Dance enthusiasts went gaga over Don Quixote last weekend.
It was, after all, the first time that Mariinsky Ballet was performing in Singapore, a cultural event that in pop music terms would probably be like having Madonna or Michael Jackson drop by.
The audience’s enthusiasm – translating into completely sold-out shows — was well-deserved. This wasn’t just any ballet troupe. This was the best in the world (although long-time rivals from the Bolshoi group would probably object) showing us exactly how it’s done. Which is, to cut the long story short, perfectly and beautifully.
That has been the rhetoric of some of the rave reviews by dance critics I respect and admire. “The sheer skill and showmanship of the ballet soloists were astounding,” wrote Tara Tan in ST. Flying Inkpot’s Stephanie Burridge described the dancers as “faultless in their execution” and gave it that rare 5 star rating.
I’m sure others felt that way too – my companions to the Sunday matinee were gushing about it as well.
But while I had a perfectly nice time watching DQ and had “ooh” moments here and there (I agree with much of what the critics said), I was constantly distracted.
It wasn’t the fact that audience seemed to clap at every single segment, no matter how short it was. Or, even stranger, that the dancers acknowledged each instance, making me feel as if I wasn’t watching a tale unfold but a compilation of performances by wonderful, technically proficient dancers – and it just happened to be DQ.
It was that there wasn’t anything in it that you could describe as “ugly” or “off”. And that was strangely unnerving.
It had seemed like anything that’s “not pretty” was erased. The very earthly act of kissing was hidden behind fans. The violent world of bullfighting wasn’t even simulated (there wasn’t even a suggestion of a bull, which is in contrast to the imposing presence of a gorgeous looking white horse).
DQ’s windmill battle scene (one of the most memorable moments in the novel) lasted all of one second – with DQ reduced to a dummy doll being flung away. The central dude himself, the whole point of the tale, did nothing but walk into scenes waving his lance. His sidekick, the rolly-polly Sancho Panza, got to dance but our quixotic, delusional, not-quite-here, physically awkward eponymous character was, well, a foil to all the prettiness surrounding him.
If “ugly” doesn’t really have a place in classical ballet (or at least in Mariinsky Ballet’s Don Quixote), it’s pretty central in a group exhibition I checked out earlier this afternoon.
Abject Systems, ongoing at Studio Bibliotheque at Goodman Arts Centre (aka artist/curator Michael Lee’s studio) embraces this idea of “ugly”, of things that repel us and are “discomforting”. Lee’s curatorial essay somewhere in the show’s Facebook page elaborates on this, but the show’s subtitle sums it up nicely: Artists Who Love The Unlovable. And they do, some in a rather fetishistic, obsessive manner.
Detritus, scraps of paper, random clippings are collected by Stephen Black with no apparent rationale behind the act except for the sake of it, some of which have been collected and compiled as a series of zine editions signed off by the artist.
Chan Sai Lok’s triptych Things Left Behind includes dirt left in a washing machine’s filter bag, Boo Sze Yang’s familiar Boom! paintings reveal a preoccupation with automobile wreckage.
Three works that I particularly liked were Ezzam Rahman’s small sculptures of animal skeletons – crafted from his own peeled skin (yeah, gross but extremely fascinating); Andree Weschler’s The Venus In Furs video (below), where the artist systematically covers herself (face included) in fur (or is that actual hair?) (again, gross but extremely fascinating);
and Loo Zihan’s (who’s come back to the local scene with a bang it seems) video piece Autopsy, which has him in conversation with his mother regarding his homosexuality. As the morbid title implies, again, a sense of unease as we watch the socially uncomfortable scenario of mother and son dissecting the latter’s sexual orientation as we witness the former’s own responses to the prodding. A social corpse, so to speak, is sliced open before our eyes.
There are, of course, slippages. The squeaking shoes and the dull thud of bodies in DQ can be seen as ugly flaws in a 5 star show, while some works in Abject Systems have taken “repulsive” ideas and subject matter and made them, in a sense, beautiful (others tenuously stretch the idea of this “abjectness” — although Lee does say in his essay that the works “rock the boat, but… with beauty, innovation and a critical sense of purpose”.)
In a way, Don Quixote’s (and classical ballet’s) fixation with beauty and perfection (and its unwillingness to compromise this stance) had slightly repelled me, just as some of Abject Systems‘ works about the “unlovable” attracted me.
I don’t know what that says about yours truly but there you go.