Feature: Photo essay – behind the scenes of Civic Bodies

Choreographer Dapheny Chen monitors a performance with students at the National Gallery Singapore.

Image: Choreographer Dapheny Chen (second from right) monitors the performance with the students. (All images by Crispian Chan)

The disappointment was palpable in 2020, when the pandemic scuppered plans for LASALLE College of the Arts Diploma in Dance students to perform at Esplanade’s annual dance platform da:ns fest. “Performing or being presented by a national venue with the accompanying expectations from the industry, and an audience that is not made up of friends and family, puts a different pressure that helps to simulate what professional life will be for them,” says Head of School and Programme Leader Melissa Quek. “An important part of our Dance students’ development is to have them in different venues and different performance situations.” 

As arts programming gradually picks up again, LASALLE returns to the 2021 edition of da:ns Festival’s Next Generation platform with dance film Civic Bodies. The film features choreography by alumni Dapheny Chen, Yarra Ileto and Pat Toh, as well as Melissa and choreographer Germaine Cheng, who worked with film producer and LASALLE alumnus Jeremy Chua to refine their approach to the medium.

Central to the film is the question, “What do you do when faced with forces, structures and spaces of seeming perfection, where existing narratives are buried under a beautiful facade and all paths appear to be planned according to a grand design?” The persistent, rebellious and resilient responses captured in the film are an exciting portrait of a new generation of artists and performers coming into their own despite the pall cast by the ongoing pandemic.

Dancer stands on the steps of the historic old Supreme Court of Singapore

It is a spirit that the programme has adopted in its programme design and learning experiences. Says Melissa, “In spite of the ongoing pandemic, we have continued to be resourceful and innovative in the projects that we bring in for the students as well as the opportunities that they take on – whether it’s adapting a class project to be about creating for Zoom, embarking on global collaborations by interacting student to student online, or inviting international guest speakers or workshops from around the world. 

“All these efforts help students to see the positive side of our situation and know that if they continue to be flexible and open, if they continue to question and expand their definitions of dance and performance, of how we interact and engage as performers, audiences, teachers, facilitators, circumstances that appear to be obstacles can become an exciting challenge for them to overcome.”

Dancer threads through ping pong balls spaced exactly a foot apart.

For the process of working towards Civic Bodies, the audition process was video-based, in which the choreographers gave tasks which the students videoed themselves executing, and then the choreographers chose their cast from there. 

Dancers stand in a line as crew set up the film shot.

Dancers on the roof of the National Gallery

Choreographers and students met online and discussed the ideas and the choreographers' practices and engaged in a range of tasks or research: reading, exploring, watching and discussing to lay a foundation for further exploration and development. 

Performance artist Pat Toh directs students outside the National Gallery
(Second from left) Performer and Acting alumna Pat Toh directing the students.
Dapheny Chen puts the students through their paces.
(First from right) Dapheny Chen puts the students through their paces.
Diptych of choreographer Germaine Cheng rehearsing a dancer and of a bird's eye view of the dancer at the bottom of a stairwell
(Left) Germaine Cheng watches over a dancer rehearsing.

With more space and time to go into the intention and the process of creation, performers and choreographers found themselves incorporating brainstorming platforms such as Google Jamboard, as they attempted to connect over the work and go deeper into the exploration of the themes together.

Students wear snorkels as the move on the steps of the National Gallery

Melissa Quek and Yarra Ileto monitor a recording behind the scenes.
(from left) Melissa Quek and Yarra Ileto monitoring a performance.

Students perform in the blazing sun on the outdoor steps of the historic City Hall building.

Filming was not always smooth, especially when outdoor locations meant that the crew was sometimes subject to the unpredictability of Singaporean weather. On the day of filming Yarra and Melissa's segment at National Gallery Singapore, heavy rain broke out. As the time allotted in the gallery was limited, with the crew needing to vacate the building before the museum opened to the public, the team could not afford to wait for the rain to stop.

The team made a snap decision to switch locations for one of the segments from the rooftop garden to the staircase at the Padang atrium, and students had to adapt quickly, even though the segment had been originally blocked and rehearsed for a sunny day outdoors. Still the students persisted, and so the team pressed on.

Students dance in a seasonal downpour on the outdoor roof garden of the National Gallery Singapore

Choreographer Yarra Ileto monitors the filming, clad in a raincoat under an umbrella.

Students dance on in inclement weather.
Students dance on in the midst of inclement weather.

Civic Bodies ​​premieres on Fri 8 Oct 2021, 4:00pm and can be streamed via Esplanade.com. Stream will remain available till Sun 31 Oct 2021.

A student bends backwards, ping pong ball balanced on her lips.