At some point during a LIFE performance, Joavien Ng disappears into her tennis dress, stuffing her entire body into her clothes, shrinking into an odd mass of red and white. She sings It’s A Small World After All until her voice cracks.
After a series of collaborations, including last year’s site-specific performance The Diary Of Alice, she returns with a raw but powerful solo piece problematising space—physical, mental, creative—in the context of an increasingly overcrowded Singapore.
It is a response that impresses me very much. You’d easily expect a visual artist or a theatre company to take on this topic, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one from a homegrown dancer/choreographer.
And then you realise that it makes absolutely perfect sense for someone like Ng, whose very body is the instrument of expression, to have a strong opinion about the fact that a growing number of bodies is slowly being crammed into a small island. Movement is literally restricted. Physical reaction is almost instinctive and inevitable.
And throughout a LIFE performance, Ng harps on that by way of absurd humour, a sense of play and childhood memory.
Laid out on the floor is a blank map of Singapore on which she plonks coloured cutouts of supposedly essential things for an “ideal life”—a bed, a chair, some chickens, some cows, etc. Like some talent on a tacky real estate TV advert, she slowly walks around the borders of the island spewing out facts and figures about its land mass. Ng wonders aloud just how much space one person is bound to get if you divide Singapore evenly among its residents. She comes to the conclusion that it’s not really much.
While she neglects to factor in Singapore as a vertical city of buildings, Ng does put across her point that it’s a pretty small space to live in. She does this by squeezing herself into the awkward spaces between the coloured cutouts on the map, her movements reminding us of hopscotch and Twister.
Not content with this, she then elaborates on ways of making herself fit into her hypothetical space. She tries to become “small” (her painful-looking contortions as she contracts her muscles makes one grimace) or “flat” (she lies down and makes a hissing sound as if being deflated).
Going counter to the absurd humour that accompanies these physically impractical examples (including her Joavien-as-a-ball moment) is the moment when she pulls her skirt over her head. The only way to reclaim her space, she said, is to “ignore other people”. This sobering strategy of isolation gives her freedom, but it has a consequence—she’s finally dancing naturally but her face is covered. She is devoid of identity.
All of these are interspersed with more anecdotal moments from childhood, such as when, instead of playing house, she played accountant. Signing her scrapbook of receipts that slowly fills up (echoing similar space issues), her act of writing transformed into a graceful set of gestures.
To be sure, a LIFE performance could perhaps be tightened even more (I’m not particularly sold on the final section where Ng plays around with the cutouts to form a series of visual statements—although Lim Woan Wen’s lighting wonderfully created a sense of claustrophobia as if the ceiling had been significantly lowered). But as it is, I think it’s an effort worthy of a bigger audience, particularly from the dance community. Here’s a wonderful example of a work of an artist that, by digging deep into herself, finds something that resonates clearly within its milieu and results in art that is honest, immediate and, most importantly, relevant.
(a LIFE performance runs until May 12. Details here.)