I have waited a long time to see Dua Space Dance Theatre. Touting itself as “the first local non-governmental full time professional dance company”, Dua Space has been the training ground for a number of dancers whom I like and respect. Their 2008 work The Legend of Hou Yi & Chang Er scooped the dance awards at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, taking away Best Choreographer, Best Group Performance and Best Costume Design. I missed last year’s Anak Malaysia I was so sickened by the glut of nationalistic guff, I felt I would have done their work an injustice had I seen it such a state of resentment. And anyway, it sold out so quickly I couldn’t get tickets.
So I was very happy to hear that Dua Space was producing a more abstract work this year. While nothing can be more abstract than black and white, this new work retains a narrative flow: a transformation from a state of whiteness to a state of blackness, alluding along the way to the innocence of birth, original sin, a battle between white snakes and black snakes, the gray area of family discord and, eventually, the destruction of our environment symbolised by a black flood like an oil slick in which we all drown.
Rarely have I seen a group so polished and well rehearsed. It helps that the main ensemble of four men and three women are all Chinese, and share a similar body type – they could be clones. In the synchronous group sections, no hair was out of place. The male dancers displayed as much flexibility as the females; I have never before seen, for instance, an upside down split performed with such uniformity by a mixed-gender group. Their half smiles in the early white sections were as perfectly callibrated as their distress in the black finale. Nothing looked as if it could have benefited from another day in rehearsal – everything was as perfect as it could possibly be.
Maybe too perfect. It was difficult to see any humanity on stage, especially among the younger dancers. The entrance of Dua Space co-founder Aman Yap, as a campy yin-yang angel who serves up the apple of temptation, came as a relief. The younger Dua Space dancers have obviously been created in Aman’s image, right down to a preference for whacking kicks with the left leg only, but the original is still the best. Aman’s performance brought a welcome sense of humour, a sardonic self-awareness of his own campness, coupled with sympathetic everyman pathos. The section in which, dressed in a black corset, he carefully mimes the details of dressing, then launches into a fantasy of all the people he could be, from boxer to catwalk model, his characterisations are so distinct and mature, his physical intelligence so commanding, and his clear delight in the fantasy so obvious that it’s with slight regret that we see him eventually yield the stage to the ensemble. They may be accomplished, polished and impressive, but they cannot make up for Aman’s soul.
The only other performer who came close to Aman’s level of self-awareness was the other odd man out, Chung Hong Tsin, although it took a while for his potential to emerge. His first appears in his wheelchair, covered in black balloons and wearing black lipstick, was too over the top to be believed. He was in drag as a dragon, the Black Bubble King Under the Mountain. His later ‘Happy Little World’ solo, in which he portrays childish euphoria while rolling around on a black and white mattress as if it is a security blanket, is also too twee. But Hong Tsin really comes into his own among the rest of the ensemble in the Happy Families section, in which they bicker and squabble, momentarily coming together for a family portrait before descending into internecine teasing, betrayal, ganging up, and, yes, incest. Hong Tsin’s large and mobile face expresses by turns disgust, resignation, disgruntlement, outrage, slyness, and deceit. He is prim but catty, lascivious although repressed, a compelling portrait of humanity set among a group of caricatures.
Dua Space Dance Theatre is aptly named – it’s more about the theatrical effect than about the dance. The dancers are strong, but the movement itself is serviceable rather than interesting in its own right. The majority of the creativity – and there is a lot of creativity on display – has gone into the conceptualisation of the work and its technical achievements. The beautiful lighting by Tan Eng Heng (but, I suspect, minutely preconceived by Aman and Anthony Meh), with textured gobboes and wombs (or coffins) of amber light, are picture perfect. The balloon costumes of the black and white snakes, as well as the girls’ hairdos, speak of hours spent in front of the mirror, pinning here, stepping back, thinking, “No, that won’t do,” change, “Yes, that’s better.” The black and white path scene, in which dancers spring from a narrow lit path on the floor into the darkness, only for their landing spot to be miraculously lit upon the second of their landing, looked like a logistical nightmare turned into a dream. And the finale, in which hundreds, maybe thousands, of black balloons rain onto the stage and the audience, spoke of a production team that dares to dream of that which makes other production teams (myself definitely included) quail.
I applaud Dua Space for what they have achieved. You can see the work in it, you can see the craft. So it feels perverse and grudging of me to resent its perfection. But it’s like being in Singapore – everything is perfect, and because it is, something small and hard inside you wants to butt and kick and scream to be let out. It’s like those big blockbusters of the silver screen, the millions of dollars poured into Avatar or Alice in Wonderland which cannot buy them enchantment. Only the inescapably human flaws of people like Aman Yap and Chung Hong Tsin can do that.
Images supplied by Dua Space Dance Theatre.