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Chunky Move’s ANTI-GRAVITY lets dancers float on air

Gabriella Coslovich

Growing up in Singapore, video artist Ho Tzu Nyen had no reason to be interested in the weather. The forecast was predictable: a monotony of hot, humid days, and incessant downpours during the rainy season. His future obsession with clouds was not on the horizon.

“I never ever looked at the weather forecast until I lived in Berlin,” he says, his voice as gentle as the patter of rain.

As part of the Asia Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts, or Asia TOPA, Tzu has taken on a seemingly impossible mission to convey clouds in movement. ANTI-GRAVITY is a collaboration between Tzu and the Chunky Move dance company. His aim is for a work “that in some ways behaves like a cloud”.

Tzu’s fascination with clouds began with a book – French philosopher Hubert Damisch’s A Theory of Cloud: Towards a History of Painting(1972) – that explores the aesthetics and symbolism of clouds in the works of masters such as Brunelleschi, Correggio, da Vinci, El Greco, Turner, as well as in Chinese landscape paintings and Buddhist paintings.

Ho Tzu Nyen and Anouk Van Dijk during rehearsals for ANTI-GRAVITY.

Ho Tzu Nyen and Anouk Van Dijk during rehearsals for ANTI-GRAVITY. Photo: Penny Stephens

 

“From then on, this notion of tracking cloud imagery just sort of took over,” he says. “I started getting a little bit obsessed … so in the end I ended up with pretty much a cloud of images, a cloud of possibilities.”

His obsession gave rise to a four-channel video work, The Cloud of Unknowing, inspired by Damisch’s themes, which was presented in the Singapore Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and acquired by the Guggenheim New York. Tzu is now extending these ideas to dance.

Tzu’s dancing experience is limited to the nightclubs of Singapore and Melbourne, and the famed techno clubs of Berlin. But what he lacks in formal dancing skills, he makes up for with ideas. He arrived at Chunky Move wielding 36 pages of notes, excerpts from Damisch’s book and those of other authors engrossed by clouds. He sees his role as that of “contaminator”, infiltrating the nervous systems of dancers with motifs about the elusive and ever-changing vapours that drift and roll through our skies.

“Being very creative individuals they will inevitably respond and re-manifest these ideas in ways that will surprise me,” he says. “What keeps me going is to see the surprises that emerge out of this.”

Tzu’s research outlines how through history clouds have been symbols of transformation and metamorphosis, used by artists and writers in ambiguous and disparate ways. Clouds are material and immaterial, untouchable yet visible, symbols of change, adaptability and expansiveness. They may portend doom or glide with fluffy good cheer. In Chinese paintings, they represent Taoist notions of emptiness. In Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes, they appear as floating pedestals for human bodies. In the work of other artists, they have suggested the presence of the divine – or madness.

Hallucinations, apparitions, apocalyptic visions and spiritual ecstasy have all been accompanied by depictions of clouds. In the present day, the idea of the cloud has extended to the banks of data that exist in the digital sphere – as Tzu puts it, “the shadow cloud of computing”. His anthology of ideas will prompt not only movement, but also lighting, music and costumes.

Among the questions he has posed for the dancers is: “how does one stand on a cloud?”.

“Yesterday I asked, and we let this idea sink in, trying out with the dancers to see how they embody these questions; maybe there’s no answer,” Tzu says. He’s comfortable with that, doesn’t crave the closed door of certainty. His T-shirt hints at his personal philosophy: on the front it reads “To doubt”, on the back, “To be present”, welcome antidotes to these dogmatic and distracted times.

Tzu hopes the work “will make a kind of a cloud on stage, and not just through the presence of pumping smoke, or generating a representation of a cloud, but that the dancers and every element of the stage, behave like particles in a cloud, so that the audience experience is that of a direct encounter with a cloud-like event.”

This would seem a near impossible task, but in the spacious, high-ceilinged Chunky Move studio, the dancers’  capacity to respond physically to concepts presented by Tzu is as clear as a cloudless sky. This is, after all, their talent.

“Hello, welcome to the playground,” says the tall, athletic Tara Jade Samaya as she strides into the studio. Play she does, as  she and her fellow dancers experiment with props including boulders, a clear plastic cube, a huge black skirt, and a large weather balloon. A smoke machine pumps haze into the space. Clouds are projected onto the balloon. Atmospheric conditions are evoked with light. An eclipse swells on a wall. Chunky Move artistic director Anouk van Dijk  films as the dancers invent a physical vocabulary for the work.

ANTI-GRAVITY will present seven aspects of cloud-like states: vision/confusion; sleep and dreams; seduction; meditation/hallucination; emptiness; elevation/gravity; communion/control.

For van Dijk, the idea of gravity is of particular appeal. Defying gravity has been the focus of her work as a choreographer. She is known for developing a style called “counter-technique” in which dancers use the momentum created by gravity to help them move in faster and more fluid ways. On a symbolic level, the work will explore the effort it takes to rise above forces –  physical and otherwise – that keep us down.

“Elevation comes always with a price, it will take effort to transcend, elevate, transport yourself, whether it’s physically, spiritually or mentally … that journey of the effort is part of what we’re looking for, rather than the actual moment of elevation,” she says.

Tzu adds: “There’s something paradoxical about it as well … looking at clouds in the sky we think about ascension, but the next moment we are snapped back down to earth, and that’s when we feel our flesh, our mortality.”

Van Dijk came across Tzu by accident while doing research online for a previous dance work. “I got really fascinated by Tzu’s work, I want to get to know this person,” she says.

It was a serendipitous discovery. Tzu studied Creative Arts at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts 17 years ago, majoring in sculpture. Returning to Singapore, he realised his folly.

“In my small apartment there is absolutely no space, and that was what led me eventually into making videos, which took up the least amount of space because you could store everything on hard disc, you could compress and condense.”

Back in Melbourne he has been struck by the lack of Asian names in arts programming.  “There is an imbalance between the presence of Asians that I’m seeing on Swanston Street and the presence of what we are seeing in these art institutions, which is still largely along a trajectory of Euro-American discourse. And that for me is why something like Asia TOPA is interesting. It’s yet another effort to address this cultural shift.”

ANTI-GRAVITY is at the Malthouse Theatre, March 17-26. asiatopa.com.au

Written by Gabriella Coslovich for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Original article: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/asia-topa-2017-chunky-moves-antigravity-lets-dancers-float-on-air-20170216-gue9nq.html

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