[Dance Review] Returning — Stunning Life Cycles

Photo: Ng Yuan Jie

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!


[Theatre Review] Dementia — Not As Memorable As It Should Be

Photo: Marcell Rev

Proton Theatre
13 August 2015
Victoria Theatre
13–15 August 2015
Part of Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015

“Actors on stage. Static sounds. Smell of electrical appliance overheating. Occasional flashing light. Cramped hospital ward—four beds. Various personal items of the patients are seen; well lived-in. Christmas tree. Patient sits in the auditorium as the nurse coaxes her back to the stage.”

These scattershot impressions that Dementia creates as one enters the theatre is unsettling. As the audience takes their seat, a plump man in a sweater—who we later find out to be the doctor—starts getting restless and exuberantly informs us that this is a hospital ward for dementia patients. His uncontrollable laughter underscores his introduction and one wonders whether he is actually a patient himself.

This sense of puzzlement is emblematic of the show.

Is Dementia literally about a rich man buying over the whole building, hurling what is left of a psychiatric ward into the streets, and converting it into a Hungarian equivalent of Babestation? Or is it a metaphor for the state of Hungarian society?

I could not make up my mind throughout the show but I later found out that it is meant to be both as indicated in the progamme booklet.

The ghostly remnant of the hospital ward is inspired by the closure of the National Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Budapest (formerly known as Lipótmezei Psychiatric Hospital) in 2007. The government incurred the ire of critics as there was no consultation with healthcare professionals which made the restructuring programme appear as a blatant political move. An unjust move at the expense of the psychiatric patients who were left to fend for themselves as the extant hospitals could not accommodate all of them.

The deafening silence from the authorities as the building stands abandoned compelled director Kornél Mundruczó to stage Dementia and excavate the alternative voices in society that often go unheard.

Aside from the injustices, we ourselves are like the dementia patients—trapped in our own obsessions as we slowly forget about everything else. With the show being part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts and its theme being Post-Empires, Dementia is a cautionary message not to fall into a state of post-remembrance.

With a heady mix of live music (played by the patients) and film projection of what goes on in the ward when the curtain falls, Dementia has elements of melodrama and dark comedy that is poised to leave a deep impression. It rarely lets you settle but keeps you on your toes.

Unfortunately, it does not.

While the social message is relevant to any society, the language barrier seems to blunt the immediacy of what the production is trying to evoke. As it is impossible to completely synchronise the English surtitles with the delivery of the Hungarian text, there seems to be an added distance between the audience and the performance.

Safe for the extraordinarily squeamish, the violence, blood, and nudity hardly adds to the shock value. More importantly, there is an uncomfortable asymmetry in the violence done to the women as most of them are sexually humiliated while only two of the male characters experience physical harm. This unnecessarily distracts one from the message of the play.

Despite certain dramaturgical flaws, the play rewards those who are willing to reach out some food for thought and perhaps a moment of clarity. A gift much needed in a demented society which even calculates whether the able-bodied is deserving of state support.  

Other Reviews

“Proton Theatre’s Dementia is a Little Ward of Horrors” by Corrie Tan, Straits Times Life!

“SIFA 2015: Proton Theatre’s Dementia is an emotional rollercoaster ride” by Yane Usagi, Today

“Dementia” by Ng Yi-Sheng, SIFA.sg 

“Dementia: Taking One Hard Look at our Senility and Mortality” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes