Fission Quest

Published on 19 January 2015

The Arts Fission company, Singapore’s first multi-disciplinary contemporary dance company, marks 20 years of unorthodox moves in unexpected places.

TEXT BY M WONG & PAMELA QUEK

The year was 1995. Audiences who attended The Arts Fission Company’s inaugural performance, Mahabharata: A Grain of Rice, were treated to dancers moving through clouds of steam wafting from percolating rice cookers. The performance, which evolved from the myth of Lord Krishna feeding the world from a single grain of rice, closed with a simple shared meal of cooked rice with the audience. It was multimedia dance theatre with a never-before- experienced inclusiveness, bounded by Asian-centric concerns like hunger (physical and spiritual) and sustainability. Mahabharata: A Grain of Rice received much acclaim and set Arts Fission on its path to greater heights. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Arts Fission is one of the oldest professional contemporary dance companies in Singapore. Led by artistic director and co-founder Angela Liong, a 2009 Cultural Medallion recipient, the group is known for its unorthodox dance theatre fuelled by Asian traditions, cultures and aesthetics, paired with intriguing site-specific performances in public places — the first dance company in Singapore to do so.

To date, the company has performed at Housing Development Board void decks, the Singapore General Hospital and a bamboo village in Indonesia, among other venues. In 2009, they presented The Weather Stations at The National Geographic Store located within VivoCity shopping mall. The dance, part of a larger work with climate change and man’s detachment as focus, struck a chord with its dramatic costumes and ancient musical instruments stirring up intensity and urgency.

The Start-Up

Founded in 1994 by choreographer Liong and visual artist S. Chandrasekaran, Arts Fission was set up as a dance laboratory with a vision to produce a new genre of dance theatre in sync with current developments in Asia. Many of its original works are artistic responses to the rapid changes taking place in our midst, be it a clash between tradition and modernity or the impact of urban culture on our environment. Since its early beginnings, the non-profit company has presented over 85 full-length original dance creations, showcasing their works in countries like Indonesia, Denmark, Germany, Hungary and the United Kingdom. Arts Fission gained significant international exposure in 2003 when they became the first Singapore dance group to open the Laokoon Festival at Kampnagel in Hamburg, Germany, with their performance of Shadowhouses. Derived from a sense of loss following the 9/11 tragedy that shook the world in 2002, Shadowhouses was further developed, after terrorist attacks on Madrid, Bali and Jakarta, to explore themes of good versus evil and shelter versus security.

SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART Shadowhouses, first conceived as a reaction to the 9/11 tragedies, was later developed to incorporate the theme of good versus evil prevalent in traditional Southeast Asian dance.

Unconventional Moves

A large part of Art Fission’s longevity and success lies with the sixtysomething Liong, a powerhouse in arts circles who has long championed an experimental, free and dynamic approach to dance. Since relocating to Singapore from the United States in 1984, Liong has been instrumental in shaping the local professional modern-dance scene. After a stint as a choreographer with the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now known as MediaCorp), she headed the first local full-time dance diploma course at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. She was also Dean of the School of Performing Arts at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts (now LASALLE College of the Arts) from 1997 to 1999. When it comes to her life’s passion — dance — Liong’s vision is tied to compassion and altruism. In her view, it is only through understanding one another that we gain the world we deserve. “We have to learn from everyday life and care for those around us to make a better existence for the planet and ourselves,” she says. This path begins with deep observation. Arts Fission’s works can emerge from the tiniest, most precisely-observed gestures. For instance, a fluttering of fingers mimics bursts of yellow butterflies first seen against a backdrop of Javanese rice fields. This, in turn, could be the impetus leading to a performance about burning fields and climate change, a topic that has spurred a new channel for the company’s artistic exploration. The depth of research that goes into each production — from field trips to dance exchanges and even scientific conferences — ensure the dance movements become steeped in multiple storylines. Performances are often site-specific with a purpose: to narrow the distance between audience and dancer. When you attend an Arts Fission production, be prepared for simultaneous dances happening in the same or adjoining rooms. In such a set-up, the standard theatre experience is altered and deconstructed, leading to new insights. To Beat the Butterfly’s Wings, staged last April at [email protected], an art gallery in Queen Street, saw performances unfolding in four small adjacent gallery rooms, presenting an immersive theatre experience. Based on the central theme of the Butterfly Effect, where a small change can lead to something bigger and more ominous at a later stage, this exploration of climate change saw dance movements depicting the effects of man versus nature. Whether it’s To Beat the Butterfly’s Wings or other distinctive Arts Fission productions, this style of stark intimacy drops the stage at the feet of audiences who are able to move and change their viewing locations at will. Meanwhile, multi-disciplinary components such as music, lighting, video, interactive soundscapes and staging add to the atmosphere and tone. “I lead each idea and channel events as though I actually live through them, but it is the creative process with our dancers that finally binds the performance energies together,” says Liong.

INTIMATE PERFORMANCE To Beat the Butterfly’s Wings is an immersive theatre experience where sounds, lights, movement and sights are compressed into four small gallery rooms.
WHAT A SITE Dancers transformed into half-human, half-bird creatures in last year’s Follies for É Birds, a site-specific contemporary dance held at the National Museum’s Fashion Gallery.

Bringing Dance to the C0mmunity

Avant-garde dance stagings aside, Arts Fission has also been actively involved in reaching out to different community groups. The company has worked with the elderly, at-risk youths and children from low-income families as part of its outreach initiatives. Elderly outreach programme, The Peony Season, includes dedicated weekly sessions where Arts Fission dancers visit welfare homes and elder-care centres to offer movement practices that provide appropriate cognitive and physical learning opportunities as well as an outlet for artistic expression.

Project Dance Edge™ (PDE; left) is a dance-and-movement based social-intervention programme that gives youths eight to 18 years old under the care of voluntary welfare organisations the chance to attend regular dance training sessions, camps or workshops during the school vacation. Organised in partnership with *SCAPE, these sessions are conducted by dancers, musicians and other arts professionals from Arts Fission. The programme aims to empower participants with character-building, social and other life skills.

New Order

Arts Fission marks its 20th anniversary with Make It New, a 10-day programme-filled event. Here are some highlights.

Incidental Performance Enjoy fresh takes on Arts Fission’s past works; meet dance masters from Indonesia and Belgium plus other dance treats. When 31 Jan & 6, 7 Feb Where National Design Centre Dance By Design What do contemporary dance and design have in common? Find out in this exhibition. When 30 Jan – 8 Feb Where National Design Centre Discourse of Wind and Thunder Listen to professionals talk about what it means to truly engage with the arts before breaking into groups for some creative exercises. When 7 Feb Where The Arts House

The Talking Dance Join different generations of Arts Fission dancers as they share 20 years of cutting-edge dance-making. When 12 Jan – 8 Feb Where[email protected] Make It New is on from 30 Jan – 8 Feb. Visit www.artsfission.org for details.

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