Confessions of a Yale-NUS Dancer
story | Kwok Yingchen, Guest Writer
photo | Angad Srivastava, Guest Photographer
sYNCd showcase 2018: Confession, showed how much dance at Yale-NUS College can mean.
As a member of the 2nd Executive Committee of the Society of Yale-NUS College Dancers (sYNCd), and a sYNCd dancer throughout all four years of my time here, I am incredibly proud of the 4th Executive Committee of sYNCd and the entire showcase team for their phenomenal job organizing Confession, the fourth sYNCd showcase in Yale-NUS’s history. In fact, I found Confession to be the most meaningful showcase I have ever danced in.
I wholeheartedly believe that this showcase was a class above anything that had come before it: in terms of the technical rigor of the dance pieces, the sophistication of the lighting, and the production vision and value. On paper, it does not go very much beyond the painful cliché of the “seven deadly sins.” In fact, many ambitious story elements in the initial showcase vision had to be scrapped halfway due to a lack of manpower, which may have contributed to the final narrative seeming a little haphazard.
Even so, I think Confession provided an excellent template for what a sYNCd showcase should be (always, of course, with room for improvement). Confession excelled in tying our seven dance groups together via a uniting story. May Thwe Min ’20, Lead Actor and Dancer, played a protagonist tied down, both literally and figuratively, by the sins she had committed throughout her life.
The sins were represented by each of the dance pieces, with her character finally redeeming herself at the end to the finale song “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman. Each piece opened with a short transition scene where May would dance with someone from the next dance item, accompanied by a monologue describing the sins they embodied. While transition scenes often feel like a contrived attempt to force disparate dance items within the overall narrative, May’s versatility in her movements allowed her to function as a blank canvas, a Rorschach inkblot test, crucially giving each dance group the freedom to choreograph and interpret how they wanted their sins to be read by the audience.
A simple reading of the showcase theme suggested that the seven sins were plot devices to prime the audience’s imagination for the “excesses” of each of the dance pieces, such as the loud music, powerful emotions, and sensual bodies that accompanied each performance. Let us release our social inhibitions for the night, it cajoled.
As the performance progressed, we witnessed the protagonist descend into darkness as voyeurs and accomplices, and we felt the weight of our own sins crawling on our backs. Thankfully, we were finally absolved by the protagonist’s redemption, especially through the feel-good finale item.
However, if one looks at the individual dance pieces, a far more complex reading of each “sin” emerges.
The hip-hop pieces (“Wrath”) featured dancers wearing prison outfits and silencing masks, to which my friend suggested recalled themes of African-American incarceration and silencing that drives hip-hop’s roots in dissident expression.
The street jazz piece (“Lust”) spoke to the commodification of sexuality, and the question of who gets to express their sexuality—be it lusting for others or being lusted after. What happens when sexuality is filtered through dominant, violent norms of desire? What does sexuality mean to different people then?
The K-pop pieces (“Pride”), the ones I danced in, referenced the disparity between the self-confidence K-pop idols portray on stage and the little control they actually have over their own lives due to strict management, social expectations, and media scrutiny.
It would be disingenuous to suggest the showcase presented a social commentary on these issues. I doubt the hip-hop pieces did much to draw attention to ongoing issues of Black marginalization and exclusion, including those within our very own campus. However, I think there’s something about the issues our pieces referenced that resonated with and drew us to them in the first place.
All three street dance pieces walked a fine line between what made them attractive as entertainment, and what made them scary, uncomfortable, and inappropriate. For instance, “pride” has a very different meaning to marginalized communities than mere vanity. Pride does not come easily to people who have lived a life of rejection. In such situations, pride provides a temporary feeling of deserved empowerment. Just because pride easily turns to insecurity does not necessarily make it superficial or “sinful.”
I wanted to explore the difficult relationship between pride and insecurity. The K-pop performance was split into two items: Lip-Hip by HyunA pre-intermission, representing the sin of Pride, and a medley of Gashina by Sunmi and Dramarama by MONSTA X post-intermission, representing the “overcoming” of that sin. Lip-Hip displayed a pride of audacious, excessive display, where we fought each other for the limelight. Gashina moved to a pride of assertive, controlled feminine energy.
During the transition between Gashina and Dramarama, I was the sole person on stage, and the song was replayed with muted tones, as if I was reminiscing about my performance backstage. I turned to admire my face in the mirror—and all the pride I was portraying suddenly disappeared as my expression went from affection to disgust and self-hatred in a matter of seconds, and I furiously swiped at my face in the mirror and banged against it as the lights faded to black.
Everything was scripted (thank goodness), but the emotions I wanted to express through the transition were very real. They spoke to my insecurity that people were only cheering me on for my dancing as entertainment. Once the show was over, I would feel unwanted yet again. Was this the price of my “sin”? Confession gave me the freedom to insert this vulnerability into my dancing.
Afterwards, Dramarama performed a pride of anger—inchoate and untargeted anger, perhaps, but poignant anger nonetheless. Claiming we were “redeemed” from the “sin” of pride would have been grossly over-simplistic. We certainly confronted—negotiated, struggled with or against, were let down by, strove to reclaim—pride, but I am not sure we “overcame” it, or that it even needed to be overcome. Before anyone says we were no longer representing pride, let me remind them the first pride parade was a riot.
Gashina/Dramarama was the penultimate piece before the finale item, and it probably left more questions than it answered. Was the finale item then a cop out? The song and choreography were both absolutely wonderful, fulfilling their function of putting the audience in high spirits again.
And yet I do not think I could have danced it (I did not, primarily due to my other commitments). It might have been too much for me to pretend that feel-good item alone could have magically resolved the insecurities I was trying to convey.
But if the seven deadly sins have much more to them beneath the surface, then maybe the finale item deserves a more complex reading as well. The song lyrics (“I am brave, I am bruised/I am who I’m meant to be”) do not suggest pain has been overcome, or sins have been rendered obsolete. However, it was a powerful appeal not to lose hope. Perhaps my appropriate role in the finale item was to be touched by it, dancing to the song backstage while awaiting the curtain call.
I am so grateful at how much those who inherited sYNCd from my class have helped it grow. Leading sYNCd—the umbrella body overseeing the interests of the various Yale-NUS dance groups—can often feel like a thankless job. After all, most dancers join dance for the sake of dancing, not to attend endless meetings settling administrative tasks. Finding leaders for the individual groups can be daunting enough; finding people to take over the umbrella body is even tougher. Leading sYNCd is a perpetual question: if we cannot find the right successors, will one of the largest groups in YNC just be discontinued overnight?
But Confession convinced me of just how important sYNCd is, if only to unite the various dance groups for a massive crossover showcase once a year (step aside, Marvel). Confession perfectly captured the sYNCd ethos of unity in diversity, the sum being greater than its parts.
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