Wednesday, January 14, 2009

RAWdance at the Singapore Fringe Festival

Many years ago, my good friend Michelle invited me to a modern dance performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. It was visually impactful, but it didn't leave much of an impression on me other than "Huh?". Since then, I've always demurred when asked to come along for modern dance performances. It always seemed too abstract and distant from my own world.

Last night, a friend of mine dragged me to a modern dance performance citing that his friend from San Francisco was performing and I just had to come and give my support. I agreed, and this time my eyes were opened to the possibilities of modern dance.

The dance company we saw was a young company called RAWdance - helmed by Ryan and Wendy, two (in my opinion) really talented and self-effacing artistic directors. The 2009 Fringe Festival explored themes of family - broken families, family tensions, and so on. And RAWdance debuted "Fallout" - a scrutiny of 1950s nuclear family structure going through cultural changes due to pressures from within and externally.

Many things were great about this performance, not least the intimate size of the Theatre Studio at the Esplanade - which lent itself very well to a modern dance performance like "Fallout".

What struck me first was how similar to a play without words the performance was. It started out on a dark note: a man attempts to pour himself a glass of water (or perhaps it's alcohol) that is resting on the belly of the woman as if she is a table. The growing tension - a mix of passion, resentment, the struggle between the sexes - was encapsulated in the almost-violent push and pull of the opening dancers' duet.

Now I realise how much more impactful a dance performance can be when you're up close enough to see the expressions on the faces of the dancers, and how much meaning can be packed into a gesture of the hand, a twist of the torso, and the arch of a foot.

The piece was painful, tackling dark themes about family life behind closed doors. During the post-performance talk, someone asked the question if Asians in the audience could relate to what might seem a very American theme - struggles of the nuclear family in the 50s. At times, it was also very humourous - with a scene reminiscent of the Stepford Wives fencing with kitchen utensils over who's the better housewife played out against a sugary-sweet song from the 50s. I particularly liked the creative way the women were "transformed" into large weapons (Uzis and anti-aircraft missile launchers) through which families hurt each other.

Some in the audience felt that they couldn't relate because Singapore has large extended families rather than nuclear families, and certain themes of family struggle was over-dramatised. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. All the tension between the sexes, the struggle to be free yet being held down by the people who supposedly care about you - this is possibly more true in an Asian context than in America where people are more free to express themselves. The internal nature of the family tension and discontent couldn't have been better expressed in "Fallout" - effectively a silent, reflective struggle expressed through the medium of dance.

In Asia, the tension still simmers beneath the surface because no one ever talks about it even if they feel it. There is self-censorship to keep the peace. Parents who are married for decades don't really communicate or speak to each other. They want different things from each other, but neither know how to express it with the tenderness of truly knowing each other. Certain topics are completely ignored or glossed over, while deep inside - emotions are boiling over.

Complex issues about parent-child tension also exist in most Singaporean families. I'll pick the easiest example: The son wants to be a musician but is forced by his parents to be a lawyer instead. The oldest child wants to leave the family nest and become independent, but is held back due to family obligations.

While none of this is deliberately spelt out and is obviously my own interpretation of the dance, the main elements are very strongly expressed in the dancer's increasingly desperate and frenzied attempt to dash through the other dancers who kept holding him back, throwing him down, stifling him but with a mix of tenderness and reproach.

It finally ended on a slightly upbeat note. The "family" watches on as a single member breaks off into a conventional white picket fence life and truly struggles with it. They slowly gather around her to give support in a way that seems slightly menacing, only to extend a flower of sympathy. Whether she accepts it is open-ended.

I never knew that dance could say so much and be so open to interpretation. And now that I have seen what I've seen - I will definitely be back to see more dance performances in the future.

Thank you Michelle, for starting me out. And thank you RAWdance, for convincing me :)

Check out RAWdance at: