Friday, 21 November 2014

Singapore Notebook 21 November:
Dance and Spectacle

The longer the monsoon season goes on the more oppressive the humidity until you can hardly breathe, writes one. In the monsoon season you pick up viruses that ruin your summer, writes another, both Europeans with experience of the tropics. Breathing has been all right on the whole except on upward climbs in the hot sun. My mother suffered badly with her heart and frequently had to stop for breath up hills. So this is what it was like, I think as I stop to breathe.

It was a quiet morning of work and revision but we had arranged to meet Jennifer at the doomed spaceship that is Fusion Spoon. The crew remain friendly and to some degree complicit. When we finally hit the planet with aliens on it they will be on our side until the aliens pop out of our stomachs at which point they will offer them a menu. Jennifer is head of Creative Writing, five months pregnant and about to take up a new position in Canberra in less oppressive climes but, like me, she is fond of the students.

We talk of this and that, of impressions and experience. On our return to our rooms a wave of sleep hits us but we are wide awake by 4:15 ready to take public transport, first to City Hall to meet Annaliza, thence to Bayfront, where we meet Emelda. We are going to see a performance at the ArtScience museum but first we walk around the enormous glittering mall that is The Shoppes and have a bite. The stores here are not only high-end: they are somewhere up in the Alps for brand and price. You can pay a fortune for a cup of tea and a bun, but those cruising The Shoppes don't look particularly high end for the most part. Maybe they're not customers but gawkers like us. In each of the elegant stores a single elegant girl assistant looking somewhere between lost and defiant in the empty palace of her emporium.

For the fashion conscious, I am wearing a shirt inherited from Clarissa's late father. He must have received it in Malaya (as it was then) back in the Fifties and it looks brand new, presumably because he never wore it. Annaliza and Emelda appraise it. It seems to be from a specific northern region of Malaya because its motif (white and amber on black) is made up of stylised images of kites. It is considered beautiful. It is certainly very light. Nobody is wearing one like it. Oh, what it is to be retro-fashion icon, a walking museum piece!


That is a perfect link to the fabulous ArtScience museum which is shaped like an opening lotus. We are a little early so lounge around the museum shop where the young assistant follows us around commending items such as a vast, and vastly expensive, portfolio featuring a print of one of Leonardo da Vinci's machine designs and, at the other end of the scale,  a tiny model of the building itself just too big to make a decent keyring.

The performance is in a room upstairs that has carpeting so soft you could drown in it. It features a Cambodian dancer and an American video artist, the whole titled Transporting Rituals (scroll down for the title and basic information). Dancer and artist only met two weeks ago to devise the programme which is a fusion (not, not that Fusion) of traditional and contemporary Cambodian dance and spectacular visual effect so that, for instance, when the dancer stops before the screen a stream of light seems to issue from her head which she can then dance around or produce from her hands. The whole performance is based on that kind of interaction, but it is the opening part with traditional Cambodian dance that is mesmerising. So much slowness and athletic stillness. So much work for the fingers and the feet. Looking at dance this way is like understanding dance from zero. It is magical and necessary. She, Chey Chankethya, is tiny and slender: a statue in movement. She is a marvellous dancer in any form of course but when the performance moves into contemporary dance, interwoven with the traditional moves, the stillness and slowness are lost and some of the power dissipates.

The visuals, by Blake Shaw,  are brilliant but not strictly necessary in the way the dance is. They fit around the dance and offer a language of their own suggesting multiple presence and violence. They interpret the way that contemporary dance interprets, but the strict, austere-yet-sensual traditional dance element is not an interpretation, or rather it doesnt feel like one. It is itself. What dance is.


Then we walk and do the spectacle that is the whole harbour front. It is all recently reclaimed land, sea and swamp, an enormous, celebratory finger up to the past and to jealous neighbours. It is hard to say what is the centrepiece, but possibly it is the Three Towers that are surmounted by a horizontal structure that looks like a brightly illuminated boat. There is something of a set of cricket stumps there too. We watch the end of a laser show, we cross the bridge to the Gardens by the Bay a great assembly of domes and plants and supertrees and lights, lights, lights. The night garden is a dozen Christmases at once, the city looking back at it, an eternity of Christmases, Christmas as a video game, the moment as virtual eternity.

But these analogies are wild shots in the dark. The display means something deep and complex. Singapore is not Vegas, though it certainly has a big casino: it is more contemporary than that. As I wrote on Facebook:
'Marina Bay is the most spectacular part of Singapore in terms of modernity. City as spectacle, the ultimate circenses on an island of panem. I am dazzled by the mixture of razzmatazz, celebration and hubris. It's like having colour telly in 1950.'
So, yes, bread and circuses, plenty of both but more still. It is as if it were saying: Out of the swamp THIS!

It is the wealth dreamed by the poor.

David Beckham is a frequent visitor here, especially to The Shoppes. It is the boy from Leytonstone with the un-posh Posh Spice wife elevated to thrones of purple and gold. You too can bend it like Beckham.

We teeter between celebration and hubris, between the trump card of capitalism and the burning of the gifts for the dead. We are waiting for Godzilla to arise out of the sea and take back what is hers.

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