Continue I: Tongue
Choreographed by Raymond Liew and Jascha Viehstädt
Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre
9-11 February 2018
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
When was the last time your tongue was tired? Contrary to popular belief, the tongue is not the strongest muscle in the body – but it does have impressive stamina. A slippery beast, it’s also a multitalented one: it can twist, cup, bend, stretch, and achieve all the subtle convolutions that allow us to speak. It’s also essential in the act of lovemaking.
Watching the contemporary dance performance Continue I: Tongue, created by Raymond Liew and his partner Jascha Viehstädt, I wondered if all the dancers were disembodied (or perhaps hyper-embodied) tongues. The three dancers – James Kan, Lu Wit Chin and Raymond himself – engage in feats of stamina. In one memorable sequence, a dancer on hands and knees carries another on his back across the space, while the third dancer eggs them on from the side, like a football coach. When James plays the coach he exhorts the others with a real tongue-lashing (pun intended). James has played sadistic dictators before (notably in TerryandTheCuz’s Flatland) and here he really relishes the drill-sergeant role. By contrast, when Raymond plays the coach role, he whispers urgently in the bearer’s ear as they crawl along: the effect is intimate, but also strangely sinister.
Raymond is a graduate of the dance program at ASWARA who progressed to the Folkwang School in Essen, Germany, where he has worked with the famous Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. After a long recovery from a horrifying boating accident in 2013, Raymond has embarked on a series of choreographic works notable for their attention to subtle movement qualities, and a sense of gentleness.
His future might lie in Germany, but Raymond wants to maintain an artistic toehold in Malaysia. Earlier this year he toured Mermaid, his duet with Jascha, to Johor Bahru and Penang, and then embarked on creating Continue I. Superficially, the dancers in this work all seem similar: all local Chinese men, slight in stature, of the same generation. But the work brings out their contrasting characters: Raymond quiet and watchful, but quick to smile, Wit Chin affectless and determined, and James campy and exuberant. Creating the work has been challenging both physically and mentally for all of them; part of the work’s charm is how this honest effort is made obvious.
Continue I presents a series of vignettes by turns comic, poignant and absurd. Stage designer Ma Hui Shan has created a couch like a shaggy orange pinata, covered in intricately pleated PVC strip, next to a tiny square chamber of the same material, hanging like butcher’s curtains. In the beginning, the dancers solemnly sit on the couch and wrap the strip around their heads, transforming into weird astronauts or dentists behind enormous orange anti-glare shields.
Lest this make you think Continue I is all offputting postmodernism, the work also has a bona fide dance sequence. It starts slow as tai chee, with curled hands, gentle rocks of the pelvis, and elbows reaching. But as composer Ng Chor Guan unleashes the rock-out potential of his synthesized drum kit, the movement builds and builds until the dancers are repeatedly throwing out their arms and pulling, as if wrenching a shelf of china onto the floor, thrusting their chests as they whirl their arms back behind them, and flinging out their arms from the rotation of their core. As the energy of the music ebbs and flows, so the dancers quieten or quicken, until at the climax they look like rave denizens: arms pumping, flailing, crashing into the floor, as electric guitar screeches around them.
There are quieter sequences, too. At one point, the trio lean against the back wall doing nothing, as the sound score shifts from exploratory knocking noises into a clippety beat, like a tongue clicking against the roof of the mouth. In another scene, the trio move slowly in front of floor lights, their shadows overlapping on the back wall (Tan Eng Heng’s lighting design is restrained but effective throughout). Later, James poses with his shirt rolled up over his face, and Raymond crouches in front of him, changing the coloured gels on the floor light so that James’ exposed torso looks heroic one moment, desperate the next.
The final sequence is another endurance trial. Lying on their bellies, arms pinned to their sides, the three dancers inch-worm their way across the stage, heading for the refuge of the hanging chamber. James is again histrionic: puffing and blowing with eyes rolling as he flops along (and, one suspects, cheating). Raymond seems intent but interested in the task; he tries different approaches, launching himself off his toes, or shimmying his shoulders. Wit Chin, dolphin-rolling grimly, is the last to arrive, in a process that seems to take forever. The other two tenderly lift the plastic strip to welcome him into their camp’s warm glow. And there they stay: exhausted, and finally, mercifully, at rest.
For over a decade, now, there has been at least one major collaboration every year between a German or Germany-based contemporary dance choreographer and their Malaysian counterpart. Thanks to support from the Goethe-Institute, choreographers like Riki von Falken, Ben Riepe and Brigel Gjoka have returned for repeat engagements with locals, including Naim Syahrazad, Amy Leng, Lee Swee Keong, DPAC Dance Company, Orang-Orang Drum Theatre and Soubi Sha.
And yet the German dance aesthetic – often rather cool, repetitive, drilling down to exhaustive inspections of physical motivation, distrustful of theatrical artifice, conceptual, and subtle – remains at odds with the general dance audience in Malaysia. Mainstream audiences favour warmth, spectacle, novelty, gimmicks and melodrama. The matinee of Continue I that I saw was very sparsely attended. To be fair, this could be due to the hefty ticket prices; the RM58 concession rate was far beyond the means of the average local dance student. This was a shame; they missed out on a performance generated by real teamwork, which left a lingering taste of companionable toil.
Continue to spread the word; our tongues aren’t tired.
All photos by Mark Morris, courtesy of Raymond Liew.