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Prevail: BLKDOG keeps it real

By Nur Arianty

BLKDOG’S depiction of trauma, grief, and the harsh realities of recovery premiered in 2018, and remains pertinent today as we transition into a now-endemic pandemic and its lingering traumas. The performance’s poetic composition delves deep into the layers of childhood trauma and the lasting influence this has in our lives. Throughout the work, we are guided to comprehend that the line between self-discovery and self-destruction loses its clarity over time.

Everyone handles trauma differently, and this usually stems from the childhood that we experience and which continues to shape us. The literal reminders of childhood throughout the show unveils that we never truly outgrow this chapter of our lives; instead, it becomes ingrained in us.

Led by Botis Seva, artistic director and choreographer of Far From The Norm, all seven dancers in BLKDOG successfully made me feel suffocation, anger, and eventually relief — a rollercoaster of emotions that I never thought I would experience in 65 minutes.

The show started with a soft single light source shining on a dancer at a corner of the stage, along with a taped conversation of a therapist asking a child to “begin from the start”. The lights then broadened to unveil the rest of the dancers, who were all lying flat on the ground. Unlike other dance performances where the dancers’ faces are usually illuminated, the lighting here was intentionally kept dim and overcast. This metaphorically enhanced the sense of confinement, as if the performers were trapped in a space with minimal light, like a prison. The light and sound design intensified the visceral and nightmarish ambiance of the work.

Most of the movements in the first part of the show were closer to the ground and done in a synchronised repetitive staccato pattern. Speaking as a dancer myself, maintaining synchronicity at a lower height is already taxing, and it is even more torturous when the movement incorporates heavy accents. Slowly, the synchronicity in the first part of the show transformed into more improvisations, symbolising the liberation and individual empowerment of each performer. However, the exhilarating and intense choreography throughout the show left little to no room for breathers — literally. Different topics were introduced, with some references to addiction, gun violence, and loss of faith that provoked mixed feelings of familiarity and uneasiness among audience members. The confrontational nature of the work – with distinctive movements that portray self-harm, violence and sex – might have come off as unsettling, but it sent a clear reminder of how brutal the world can be, and how our personal traumas can hold us captive.

Despite the drastic contrast between each topic, the repetitive movements and consistent echoes of the conversation with the therapist were seamlessly incorporated. This created a shared language that allowed us to decipher the different sections better. One image that has stayed with me was the dynamic exchange between a person on the brink of self-harm, and God. Although it was brief, this moment effectively portrayed the mental turmoil one experiences when dealing with their inner demons. The depiction of a man in prayer and another assuming a 'T' pose resembling Jesus on a pedestal swiftly transformed into a chilling scene as ‘Jesus’ began to jeer and ridicule the man at his feet. This emphasised the notion that personal traumas can deeply affect our connection with our faith. As a devout Muslim, I can relate to the challenges of keeping faith during hardship. The level of dedication and the intentional choices made within that segment made me confront my own traumas that I thought had been addressed.

I could not help but wonder at the amount of training needed for such a physically and emotionally demanding piece. After watching the show, I attended a workshop led by Botis Seva, and the experience confirmed that his choreographic choices and methods are not something anyone can master overnight. The usage of Krump, Popping and Breaking techniques in BLKDOG were made to look effortless and yet, they require an immense physicality. Although the physical aspect of any dance performance is always significant, it was the emotional dedication from the dancers that brought this work to life. BLKDOG was not easy to perform and nor was it easy to watch, so kudos to Seva and the team for delivering a staggering show.

During the post-show dialogue, Seva emphasised how he hoped the work would continue to grow, as it has been doing since 2018. He hoped that the work would serve as a representation of the voices within the Hip-hop community, working towards the greater goal of fostering open conversations about trauma within Hip-hop and society at large. As a Hip-hop dancer, I felt proud to have watched a show that represented the voices that are present within Hip-hop.

The unfiltered and raw depiction of trauma in the show aligned with what Hip-hop is all about. This could also explain the explicit choreography as a way of "keepin’ it real", a widely used phrase in the Hip-hop community that speaks to the importance of ensuring the truth. Hip-hop is known as a competitive and cold genre. However, not many are aware that Hip-hop started as a means of social commentary that prioritises marginalised voices[1]. Thus, watching BLKDOG felt as though a part of me was represented on that stage, although there are cultural differences that I was unable to relate to such as the experiences of gun violence.

BLKDOG being presented in the Singapore International Festival of Arts is an indication of how far Hip-hop has grown and progressed globally. I hope this show brings inspiration and opportunities for local Hip-hop works to be presented on such platforms. Although local Hip-hop theatre performances are still in their infancy, the road has been paved for the future of Hip-hop in Singapore. And I am excited to witness and be part of its growth in the contemporary theatre landscape. I look forward to local Hip-hop theatre works that, like  BLKDOG, not only represent the community but also showcase the diverse cultures that have contributed to the distinctiveness of Singapore's Hip-hop scene.

 

[1] The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop - And Why It Matters (2008) and Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), both by Tricia Rose.

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