Ill advice

An Extremely Delayed Review/flection of/on Dance Clinic by Choy Ka Fai
21 October 2017
Esplanade Studio Theatre

This review is driven not by a desire to express but an irritation towards a lack of closure. It is almost exactly 6 months after the performance of Choy Ka Fai’s Dance Clinic, but it is the work that has left its imprints deeper, – and more indefinitely –, than other performances I have experienced since then (specifically labelled ‘dance’ or otherwise). Overflowing with tensions that ostensibly remain unresolved, Choy’s voice lingers not only because it is simultaneously perturbing and genuine, but also leaves his message unconfirmed. It has overstayed its welcome in the back of my mind, beyond any overt statements other choreographies have raised.

The concept of a Dance Clinic transposes the medical system’s diagnosis and treatment procedures onto dancers and dance-makers, to analyse the types of performativity that stimulate audiences, and to eventually provide advice towards becoming a better dance-maker. In his lecture-performance, Choy invites 3 “patients” to participate in his screening, including Florentina Holzinger, an Austrian graduate of SNDO, Darlane Litaay, a West Papuan dancer, as well as local dancer-choreographer Jereh Leung.

Across the world in Europe, Holzinger has gained a reputation as “enfant terrible” for her provocative performances, in which she “flirts with camp and kitsch”. Choy invites two pre-selected volunteers, who are wired up (with slightly questionable technology) to gauge their levels of stimulation based on Holzinger’s performance. This begins with a surprisingly technical striptease, embellished not only with ballet shoes, but also its vocabulary of grande battements and pirouettes, that subvert expectations of both forms of performance. Despite having piqued my interest, her show meanders into a sensationalist display reminiscent of a magic show. Holzinger announces her upcoming acts to grasp the audience in suspense, and not only fulfils but supersedes them, with other objects, including a sex toy, lined up on a blanket onstage to hint at more to come. Jereh Leung’s 30-second section, in which he turns away from the audience, pulls his underwear down, and undulates violently, suddenly pales in comparison. Choy, portraying “dance doctor”, intervenes her line-up when she begins gyrating before the now-unwilling volunteer’s face. He cites that she is not permitted to touch an audience member. A collective sigh of relief from the audience seems to follow.

Her performance helped me to solidify my stance regarding the overuse of purely sex and gore in engaging audiences. While I understand them as valid elements of performance, to perform what only holds merit in its shock factor and the accordance of immediate attention, i.e., the stimulation of disgust, sexual attention, etc., is not in my personal artistic vision. Designed to hike the stimulation levels of the volunteers, performing a lap dance on one of the them and hammering a nail up her own nostril feels violating not only in their non-consensual nature, but also in framing the audience to necessarily embody a voyeuristic eye.
Yet, when Choy interrupts her performance, his suppression of her artistic expression –especially relevant to Singapore’s heavy censorship – is made evident. Holzinger is devastated and aghast that is was not allowed to perform as she wishes. The contrast between the stupefied audience’s disbelief regarding both her performance and the fact that it had been allowed to proceed as such, and the Austrian dancer’s own shock towards Choy’s authority to stop her mid-performance, stands out as particularly intriguing.
Cultural violations by the “dance doctor” are also evident in Litaay’s section. Despite Choy’s initial awe and exoticism of the Papuan dancer’s traditional costume–a horn covering the genitals–he orders him to remove it due to inappropriateness, constituting a performed censorship. Litaay then enters a religious trance – his light bouncing along a circular path escalates to a pulsing throb that paints his body as a spiritual primitive, distanced and unaware of his performing. Yet, the fact that this trance is reflected in the projected visuals behind him reveals that it was predetermined and rehearsed, raising questions about authorship and the authenticity of the performer’s experience.
Dance Clinic succeeds in its intriguing irony – poking fun at our obsession with the omnipotence and applicability of the scientific method and of technology. The tension between art and the attempt at using artificial intelligence to correct its flaws and optimise its audience engagement is pathetic, and laughably so. Nonetheless, the space in which these two fields converge in the making of the performance, with its rigorous research and design, is testament to an un-ironic collaboration that does succeed. Curiously, Choy has created a work that simultaneously proves and laughs at itself. It is perhaps this contradiction of being a seriously convincing performance that harbours an attitude of not taking itself too seriously, that accredits the work a minutely endearing quality.
Choy’s work is ultimately disturbing and infuriating, to the extent that it allowed me to clarify my moral stances on performance, cultural appropriation, and the purpose of art. The direction this performance has taken is crucial to our art ecology, to leave us with questions and to keep us inquiring about that which is problematic. Perhaps what is most problematic, and most luminescent in my mind, is the line between the performative (as in artifice), and a (more or less) authentic experience onstage, blurred by the knowledge of the work’s global touring and the performers’ remarkable acting skills. If the progression of a spiritual trance is so predictable, is Holzinger’s disappointment rehearsed as well? What does this say about how artists approach the stage and the measures they take to both stimulate and keep within certain boundaries, especially in Singapore? And about what has not been expressed? And about what is lost?

prose?? ? ?

She steps off the bus and finds herself between the ground floor flats and the clothes pegs, nudging each other in the wind.

From nowhere visible and to no one else, a man armed with neither a proper face nor a distinct body charges towards her. She knows she is only concocting possibility, but pulls a knife from somewhere deeper and plants it into his chest nonetheless. Sweet, sweet girl I am, she thinks, and tries a smile. It fits perfectly, still. The liquid that spurts out is darker than chocolate and textured with palmfuls of white.

She recalls a mid-December now misty: the balcony in Batam on which a pair of siblings will always be sitting, watching the lights of Singapore from across the water. From some distance, the glittering was enough for the island to look alive.

“How can a domestic helper bite a baby’s face?” the brother asks. “She could have blinded me. There were teeth marks right beside my eye.” He says this as if his six-month-old fingers had memorised a cannibal’s imprints in his flesh. Of course he recalls the voice of Grandaunt’s helper, too, when she called his parents about this baby-face-eater.

Now that he’s a teenager, a new indignation against this crazy Indonesian woman has ignited, understandably. He is now old enough to represent social justice warrior for himself, many selves ago. The sister scoffs at his naïve tendency to colour morality in black-white binaries.

“Well, I think it’s perfectly understandable,” she shrugs.

“Would you bite a baby’s face? A defenceless baby?” he spits out, as if the word meant more than ‘tiny human being’. “Mama said the helper tried to explain herself by saying she was hungry. And so she bit my face? That’s insane.”

She barely has to think about the infinite things her future self could do, and what her past self had done, before she is certain she’d be able to attack a baby’s face with her mouth. That is, if the stars drew the perfect line between her mental state and a baby’s screaming.

“I’m not saying I’d bite a baby’s face now. But in a circumstance in which I’m, I don’t know, exhausted with life, jaded from working for a foreign family while my own’s barely surviving on the peanuts I’m paid and it’s 3pm and I haven’t had lunch because this stupid baby’s been crying all day… It’s a possible reaction.”

“That’s not an excuse!”

The ships continue pandering to the space between two islands, crossing back and forth. She wonders if they’re sharing encrypted messages as they pass one another. Perhaps the boats high-five each other as they near, exchanging their imprints. Maybe to plan an attack on either nation, or maybe just to pass the time.

“I’m not saying it is, I’m just saying it’s possible, even if sinking your teeth into an infant’s face is inexcusable.”

“What? I would never attack an innocent baby. You would?”

She thinks about how their parents caned them when they took two hours to finish a meal, anyway, but decides she is too tired to continue. At this point, the sister is no longer sure this mindset is an empathetic voice for the Disenfranchised And Exploited Domestic Helpers. She wonders whether she is being excessively human, but maybe she is just inhumane.

“I am full of possibility,” she says. She flattens her voice to keep its brand of nonchalance, as if it isn’t the first time she’s finding this out for herself. At some point it begins to drizzle.

5 months later and she is staring into the tunnel of the void deck corridor. If a man charges before her she knows she can stab him straight through the chest, hear that plunging squelch of blood and organs and the tearing of ribs, and this makes something inside her smile. She knows that when the liquid leaves his body, there will be no more light for her to see. Of course she is in the right mind. She continues walking, past the schoolchildren playing in the badminton court, 30 minutes past their bedtime. Nothing is different tonight. The grass slope is still a slide for her shoes and she hops back to gravel, then to pavement, and to the lift.

Maybe the police will discover she has killed someone tonight. When it is time they turn her around to face the guillotine, she is not certain she will have a face. Her body is spilling possibility.


let’s permit the sugars to collapse

the braids of brains to lose their footings
and trip themselves by will

(if we forget the cards we’ve played
and the sweet sweet baring of teeth,
and the innards of us that we know
as real real real, and if we deem it an
Appropriate Time
now to dissect our affiliations,
and we do, and you attend your saintly party
and i attend to her, and we front our fronts
and we do our do like we’d always do)

let’s permit the sugars to collapse between us
hammer through the ground so it yawns a cracking yawn

close your eyes                                         and touch your nose
put my fingers                                            through your lungs

f tility

Construction is the child of muteness
who summons the sounds of power
drills and blood fire
It rises the spartling orange
Metals pile themselves into bulldozed walls

This is how we have built ourselves
Quadriplegia curving our chests into a cup
Four corners meld to immaculate form
wide as wives and bent as fingers
fingers that burn into wire
You wanted to make something of
immaculate form

Construction is the father of muteness
The cup has lost its handle
A child tears a broad mouth
into two without sound

The cup has lost its handle
You hold it up to a yaaam seng
That means
to crack the wrist
shatter the table
whatever else follows

You find the title for a play
but it digs its wires into its womb and
does not know its second line


if you have not gotten my call it means i have not understood you,
have neither sunken fingers into your flesh nor
drawn curtains from cruxes,
do not know you.

if you have not gotten my call i do not hold your mind,
have not tossed it from palm to palm, have felt
neither its weight nor its losing,
have not lifted your hair to find.

if you have not gotten my call i may be caught
in a dream of you waitressing, falling over
into strangers’ laps and instead of food,
it is their hearts splattering onto their thighs and
entangling into your hair, painting your face a brilliant velvet.

if you have not gotten my call await my awakening.
or i am not rationalising at all
after all. you may simply fall short, or
ask for too much. 11 an hour?
overpriced for a name still dry on my tongue.

Germinal Reprise

Germinal, SIFA 2017

        This is the way the world ends
   not with a bang
                                                   & not with a whimper
           not even the routine of shudder &           release
not in a way we will remember
                           this is the way the world ends, in chatter:
 its bus
     stop ceilings lifting off maps                the bitching of
   viaducts      flyovers             tearing themselves off the soil
& pavements rising to that precipice                     bliss
                                              leaving only
      the dripping of sweat
              & the pounding of naked feet against tarmac
   the  walking & walking & walking & walking & walking &&&&

i’ve drowned and dreamt this moment

with your disdain
i am already acquainted,
i know it
like the shutting jaw
of door, all
without having yet
met truth’s eyes
with yours.

with your disdain i am already
acquainted. a first for me,
having hardly shaken hands with
many of this texture. with
the shutting jaw of door
i hear its waves passing
the distance between us, i hear
its sin sin sibilance, its
fallen awaywaywaywayway
breaking the shank
where our knuckles meet.

with your
disdain i am already
acquainted, never having been this
distance apart, – that which is only
breath, which is only
light –, and never having looked
it in the eye nor
traced its fingers.
we have only gestured –
hello, goodbye, thank you,
now only approaching the
midpoint of a hug
when i feel the slap,
already guiding
my chest
backwards into
another room.