Choreographed by Ong Yong Lock
30 June 2017, Selangor & KL Kwang Tung Association
REVIEW BY BILQIS HIJJAS
Nothing is certain, the saying goes, except death and taxes. To which you might add the ubiquity of plastic bags. When Malaysian-born Hong Kong-based choreographer Ong Yong Lock discovered that his aging body could no longer perform the physical fireworks of his youth, he enlisted the help of the humble plastic bag to create a more accessible dance work, one which he could teach in only a few hours, to anybody, anywhere.
Last night, dancers who had attended Ong’s three-hour workshop the day before gave a studio showing of the outcome, at the Selangor & KL Kwang Tung Association on Pudu Road. It’s easy to see how ‘Bolero’ — after the familiar score by Ravel — has become a festival favourite: the work is absolutely charming. A chorus of performers, simply clad in their own white tops and grey bottoms, and each manipulating a large red plastic bag, follow a straightforward improvisation score, fulfilling a series of basic repetitive tasks. The subtext is about aging, but the more obvious appeal comes from watching a group of real people toiling together and apart, and coping with the occasional instance of human drama or chance upset, before the inevitable end.
The group starts out shuffling around in a huddle, heads bent over the plastic bag, which they clutch in both hands and stroke like a talisman. The tiny steps and hunched shoulders evoke the aging body, but are equally evocative of a youthful present: people with eyes glued to smartphone screens, oblivious of their surroundings. Gradually, the dancers transition to the next movement, and the shape of the group changes too. In one moment they stand in a line, and in the next they charge across the space in a scrum, like seven-year olds bunched over a football. Now they divide into pairs, then they break apart.
The movement sometimes reads like a laundry list of things to do with a plastic bag: wave it to and fro like a flag, for instance, inflate it and use it as a pillow, or snap it by its corners to produce a crackling beat. The more inventive movements involve interaction. The action of snatching your partner’s bag at the same time as she steals yours begins as deliberate and measured, but evolves into a blur of hands grabbing and passing, the faces above rigid with concentration. Later in the work, the chorus forms a circle and plays a childlike game, passing the mass of plastic bags around, first in the usual way from hand to hand, and then sandwiched between head and shoulder, or carried by the feet. Whoever drops the bags is out, and leaves the stage. A fumble is met by gales of laughter from the group, but each dancer’s exit, underlined by the mounting drama of the Ravel, seems somehow tragic. Is the failure to keep the plastic bags in the air a kind of death? In the end, it doesn’t matter: everybody dies.
In its repetitiveness and simplicity, “Bolero” reminded me intensely of the minimalist trend among German choreographers, and especially of choreographer Isabelle Schad’s Collective Jumps, a work about the democratic impulse, in which a large chorus of dancers proceeds through a sequence of movements, making the decision of when to progress from one movement to the next through an opaque but organic form of group-think. In “Bolero”, Ong himself, as one of the performers, cues the dancers for the next movement, but the work presents a similar experience for the observer: the chance to zoom in and out with our attention, at one moment focusing on the mass, and the next examining the individual. And the movement score leaves the individual dancer considerable latitude. I watch Tan Bee Hung crashing about, grinning and engaged, while Ming Yam, performing the same movement, is as elegant and beatific as ever, Wong Pui Yi stern with intent, and some of the younger dancers rather winningly gauche.
The experience of “Bolero” is also shaped by its prelude, in which Ong distributes plastic bags, and invites the audience into the space to play. We experiment with fluffing out the bags and lifting them with the very tips of our fingers, while trying to maintain their shape. Concentrating on this simple yet sensitive task, my whole body tenses. I can hear my heart beating. Later, as we watch the performance, we feel a kinaesthetic sympathy for the dancers’ efforts. And at the end of the work, the dancers again invite audience members to join them. To the fortissimo climax of Bolero, we lunge back and forth, snapping our bags, stamping, until exhaustion threatens. Ong moves between us, one by one relieving us of our bags, while placing a tiny slip of plastic — perhaps the bit that is punched out of the bag to make the handle — in each of our mouths. It is a benediction: the communion wafer, the coin to pay the boatman, the grain of rice placed in the mouth of the dead to ensure that the spirit will have enough to eat in the afterlife. It is also a form of permission. We have done our job. Now we are allowed to die.
In the end, the work is not so much about aging as it is about living: working, forming relationships, becoming part of a community. Fittingly, there are several generations represented in the show. Dancers, their teachers, their teachers’ teachers, and their teachers’ teachers’ teachers forget their carefully trained bodies for a moment as they focus on asserting their will over a two-bit plastic bag. And we all lurch a little closer towards death, a little stronger in our shared humanity.
Ong Yong Lock will bring “Boy Story”, with its original cast of now mature dancers, back to Damansara Performing Arts Centre, 1-3 September 2017.