The conventional narrative for dance, like in the Step Up films, says that dance is a path to a better life. That’s true, but it’s equally true that dance can shine a light on our obsessions. As if, if we shared our pain, it would lessen. At its strongest and strangest, The Whole Beast does just that. It’s a shame you missed it.
The essence of Lee Su-Feh’s dance seems to be the simple gesture, repeated and developed throughout the dance, of an outstretched arm plucking something out of the air. The gesture recalls a farmer picking fruit or milking a cow.
The gesture also calls to mind an act of giving and submission. “When shaking hands or handing over something” to a Burmese, the Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) says, “do so with your right hand, while touching your right elbow with your left hand.” I was handed my change in this fashion by a cashier at a convenience store in KL. Are you Burmese, I asked. No, she replied. Then how did she know the gesture? She had been trained to do it by her employers.
Variations on the gesture are made throughout the piece. After announcing that “joy is pain,” Su-Feh slows the gesture down, makes it seem sclerotic; as if her body was shutting down. It is to her credit that she makes it look easy—as if all movement embraced such extremes.
A narrative is woven into the dance, which mainly takes place in kitchens. It’s clear we are in fairy tale territory. Su-Feh tells us that her parents died in a car crash, and she was sent to live with her uncle, who made her wear rags. On Su-Feh’s birthday, the cook prepares a plate of diced chicken hearts for her, which she eats in one gulp. She finds she can talk to birds. She runs away from home and lives in the forest. One day, the cook, who is really her grandmother, falls ill. Su-Feh returns to see her one last time. She dies in Su-Feh’s arms.
Su-Feh travels to a kingdom that is terrorized by a dragon. The kingdom has sacrificed its prince to the dragon, but before it can eat the prince, Su-Feh slays it with the help of the birds, bees and other forest creatures. She cuts off the head and makes a salad out of it.
There is an isolated episode where Su-Feh wishes to learn about using the whole animal in food preparation. The Whole Beast takes its name from a recipe book by an “innovative, yet traditional” chef that describes how to do just that. This revisionist approach, interested in telling a story with the pillaged guts of other, older stories suits the form of modern dance. What better way to respond to the break with the formal tradition of ballet, with its emphasis on perfection, smoothness and grace, than to locate dance in older traditions of storytelling. And the body in Su-Feh’s piece is far from perfect, it is an aging, puking, suffering reflecting, thankful, joyous body. It is a performance hard to put into words, but easy to feel in the bones.
She begins the piece by complaining about her shoulder, she ends it by preparing a salad with the head of a dragon, demonstrated to the audience when Su-Feh slowly sticks her hand down her own throat. Saliva dripped from her elbow. I was painfully aware of my own throat as I watched this.