What shaped up as quite a high-concept and codified evening began with Grace Nicol’s I Only Laugh to Keep From Weeping. Originally created for the V&A, it was partly inspired by the Vanitas movement – still life arrangements of symbolic objects popular in 17th-century Netherlands. Nicol slides this static visual art notion into incipiently extravagant performative directions. After a slow-mo, gesture-inflated promenade downstage, during which each relinquished a draping train of pink fabric, Valerie Ebuwa and José Tomás (both distinctly ebullient performers) segued into vampish unison to Latin lounge music supplied by talented multi-instrumentalist/singer Wilfred Petherbridge from an island-like sound desk centrestage. Pity about Ebuwa’s semi-unintelligible shouting. Hurrah for Tomas’ camp. Slight but engaging, Nicol’s work-in-progress is ripe for further development.
Fallon Mayanja’s Afrofuturist solo Pearl as Epidermis was, by contrast, hard going. Ten minutes or more were spent digesting an overly lecture-y soundtrack about the skin, some of it in untranslated French and accompanied by a video backdrop featuring a looping cosmic starscape, undulant but sketchy sea creatures superimposed atop digital graphics and computer data. Eventually Mayanja materialised, initially on her knees and facing upstage, rolling and twitching shoulders, wrists and arms. The assertive yet questioning intelligence driving this dense but deadly, obscure, and patience-testing work was negatively subsumed by its own enervatingly dull minimalist devices.
Systems thinking was the very viable springboard for Erena Reilent’s Being-O-Matic, a male quartet anchored by a white square. One by one each bare-legged, barefoot and concentratedly po-faced male enters to execute an individual series of repetitive, seemingly automatic actions to a throbbing, clicky soundtrack. Their crazy clockwork moves sometimes overlap, or carry on despite an occasional, brief black-out. The pace increases, heading towards what we can only imagine might be a frantic breakdown into chaos. Intellect + motion = fun.
In I Only Laugh to Keep From Weeping José Tomás and Valerie Ebuwa haughtily face the audience, dressed identically in white oversized t-shirts, with baby pink draperies attached - from the top of the stage backdrop - to their elbows and shoulders. After possessively touching and almost worshipping the fabric, they drop it. They perform a wide range of movements: static stances, forceful turns and splits, and deliberate, pretentiously sophisticated gestures. A musician takes centre stage to play increasingly intense, urgent music combining electronic beats, trumpet and guitar then Ebuwa picks up the microphone and yells “Excess and Ecstasy.” Although the dramatically egotistical poses, overly-layered music and obsession with textile seemed all too much, it’s a formula reminding us that with excess comes chaos.
Fallon Mayanja’s Pearl as Epidermis takes us on a digital, scientific and personal journey distinctly classified into two sections. The first transports us to the digital world, relying on a galaxy-like image and voice-over to explain the epidermis. In the second, Mayanja emerges facing away from us, on one knee, in a small square. She isolates upper back muscles, inwards and outwards, resembling the expansion and contraction of the human lungs. It triggers other smaller movements: twitching fingers, twisting wrists and bending elbows. Are we witnessing the creation of another body, or the discovery of oneself? While the few movements were intriguing, overall this was a rather underwhelming production.
Make way for the shuffle and ‘floss dance’ masters! A sense of humour pervades Erena Reilent’s Being-O-Matic. Four males in mix and match coloured t-shirt and shorts mechanically carry out individual sequences consisting of various animated movements: leg trembles, hand flaps, hip swings, and elbow lifts. They have a playful relationship, manoeuvring around one another in the confined space and eventually feeding off each other’s movements. Together they shuffle like a caterpillar or swing their limbs and trunks rapidly. If one finds it a struggle to concentrate watching the repetitive movements, it’s going to take even more concentration to maintain the deadpan expression that these skilful dancers have.
Wen Amanda Koh