Fraternity, Conflict and Boxing Share the Stage – A Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo) Review
by Jozef Chua
Compagnia Zappalà Danza’s Caino e Abele #1 (Corpo a Corpo) took to the Singapore stage from 24 – 25 June 2022 as part of cont·act Contemporary Dance Festival’s lineup of programmes and workshops. Brimming with promise of a unique fusion between dance and boxing, this interpretation of the infamous biblical fratricide (the story of Cain and Abel) is Roberto Zappalà’s means of expressing awareness of the socio-political issues that are rife in our contemporary world. Snatches of violence and tenderness flesh out the volatile relationship between the two bodies in space, transmuting through riveting contact. This allegorical caution against conflict and tension rising from proximity rings true in today’s political climate, with the war in Europe being paralleled to a war fought between neighbours and brothers. Roberto’s attention to contemporary issues as the inspiration of his two-part choreography definitely got audiences sitting upright in their seats for the spectacle to come.
The backdrop of violence through Caino e Abele is omnipresent, charting the subtle shift in dynamics between the two mutually reliant male figures throughout the piece. The choreography opens with a sparring match between two boxers (later revealed to be stunt doubles, though I was quite convinced then that the dancers had learnt boxing), complete with an audio track of crowd cheers. Muffled chants, the occasional ring of a bell, and bright lights lining the square perimeter establishes this volatility from the get-go, normalising the expectation of physical violence. We are called to question whether we, as audience, are an embodiment of the audio cheers and shouts, and if our gaze is inadvertently encouraging the mounting conflict between the siblings. This opening segment is separated quite clearly from the main body of work by a mid-time bell and a blackout, allowing enough time for the dancers to swap places with their doubles.
The seed of violence is planted upon birth, from the moment we realise that we are not alone in this world, and that resources are exhaustible. The dancers embody infancy in this premature state, starting from the entanglement of their toes. I am reminded of twins floating and sliding over one another in amniotic fluid, intrinsically aware of the other’s presence upon conception. This childlike wonder at the discovery of another body, and the mutual exploration of weight transfer resembles a sort of trust exercise. The duet on the hands and knees throws up an image of two wide-mouthed lion cubs tumbling over each other, soaking up as much of the lights, colours and sensations of their new world as they could. The brothers are made aware of this “other” from the very beginning, and it is through this discovery of their counterpart that they slowly realise their own body, situated within this partnership. Humans and animals alike are accustomed to the idea of competition from the moment we realise our need to survive is a shared desire by those around us too. Playful contact morphs into roughhousing between the two siblings, building in intensity and force, finally escalating into a conflict that apexes in a barking match between the two dancers. I am thoroughly impressed by the cast’s ability to bark so terrifyingly and in such a guttural register.
Photo by Bernie Ng
So ensues an almost dreamlike duet reminiscent of a tango, complete with twirls and bearing of each others’ weight. There was something that drove this duet, like an inexorable clockwork as they kept spinning around and into the other’s arms. Some parts of it seem almost satirical, with an oldies ballad playing in the background, driving their constant motion under the gaudy pink lighting. I get a sense that the section is amusingly self-aware, and the siblings are dancing on a thin line. Some may draw this a boundary between Love and Hate, or a giving and taking, contracting and releasing. I personally enjoyed the fact that contact work and weight bearing did not discriminate across both their bodies, with the taller dancer readily flinging himself into the shorter dancer’s arms. The virtuosity and confidence with which these lifts and carries were executed is commendable.
Photo by Bernie Ng
The dancers proceed to demarcate the floor with a trail of salt, forming a chalky white box. (The post-show dialogue revealed that this was a reference to sports practices such as sumo wrestling, where salt is used as a symbol of purification.) The creation of a boxing ring is accompanied by passionate verbal deliveries of “I am the good one”, “he is the bad one”, “I am the victim”, “I am the killer”, so on and so forth. I found this verbal element a bit on the nose, and seemed to be an attempt to establish distinct yet incoherent personalities between the two siblings. Roberto intended to emphasise each brother’s existence in a grey area between Good and Bad, with neither brother being entirely one or the other. This choreographic intention, while genuine in its portrayal of the complexity of real-world conflicts, seemed abrupt and hastily developed, and I was left somewhat more confused than enlightened. I felt that the insistent verbal repetition of their characteristics and motivations hung loosely about the dancers, a jarring round of introductions in the middle of a predominantly non-verbal piece. For the first time, we see overt admissions of violence and strife, each brother’s perception of the Other and the Self spoken into the space. The sudden ability to articulate swerves into a regression back to childlike mannerisms, a poignant reminder of the two brothers’ dependence on each other amidst the violence enacted. As the choreography circles back to its beginnings, the brothers return to one another. Each sibling’s sense of self was built so firmly upon the context of the other, similar to how there is no good without evil, no victim without perpetrator, no light without darkness. Violence and intimacy functions through a push and pull here, and as one brother lies under the punching bag, the other begins shaking out its contents, raining down salt in a final act of purification.
The interpretation of violence was definitely quite different from what I had expected. It was definitely more stylised, theatrical in some sections, and heavy on contact-based work. In some instances, actions of recognisable aggression were performed without actual physical contact with the target, suggesting that there was a sort of invisible barrier restricting the two dancers. In this way, violence occurred on an energetic level, communicating this intention without always engaging in explicit touch. Despite referencing the fratricide of Cain and Abel, it is worthy to note that there is no overt “death” of any brother during the performance. There is no obvious instance of one party as an aggressor or victim as both are performed interchangeably, aligning with Roberto’s choreographic message. I went in expecting to be made uncomfortable by visceral depictions of brutality, a disturbing kind of violence both uncomfortably visceral and self-destructive. It was with this expectation that I sat anxiously before the show began, anticipating a gruesome encounter amidst the droning pre-show score and palpable onstage tension between the resting boxers. Fratricide is in itself horrific, and at that point in time I could not think of how it could be made palatable. However, I left feeling quite amused and entertained by the score and trippy lighting design of the set, reminiscent of a fever dream recollection. The unadulterated expressions of intimacy entrenched within this concept of struggle felt important to me, and in many ways the closeness between their bodies felt sacred. Witnessing the two male figures slipping in and out of interdependence and hostility so organically was very remarkable.
I think there was a huge potential for the work to shed light on the gritty, brutal and senseless violence of our times (A harsh take on reality without rose-tints), in tandem with themes of innocence and envy that can be drawn from the biblical source material as emphasised in the programme notes. The work holds undeniable relevance to the prejudices that humans so readily indulge in – those that turn brothers against each other, and tear apart entire families. But I do carry respect for the angle that was taken in fleshing out the complex relationship between the two bodies, a simplicity within this microcosm of many contemporary issues, ultimately leaving the real-world application to its audiences.