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Review: District 18 by Syarifuddin Sahari

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

District 18 by P7:1SMA was in essence a site-specific performance. If there was a theme to it, it would be “out of place, yet strangely familiar”. The costumes would seem weird at first and could even portray the performers as aliens, yet upon closer inspection and having greater awareness with the space, they become a representation of Tampines Round Market & Food Center, possibly even embodiments of its soul. The trolleys that they used are a familiar sight in wet markets and among the elderly in Singapore, yet the fairy lights make them appear to not be what they seem.

Their movements and behaviour may be foreign at first sight, especially knowing that it is a performance (which was emphasised by the imposing signs placed all around the TRMFC as well as the media crew and set up), yet they also blended in almost perfectly among the residents going about their lives. If it were not for their striking costumes, they would have disappeared from the audiences’ radar even when they were dancing in the middle of the path. This could have also been due to the large crowd present during the weekend, and the costumes did set them apart from the residents.

P7:1SMA (or maybe Haizad) has a preferred style of choreography where the performers come in unnoticed and disappear as suddenly as they came. Same can be said for District 18; however this time it also applied to the transitions in between the segments within the overall performance.

The dancers start the performance without the audience knowing, wandering in the hawker centre with their tricked out trolleys. Some residents gave weird glances at the trolleys and the seemingly expressionless dancers. It became more apparent that there was a performance when the dancers went up to the hanging costumes in the middle section of TRMFC (which had already garnered some attention from curious passers-by) and put them on before weaving back into the crowd. The dancers were now performing in groups, with movements and gestures inspired by the hawkers and stall operators. At some point, they would interact with the residents seated around them, who would play along with their antics (were they obliged to do so, or did they willingly take part in the audience interaction?).

As this was happening, 2 percussionists walked along the outskirts of the hawker center while beating their instruments. These instruments were more associated with Malay culture (darbuka and a Malay tambourine) and they were being played in a generally Chinese community, again tying in with the “strange yet familiar” theme of District 18.

All of a sudden, it become a variety show where lots with random table numbers were “drawn” (or chosen) to win gifts that included old Singapore treats. Some of the audience were pleasantly surprised while others barely bothered to pay attention to what was happening. The segment ended with Ji Ba Ban, an old Chinese song which struck a chord with some of the more elder residents, followed by a “battle” between the 2 percussionists. The dancers would dance around and have their own little party at the same time (the Malay term syiok sendiri came to mind). Interestingly, one of the stall operators even joined in the fun during one of the shows; apron, boots and all.

And then the fun ended. The dancers turned around and started walking to the scorching middle section of TRMFC. The atmosphere got more serious and heavy. The dancers even stopped smiling and reverted to their expressionless faces. As they carried out the choreography for this segment, there was a sense of sorrow in their movements (perhaps the almost unbearable heat aided in this portrayal). The sight was reminiscent of labourers toiling away no matter the weather and circumstances, as it was for their own survival.

This was the longest segment in District 18, and it pulled the audience to the edge of the hawker center; close enough to watch yet still out of the sun. There was an instance where a child passed his fan to one of the dancers; a reminder that we should all help each other, and empathy is what sets us apart from other living things, something humanity could always use more of. Towards the end of this segment and the performance as a whole, the dancers would occasionally come up to the audience and wave at them, while still standing under the hot sun. They would lastly stand in line, hang their costumes, hold and lift their hands and pat themselves on the back, before stacking the folded trolleys in the middle and disappearing.

The performance was a homage to TRMFC; the building itself was the body, the people (residents, hawkers, stall operators) were the organs that carried out its body functions and systems, while the performers came in to represent its soul, memories, hopes and concerns. The audience were brought in to witness this “call for help” of the soul, to bring awareness to this community and its struggles, especially with the impending renovations at that time. The names of the stalls were mentioned (albeit by a distorted voice), the dancers’ movements reflected their daily routines and the costumes we made of materials and items found in TRMFC.

That being said, the lottery segment was a symbol of hope amongst the sombre situation, and to keep our heads up despite the struggle (or to keep a lookout for the numbers being called out). The self-acknowledgement also reminded us to not undervalue ourselves and each other as everyone has an important role to play, including/especially those that came before us, as well as to remember their contributions.

As for the trolleys, they came in together with the soul of TRMFC, and were left folded and stacked in the center. There was a moment where they became a burden, when they were carried by the souls’ strained necks and also started to resist/push back. Change is inevitable, and even though it is important to remember/reminisce the past once in a while, it is also important to move on and accept the change, leaving it where it should be; in the past. Only then can we be better (or improved, a renovations go).

The balance of bringing our past with us yet to constantly change and evolve.

To be different, yet strangely familiar.

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