Arts & Culture

A Dance Film With A Meaningful Message

TRDOco takes time off amid pre-production to tell us about their latest project, To or Not, a dance feature that invites audience participation.

Words by
b-side staff

Photos courtesy of the National Arts Council

TRDOco is no stranger to edgy and thought-provoking performances that employ contemporary dance as a medium to tell stories and convey messages. Challenging the conventional formats of storytelling and film, their latest work, To Or Not, is an interactive feature that invites the audience to determine the film’s ending. As the feature revolves around the topic of mental health, this choice-based approach aptly invites one to step into the shoes of the protagonist while considering how empathy can go a long way in building a more inclusive society. 

We catch the creative team amid pre-production and chat about how the physical act of dance, the moving body, and the virtual realm of film, the moving image, can merge with purpose.

The Team
Ryan Tan (RT), Creative Producer and Founder of TRDOco
Jacqueline Yap (JY), Assistant to CP, Manager of TRDOco
Fiona Thng (FT), Choreographer
Patricia Bautisa (PB), Main Cast 

What was the creative process of putting together a film with different endings like?

Jacqueline Yap (JY): I would say it was like a game of… yoyo? There were so many elements that required us to go back and forth just for the storyboard itself. 

Firstly, the choice-based feature is quite a challenge because every decision required different outcomes that are all valid. Different people value different things and these different perspectives make this work. We had to give a lot of thought to that. However, showcasing different outcomes also means that the story development might deviate from thread, spelling a logistical nightmare. We cannot create an entire universe of possibilities. After looking at various perspectives, the next challenge is to streamline things. 

The other major point is the topic of mental health and the question of how we can bring it across with minimal prejudice. I do not think that there is a so-called correct way of dealing with this topic. We can only strive to deliver this topic to the best of our knowledge. Creating awareness for this is a double-edged sword. We cannot skim the surface, nor can we dive too deep. 

The interesting part about working on this as opposed to our previous live shows and works is that the involvement of the technical end begins at the first step. It does not follow a linear flow of creating the content and just uploading it on a platform. This is quite a thrilling eye-opener for us!

Fiona Thng (FT): As the choreographer, I try to understand what Ryan wants for the film and how he wants to showcase the dance piece. During the first meeting, we discussed the visual and I found a few examples. With the examples, it was easier to imagine what it would look like on film and what would work best to showcase the dancers and the dynamics when choreographing. As film is different from real-life experience, it’s important to capture movement from the perspective of a person watching through a screen. 

“I wanted people to be empowered in their decision to show concern towards those dealing with mental health issues.”

Ryan Tan

Why did you choose to focus on mental health for To Or Not?

Ryan Tan (RT): Given our interest in social issues, there is no escaping from the topic of mental health. Mental health is not as taboo a topic as it was before when people associated it with being crazy. I wanted to spread the idea that mental health is something that applies to everyone. 

When Covid happened, the National Arts Council encouraged us to innovate towards the digital realm. I thought it will be interesting to apply the choice-based feature to a dance context. This is not a random pairing though. I wanted people to be empowered in their decision to show concern towards those dealing with mental health issues. While we may not be experts in mental health, it doesn’t mean that we cannot do something to help. I wanted to raise public awareness about that. These were the motivations that gave rise to To Or Not.

What valuable insights did you draw from conversations with mental health professionals and persons with lived experiences?

RT: With all the conversations we have had, the main insight that hit even myself is that simple gestures do count. I think people always find it difficult to approach someone whom they know is going through some form of mental struggle. We either feel awkward, inadequate or fearful about approaching someone who is facing depression, dealing with loss or is overly-anxious. Professional opinions and individual stories have confirmed that the average person like you and me can take action. It may not always be effective, but there are times that it does make a difference.

JY: Social support is something that we should not underestimate. Having a positive relationship with one’s family, access to a group of close friends, or being engaged in something that allows one to be part of a community, are all such valuable assets to mental health. We are social creatures after all.

What are you mindful of when putting together the feature? What did you wish to convey?

JY: While mental health does not necessarily equate to mental disorder, the direction and context that we were looking at inevitably veer somewhat towards the latter. So, we try our best not to stereotype the risk factors, behaviours and protective factors when crafting the characters and their stories by drawing from a spectrum of information sources. We also want the characters to have layers and different sides that are not expected from how they are portrayed in the first scene. 

Quoting what Ryan said during one of our meetings, “The most beautiful person has his/her flaws and the ugliest person has his/her reasons.” This is to remind audiences, as well as ourselves, not to judge a person too quickly. 

Ultimately, as with the idea to create a choice-based film, we want to express the power of one’s choices in such a situation. As a third party, a small gesture may change the course of someone’s life today, but sadly, it may not on another day. Nonetheless, we try. As someone who is going through mental distress, the struggle is nothing to be proud of. Nonetheless, surviving it, even with scars, is still something one can commemorate. 

How can mediums of dance and storytelling bridge discussions or create awareness about mental wellness amongst society? 

FT: Dance is a non-verbal form of communication. It tells a story, message and gives meaning. Physicalising a message and talking about a message differs greatly. There is movement in us every day, even amongst non-dancers. Verbal communication can offer as much as one’s word bank allows, but body movements allow one to dig differently or even deeper without the need to say something. Through movement and storytelling, one may be able to open up a new realm as to how people can further understand the mental struggles and things that are unspoken. 

“Physicalising a message and talking about a message differs greatly.”

Fiona Thng

Patricia Bautisa (PB): Dance is a visual craft that already shares so much. Seeing expressions through movement sometimes resonate more strongly than the spoken word. Also, dance “forces” us dancers to tell our message through movement, and the natural human reaction would be to reciprocate to body language or facial expressions. The ability to use dance as a medium to showcase the more raw, upfront and unspoken features of mental wellness allows people to be more aware of how the most subtle of movements, facial reactions or bodily expressions can reveal a person’s mental state.

Lastly, what do you hope for the audience to take away from To Or Not

PB: Ultimately, I hope people understand the importance of showing kindness and grace whenever we can because we’ll never know the full extent of what people are going through. We live in a modern society that has developed a multitude of platforms where we can mask ourselves or curate content with filters. Nothing is really as it seems until we genuinely ask or show care and concern for another. I hope that through this project, people on either side of the coin will have the confidence to speak up and ask for help or reach out to help someone. The smallest gestures of kindness can go a long way. 

To Or Not is scheduled to launch on 1 March 2021. Follow GTM’s social media channels to be informed of its launch on TRDO’s website.

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