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Grieve: A Spell, A Space

By Mok Zining

The curtain rises to a deep keening, drawn out on a violin. On centre stage is a dancer, inhaling, exhaling, her form undulating with the movement of breath. A white paper boat, the kind you might have learned to fold as a child, floats at the tip of her outstretched arm, pitching as the dancer breathes. It sails alone, amidst the darkness of the open sea. 

So opens 99 Art Company’s Abyss, an exploration of various sorrows — including existential emptiness and han, an affect that describes the resentment, sadness and anger that stem from the Korean people’s experiences of war and colonialism. Sitting in the dark, I make mental notes of things I might later use to write my response. As the boat sails, a whisper, barely audible above the violin. The dancer’s lips moving, as if in chant. From stage right, a figure clad in a white paper hanbok enters and begins, slowly, to circle the stage. She, too, chants. The same phrase, over and over again, gaining in volume with each repetition, until a group of dancers, each holding a singing bowl and their own paper boat, enters from stage left. One by one, they set their bowls before the figure in white, who is now seated on the ground.

What follows is a sort of call and response: with the first strike of the bowl, the dancers come into stillness. With the second, they perform a phrase in unison. With the third, a different phrase and, with the fourth, yet another. In the vibrating silence between strikes, the dancers’ breaths come to occupy the space in the form of scattered moans, groans, and gasps, ways of breathing that one makes audible, often, only in the safety and intimacy of a private space. Interesting, I note, that such unrestrained (though certainly studied) expressions of sorrow are let loose in the structure provided by the striking of the bowl. It is if the dancers are taking part in a ritual of grief.

As the call and response gains momentum, the figure in white begins to sing. Softly, at first, until it builds up into a sorrowful dirge. As it intensifies, the dancers breathe, gasp, and heave their bodies in response to the vocalist’s powerful lament until, at one point, the air in the theatre swells with song and screams and I realise, to my embarrassment, that I am crying. Caught off guard, I lean away from the stranger next to me and try to collect myself. On stage, the paper boats toss and roll. Inside my chest, something surges with the performer’s bodies and voices.

I had come here to write about the production, to attempt to approach it on its own terms. Instead, here I am, heaving as if I am pitching on the waves, thinking about my grandmother and her own passage across the South China Sea. It was soon after the Second World War, and the only place she had ever known was at the edge of an irrevocable turning point. I think about her, a young woman out on the open sea, sailing towards some kind of unknown in a place she had never been. She might have been seasick, might have been disgusted by the deck, but most certainly full of fear. The sick, I remember her telling me that one quiet afternoon, I remember the horror in her eyes, were thrown overboard. In my mind, we are sitting on the sofa in my childhood home, and then – as it so often does in a dream – the setting transforms, and I now find myself standing in the Covid ward in full Personal Protective Equipment, crying uncontrollably as I hold my grandmother’s stiffening hand. On the screen of my phone, my family weep mutedly in their isolated boxes. 

Sitting in the theatre, I was annoyed with myself for projecting my own memories onto the production, for failing to view the performance on its own terms. Writing now, however, I wonder if I might have been responding to the production’s invitation to share in the visceral experience of sorrow. Speaking in the post-show talk of her decision to include breath in the performance, choreographer Hyerim Jang described how, during the research process, she and her dancers once sat in a dark studio and tried to feel one another’s breaths. At one point, she felt the atmosphere of the studio change, and it was then that she decided breath would be integral to Abyss

I felt this transformation of space viscerally a few years ago, at a memorial for my beloved ballet teacher M. As we took a final reverence, the air seemed to quiver as grief moved through each and every body, transforming the familiar and mundane studio into someplace sacred. Affect may reside in the body, but it is also deeply social; it circulates through bodies that share a time and space, it is both inherited and passed down, received and evolving. 

In this way, Abyss is nothing less than a spell, one that opens a space, if only for 35 minutes, for a body to feel and share in han in community. While rooted in the specificity of Korean history and culture, han, I was surprised to find, nevertheless resonated with the rhythms of my own body. As I consider han, I wonder if we can speak of a distinctively national affect in Singapore, or perhaps Sinophone ones. 

I do not yet have an answer to these questions, but for now, I am mulling. What affects have I inherited from my grandmother, what affects have I picked up as a child growing up in Singapore, what affects have I shared in as a daughter, a friend, partner, a writer, a human in this time of extraordinary global flows? What affects flow here, now, in this space that you and I, we, both share?


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