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ONE of the most ambitious segments of the ongoing Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) is its extensive Dance Marathon which begins this weekend with Ikuyo Kuroda's Meeting-Melting and Padmini Chettur's Wall Dancing and continues for the next two weeks with 12 other works.
The marathon will culminate with Archive Box1 and Archive Box 2, an unprecedented exchange between the various choreographers who will respond to each other's dances to create seven new works, to be presented to the Singapore public for free.
Most of the choreographers hail from Japan and India - the two hotspots of contemporary Asian dance today - and their works at SIFA represent some of the most exciting Asian creations in recent years. (See highlights below.)
However, festival director Ong Keng Sen wanted them also to create something new for the festival - hence, the idea of Archive Box 1 & 2 as the marathon's finale.
Here, seven choreographers each take an archive box prepared by seven other choreographers. The boxes contain ideas or documents of a seminal work created by the latter group. The receivers of these boxes use the stimuli to create new works, which will then premiere at Archive Box 1 & 2.
Mr Ong notes that the contemporary dance world has been beset by concerns of how best to preserve its legacy. "Following the death of seminal dance figures like Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, there've been active discussions on how to hold on to the ephemeral acts of dance. Beyond the basic Labanotation, which records human movement, how do you recall the different emotions the dancers go through while they're dancing?"
"These Archive Boxes try to address that. These boxes do not prioritise notation or the dance techniques so much as the emotional context in which the work was created. The boxes may contain the objects and emotional triggers that spurred the choreographers to create these works."
What those emotional triggers are will only be revealed at Archive Box 1 on Aug 29 and Archive Box 2 on Sept 5, when each choreographer will discuss what's in his or her box, followed by the performance.
SIFA's Dance Marathon begins with Meeting-Melting on Aug 21 at 8pm at SOTA and continues until Sept 4 with different works. Tickets at S$35 available on Sistic. Go to sifa.sg for details of the shows.
Archive Box 1 and Archive Box 2 are held at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road on Aug 29 and Sept 5 respectively at 8pm. Admission is free with registration on sifa.sg.
A Male Ant Has A
By Mandeep Raikhy
Aug 26 and 27
ONE of the strongest and wittiest works of the Dance Marathon is Mandeep Raikhy's whimsically-titled A Male Ant Has A Straight Antennae. Ostensibly an examination of masculinity, Raikhy places six male dancers and one female dancer on stage as they re-enact the various ways men display, or "perform", their manliness through how they walk, talk and do things every day.
There are unexpectedly humorous moments as the physical vocabulary of men is laid bare and poked fun at by dancers in various states of undress. Borrowing elements of masculine behaviour, from the flexing of arms to the barking of orders, these gestures are strung together to become a language of their own.
"Through various aspects of masculinity, such as the way men touch and compete, we were able to challenge the perspectives of masculinity," says Raikhy, who is a dancer, choreographer and managing director of Gati Dance Forum, a non-profit organisation that promotes contemporary dance in New Delhi.
To conduct research for the piece, Raikhy and his dancers spent two days out in the hot streets of Delhi with their notebooks to observe the posture, gait and gestures of men. Like social scientists, they collated their empirical findings and then, like artists, built upon them for four months to create a vividly original dance work.
Raikhy says: "In the process of creating the dance, I discovered that masculinity is more complex than I had imagined. I also discovered that it is all invented, shaped by our experiences as well as the larger, ongoing notions of it. Each one of us has our own version of masculinity we harbour."
Rahul Roy's 2012 publication A Little Book On Men was also extremely influential in helping him formulate the dance. The book explores the fact that men don't think about being men because they are the stronger sex in most societies. But with the role and position of women changing radically over the past century, Roy suggests the need for a new kind of thinking about men's role and place too.
Raikhy says: "This book looks at masculinity through pop art, comic strips, illustrations and text, and helped me examine my own complex relationship with masculinity."
As for the dance's whimsical title, Raikhy says that while researching male animal behaviour, he discovered that male ants are distinguished from female ants by their long and straight antennae. He found that factoid amusing because of its unintended innuendoes - "straight suggests sexuality; antennae suggests all kinds of tentacles."
A Male Ant Has A Straight Antennae plays at 72-13 on Aug 26 and 27 at 8pm. Tickets at S$35 from Sistic.
Lonely hearts, virtual lives
By Mikuni Yanaihara
DO we need our bodies anymore? In this day and age, when human communication and commercial transactions can occur exclusively on virtual platforms without us having to go anywhere, can we dispense with the body altogether?
For Mikuni Yanaihara, one of Japan's leading contemporary choreographers, the omission of the body becomes a profound existential question that underpins her conceptually ambitious dance Real Reality.
She says: "We stand at places that are empty, spend time that is not real, listen to voices without speech, and encounter people without bodies."
The diminishing importance of corporeality naturally troubles the dancer-choreographer, who uses her body every day to express her thoughts.
She says: "Our imagination tries to bring occurences of the distant past and visions of the future to the front of our minds, as if they were actually here in the present. But people cannot even imagine the tragedies of long ago and cannot share the bodies which experienced them."
In Real Reality, dancers perform fast-paced routines against hypnotic virtual backgrounds of video projection - as if trying to keep up with the accelerated pace of living in the Information Age. The video projections, created by video artist Takahashi Keisuke, augment the virtual experience with their hyperkinetic images that are heady and nerve-jangling.
Yanaihara explains: "I see human lives as existing in relation to their inner (virtual) realities and external (physical) realities . . . Conceptually speaking, especially for time and place, we can't experience them unless we physically move to the place or shift to the time. However, by imagining the place and time to be existing already, we can see the future unfolding as real.
"This is how I've created the dance. Although I can't change the reality of our physical body as it only exists in the here and now, I've created a choreography by imagining non-existing spaces and time in which bodies can move consciously."
Yanaihara is part of Japan's "zero generation", young artists who became active after 2000. For them, art is a way of expressing the loss of values and purpose after the collapse of Japan's so-called "bubble economy" in the 1990s. Yanaihara works with artists in various fields, from the visual arts to film and journalism, to create works that address the uncertainty of their lives.
She says: "I let many things affect me in the process of creation. I can't find meaning in working alone. It's only through communication and collaboration can I hope to create work."
Real Reality plays at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on Aug 25 at 8pm. Tickets at S$35 from Sistic.
Breaking the silence on sexual violence
My Mothers & I
By Chey Chankethya
CHEY Chankethya begins her one-woman dance describing two women who've influenced her life - her mother and her classical Cambodian dance instructor. But as the dance progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that there are dark currents coursing below the surface.
Both older women seem to harbour an unspoken past tied to the history of the Cambodian genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. And that past has to do with what Chankethya describes as "the sexual harassment of women during the genocide".
Chankethya, who is one of Cambodia's leading choreographers, recalls: "As the first generation to grow up after the Khmer Rouge genocide, I grew up in an environment where silence was the norm. I was encouraged not to ask any questions, although I had so many questions to ask. I held my tongue to the point that I forgot what to ask.
"With my mother, we talked about almost everything. But on a certain thing, we couldn't. With my teacher, most of the time, I observed and listened to her. We have never discussed anything."
When she started creating the dance, the old questions resurfaced: "My Mothers and I is my first autobiographical choreography created in response to the questions that I have been asking myself: 'Who am I?' and 'Why do I act this way?' . . . Ultimately, I would like it to raise awareness about the phenomenon of silence here in Cambodia, which is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the country's legacy of genocide and its cultural and political oppression."
Chankethya spent much of her youth mastering the art of Cambodian classical dance which she incorporates into My Mothers & I. At one delicate point, she educates the audience on the gentle hand gestures that signify common things such as "fruit", "dance", "love" and "happiness".
But in order to tell a profound tale of sexual violence, she's also had to break with tradition and borrow theatrical approaches, such as the fragmented narrative and the spoken word.
"The piece goes back and forth between timelines so that I could break the story into parcels of information, which are then recomposed together . . . Doing so also allowed me to connect my memories to the memories of these other women," says Chankethya.
My Mothers & I will be performed as part of a double bill at the SOTA Dance Studio on Sept 1 at 8pm. The other work is Eyes Open. Eyes Closed. (a.k.a. Traitriot) by Venuri Perera. Tickets at S$35 from Sistic.