A choreographer friend once defined contemporary dance as, “Dancing the truth of your body.” While this doesn’t apply to everyone, it certainly does to some, and perhaps no one more than Vancouver-based dancer-choreographer Lee Su-Feh.
In her 40-minute presentation followed by Q&A at the Annexe Central Market on Sunday, Su-Feh investigated the depths of improvisation, performance, authenticity and communication. Seated on a stool in the middle of the wooden floor, with the audience surrounding her on four sides, Su-Feh began with small movements — shifting from hip to hip, twisting from the waist, scooting around on the stool, rocking her weight around on her feet, occasionally burping. She accompanied the movement with verbal commentary. As the performance progressed, both speech and movement became more pronounced and complicated, until, after an extended phrase of movement without speech, she asked the audience, “What time is it?”
It is difficult to discuss such a discursive work, but it is worth noting how Su-Feh touched on questions that occupy most conceptual contemporary dance choreographers. How do you locate the truth of the body — the body you have now, under the gaze of the audience, not the body with which you woke nor the body you wish you had? How do you decide when something is finished? How do you come into a space, before an audience, and make something, without any sense of planning or preconception? How do you integrate the linear nature of language — with its logic of grammar — with the circular nature of dance? How do you work with the pressure of the audience’s gaze? By acknowledging your terror? Or by keeping it in? And, especially, how can you start to move in ways that are somehow authentic, because, from the very start, how can you notice your breath without changing it? Won’t you just lapse into stillness, silence?
These questions can never be truly answered, and Su-Feh knows it. In this case, she found her way into movement by resorting to external imagery — ideas about the feng shui of the space, or what a friend had said about imagining the uneven earth beneath the flatness of the floor. She moved towards movement by moving away from herself, until the movement developed its own momentum, and carried on without her, for a while.
The audience, however, was charmed and intrigued. Actor Anne James noted that Su-Feh’s commentary made her think about why she herself moved, sat, breathed as she did. Another audience member said that Su-Feh’s performance made her a little ashamed, thinking of how many dance performances she had watched as a mindless consumer, and now noticing how much she, as an audience member, could give back to the performer.
I was most interested in something that I mentioned in my preview — how Su-Feh’s work and thoughts, designed for a very different world, would operate in a Malaysian environment — and clearly Su-Feh herself was keen to find out. I think she was somewhat disappointed — she said that she had hoped that in this place, which meant a lot to her, she would find new rhythms in her body, and in the end she implied that she hadn’t. But the habits of the body die hard.
I think much of the Malaysian audience (largely unused to conceptual dance, despite the work of groups like Five Arts Centre, with its emphasis on merging dance and theatre) found something new and interesting in Su-Feh’s work. Some were disappointed and bored, not because the work went over their heads, but because it seemed to have nowhere to go, and little to give. This is the danger of such work — it can also lapse into navel-gazing — but for that brief session it was invigorating, thought-provoking and welcome.