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Dance review: (un)it: HD85828 | in.ViSiBLE 
by Mayo Martin (12-10-2013), Today

Dancing in the dark

There’s an explanation behind the rather unwieldy title of dancer/choreographer Ming Poon’s latest project for The Substation.

HD85828 is apparently the faintest star detectable from Earth — and only under the darkest conditions. The show itself, the result of a two-year research, is about people living with HIV (PLHIV) and who remain anonymous. The connection isn’t hard to miss in this extremely special performance.

It begins with Poon — in an all-white getup — ushering audiences inside. The four walls are plastered with numbered pieces of paper behind which are snippets of interviews with PLHIV. In the centre are lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, and microphones are placed at the four corners.

Divided into three segments, it starts with an invitation for volunteers to come up and hold the unlit lightbulbs for the entire show. Poon dishes out instructions like a flight attendant, while gesticulating and moving somewhat like C3PO (if he had taken ballet and hiphop classes).

And then we’re plunged in total darkness.

Audiences are encouraged to — one by one or simultaneously (it’s all up to us) — take these pieces of paper and read the texts aloud. Voice-acivated, the lightbulbs react, their intensity dependent on the volume. They flicker, twinkle, flash like some kind of stellar morse code as we hear a range of testimonies. Someone dreams of being an astronaut, there’s diary-like chronicle of medical treatment. One compares his/her situation to a movie (Sigourney Weaver getting tragically impregnated with an alien), another describes taking an HIV test as the only test where a positive outcome is the most horrible result you could get.

Through it all, Poon moves around in the shadows. You see glimpses, you hear him. The mechanical movements of the first part giving way to something freer, more fluid and sensual — he is suddenly naked.

After which, he raises the question: Would you dance with someone with HIV? And in the dark, and to the tune of Adele’s lovely cover of The Cure’s Lovesong, Poon and his PLHIV collaborators literally reach out and offer a dance in the dark — it is a moving moment that will stay with me for a long time.

The whole performance sounds complicated, but its intentions (like its title) are clear cut: Here’s a piece that plays with binaries of light and dark, freedom and constraints, having a voice and keeping silent, and, finally, action and inaction.

(un)it: HD85828 | in.ViSiBLE is as much about PLHIV as it is about our relationship with them. Poon utilises a strategy that is extremely reliant on our participation. So, while you could justifiably say that the long moments of inactivity (it took a long time for volunteers to come up and hold the lightbulbs or read the interview snippets) was a directorial failure to anticipate the awkward gaps, this same awkwardness can just as well be directed at us. In taking our time to step forward and help move a piece forward (one brave and vulnerable enough to be left, for the greater part, in our hands), are we equally culpable in our very inactivity?

It becomes very obvious in the second part, where our very participation affects the show’s impact: If no one comes up, we remain in the dark. The more people step up, the more we literally see.

But at the same time, the darkness itself becomes necessary. PLHIV literally remain in the shadows, but their stories are heard, their presence palpable. And in the darkness, the distinctions between “us” and “them” become immaterial — who’s to know if one of those who stepped up to read wasn’t a PLHIV? In fact, in the shared comfort of darkness — or even in those brief bursts of light — does it even matter?

Yes, it’s a show about awareness and empathy. It talks about an issue that needs to be brought up. But for this reviewer, the most powerful thing about In (un)it: HD85828 | in.ViSiBLE isn’t that it’s opened up a space where two binaries meet, where someone (PLHIV or non-PLHIV) blends in or enters the other’s space, which can sometimes be rather patronising.

It’s that, despite its limitations in the bigger scheme of things, for one hour at least, the show removes this divide and everyone forges a shared experience. A very precious one at that.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. (Germaine Cheng)

It is dark. And quiet. And unless someone does something about it, it’ll stay that way.

(un)it: HD85828 | in.ViSiBLE asks as much of the audience as it does of its performer-creator Ming Poon. “I need 16 volunteers.” “Step up to the microphone.” “Loud and clear.”

 

Admittedly, I don’t leave my seat on the Substation Theatre floor for the duration of the piece. The transcripts of Poon’s interviews with People Living with HIV (PLHIV) on the wall above my head are numbered 72 and 73. Poon says to read them in order. I wait, thinking I’ll read them both when it gets to me.

The work’s objectives are crystal clear and Poon is thoughtful in every way possible. The rigidity with which he performs the opening sequence and gives instructions to the audience, the way he’s dressed all in white and completely covered – this is our society’s methodical, precautionary approach to PLHIV. But are we forgetting they are P(eople) afterall?

The lights go out. It takes a while for the audience to get the ball rolling. C’mon, c’mon.

A voice rings out, and the sound, which signifies a presence, is unspeakably (no pun intended) comforting. Stories to make one smile, cry, ponder are told – one test not to be passed, one form of medication, one change of perspective.

We only get to about transcipt 30, I think. I lose count.

(un)it: HD85828 | in.ViSiBLE is as much about PLHIV as it is about the people around them. Us. The darkness becomes a shroud of safety, an anonymity that is common ground. It almost makes us look harder to see who, but in our futility we realise it doesn’t matter.

At the end, questions of “Will you dance with me?” are met almost immediately with emphatic positive replies. We’ve already been transformed through the experience. To Adele’s lush voice, the Substation Theatre becomes a ballroom, and I can make out embracing, rotating couples on the floor.

Poon calls (un)it: HD85828 | in.ViSiBLE a performance, an installation and an experiment. The results aren’t quantifiable, and I’m not sure success is a desired outcome (if it can be defined in this instance, that is).

So my parting words, taken from Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.