By Catherine Zou (17A01B) and Sabariesh Ilankathir (17A13A)
The Goodman stage lights open to the image of a life concluded: a man, crushed under the weight of a collapsed car; spinning lights; horrified onlookers. Yet, Raffles Players’ Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) play “The Coffin Is Still Too Big For the Hole” (written by Lucas Ho and Cheryl Lee) unravels a life from its tail end. It starts with a conclusion: the coffin is still too big – but rather than being literally, physically too big for the hole (as in Kuo Pau Kun’s beloved 1984 play), it is, figuratively, too big for a life that has been confined and diminished by boundaries and restrictions.
A sombre tune floods the theatre and there is a sense of foreboding in the air. For a while, there is no movement on stage. Then, four dancers stepped out from the shadows of the curtains. The spotlight falls on the boards in their hands, and the audience catches sight of the images printed on the placards that depict heartbreaking images of starving children. There is one showing a child’s palms turned up, a meagre handful of rice in her hands. Another shows emaciated children queuing for food with hungry expressions on their faces. The last is the famous Pulitzer-prize winner depicting a starving child stalked by a vulture. As the dance progresses, with each turn of their heads, each graceful hand gesture, each leap across the stage, the dancers paint a gloomy picture of the scenes of hunger in modern-day India– one of famished beggars out on the streets and passers-by who have grown desensitized.
When the last note of the first song echoes throughout the theatre, the movement of the dancers on stage comes to a halt, their bodies bent, arms spread, faces frozen into expressions of pain and unspoken anguish. Then without warning, all 14 dancers turn and begin stamping their feet to a steady beat. Anger, the main emotion the dancers wish to express through the second half of their dance, forms the connection between every sharp turn, every powerful thrust of the hand. The dance speeds up, each underlying shift in the music forcing their bodies to undergo a thousand changes: their legs cross, their heads dips, their fingers morph to from a classical hasta into the shape of a flower, all in a complicated synchrony. Maintaining their lines of formation, the dancers use traditional Bharathanatyam footwork to maneuver their way across the stage, striking their final poses with their hands stretched out and bodies reaching forward. They smile benevolently, their serene expressions a sharp contrast with the angry frowns they had worn just moments ago. The narrator delivers a single question for the audience to ponder over. “Can we do more?” it asks.
The music fades, but the energy of the dance still reverberates about the room. RI Indian Dance exits the stage amidst overwhelming applause.
Titled “Pasi“, or “Hunger”, the dance depicted the desperation and indignation acutely felt by many hungry individuals around the world. Choreographed by the CCA’s resident choreographer, Mrs Sreedevy Sivarajasinga, it was a bold mixture of both classical and contemporary Indian dance movements. There was a great deal of dramatization involved and an extensive use of props- a coconut was even smashed onto the stage at one point of time and was thereby hungrily “devoured” by dancers playing the role of beggars. However, while it was not uncommon for schools to explore different dance styles, what set RI Indian Dance apart from the other institutions participating in the SYF would be their unconventional choice of theme, which added depth to their choreography. Through the symbolic hand gestures, the intricate layering of dance steps and the canonical facial expressions that were so characteristic of Indian Dance, the dancers questioned the prevalence of hunger in our world and challenged the audience to consider an alternative perspective to a social issue close to the hearts of many in the India. The question of the day, as aptly put across by Mrs Sreedevy Sivarajasinga, is why hunger continues to persist even though the world is able to produce enough food to feed the global population.
Initially, the dancers were worried that they would not be able to get the message across to the audience. Thankfully, they seemed to have achieved their desired effect. “The dance was an angsty one that was executed with genuine passion and sincerity. Due to the theme of the dance, the steps involved were quite complex but nevertheless neatly showcased,” a member of the audience (M Kothai Niveda from NTU) commented.
Dabbling in traditional Indian dance is no easy feat even for a trained dancer, and it comes across as a Herculean effort for those with little experience in the dance form. When asked about some of the challenges that she faced during the course of learning the dance, Jeraldine Low of class 16S06I stated, “I found it difficult to get used to the music, which comprises of seven beats and is unlike anything that I normally listen to.” Right before the performance, she was “quite worried that she might forget a certain step or do something wrong on stage, especially when it came to the parts that required turns and quick coordination.” However, she also felt “excited, to be a part of the CCA’s final showcase where everyone gave their all.” She confided in Press that she felt that the CCA “did generally well, in terms of the expression, execution of movements and energy level,” .and During the course of preparation for the SYF, Jeraldine shares that she “really enjoyed dancing with the other CCA members and the friendships she had made out of this experience were what made the journey worthwhile.”
With thought-provoking and skillful performance, Indian Dance was able to bring home a Distinction award. Vice-Chairperson Kalyanni of class 15S06K tells Press that “With only a few trained members in the CCA, the dance came across as a rather challenging one for many of the members. The choreography comprised of many complex steps that were initially hard to perfect. Nonetheless, everyone worked immensely hard and with their hard work, staged a successful performance! The CCA had indeed worked together to help each other and had strived to bring out their best.” With continuous effort and perseverance, the Indian Dancers will surely go far, and we at Raffles Press wish them all the best for their future endeavors!
By Liew Ai Xin (16A01A) and Collin Teo Jun Kai (16S06Q)
It all starts with a whisper.
In the spotlight, a single dancer wearing red stretches her hands heavenwards. The rest of the dancers – clad in black – stand as one mute entity in the back, before an unseen cue from the soloist ripples them into action. Together, the group inches forward and moves backwards, all whilst the sibilant whispers of many overlying voices continue over the speakers.
The tension created is almost palpable, as if someone is waiting and watching –– as the audience is held in suspended disbelief at the improbability of dancers dancing to something without a rhythm. After a good two minutes, a steady beat finally appears, and soon a dark melody strung by a cello comes into play.
The soloist in red continues to move amongst those clad in black, who constantly sift together as several interchanging groups. Near the end of the piece, the whispers return, leading the dancers perform a remarkable act of synchronization. This time, with their back towards the audience, they reform the mass of black from the beginning of the piece, to watch the soloist again in her increasingly frantic movements to escape the undercurrent.
After the performance, audible murmurs of “that was so good!” were heard from the stunned crowd, who applauded the dancers enthusiastically after the lights dimmed. However, there were also questions being asked, namely: “What did the piece mean?” and “How did they manage to dance to music without rhythm?”
Indeed, one thing that contrasted “Undercurrent” with the other schools was the lack of a definitive explanation of their theme and title, which allowed for more diverse interpretations amongst the audience. This is a very characteristic move of their resident choreographer and coach, Ms. Low Mei Yoke. When interviewed before the performance, she laughed and said, “I just thought about the phrase, ‘Ambush from ten sides’ (十面埋伏).” Dressed in black, with a simple woven jacket, she looked relaxed compared to the tense faces of the dancers she trains. “The dancers are still young, still students,” she mused, “But I feel that they can understand it.”
Ms. Low, whose works explore issues in society that she observes, often eschews elaborate costumes and formations for favour of a more direct approach. Another conscious decision by her was to create a simple but distinct colour scheme, with one soloist dressed in red and the others dressed in black. Compared to the long, flowing and intricately designed costumes worn by other schools, their costumes looked simple and commonplace. Yet, in a stage as large as that with such understated lighting, the red stood out as a single drop of colour that instantly caught the audience’s eye. Like she said, ““I didn’t want it to be overly “dramatic”, just something with foreboding tension.” In the interplay between the mass of black and that one red soloist, a message about the self was created that did not need to be overtly explained to the audience.
As for the dancers, many were jittery with post-performance nerves. Although the responsibilities of rehearsals and practice had been lifted off their backs, some still cited areas they thought they could have been better in. Perhaps it is true that performers are often the most critical of their own work. Isabella Lee (15S03N), the dancer wearing red, said, “We did okay … It was our best given how we only got to practice with the stage for fifty minutes.” Later, she added, “It was a good run, but not as good as our morning rehearsal.” This, coming from the person who had shouldered most of the solo work, was akin to Beethoven saying “Thank God, there is less lack of imagination than ever before.” Granted, there were slight slips in synchronicity and moments when the soloist felt swallowed by the rest. However, one has to consider that large sections of their music had no discernible rhythm, making silent communication a paramount part of their performance. Their costumes also included socks, which made running around the stage a more slippery task than the other performers dancing barefoot.
When asked what the dance represented to them, Choong Kai Xin (15S06B) said, “It represents our hard work for the last half of a year, and the dancers’ commitment to this CCA.” Hard work was certainly evident in the detail and execution of the work. Although every dancer had a slightly different journey, all agreed that they have learned something other than moves and formations from those four-hour practices, three days a week. One dancer, Tan Yu Bin (16S03O), said “We’ve learnt a lot through this experience, not just in the technique department, but also a lot about ourselves –– in terms of how our bodies move, and how to connect with the audiences.”
“We hope the effort pays off,” Andrea Low (16S03I) finishes.
Well, their efforts have definitely paid off, for Modern Dance has received a Distinction for their stellar performance! Raffles Press is proud of their achievement, and hopes that they will continue to create stunning, thought-provoking performances.
By Arintha Adelina (14S05B) and Seraphine Chanentia (14S06N)
11th April 2013 might have been just another boring school day for most of us, but not for the Indian Dancers. As early as 6.45AM in the morning, the Indian dancers had assembled in the Multi-Purpose Studio, preparing to start putting on-make up. For the past few months, they had been putting their blood, sweat, and tears (sometimes literally) for this day — their SYF day.
In the end, they clenched the certificate of distinction which is the highest level of award in the SYF. This year, the awarding system was changed to Distinction, accomplishment, and commendation instead of the Gold, silver, and bronze awards. The Indian Dancers certainly deserved their achievement. Choreographed and taught by Mrs. Sreedevy Sivarajasinga, the Indian classical dance named Natya Shristi (Creation and Aspects of Dance) was brought to life by the dancers.
The dance opened with a narration about the “greed, lust, and injustice” in the world which was illustrated by 2 different groups representing violence and lust. Red lighting brought out the sense of horror that the dance scenes were trying to depict. The story continued with the appearance of 3 characters – Lord Indra, Lord Brahma, and Barathamuni – trying to alleviate suffering in the world. Another part of the dance included Hastas which was a set of standardised hand gestures, each with its own meaning. These hand gestures required precision, with strict rules on their execution. Even though less than half of the seats in the venue were filled, the exciting atmosphere could be felt through the shrieking cheers from the audience which mostly consisted of students at Kallang Theater.
This achievement could not have come about without the hard work and perseverance of the dancers. “Things didn’t look too good initially because we had all of 5 dancers in the J2 batch and there weren’t many juniors who had auditioned for Indian Dance. But we really stepped up our efforts to recruit dancers by doing a promotional video and it did pay off! We managed to get 19 dancers for SYF – a huge leap from the mere 5 we started off with” said Renisha, the Indian Dance chairperson.
“On the other hand, one of the highest moments of this experience was watching our new dancers (who weren’t Indian, mind you!) put in so much hard work to be able to perform for SYF. Learning the Indian Classical Dance, Bharathanatyam, from scratch is no cakewalk and they learnt what usually takes 3 years to learn, in 3 months! It was inspiring to see how they pushed through, although it really was a struggle!”
It was of course not easy for the new members get used to the dance beat and memorise the choreography with only a month of intense practices. Ho Yu-ling (14S03H), one of the non-Indian members, told us, “My stamina was a problem, the warm ups itself were killers, and for the first week or so, I had muscle ache everyday. It was hard to learn and follow the pace of the dance at first as every single move was new to me and I did not have the basics. I had poor hand leg coordination too, which made dancing to the beat even harder. It took quite long for me to listen and catch the Tamil music beats as it was alien to me!”
Even the Year 6s faced challenges in coping with schoolwork as they had their CTs during the preparation period for SYF. “It sure wasn’t easy balancing studies and dance. The March Holidays was really a test of our mental and physical stamina. The J2s did try our best to study as much as we could for CT1 but I’d be lying if I said we did well for CT1!” said Renisha.
Thankfully, for the Indian Dancers, the hard work paid off in the end.
The SYF has long been considered a biennial highlight in the calendar of Performing Arts CCAs. In 2011, RI clinched 9 Gold with Honours, 6 Golds and 5 Silvers across Year 1 to 6.
The Ministry of Education has announced that from next year, the SYF Central Judging will be renamed the SYF Arts Presentation. Instead of receiving awards, schools will receive certificates: distinction, accomplishment and commendation. The existing norm-referenced scheme will be replaced by one that is criterion-referenced, which means schools will no longer be benchmarked against each other. From next year, schools only need to score 75% to attain the highest award, rather than 85%.