Young artists with something to say fill the roster at Singapore’s M1 Contact Contemporary Dance Festival, with a number of works that are socially conscious or contemplate the millennial condition.
The festival, which is in its ninth edition and is organised by T.H.E. Dance Company, will run from June 9 to Aug 5 with 28 works by artists from 14 countries, with a focus on regional artists. It comes on the back of a record 93% seats filled last year.
Festival director Kuik Swee Boon, 45, says that while he continues to deliberately not set a theme for the festival, the works he chose spoke to him because of a certain “kindness, a heart to break boundaries and improve society”.
“I hope to give opportunities to the younger generation and to encourage people to appreciate difference in opinion.”
Next year, he hopes to have enough resources to form a panel to curate the festival, so that decisions are not always confined to T.H.E. – “It’s not healthy to just have one voice.”
Among the featured works is Should I Kill Myself Or Have A Cup Of Coffee? by Singapore-based choreographers Chiew Peishan, 36, and Liu Wen-Chun, 32, created for the festival’s DiverCity platform.
It seems a ridiculous dilemma at first glance, but its absurdity draws on French philosopher Albert Camus’ essay, “The Myth Of Sisyphus”, which posits that life is absurd and the search for meaning futile, yet argues against suicide.
Chiew encountered Camus in the aftermath of a work conflict. “Perhaps there is no need to find meaning for everything we do,” she muses. “If so, how can we continue to find purpose without finding meaning?”
The festival’s free outdoor programme, Dance At Dusk, returns for a second time. Last year, it drew more than 7,400 people to the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre.
Kuik has brought in dance artist Anthea Seah, 29, to co-curate the programme, intended as a gateway for the public to encounter dance. “We don’t want to scare them. We want them to fall in love,” she says.
This year, they will resurrect two previous T.H.E. repertoires, Organised Chaos by Kuik and South Korean choreographer Kim Jae Duk, as well as Lee Ren Xin’s She’s Chinese And I’m Twenty-Five, which deals with being a woman in modern society – something Seah says is especially current given the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements against sexual harassment.
“The question of gender and how it is to be a woman is always there,” she says, “but right now, it’s at the top of people’s minds.”
Organised Chaos is free, but paying audiences will see a very different aspect of Kim’s work in Earth, a double bill with British company Humanhood.
Kim, 34, has been T.H.E.’s resident choreographer since 2010, when the festival began. In Earth, he will endeavour to both loosen up and look back at his journey, dusting off old choreographies and combining them with recent techniques to create something new.
“The visual is a relaxed one,” he says in Korean through a translator, of his decision to strip down to the basics of his choreography. “It is like (pop group) Maroon 5 trying to sing at home wearing only underwear. That kind of comfortable feeling.”
Works from further field include Black Velvet by Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins, which will be part of international artist showcase, Binary.
Both 33 and African-American, Pitts hails from Brooklyn and Martins from Brazil. “In some ways, we both experienced ourselves as outsiders of our own cultures,” says Pitts in an e-mail interview, “yet we also felt ourselves as outliers to all the boxes and titles that were assumed of us.”
In Black Velvet, the two dance with shorn heads, clad only in loincloths, with golden-bronze body paint to illuminate their dark skin tones. “The body is a beautiful architectural structure in its bare form,” says Pitts. “The partial nudity is there to reveal our bodies’ form, including its colour, as we celebrate and share it.”
He adds that he does not see the work as exploring issues of race because he and Martins have no issue with their black identity. “Race is a stem, a long branch, from the tree of racism. Racism is not an issue either, but rather a catastrophe that has created such separation. Mirelle and I are sharing our connection.”
Taiwanese dancer Tom Tsai combines break-dancing and politics in A Fantasy Of Going Home, part of the M1 Open Stage showcase. The contemporary solo is set to a collage of soundbites from archival footage and news reports about Taiwan’s marginalisation on the international stage.
“During my upbringing in Taiwan, these kinds of reports felt routine and regular, which I now realise is not normal,” says the 30-year-old. “I wanted to create a relentless, hyper-concentrated sampling to bombard uninformed audiences, suggesting a psychological effect as a result of living in this environment.”
Tsai is based in Los Angeles and first conceived the work in the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election, which he found “extremely anxiety-inducing”.
Although he usually strives not to directly lift movement from his hip-hop background, this time, he wanted to reflect the aggression and defensiveness of the break-dance aesthetic. “This dance is not only a reflection of personal histories, but also of the histories of the cultures that I engage in.”
The programme, however, is not without its moments of levity, such as Japanese dancer Kenji Shinohe’s rubber-faced K(-A-)O, a comic work in the Asian Festivals Exchange line-up set to manically upbeat electronic music that looks at how people distil complex emotions into concise emoji.
Shinohe, 27, was taking the train in Tokyo when he was struck by how serious his fellow commuters looked as they stared at their smartphones. The man next to him was texting his wife a plethora of emoji – smiles, thumbs up, hearts, animals – but his face was expressionless.
“Communication through the Internet or screens is very useful and we cannot live without it today,” he says. “But we must not forget that it is just a tool. It stops working if you turn it off.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network