By Ian Ng
We huddled in a small room also known as the entrance to the Esplanade backstage. Clad in comfortable walking shoes and marked with an access sticker, the 30 of us were about to witness T.H.E Dance Company’s first ever site-specific work Impulse, and the first of such works held at Esplanade as part of the arts centre’s da:ns festival 2015.
Impulse, a new creation by Resident Choreographer from South Korea Kim Jae Duk, explores the notion of space and the appreciation of it. With such a landmark work about to enter the company’s repertory, we were excited yet apprehensive of what was to come our way. Would the company dancers be able to pull off such a daring variation from the usual black-box performances? We would soon find out, as the doors opened and our journey backstage began.
The first out of four spaces was the backstage loading bay; we were housed in a rectangle approximately the size of a lorry. Right from the get-go, the audience were held captive as the dancers burst onto the scene with dizzying runs, leaps and gravity-defying lifts. The ramp, steps, railings and walls—these mundane structures in the everyday environment were transformed into a canvas on which the eights dancers worked their craft.
Jae Duk, renowned for his fast-paced and dark-yet-humorous works, had the dancers utilising every part of the space – even the slightest protrusion was employed as a platform to execute a jump, a lift, a counterbalance. Personally, Zhuo Zihao was the standout for this piece. The founding member’s fiercely intense gaze and powerful steps were amplified given the audience’s proximity, he commanded the space well and never missed a step or a beat.
All too soon the first scene drew to a close with the entrance of guest dancer Terence Pek, who carried a blinking light signifying the end of a sequence. We got to our feet, and like obedient schoolchildren, followed the ushers to the next venue—a huge cargo lift. What started out as a solo by Evelyn Toh soon delved into an ensemble as more and more dancers joined her in the closed confines of the lift.
The bright lighting of the performing space contrasted with the darkness we sat in and made it seem like we were watching a museum exhibit come to life as they performed in a glass box that was the cargo lift. Simpler in nature, this scene contained repetitive sequences mixed with gravity-defying lifts and partner work that sought to cover every inch of space.
Out came Terence and the blinking light (Was he the designated “bell boy”?), and we were led to a workshop of sorts. A seeming continuation from the previous scene, Wu Mi morphed into a robot being measured, prodded and explored on the cutting table. What I appreciated in this segment was the enmeshing of balletic movements—think battements (an extension of the working leg to the front, side or back), cabrioles (a type of jump where one leg meets the other in the air) and classical port de bras (carriage of arms)—with Kim’s fast and sharp contemporary steps.
Apprentice dancer Brandon Khoo impressed in his duet with Wu Mi. His long lines and effortless movements saw him transit from the floor to the table, to the trolley and to a chair with ease. He interactions with the space were natural and seamless as he moved from point to point with a confidence exceeding that of an apprentice.
For the final segment, we headed down to the basement to a tunnel-like place where it seemed props were kept. There were chairs—the first setting in this triple bill that bore semblance to the conventional theatre seating—and we eagerly took our seats in anticipation of more surprises to come.
Out from the end of the tunnel came the dancers. They dashed toward the audience with athleticism as if they were sprinters, and broke off into a series of duets and trios. Terence (the aforementioned “bell boy”) came to life by means of a powerful sequence with Zihao; he held his own alongside the senior dancer and wowed the audience with his strong leaps and explosive steps.
Kei Ushiroda was outstanding, too, in this final segment; her sharp turns and articulated movements drawing little gasps of admiration from the seated crowd. The use of lighting and sound was particularly powerful in this closing piece, being employed at strategic points to mark dramatic changes in the mood of the dance.
Powerful yet tender; quirky yet intense. The beauty of Impulse lies in the unpredictable interactions that relate the dancers to their surroundings—drawing out the awareness and appreciation of space. Site-specific works often focus the attention not just on the dancers and their dancing, but also on the objects and structures we interact with on a daily basis yet take for granted, thereby revealing their simple yet extraordinary significance and our tendency to overlook the ordinary.
And yes, T.H.E Dance Company moved us, pulling this piece off remarkably, and breathtakingly no less.
Photos by Bernie Ng; Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay