Dear Syimah and Haizad and Hariz,
I never could spell P7:1SMA on the first go – I always had to look it up – until right now, when I’ve just figured out (in typing it out several times) that it’s a playful textual prism, where the seven colours refract in reverse into one. I feel like I discovered your company in reverse, in the breathless conversations about the work you were doing when listening to Amin, Sze and Chloe discuss Joget (“Syimah’s piece, which for me was really an incredible pleasure to watch” […] “And then Haizad’s piece really blew my mind.”), or when copyediting Sze’s review of Ngopi. My first experience of your work was textual and verbal, a strange sensation of not having been there but wanting to be there, of having had to conjure up in my mind the aesthetics and the ferocious in-betweenness of a company that, as Sze put it, “goes far beyond the stereotyped collage of the fetishised ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ vocabulary”. When I met the both of you at Need to Reply, and we discussed my review of Tiger of Malaya and the archive of the body, I thought, how strange to have encountered each other first through the disembodiment of text. And then another strange encounter, in which I come to see your most recent work, Belon, which is simultaneously your earliest experiment with “the contemporary” in 2015. I think what I appreciate about our mutual introduction is that it resists a linear chronology – perhaps in the same way P7:1SMA constantly upends notions of “what came before” and “what comes after”.
My dance vocabulary is limited – and my vocabulary of Malay dance even more so – so I’m going to set aside those conventions for the moment (even as I do my best to learn more about them, as I encounter more of you and your work, and as that happens my responses to your work will deepen) and write to you what I felt of what I saw.
Weeks before the show takes place, I register for a ticket on Peatix. It’s the first time I’m asked to offer information that isn’t my name, or my contact details, or my credit card number. Instead I’m asked to respond to Mark Twain’s statement: “Balloon: thing to take meteoric observations and commit suicide with.” It’s a curious metaphor to tie a work to, this fragile object suspended between the extremes of usefulness and extinction. In the silent Stamford Arts Centre Black Box, a performer inhales and exhales into a black balloon as it grows stretched and taut and shiny. I’m inhaling and exhaling too, waiting for the distended skin of the balloon to rupture, for that tipping point between the joys (a big balloon!) and the inevitable traumas (a burst balloon!!!) of possessing something so temporary and delicate. The balloon explodes and I can feel my involuntary sharp intake of breath even as I’ve steeled myself against the shock, and then the performer squats down to pick up the the black rubber shreds strewn across the concrete floor of the stage – one of my favourite moments, to see him arrange the tiniest strips of the former balloon, the scattered corpse of its former self, gathered and laid out for us with the precision of a museum exhibit. The balloon, once quivering with breath and life, now dead, extinct, re-arranged for display.
This violent movement between the life and death of a balloon reminds me that this an older, earlier work that you’ve chosen to resurrect, and I wonder if this decision to bring it back for GTM 2018 is a kind of in memoriam, a remembrance of things past – or perhaps it’s a haunting, an exorcism of the spectre of tradition that hasn’t ever left. In fact, so many of the images that Belon presents seems to rest on a decision or a dilemma, a conflict between two opposing forces: full balloon/burst balloon; floating balloon/sinking balloon; black balloon/white balloon – slowly drifting into heavily symbolic territory: male/female; masculine/feminine; violence/tenderness; death/life; tradition/contemporary.
The entire production is inflected with questions around these binaries: the same male performer who’s assembled the shreds of the balloon now corrals his female counterparts, gripping them by the collars of their shirts and dresses (does tradition always exert violence over the contemporary?); two women enter, one with black balloons drifting around her feet, the other with translucent helium balloons hovering over her head, and they begin to move through lenggang movements, their bodies inscribing their gestures in markedly different ways (is tradition a ball and chain, a dead weight – or is it an anchor, a source of stability?); one of the women wears the balloons in her hair like a regal, royal headdress, the other ends up with the string of a floating balloon wrapped around her neck like a noose (is tradition a source of dignity – or will it always end in death?).
Binaries make me think of the Cartesian mind-body divide and all the times we resist this distinction, which I think is exactly the sort of in-between that P7:1SMA invites us to sit with. I’ve been reading Irfan Ahmad’s Religion as Critique, where he writes: ‘In Islamic philosophical tradition, the highly valued intellect or reason (ʿaql) is not an independent entity in its own right; it dwells in and constitutes the heart (Arabic: qalb; Urdu/Farsi: dil). […] According to Arabic dictionaries, qalb denotes “one’s innermost core, which includes both intellect and feelings” (Haj 2002, 350–52; Ramadan 2004, 14). In short, the Islamic notion of qalb is far more holistic and complex than the truncated reason of Cartesian cogito. Unlike the Enlightenment dualism between heart and reason, mind and body, intellect and affect, in Islam, the Arabic and Urdu term qalb encapsulates both intellect and feelings.’ I feel like Belon embodies this struggle to be two seemingly opposing things, to acknowledge a lineage but also create a new genealogy, when they’re both really part of the same continuum. In Belon there’s a self-consciousness, almost a clumsiness to the overt visual symbolism of the meeting of these two opposing forces. But knitting it together is the fierce and beating qalb of what P7:1SMA stands for. Why not have both, I almost feel the group say, why not be both.
All my best, and more,
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and response after experiencing Belon.
Personally, I must share that diving into Belon after 2 years with a new sense of energy, give and take, trust between artists has been emotional. Emotional wreck as I start to miss simpler days and bonds earned in the last Belon process. Yet, this time around also emotionally uplifting as I recall Haizad strategically inviting us as collaborators to rethink and sharing his motivations to question Malay traditions, norms and also share a different philosophy.
For many years, as we observe our elderly Malay dance practitioners, we are still struggling to articulate our artistic practice. It always feels too simplified to mention that we are a dance company / practitioner rooted in the Malay form, traditions and histories. I believe that there is always something deeper in our artistic practice based tradition. In time to come, like you mentioned, we really want to develop our habits of mind about our individual artistic practice, arts-making as a process with interventions and support choreographic approach. We hope to have so much fuel to have many more conversations with everyone in our Arts ecosystem and always be inspired.
In addition, we are hopeful as we will be sharing Belon to NuArt Sculpture Park in Bandung this 14 to 17 Dec 2018.