (including those from the newspapers) come together and talk about the shows they have seen, predictions for the Life! Theatre Awards, or just argue with each other over what they have written. It could also be two enthusiastic presenters just bantering away and occasionally inviting artists in for a chat. The setting of the latter format could be in a cafe and perhaps the management could give some advertising dollars too.

Finally, there is absolutely no shame in asking people for donations. In fact, theatre companies could sponsor a couple of tickets and donors who donate a certain amount will be entered into a lucky draw to win them.

Whatever it is, considered and insightful criticism must be kept alive and we are poorer for it if it dies. Adieu Inkpot, it has been a good run and—fingers crossed—we will meet again someday.