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The OPEN 2015: Frenemies, Nagarika and the art of role-playing

SINGAPORE — The Singapore International Festival of Arts’ (SIFA) The OPEN wraps up today with what has got to be a show with the best title we’ve come across at the pre-festival event: Frenemies.

Navtej Johar's Frenemies at The OPEN 2015. Photo: Anshuman Sen.

Navtej Johar's Frenemies at The OPEN 2015. Photo: Anshuman Sen.

SINGAPORE — The Singapore International Festival of Arts’ (SIFA) The OPEN wraps up today with what has got to be a show with the best title we’ve come across at the pre-festival event: Frenemies.

But don’t be deceived, despite such a casual title, Indian dance artist Navtej Johar treats us to a work with such cool elegance. The dance duet loosely takes its cue from Indian courtesans and temple dancers, as well as French playwright Jean Genet’s The Maids, a play about two housemaids who role-play and enact sadomasochistic rituals while their mistress is away.

Johar and fellow male performer Lokesh Bharadwaj take on the female roles, and the two offer a slow-burn sensuousness from start to finish. The older, bearded Johar’s relaxed, sinewy femininity contrasts against the shaven-headed younger Bharadwaj, who exudes a more masculine strength emphasised by forceful stomping of the Bharatanatyam dance tradition.

The domestic relationship between the two played out in episodic moments: Johar slowly fans Bharadwaj as they lie in repose; the two slowly fold a blanket, twisting it tightly until they come together. But there are hints of power play, too. For instance, a swift, aristocratic snap of a finger by the older dancer gets the younger one’s attention.

For Johar, emotional experience is generated specifically by what the body does. It sounds like a given, particularly in dance, but this premise is certainly underscored in the predominantly measured and acutely slow choreography that’s positively hypnotic. While dance can be abstract (or, if you’re referring to something as codified as Bharatanatyam, potentially impenetrable to the uninitiated), Frenemies transmits sensations to full effect, as when Johar rattles a teacup, enacting an aggressively silent scream or when he caresses a plate with a fork while moaning. Tongues slowly come out, suggesting something sexual, reinforced by facial expressions that seem positively orgasmic.

The tensions between the two roleplaying dancers (a “swap” in roles wraps up the piece) are subtle, and the menace simply simmers — but they are there. Frenemies’ allusions to The Maids (whose protagonists plot to kill their female boss) as well as the subservient position of Indian temple dancers and courtesans, or “pleasure women”, highlight this kind of servant-master relationship.

And in a way, Frenemies’ points about unequal relationship — and even the idea of role-playing — resonate with another of The OPEN’s exhibitions, titled Nagarika.

Essentially digital archives of a particular style of Bharatanatyam and a particular style of the Indian martial art of Kalarippayattu, users can access both programmes (the latter is already available on DVD) and see both forms essentially dissected into sequences and units, and thoroughly explained. (Think dance-manual-meets-encyclopedia-CD-ROM.)

Nagarika takes its name from the Sanskrit word for “a civilisational dimension” and is a project devised by dancer-choreographer Jayachandran Palazhy to meticulously record two ancient forms of movement digitally and make them available to practically everyone.

Both Indian forms have survived via, as SIFA director Ong Keng Sen described it during Palazhy’s talk a couple of days ago, “body-to-body transmission” between master and apprentice, an exclusive process that takes years. It’s not quite the master-servant power relationship from Frenemies, but there’s certainly a hierarchy and a level of inequality here.

But now, all of a sudden, anyone can access these ancient forms and, technically speaking, one can learn from the DVD and skip the masters altogether. It is, as Ong again pointed out, similar to how choreographer William Forsythe created a digital catalogue of his techniques and gave it to his dancers beforehand so they could learn them first.

Palazhy had emphasised how one can’t really replace the master-teacher and that the project isn’t meant to be an exercise in the displacement of a teacher, but instead simply offers to show “concepts of the body and principles of movement”.

He noted, for instance, how a lot of dancers are mimicking moves without really knowing what these mean. Nagarika, hopefully, offers context and knowledge to enrich what’s already there — a portable, self-contained body of information open to everyone. In its digitised world, you can skip the master-apprentice dynamics with a click of a mouse.

Frenemies and Nagarika run until today at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. Tickets for the former at S$35, while access to the latter is free with The OPEN Pass. For more information, visit For a recap of our coverage, visit For Art’s Sake (

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