“District 18” by P7:1SMA

It’s noon and oppressively hot and my shadow’s hiding beneath me from the sun. I’m making my way to the Tampines Round Market & Food Centre (“pasar bulat”), which is just a fifteen-minute busride from my home, but I feel like a complete tourist in this food centre despite the fact that it’s in the district just next door to mine. It’s funny how the neighbourhood food centres we frequent – their architecture, their layout, the hawkers who know us as regulars and can tell us our orders before we do – start to become the exemplars that we hold up in comparison with others. Here I’m searching for where I can buy a cold drink, but also scanning the crowd for anything vaguely performative because I’m not sure what to expect. No one else here is expecting anything, it feels like, they’re digging into nasi lemak and vegetarian bee hoon and chiding children and gingerly wiping down tables. The pasar bulat is a morning market that almost completely empties out after lunchtime; Fengshan Food Centre (home turf for me!) comes alive in the evening and late into the night. In the open arena at the centre of the pasar bulat is a clothesline of diaphanous tulle costumes threaded through with everyday objects from the food centre: egg cartons, chopsticks, plastic bags, spoons; waving gently in the hot breeze.

I skirt the open arena to find a seat in the crowd, and as I’m carrying around my teh c bing siu dai I’m confronted by the enormous posters and standees emblazoned with the National Arts Council logo to make it absolutely clear that this is a state-organized community project to have “Arts in your Neighbourhood!” (“more like Arts in your Face!”, a practitioner tells me later).


It’s almost impossible to see the dancers at first – they emerge from from all corners of the market pushing little trolleys woven with tiny glittering fairy lights, picking their way through the lunchtime crowd, grinning at rapt children. They put on their costumes and they’re transformed into what feels like the food centre’s playful, colourful guardian spirits, weaving through clusters of tables and initiating short games and exchanges of gestures with the audience. Almost everyone reciprocates, beaming when they’re approached, getting used to the idea of the performance and these bedecked performers. Oh wait! Now it’s a variety show – one of the performers grabs the microphone and announces they’ll be doing a lucky draw based on table numbers, and now the crowd is excited, waving their hands in the air when they’ve won. The uncle I’m sharing a table with is disappointed that his table is 120, not the winning 121 (“only one number different!” he exclaims). The creative team tells me later that when they walked through the market for evening rehearsals they would hear multiple radios simultaneously broadcasting the 4D results for the day. There’s a culture of soft betting here, whether it’s the number lottery or the horse races, and this a cheeky acknowledgement of that habit.

Then the dancers begin drifting into the round arena, performing gestures and movements that feel like they’ve been derived from the repetitions of physical labour they’ve observed around the market, and carry a sort of kinesthetic empathy – someone pushing a trolley of dirty dishes to be washed, or reaching for something hung on a hook, or lunging forward on their knees. Their bodies seem to age, visibly and quickly, in front of us. A disembodied voice begins to read out the names of all the stalls in the market. They slowly hang up their costumes, stack up their trolleys in a wobbly pile. The dancers gather in a circle, huddling round and patting each other gently on the back. One by one, they recede, walking back to the empty clothesline, until only one dancer is left, patting himself. Then he, too, returns to the line of waiting performers. Then they disappear into the crowd. I read it as a commentary on the vanishing craft of food production, a generation of hawkers without successors retiring one by one, a sort of endless cycle of repetitions – making thousands of copies of the same kind of dish over years and years – until the cycles run out.


I think the state’s emphasis on the community-building function of the arts isn’t something to recoil from, particularly if it’s a meaningful, long-term project that is well-conceived and gives that community a stake in how it is engaged, how it articulates its needs and how those needs are fulfilled. My concern is when a well-intentioned community project gains its instrumental trappings and starts to feel like a token corporate social responsibility project where impact is measured in terms of “how many passers-by are clapping” (are they not impacted if they aren’t clapping?) or “how many surveys are filled out” (someone offered a survey to Haizad, ignorant of the fact that he was the artistic director of P7:1SMA) or “can you make your movements less abstract if not the public cannot understand” (which really belittles the “public’s” interpretive skills) or adamant assertions about which particular community in Tampines needs engaging with (and how). I suppose with commissions come compromises, and P7:1SMA – as I understand it, and among other things – wanted to develop their relationship with the stallholders here, to echo their invisible labour in bright, visible ways, wanted to have their performers enter and leave the chaos and colour of the market quietly and unobtrusively, without the state elbowing its way into the preface and post-script of the work.

How does one measure “community engagement”? And when the term “community” is bandied around here, why does it feel like it’s the kind of community that requires an “artistic education” because of a supposed lack of cultural capital? I get that the state wants to play benevolent match-maker between artist and community sometimes, but I wonder if an arranged marriage is always the way to go. P7:1SMA does their best with this relationship – even if their founders stay on the opposite end of the island and had never been to this market before rehearsals began – and the team immediately took to the space, befriending stallholders and taking in as much as they could of their environment so they could respond sensitively to it. They called these rehearsals “activations”. Perhaps the way to permeate a community, the way the artist moves from outsider to insider, isn’t with fireworks and loudspeakers – but quietly, gently, not in a loud quick and intimidating burst but over a gradual period of time. And what happens when artists leave? How does one settle into a community and then immediately uproot after? I think of Drama Box’s long-term projects in Chong Pang and Telok Blangah for their series on end-of-life care, Both Sides, Now. They’ve become a fixture in the neighbourhood over the past few years, so that conversations that have only just begun to unfurl don’t retreat back into silence once the performances depart and the initial excitement fades. These activations can’t be abruptly abandoned, and commissioned community projects need to take into account the labour involved in maintaining these relationships – because a performance might end, but life doesn’t.


Postscript

I had a really long conversation with Haizad (artistic director of P7:1SMA), Desmond (one of the District 18 performers) and Syarifuddin (their in-house documentarian) about the incredible detailing and reflection of the group’s creative process for this project, captured here in sensitive detail: https://www.p71sma.com/district18

The group had read my writing about last year’s Southernmost festival (http://www.southernmost2018.wordpress.com) and wanted to experiment with an embedded writer who had the quiet distance to reflect on how the project was unfolding. We’ve been having some preliminary discussions about a possible methodology for this kind of writing and will be in dialogue with each other throughout the rest of this year.

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“Belon” – P7:1SMA

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,
Corrie


Dear Corrie,

[…]

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.

[…]

Yours sincerely,
Hasyimah Harith