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Dancing for your life
THE penultimate offering of the Singapore International Festival of Arts was a beautiful and compelling socio-political work titled A Letter/Singapore by celebrated American choreographer Bill T Jones.
Though it addresses more urgently Black Lives Matter, the movement protesting the death of dozens of unarmed black people at the hands of American police officers in recent years, the dance draws its inspiration from something much older than the movement: in 1963, African-American author James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a book of essays expressing his thoughts about being Negro in the 1960s. One of the essays was a letter he wrote to his nephew, persuading the latter to overcome the frustrations about being black in America and aspire towards a grander, more compassionate view of humanity.
In A Letter/Singapore, choreographer Jones has similarly created a kind of letter to his own nephew to help the latter transcend his frustrations with the racial and sexual politics of America. Where Baldwin used words to communicate to his nephew, Jones uses movement, mise-en-scene and music to communicate with his.
The piece begins with several dancers clad in streetwear converging at the centre of the Lasalle College of the Arts stage. A tense exchange turns into a fight, and suddenly the tableau looks like an image taken from an evening news report.
Various scenes are played out in the streets, back alleys, clubs and a hospital, with the dancers representing a range of disenfranchised minorities including blacks, gays and Asians.
Projected behind them are images of burning cars, street protests or words taken from Baldwin's and possibly Jones's letters. The poignancy of certain lines such as "Day by day, I have to figure out how to live" cannot be understated.
The dance movements are borrowed liberally from the vocabulary of vogue, hip-hop, Martha Graham and others, mixed with Jones's own innovations and performed against music that shifts genres from pop to house to blues.
A Letter/Singapore, however, never feels bitter, angry or oppressive. Just as Baldwin urged his nephew to transcend his anger, Jones creates a path that moves out of the tableaux of violence towards tender displays of compassion, love, friendship and forgiveness.
The work takes on even greater complexity by the inclusion of dance students from Lasalle College of the Arts. By having these students count one to 10 in Malay and sing Singapore's National Anthem, followed by the playful recitation of Mandarin songs, Jones seeks to highlight the racial faultlines in our society as well.
At its finest, A Letter/Singapore exemplifies art's response to complex topical issues such as racism and violence: Though art cannot solve them, its balm of compassion and humanity is unique and irreplaceable.