Inspired by a dance work, a poem and a song, dance lecturer Leng Poh Gee dissects spoken and signed language into gestures, movement, props and costume.
When Dr Premalatha Thiagarajan, head of University of Malaya’s Dance Department, invited me to be one of the choreographers of UMa1the contemporary dance ensemble of the Dance Department of the University of Malaya Dance Showcase 2018, I was thankful for the opportunity but also anxious. Considering the situation of my newborn baby and the fact that I was living far out of town, I was able to only commit to producing a four-minute solo instead of a minimum seven-minute group dance. The generous Dr Premalatha allowed me to work with Yap Chiw Yi, one of the most sought-after dancers among dance students even though she was also involved in a duet by Wong Jyh Shyong, and was a final-year dance student at the time, busy producing her own mid-length choreography as her final graduation production. We had less than ten rehearsal slots before bump-in, with only 1.5 to 2 hours for each slot.
While casting about for inspiration, I recalled a work by Jack Kek that he had made for a previous UMa Dance Showcase. His duet But You Didn’t explores how a couple communicates with each other although the male dancer plays the role of the husband who has died. I was struck by how hard the dancers ran throughout the piece but were still stuck in the same place; how the girl slid down from the boy’s shoulder and hung on with his hand parallel to the floor; how she was lifted, carried and flipped by him without or with a minimum of eye contact, as she was not allowed to look at him since he was a spirit. The piece was humorous yet still generated a sense of mourning.
This duet is based upon the poem ‘But You Didn’t’ by Merrill Glass, in which the narrator recalls how her lover never chastised her for her shortcomings, but which she never has a chance to acknowledge because he never returned from Vietnam. The poem has several interpretations—it is to help the narrator let go of her grief, to express her gratitude, or to remind us that we should express our affection towards our loved ones while we still can.
I had always wanted to visualize an imagined communication between the living and the dead. So, inspired by Jack’s work and Merrill’s poem, I started to create “The Dialogue”, driven by a few key questions—How could the image of a lady and a spirit appear at the same time? How could a solo performance embody a ritualistic conversation by using different theatrical elements?
I chose a Chinese pop song sung by Eason Chan and Faye Wong, Yin Wei Ai Qing (Because of Love), in order to romanticize the ambiance of the whispers between a loving couple. Being a popular song and the theme song of a hit movie in the Chinese box office, Yin Wei Ai Qing was commercially recorded and composed in a melodic verse-chorus structure, generally utilizing repeated choruses and filled with catchy poetic lyrics. Lyrics always play a very important role in my creations. The lyrics of this particular song do not use fancy words to over fantasize a loving couple, but describe the reserved expression of love that is usually practiced in our society, as sung repeatedly by both male and female singers, “Occasionally I suddenly forget that I am still in love with you.”
I thought gestures played a very important role in rituals of communication with the spirit world. Thus, I chose sign language as the source of inspiration to initiate movement exploration in “The Dialogue”. In this creation, I explored the pronunciation of Chinese characters. A lot of Chinese characters share the same pronunciation with the same tone. For examples, the Chinese character 以 “yi”, meaning thereby or therefore, shares the same pronunciation as 已, which means already, finished or stop; and also 椅, which means chair or seat. Since the sign language for thereby, already and chair can be replaced arbitrarily in a sentence, we chose the signs based on the flow of movement sequence. Thus, the chosen arm gestures for this one specific pronunciation were fun to play with, even as we were creating abstract dance vocabulary.
Besides pronunciation, I also used a verb approach. For example, 人 “ren” (human) is signified by a thumb pointing up in Taiwanese sign language. When a palm caresses circularly behind a thumbs up, the gesture represents 爱 ‘ai’ (love) as a verb or 爱情 ‘ai qing’ (love) as a noun. On the another hand, “ren” (human) is also represented in the dance by both the index finger and middle finger of one hand ‘walking’ on the other arm in order to describe the lyric of “people come and go” (see featured photo). Some gestures depict the straightforward meanings of the characters, which are not arbitrary decisions. For example, 躲避 ‘duo bi’ (to hide) is showcased by the face tilted downward with a contraction and covered by the dancer’s own arms; 模样 ‘”mu yang” (appearance/face) is displayed by circling around the face with one finger; 成长 “cheng zhang” (growing up) is portrayed by a hand that opened and closed repeatedly from a low level moving up.
First, I requested Chiw Yi to memorize and sing the song. Together we began to react with, explore and make fun of the pronunciations, images and meanings of the characters. I decided on the use of the song during the third rehearsal but I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to complete it. We decided we would work remotely by sharing videos. I requested her to send me video recordings via YouTube or WhatsApp whenever she did her self-practice. To my surprise, she sent at least 25 videos in the span of six weeks. Together we refined her dance technique execution, and developed gestures and pathways, thanks to Chiw Yi’s willingness to try out many experimental exploration tasks by my instruction through only verbal comments and suggestions. One of the challenges of this distance learning and sharing was that her movement might not sync to lyrics, due to technical glitches. This was problematic for me, as I am very meticulous about the timing of lyrics.
I divided the dance into two sections, which were separated by the bridge of the song. In the first half, the performer would appear in a battle dress uniform and start to pray. She would put a bunch of flowers on stage, as she calls for a ritual dialogue. She would gesture with modified sign language in response to the lyrics, and the movements would orient towards her personal space. Gender distinctions would be made by the manipulation of directions—the dancer would face stage right when the female sings, and face stage left when the male sings.
During the bridge, the dancer would make a series of chaînés2quick fast turns moving across the stage and transform herself from her army appearance into a lady in long dress, symbolic of her self-reintegration into reality from the spiritual world. She is thus re-dressed and gains encouragement. She would move expressively while the female sings, contrasted with pauses or minimal movement when the male sings. Dance techniques like jeté3springing jumps from one foot to the other, battement4straight leg raises that return to the supporting leg and floor work would be utilized in the second half. Towards the end of the piece, she would pick up the bunch of flowers and run into a dim spotlight upstage. She would hold a flower out in front of her and slowly release her hand. The flower would suspend in the air for a moment, before it is to be blown away by the dancer and fly up into the sky—a final moment to remind her that she would always be blessed by her late loved one.
The tricks of quick-change costume, and the suspension and flying of the flower were very new to me, and they succeeded in surprising the audience too. All the tricks required a certain amount of time and money for research, and materials purchased. The tricks had to be practiced repeatedly with different mechanisms, and the methods of operation were refined throughout the experiments. Tan Shioa Por, my wife, was the quick-change costume designer who produced the dress, tested it with different materials, and refined the method of manipulation. Chew Yee Hsuen, Ng Wen Shin and Moch Jack Zhong worked on the flower’s suspension and flight, which required highly careful coordination.
I received much positive feedback from the audience. Some felt that the work was touching; some said that it was a good effect to combine magic tricks with a solo dance; some suggested that I should have used a rose instead of a peony; and some suggested that I could have used a few more tricks. I was very grateful to have heard comments that would be helpful in developing my skills and perspectives.
On a personal level, “The Dialogue” restored something in me that I had lost for quite some time. I enjoyed very much working with my wife over many late nights, after we would had lullabied our two children to sleep. She worked on the costume design and making, while I worked on the mechanism of the flower tricks. We discussed, argued and gossiped at the same time. We had not worked together like that for the same production in the middle of the night for a long time, ever since we had children. It occurred to me during the process that I was sorry that “occasionally I suddenly forget that I am still in love with you.”
Leng Poh Gee is a dance lecturer in the Faculty of Music and Performing Arts at the Sultan Idris Education University. More
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Featured photo: Yap Chiw Yi in her battle dress uniform, gesturing the lyric “people come and go”, UM Experimental Theater University of Malaya, 3 May 2018. © Jacky Yap Chun Kee