>modern dance for beginners by Escape Theatre Limited

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 15 jan 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the dbs arts centre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


MODERN DANCE FOR BEGINNERS could be considered a double celebration in every way. The play, staged at the DBS Arts Centre, was both the Asian and International Premiere of this critically acclaimed piece written by contemporary British playwright Sarah Phelps, first performed in Soho, London. The performance was, furthermore, Escape Production's (a new theatre company dedicated to the exposure of British works to Asia) inaugural production.

MODERN DANCE FOR BEGINNERS, directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, explores the prevailing modern attitudes to love, sex, and marriage. In this day and age where the old lament the ethical and moral decadence of society, and the young rally the call to liberalism and revel in the freedom of (sexual) expression, MODERN DANCE FOR BEGINNERS brings into focus on the stage the deeper and more stimulating issues of sexual intimacy and desire, love and human connection. Although the play may seemingly be just about sex, its powerful script also questions these dislocations without providing instant solutions.

Staged as six distinct scenes partitioned by different seasons of the same year yet interconnected by the presence and association of familiar characters from previous sequences, the play essentially traces the love (and sex) lives of Owen and Frances, played by Mark Waite and Debra Teng respectively. Eligible as a Hollywood script, Frances - former lover and best friend of Owen - is bridesmaid to Owen's bride-to-be, Julia. The play opens with Frances coming into Owen's room just after the ceremony as she confronts Owen about his reasons for marriage. The latter is seemingly unable to provide a truthful and convincing reply, thereby reflecting his uncertain intentions for settling down - a common modern social trend. Conversation breeds intimacy and intimacy leads to a sexual interlude between the two. The subsequent scenes remove the audience from this private space to different moments in Owen and Frances' lives - specifically their sexual encounters with others - as the play explores the meaning of meaningless sex.

>>'MODERN DANCE FOR BEGINNERS brings into focus on the stage the deeper and more stimulating issues of sexual intimacy and desire, love and human connection'

The play addresses unabashedly the value of love and sex, and presents the deconstruction of both. Sex and love are no longer connected and the intimate relationship shared between both acts has disintegrated. The inspired and accomplished performances by Waite and Teng successfully evoked the density and complexity of these issues located in what was an intelligent and provocative script. Sustained only by two actors, the production required Mark and Debra to assume several roles in a single performance - a task that can prove quite challenging considering the characters portrayed were radically different in attitudes and social background. Mark had to switch from a middle-class English yuppie to a blue-collar handyman, and thereafter to a failing media executive who takes a sudden interest in cultivating a relationship with Frances beyond that of mere sexual pleasure.

While Waite successfully delivered the transitions between characters and was most convincing in the multiple roles he inhabited, Teng somewhat paled in comparison. Though she portrayed Frances - a modern woman neither confined by society's sexist labels nor repressed by Freudian stereotypes - with utmost confidence (she was most believable as a woman who upholds her independence by an aggressive celebration of her body and sexuality), her depiction of Julia as a repressed and depressed upper-middle class housewife seeking physical intimacy and acceptance was rather weak and enervated. The strong presence of Frances could still be traced in the portrayal of Julia despite a superficial costume change. In addition, Teng at certain junctures lapsed into local intonations, forgivably so since it is arduous to adopt a foreign accent convincingly for an extended period on the stage.

Perhaps what was most impressive and most memorable were the ways in which the transitions between scenes were so effectively incorporated into the dramatic action, thereby creating continuity in the otherwise loosely-related narratives. The actors did not once leave the stage; costumes were cleverly hidden amongst the set (apparently sponsored by Barang Barang). While the music provided an interlude for Mark and Debra to switch roles and costumes, it also became a dramatic device that served as a bridge between the different scenes. The music assumed central significance as it became a line of action that "stood in" for the narrative absence of the characters. Written and devised by Darren Ng, the music cleverly fused diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, thereby allowing it to create a narrative of its own.

While there was so much talk of sex (and we actually saw Frances and Russell, the media executive, having a go at it), the king-sized bed that takes centre-stage is never slept on. The bed's metaphorical connotations are then further eroded in the light of the play's desire to highlight the dislocation of human connections. As Frances says, in a most memorable moment when Russell proposes to develop a meaningful relationship with her, "There are no connections, only anti-connections."

The title becomes, in many ways, a metaphor for the play's concerns. Modern dance, following the artistic movements of modernism and post-modernism, is often fragmented, disjointed, instinctual, refractive and, often, solitary. Unlike more traditional Western dance forms which require a real connection between the dance partners, many modern dance forms seek to evoke an existential angst reflective of existence in modernity. The play reminds us then of the "anti-connections" so prevalent in society today - where sex and love have become disjointed fragments. As a sobering afterthought, the play calls to mind our need to perhaps learn to dance in synchrony again. The final scene brings us back to the hotel room that we left in scene one, with half an hour gone by. Frances and Owen admit to their own desires that surpass a sexual attraction bordering possibly on true love, but they part in the reality of Owen's marriage and Frances' own fear of commitment.

Perhaps this is the real celebration of the play: it gestures, with hope, at the possibility of the existence of real connections yet leaves an audience to wonder if they are ever really possible in a world grown weary and wary of true love.