A Preliminary Response to Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo) by Compagnia Zappalà Danza (Italy)
by Nah Dominic
This response was written based on the Friday 24th June 2022 8.00PM performance of Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo) and the discussion during the evening’s post-show dialogue for the cont·act Contemporary Dance Festival blog.
I will start by sharing that I really enjoyed this performance, especially the world of intense intimacy, brinksmanship, and vacillation between violence and passion that the two dancers Fernando Roldan Ferrer and Joel Walsham brought to the Esplanade Theatre Studio stage on this opening Friday evening performance. In this response piece, I will take up several moments during the performance that alternately captivated and confounded me.
First, I begin with the critical biblical story referenced in the title and the entire performance: Cain and Abel. As an agnostic Singaporean and without having to resort to pre-show research, I am vaguely aware of the Old Testament story of Cain killing Abel, that they are the first two sons of Adam and Eve, but that is all I know. How much knowledge of the story, then, of Cain and Abel must be assumed by the audience prior to watching this, especially for an audience in an Asian country like Singapore? That was the question of one audience member during the evening’s post-show dialogue. I was very surprised to learn that the director Roberto Zappalà responded (via interpreter Fiorenza De Monti) with what seemed to me like a Eurocentric presumption that this was a universal story everyone was aware of, that he assumed audiences would know, and that he also took a teasing umbrage to the fact that there were a few audience members who responded that they were not aware (“I shall have to see your Professor! Is he here today?”).
I did, however, notice that throughout the performance, it became increasingly clear to me that even though the two performers wore a red and blue t-shirt respectively, the exact casting of Cain and Abel was not consigned to either performer alone. Through what seemed to be sequences borne of contact improvisation scores and partner dances over the course of the performance, it was clear that the two brothers/men/performers were inextricably tied to one another. This was also made clear by the declarative statements that each performer alternately exclaimed and whispered: although one persona claimed “I am the good one”, this was also performed with a brash audacity whereas the one who claimed “I am the bad one” also at times played up a sympathetic portrait of being the victim.
In response to an audience member’s question about the feelings that each dancer experienced during the performance, Walsham eloquently described the push-and-pull between playing up competitive brinksmanship, while also then having to dial back the progressive aggression and turn instead to symbiotic sequences where both performers clearly relied on each other to complete and drive movements forward. This was most certainly what I took away from it: from the initial seizing of each other up; to the quadrupedal interlocking of their feet and legs; the tumble-like play as they both rolled over one another; the aggressive barking and animalistic stances they adopted when the play of tumble tipped over into conflict; and later the increasingly exhausting sequences of carrying, counter-carrying, and parrying each other – it was as if both of them were eager to occupy and flow into every crevice of open space left by each other’s outline, always teetering on the brink of a single act of irreversible violence.
At the same time, the music choices (especially the songs with lyrics) did confound me as the introduction of extra-diegetic text left me distracted on whether I should connect the significance of the lyrics to the performance. While I appreciated the sudden change of atmosphere when the two performers entered into a partnered dance routine with traces of ballroom dance brought about by the change of music, choices like the sentimental cooing of the male singer near the opening did leave me feeling that music either overdetermined the mood and atmosphere (as opposed to being secondary or supportive to the movement), and that where English lyrics were present, they may have detracted from the highly nuanced tension between the two performers.
This brings me to the long strobe light sequence which confounded me. Placed somewhere in the middle of the performance, it seemed to bracket the moment of murder by Cain and Abel, but because neither performer seemed like they were meant to be definitively either biblical son, the extended sequence (over a minute long of flashing strobe lights) left me more confused even as I tried to appreciate the movie reel effect of viewing the violence in individual frames. Furthermore, the placement of what seemed like a climax in the middle also felt premature. Thus, while I understand that Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo) is part of a larger series of works where Zappalà reimagines the Cain and Abel myth, I did wonder how the sequencing of different chapters in the performance could have aided an audience to better follow his appropriation of the original.
Aside from the earlier presumption of universality, the religious significance of the Cain and Abel story as a fundamental myth of murder, fratricide, and violence on kinship did indeed appear to be coincidentally and eerily prescient to the present-day conflicts in Europe and in many parts of the world. What captivated me in this respect during the performance was how it was framed by a round of sparring between two boxers (kudos to Miguel Miranda and Mohammed Narish bin Mohamed Noh for a steady stage debut), while the theatre was filled with audio recordings of audiences cheering from presumably a big-time boxing match. This introduced the metaphor of combat sport early on, but it also suggested that such conflicts were a spectacle, almost of entertainment to watch. I began to wonder how implicated I might be in passively watching such a conflict unfurl before me. In the second half of the performance, Walsham’s persona would exclaim his pride and joy at seemingly having defeated his brother, as Ferrer stands downstage looking up reverently at a diagonally raised light, which both recalls and rescinds the spectacle of the conflict, layering both sporting and religious overtones.
This layering of referential frames was also emphasised by the salt lines that the two performers carefully laid, enclosing the first frame of the boxing ring with yet another ring of salt. Zappalà would clarify in the post-show dialogue that he had been inspired by the purification symbolism of salt in sporting practices like sumo wrestling. Having said that, I did wish that the boxing metaphor was closed more carefully during the course of the performance, as there were many different frames of reference that needed to be accounted for, and the sight of the boxing gloves and head guard on-stage always left me anticipating a return to either the boxers, or the expectation of a knockout.
It was also unfortunate that the final image of (spoiler alert!) what should have been an entire boxing bag of salt being emptied on the prone performer, turned out to only be emptied in dribbles, leaving an unfortunate and likely unintended phallic image at its close. Given that Zappalà seemed to attribute this to the humidity in Singapore (for the salt has always been easily emptied in its entirety before), I wondered how else this could have been rectified during on-site rehearsals before the show. For such a pivotal moment, it seemed like an anti-climactic accident to what was otherwise a captivating performance by the two performers, which felt like it could have been resolved with sufficient time and resources beforehand.
On a final point, an audience member was curious about what seemed to be a persistent undertone/overtone(?) of homoeroticism throughout the performance. Zappalà would respond that such homoeroticism was not intended for in his creative process, although he acknowledged that the intimate and passionate nature of the sequences could leave such an impression for the viewer. Personally, the impression did follow me throughout the performance, but because the performers always seemed to hold back just enough to not let the erotic tension become the focal point, I then took it as much more of a by-product of an audience witnessing two male performers plunge into the intricate entanglement that seemed inescapable between the two of them.
Overall, I was mesmerised by the astounding physicality of the two performers in portraying and propelling this fraternal entanglement, although I felt there were choreographic choices of sequencing and music where the dramatic use of contrasts did not necessarily invite the coherence of paradoxes that was more clearly foregrounded in the chemistry and co-operation between the dancers.
Nah Dominic discovered breaking in 2013. Since then, he has been largely a hobbyist b-boy and hopes to continue dancing into old age. Previously, he performed an autobiographical dance-theatre performance dead was the body till i taught it how to move in 2018 at Aliwal Arts Centre, produced by Bhumi Collective. Presently, he is a PhD student at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University researching on secondary school students’ responses to ethical approaches of teaching Literature. He has also served as a dramaturg and reviewer for several dance and theatre productions from 2018 to 2021.