By Corrie Tan | Writer-in-residence
March 12 & 19, 2022
This rehearsal opens with a puzzle. Syimah and Adi, two of the performers, are holding up the rectangular module prototypes that Ining has fabricated for us, trying to figure out how the structure comes together based on the drilled holes available and the shape of the structure. Haizad, now a gleeful observer, occasionally offers clues. As the other performers filter into the studio space, they join the assembly line. These two March rehearsals are pivotal—they’re the first time the six performers (four main performers, two understudies) will be encountering the metal prototypes that Ining has built. As the performers orbit around the structure, test out its integrity, weigh the tools in their hands, I wonder: Can objects and structures give us clues as to their construction? How do these materials speak to us?
It takes the group of six about 30 minutes to put the structure together, with a lot of supervision and guidance from Ining and Haizad. As they reflect on the process and Haizad introduces the performers to the flow of events at each performance, the performers pepper him with questions. Most of these are functional, practical questions that revolve around how to carry and move the structures, as well as a long list of safety considerations. The performers will have insurance that covers injury and their costuming options will include covered shoes, gloves, and possibly even utility belts. There are also questions around the artistic choices Haizad has made in terms of choreography. He’s keen for the setting up and dismantling of the structures to be a key part of the performance—as part of the group’s commitment to revealing the aesthetics of labour. Haizad also cites the Micronesian stick charts introduced to us last year by Dr Imran Tajudeen that evoke a sense of lines and flow. Haizad then talks about the concept of sambut in Malay, where to menyambut is to receive or welcome a guest; these movements across the Distripark space feel like a gesture of invitation as much as they are a spatial activation.
Next, it’s time for the performers to get a sense of how their bodies engage with the structures and the kinds of physical vocabularies that emerge when skin, muscle and flesh meet metal. The performers are game but nervous as they make their way across the bridge, first one at a time, then in groups, with Haizad testing out choreographic prompts along the way. He first invites them to just move across and bounce on the bridge. The metal groans and creaks under their collective weight. Then, as their familiarity grows, they’re invited to move around each other while syncing their breath, and allowing the breathing to inform their body and movement instead of the structure. The performers are figuring out what balancing on the structure feels like and how many contact points their bodies should have with the bridge, but they’re still hesitant about damaging the structure; Ining reminds them that the structure will not break, it will simply warp or flatten. “Actually, feel free to destroy it!” she says, delighting in the bodies making contact with what she’s created.
Next, Haizad demonstrates what it might look like to have a body weave through the metal, his body moving over and under it.
As the dancers embark on this new encounter with the structure, it’s interesting to see the different kinds of strains that emerge. The shorter dancers find it easier to make it through the gaps, but struggle to reach further contact points. The taller dancers have to contort themselves into uncomfortable shapes to make it between the structure and the floor. The dancers also point out problem areas—particularly the nuts and bolts sticking out of the structure that can snag on pockets, drawstrings, and body parts. I can see them making mental notes about the kind of clothing they want to wear in subsequent rehearsals, and Haizad will eventually make a decision to have all bolt ends point downward so there’s uniformity in what the dancers will have to avoid. The dancers move cautiously, slowly. There’s a lot of nervousness around the bridge, and the refrain of “this is so scary” emerges as they move higher up the structure. As the dancers toy with the structure, they eventually invert the bridge so that it resembles a rocking vessel or a seesaw.
Their physical vocabulary transforms immediately. Valerie and Syimah, who are the first on the rocking vessel, instinctively move in sync with each other, counterbalancing each other’s weight and making sure neither of them stands up or gets off the structure without the other paying close attention. There’s a lot of teetering, shivering, and tentative, ginger steps. I can see Ining taking all this in, trying to mitigate the fear the dancers have with a medium she’s deeply comfortable with.
During our second session with the metal structures, a week later, Li-Chuan plays a sketch of a soundscape bringing together brown noise, pink noise, white noise, and the crash of waves recorded along East Coast Park.
As the dancers arrive, they begin to assemble the frame again—a lot quicker this time. There’s more confidence and familiarity in their movements. Unfortunately, we still only have one set of tools, so the assembly is slow going. (Ining promptly announces that she’s ordered five more sets of tools that will be arriving in Singapore, by air freight, soon.) The dancers coach and remind each other of ratcheting techniques while marvelling at the sound of the bolts being tightened into place. Ining has fabricated more modules and connectors for the group to play with, and people trade jokes about IKEA assembly as we carry parts of the dismantled structures from her pickup truck to the studio on the 2nd floor. Ining encourages the group to tinker around with the structures and make as many mistakes as they want in a safe studio environment, under her close supervision. A lot of this session feels like a one-on-one metal clinic with Ining, who gives advice on the best approach to holding and making use of the tools depending on whether each person is right- or left-handed. She also teaches the group how to figure out any structure’s centre of gravity, the “magic point”, by observing where the force of the structure’s weight is pulling it towards the ground. Everyone does a double-take when she (seemingly) effortlessly lifts one of the structures and practically skips across the studio floor with it.
Ining is practically choreographing the dancers at this point as she walks them through how to lift a module safely, quickly and efficiently. The Da Vinci bridge she’s designed is also a very introductory structure, one often used in outward-bound or camping activities as an ice-breaking exercise—the design is meant for complete beginners to learn how structures like these work, and build confidence with them. While not entirely the same, I’m reminded of performance studies scholar Liang Peilin’s concept of “probody aesthetics”, where she observes the bodies of elderly Taiwanese performers on stage and thinks through ways in which their bodies might be supported—or perform choreographic gestures that are therapeutic instead of damaging to their ageing bodies. Liang observes that in theatre and performance contexts,
performers have often, if not always, been required to adapt their bodies to the material environment of the theatre, rather than vice versa. Physical ergonomics proposes that the material environment of the theatre should be adapted to the specificity of the individual performer’s body [...] through the design of lighting, the stage and performing objects. (Liang 2018, 7)
What might it mean to work with and respond to the fears of performers and adjust the materials to their bodies, where performance can also function as rehabilitation instead of the constant potential for injury? It’s clearly something Ining is thinking about as well. The day after this rehearsal, she posts a series of messages to the production’s WhatsApp chat group. She brings the idea of safety one step further—to consider emotional and psychological safety as well.
Ining uses many affective terms here: metal as a “scary material”, the performers being “intimate” with it, or feeling “numb” or desensitised to the material—which reminds me of the desensitisation to sound that Li-Chuan talked about in one of our earlier design sessions. Her kinesthetic empathy with the performers as they navigated this new material is deeply moving, and offers us ways to dismantle or disrupt our assumptions about the functionality, rigidity and resistance of metal. This isn’t just about “softening” a hard medium, but thinking of it in ways we haven’t even yet imagined: Sonia, one the dancers, exclaims that it feels like “sewing with metal” as they thread the connectors through the rectangular module to elongate the bridge, which is a phrase I never quite expected to hear. With repeated contact, I am curious about how these structures and bodies will continue to mingle with each other in unexpected, captivating ways.
Liang, Peilin (2018) “Towards a probody aesthetics: ageing and occupationally damaged bodies in performance”, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre
and Performance, DOI: 10.1080/13569783.2018.1551128