Inspiration, Creation, and Evolution: Fallout: From San Francisco, to Singapore and Beyond

By Wendy Rein

October 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Our first international tour began with a poster. We’d like to claim that we embarked on creating a new work from some deep-seated artistic urgency, but no, it started with a poster. We were in Singapore in January 2007, exploring the city on an extended layover before an overdue vacation. A friend, and native resident, took us on a whirlwind tour through a maze of air-conditioned malls, eventually leading us to two huge Epcot Center-like domes, right on the waterfront. There it was at the entrance to the Esplanade, the city’s main arts complex—a glossy, shadowy dance image pulling us in. Factually, it told us it was the eve of the 2007 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Viscerally it told us we wanted to be on that poster.

Accustomed to alternative spaces and small venues back home, we didn’t think we had much of a chance of performing in this beautiful government-funded arts complex, so we scratched down a few notes and moved on. Our time in Singapore didn’t actually overlap with the festival so there was nothing to do but research it later. We’re so glad we did. The annual festival aims to “present the best of contemporary, cutting-edge and socially-engaged works to the Singapore audience.” It encompasses work in both the performing and visual arts, focused around a chosen annual theme.

Back in the U.S., our work that year for a House Special residency at ODC Theater—20 hours of crash choreography—led to a duet about the less than glamourous behind-the-scenes of a traditional relationship. When the announcement came that the theme of the 2009 Fringe Festival was Art and Family, we knew we had a pitch.

The piece that bubbled out of that synchronicity was Fallout. Fallout is a work about Americana—from Father Knows Best to today’s Sarah Palin. It was a reaction to the country’s sense of pervading fear (of terrorism, war, etc.). A fear that to us, echoed the irrational anxiety of 1950s McCarthyism. The piece exposes the sometimes darker reality hidden behind closed doors—abusive relationships, alcoholism, affairs, and living life on the down low—as a motley family copes amidst this cultural and political paradigm.

From the outset we were aware that we were creating this piece for an audience with a very different cultural background. Singapore is a modern, business-oriented, urban hub in Southeast Asia. Citizens are primarily drawn from Chinese, Malay, and Indian populations, though it also attracts a constant flow of international dwellers and visitors. Since family structure, roles, and related baggage are so closely linked to location and culture, would our story, abstract as it was, translate? Does every culture understand the ideal of the white picket fence?

If navigating cultural references of family posed a challenge, our desire to portray a gay couple as part of our alternative family proved to be even trickier. Singapore, though generally more cosmopolitan than San Francisco, is in many ways far more socially conservative. The Singapore Fringe Festival itself encourages risk-taking and boundary pushing, but from our skewed perspective in a city where nude, hyper-sexual performance art is practically considered mundane, our sense of boundaries is unique. As part of the festival, our work had to be screened by the Media Development Authority (MDA), a group that vets Singapore’s media and production content to “protect core values.” What would the MDA in Singapore, a country famous in the U.S. for its ban on chewing gum and infamous for its sentencing to caning of an American teen convicted of vandalism, think of a homoerotic duet? The need to gain approval from the MDA was certainly present in our minds as we developed the piece and it remains an interesting question. How can one be true to a piece, true as an artist, and also respect a set of restrictions?

In addition to the many choreographic considerations, we were faced with all the practical difficulties inherent to international communication. Singapore is 15 hours ahead, meaning deadlines for us were all a day in advance and conversations happened in the middle of the night. We had to send several videos along the way as we developed the piece, but fast shipping methods cost a fortune, so we hunted a large digital file transfer service. And though Singapore is easy language-wise (English is one of four official languages), there were still some surprise dual interpretations that popped up.

Luckily for us, especially given that we were complete newbies to festival touring, our liaisons at the Singapore Fringe Festival kicked international butt. Our three main coordinators (PR, technical, and everything else) were feisty, knowledgeable, passionate women, all with a welcome sense of humor. Despite any confusions and difficulties along the way, we were well taken care of and our tech on opening day was the smoothest we’ve ever had, hands down. Our crew actually laughed at us when we were so astonished that we finished early. Apparently that’s just the way things work in Singapore.

A huge plus for us was the quantity of press. It started on our flight over, when we were flipping through the Singapore Airlines magazine and came across our own picture with a preview blurb about the festival. (We were so taken aback, we wound up showing it to our seat neighbor, who actually came to the show.) The arts in Singapore get a lot of attention for a city with far fewer artists per capita than San Francisco, where we all compete for limited coverage. Singapore has been working hard to build its image as a cultural hub in recent years. We were even told that many festivals and arts events are timed to avoid competing with each other for audiences and press. As a company, we lucked out; RAWdance was everywhere. The program cover for the entire festival, a nearby bus shelter, the cover of the local arts monthly, and yes, even the shiny life-size posters at the arts complex featured RAWdance images. The festival even arranged for us to do an interview on the local morning TV show. For a few days, we pretended we were rock stars.

The rock star feeling was fun, especially since it’s so at odds with our usual budget DIY company operations, but the real satisfaction came from two well-received shows. After all the preparations, including a last-minute rehearsal in a mall and borrowing hotel towels to plump up our set’s too small chair, performing for local audiences was exhilarating.

Fast forward to February 2010, the U.S. premiere of Fallout will be presented at the Joyce SoHo in New York City. We won’t be on bus shelters or shiny posters (unless we stealthily hang our own), but after a hiatus from the piece, we’re excited to load up the big suitcase and head East. Though we were happy with the Singapore version, we will definitely make some adaptations to Fallout for a New York audience. After all, the beauty of performance art is that it is mutable. Unlike a sculpture or photograph, a dance can be forever changing and evolving and the audiences, familiar or foreign, become a part of each unique experience.

As we begin the next chapter in the life of the piece, it seems strange to think of Fallout’s rather shallow origins. What started off as an appreciation for good marketing led to the creation of one of our company’s most heartfelt works. So after this trip we have new motivation: the sides of buses.

This article appeared in the October 2009 issue of In Dance.

Wendy Rein is Co-Artistic Director of San Francisco-based contemporary company RAWdance. Founded in 2004, the company is preparing for its first international tour to Singapore in January 2009.