Woman on Man on Men
by Suhaili Micheline & Kenny Shim
16-19 January 2020
Pentas 2, KLPAC
Review by TARINAO.
Men, dancing men, men dancing on stage—we think of musky sweat and energetic bravura. Yes, of course. But is there another dimension to men beyond sweat and energy? Two choreographers, one a woman and the other a man, attempted to get at these questions in the contemporary dance double-bill Women on Man on Men. The first bill challenged the concept of masculinity to the extreme; while the second bill allowed the dancers to naturally flow from one state to the other. Challenged was the audience’s own definition of masculinity.
The double bill began with a pre-show treat of a sensual jazz duet: ‘Red & Blue’ by emerging artists Amellia Feroz and Cheryl Soh. Both dancers dressed in (obviously) red and blue see-through overalls with padded jackets, seemingly an appetiser to what was to come later, with the nearly all-male cast onstage. The duet was very lyrical, with both dancers showing high chemistry between them. Although lacking in partnering work, their great musicality, fluid transitions, and fun expressions were a delight.
‘Pendatang Pampers’ was a new work by Suhaili Micheline, although she has had the idea brewing in the back of her mind for 5 years. The work was nearly a full-length piece, with a multitude of elements under its wing. The work explored many nuances of masculinity in today’s context, apparently inspired by political figures. Choosing masculinity is a bold choice, as the theme has been explored and presented in many forms of art and medium. The use of Pampers, a well-known diaper brand in the region, was a big statement made by Suhaili to display the vulnerable side of the masculine, and a wise choice that immediately made the work memorable. However, the diapers were not fully utilised throughout the performance and their purpose was lost by the end of the piece.
Five male dancers and one non-binary dancer, wearing double-layered diapers to hyper-emphasize their private parts, arrived on stage demonstrating their strong characters one by one. In a rectangular light box placed on centre stage, they began a somewhat ‘dikir barat’-like arrangement, rhythmically slapping and smacking their diapers in synchrony. It was a fun start to the piece. The dancers at times feeding one another’s egos, at times trying to outdo one another, somehow seemed to find no moments of agreement, and each was lost in their own ego. The stage transformed into a playground for the dominant, as each dancer had a solo moment on stage where the characters started to lose their distinctive differences.
Suhaili’s work was literal, leaving not much space for imagination or interpretation, perhaps a conscious choice. It felt like a one-way conversation about what vulnerability within the masculine could be. The use of acting and words was strong in the piece, which ended in silence, with a projection of questions not typically asked: “Would you still respect me if I was HIV+?”, “Would you still hold my hands, even if they were wet with shame?” and “Would you still walk with me, even if all I can do is crawl?” In the final moment, all the dancers on stage, seemingly exhausted by their masculinity, slowly stood up and ended with a couple of them being hugged. Here, finally, is a moment for interpretation. Was it trying to say that we embrace all that is involved with the men in diapers, their masculinity and whatever underneath that drives it? And why?
Who doesn’t like to hear a secret? Kenny Shim’s work ‘Wet Room’ derived its inspiration to showcase masculine bodies in their stark-naked state inside the men’s locker room. Obviously, we are not seeing nakedness on stage, far from it; the dancers were in long military green tights and cropped tops. The only skin you could really see was their waistlines, usually something that women are prouder to display. In contrast to Suhaili’s work, Shim used the same cast of six dancers working as a whole group rather than each having a distinctive character from the start. They flocked and canoned from one side of the stage to another, as if they knew each other from the inside out: the rarely seen bromance we sometimes tease men about. The choice of thumping psychedelic music by Jon Hopkins matched the choice of movement, rendering the piece rather fashionable, with walks and lunges breaking into short bursts of movements.
The stage was lit like a box, intervened by a row of intimate blue lights striking in a slant from one side of the stage onto the moving dancers. Mohd Fairuz bin Mohd Ariff (also known as Boy) created the perfect atmosphere for Shim’s piece. Revealed was a stage split into inside or outside: of the box, or of the wet room. Each dancer posed at different times to show what they were capable of, inside a locker room. But when they were outside the room, they were quite easily forgotten, standing in the dark, just looking in. Shim had the dancers interwoven in some moments of intricate partnering work, which could be explored further, to really dig deep into the intimacy between men. Repetition of certain movement themes was clearly performed by the dancers. Steve Goh’s solo was outstanding when he began to reach out to all the dancers on stage doing their own thing in the wet room, while one dancer in the background in a circle of yellow light seemingly took a gentle slow-motion shower. It was a moment of fragile truth rarely seen in daily life from men, and Goh’s solo did men justice in showing how human we all really are.
Woman on Man on Men showcased not only that men dance, but also a good balance of masculinity as a program. It was not an easy feat for both choreographers to find dancers of that calibre to be ready on stage with the limited amount of time and resources that they had. It was coincidentally a great start for 2020, as an inspiration for men to dance, dance to express more of their multifaceted emotions into the next decade, not as men or women, but just as fellow human beings: people who feel.
All photos by Ariff Aris, courtesy of Kenny Shim and Suhaili Micheline.
Tarinao is a dance initiative that focuses on the biopsychosocial approach to dance practice but also loves putting colourful performances into black and white ink.