Friday, January 28, 2005

(D) January 23, 2005 - Tapestry of My Heart, Ellie Zhou

WHEN a performing arts group is launched, the objective is always to go "professional". That would be the direction that Ellie Zhou Performing Arts, the extension of Ellie Zhou Ballet Studio, is heading.

The studio was founded in 1997 by Malaysian dance artiste, Ellie Lai and China prodigy Zhou Gui Xin. The husband and wife team began a specialised dance studio in Malaysia, offering classical ballet courses from beginner level to advanced and performance levels, as well as courses in contemporary dances and authentic oriental dances from the provinces of China.

In conjunction with the launch, a dance production entitled Tapestry of My Heart was put up at the Securities Commission featuring classical, neo-classical and contemporary ballet items consisting of excerpts from ballet repertoire favourites, and traditional and folk Chinese dances.

The Chinese dances – Han, Tibetan, Dai, and XinJiang – were all choreographed by Zhou. It was a surprise to find that most of the performers were elderly ladies who were sometimes joined by the younger dancers from the Performing Arts Group. Although it was nice to see how sporting these ladies were, there were too many items by them in the programme.

Zhou choreographed seven pieces in all: A Tribute to Spring (Han), Chinese “Sleeves” Dance (Tibetan), Breaking of Dawn (Dai), The Jasmine Flower (Han), Journey (XinJiang), New Year’s Morn (Han) and Autumn Memories (Chinese Classical).

Just as Wong Kit Yaw, the Malaysian choreographer who specialises in dance for children, tackles the issue of unsure young bodies, Zhou had to choreograph within the capacity of bodies that are no longer supple. Zhou managed to do this quite well in most pieces except for New Year’s Morn where the dancers were made to leap, albeit mild ones. It looked most ungraceful and it only accentuated the performer’s age.

The other choreographic challenge was the merging of both elderly and young performers in A Tribute to Spring and Breaking of Dawn. All the stretching and flexing, which were left to the younger performers, juxtaposed quite well with the more simple and graceful movements by the elderly performers.

The younger dancers, who would have more aptitude for mastery, still need to perfect the art of holding and opening the fan in the Han Dance.

My personal favourite was Autumn Memories not only because the ladies were draped in beautiful Fall colours, but also because they moved like leaves, breaking off from the branches and falling in uneven spirals towards the earth.

The Chinese dances were interspersed with three ballet items – Sleeping Beauty (Classical), Obsession (Contemporary) and Graduation Ball (Neo-classical). These were performed by graduates and senior students of Ellie Zhou.

Sleeping Beauty, though it may not be Ellie’s best choreography, allowed her graduates and senior students to show off their prowess especially in the solo parts.

Obsession, choreographed by Alyzsa Lim, would have been more effective if the dancers could loosen their grip on ‘classical’ a bit more. However, Elynn Chew, who played the lead role in this piece, managed to wow the audience with her very precise turns. In this, and the other two items, she exuded stage charisma which had the audiences’ gaze fixated on her when she danced.

Graduation Ball, choreographed by Ellie, was the most delightful and entertaining item of the evening. Looping in guest dancers from Akademi Seni Kebangsaan, the item was a pleasant combination of both elements of drama and dance. Azizi Sulaiman, as the General, and Fairuz Tauhid, as the Headmistress with frightful golden locks and curtain dress were a hit as a couple. And Foo Siau Yin, as girl with stiff braids and blue ribbon was most commendable in her role.

The backdrop and lighting in this production was simple and minimal. However, most of their investment went to costume – each item had their own elaborate set.

Only one thing to note though – although I understand their enthusiasm, a Performing Arts Group should restrain their back stage cheering and let the applause start from the audience instead!

(Post performance hunger is best subdued with a burger Ramli ayam special WITH cheese, at Bestari nearby)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

(D) November 24, 2004 - History of Jazz Dance in Malaysia

Jazz had long made its way into Malaysia.

But before one starts to trace the ‘when’ and ‘how’, a little understanding of its history is required.

The origin of jazz is rooted in mostly African and European (following their migration to America) traditions in an American environment. Many types of jazz music and jazz dances have evolved and had taken form since.

In the history books of America, the birthplace of jazz, music and dance were inseparable. The milestones of its evolution were benchmarked against each other since the early 1900s till today.

During the Ragtime-Jazz period in the early 1900s the Charleston dance became established. Then in the Jazz Age of 1920s came other forms such as Black Bottom, the dance said to be the prototype for modern Tap dance, and swing dances from Break-a-way to Lindy Hop.

This was soon followed by the big-band swings that filled the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and The Cotton Club with the accompanying dances such as West Coast Swing, Shag, Suzi-Q and so on. With the coming of Rock and Roll and Latin crossover music, jazz was fused the likes of rumba, jitterbug, and the mambo with rock and roll, and these also opened the doors to Free Jazz.

And as disco music dominated the dance floors in the 70s, couples started doing what was tagged as the Disco Swing, which later came to be known as The Hustle. In the 80s, the MTV generation and rock/funk/hip hop music gave jazz yet another new look with the likes of music videos by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and others.

Such harmonious link and evolution did not take place here in Malaysia. Jazz music and jazz dance evolved quite separately.

Here in Malaysia, jazz music has been given more attention than its equal half – jazz dance.

In general, the term ‘jazz’ is used here to refer to jazz music, while to the smaller dance community, the term ‘jazz’ can mean both jazz music and jazz dance.

In the rest of this article, the term ‘jazz’ and ‘tap’ will be used to refer to the two prevailing jazz dances in Malaysia – jazz and tap are dance forms of jazz music.

Jazz, as you see it today in Malaysia, was and still is directly influenced by foreign elements, especially music, movies and music videos.

Jazz only arrived in Malaysia in the mid-70s during the disco era. A (then) young stud, by the name of John Travolta was responsible for this. Well, sort of. The dance explosion here was mainly influenced by movies (in the 70s and 80s) such as Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Fame, Footloose, and many others.

And jazz, like the pub scene, grew alongside popular music from the West.

Local dancers and teachers went overseas to study jazz and taught what they had learnt when they came back. There were improvisations, but no distinct new jazz styles or forms were developed here.


The introduction of jazz in the 70s first came from the British and the Americans spread the influence through movies.

Farah Sulaiman, principle of the Sayang Academy of Dancing and choreographer of Sayang Dancers, was the pioneer of jazz and tap in Malaysia. In the early 70s, most dance schools in Malaysia only offered ballet and modern dance classes.

“During my teens, I learnt from my sister, who went to the United Kingdom (UK) to take one-month summer courses on freestyle jazz and tap. I also taught myself British tap from a book when I was 17 years old,” said Farah.

“Many commercial dance groups mushroomed during this period and these included Sayang Dancers, which I founded, Sadiah Dancers, Normadiah Dancers and so on. There were plenty of gigs at the time. The one that I particularly remember was the Hennessy Showtime featuring singers such as Mary Yap. The show toured Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Seremban with the Sayang Dancers in tow,” she reminisced.

At its infancy, jazz in Malaysia was mainly freestyle and had no proper syllabus. It was only in 1978 that Lee Lee Lan, founder of the Federal Academy of Ballet (FAB), brought the British Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) syllabus of jazz and tap to Malaysia. Lee too took short courses in the UK, and in Malaysia she took instructions from a lady by the name of Dilys Yap. However, it was not known where Yap learnt jazz.

However, during this period the jazz scene gained momentum primarily due to the influence of movies and not so much as to the availability of a syllabus.


The music video industry was a key contributing factor for the dance explosion in the 80s – who can forget the classic dance videos of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Paula Abdul?

Notably, companies offering the two key vices (by taxation’s definition), cigarettes and alcohol, played a key role in supporting the dance explosion. They were quick to recognize the craze and used dance as a platform to promote their products. Promotions, corporate sponsorships, awards, competitions, and contests soon flooded the Malaysian entertainment scene.

It was also during this period that a flood of commercial dance companies were set up.

Dance students of the 70s led the way in the 80s dance scene. This is the ‘golden era’ for jazz in Malaysia during which the dance reached a professional level. Among the big names then were Peter Choo, Tan Pek Khuan, Joseph Gonzales, Chan Mee Kuen, Tan Bee Khuan, Faustina Hoe, and Frances Teoh.

Peter Choo (born in 1961) was the most prominent male dancer, choreographer and teacher during this period. He first started off with ice skating (figure) in Tokyo, Japan before he took up ballet and jazz at 11 years old at the Asahi School of Art, Tokyo (learning from both American and Japanese teachers).

“My teachers told me that to be good in jazz one has to learn from a few teachers to pick up their different styles. This would also help me develop my own style,” recalled Choo.

Taking their advice, he went off to study dance at Pineapple Studio, London and then studied under several teachers in New York. One of the more memorable ones was the Alvin Alley School of Dancing, an influential black dance school that taught black jazz, punk, rap, and other contemporary dances.

Choo earned his reputation by winning awards such as the Choreography Dance Competition and the Disco Dance Competition in London in 1981.

In 1983, Peter decided to return to Malaysia though he still spent a fair bit of time in Japan. Still, he managed to teach jazz at the Annabelle Kronemberg School of Dancing in Kuala Lumpur where students and dance teachers flock to packed studios to learn from him. In 1986, he came back for good and founded The Dance Company, a commercial dance company, with co-founder Tan Pek Khuan.

Tan started dance training with the late Signe Syme at the age of seven and later under Lee Lee Lan. In 1983, she graduated in ballet and modern dance from Laine Theatre Arts, Surrey.

Tan, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, is no stranger to performances and competitions. She had performed in the Modern Dance Festivals with the Kuala Lumpur Dance Theatre in Tokyo and Seoul (1984 – 1986); and had participated and won many dance competitions locally and abroad including the Flash Dance Competition held at the Sapphire Discotheque at Plaza Yow Chuan (the discotheque was known to hold many dance competitions during the 80s).

As a choreographer, Tan was especially known for her works entitled Bohemian Rhapsody (title taken from Queen’s hit number) and Take Off With Us in 1986.

She was also the choreographer for the Peter Stuyvesant Cheerleaders. And, as Rothman’s resident choreographer, she produced shows such as West Side Story and other Broadway productions.

In 1982, Joseph Gonzales set up his own jazz dance group in University Malaya. The group of six performed for all university events, as well as in nightclubs and launches in the early 80s. They even took part in Farah Sulaiman’s big show at City Hall, which was the 1st Asean Pop Song Festival, featuring Francesca Peters and many other singers.

At the time, Joseph studied ballet and tap at FAB and also took jazz classes at the famed Annabelle Kronemberg School of Dance where Peter Choo taught.

The most memorable experience for Gonzales was being part of the legendary Saint Moritz Gold Band that was formed in 1986.

According to Gonzales, “For the first time in Malaysia, a dance group had a full time make-up artist and designer, and dancers were paid a fixed salary of RM1200 for rehearsals and eight shows per month. An additional RM200 was paid for extra shows.”

Saint Moritzs’ performances were produced by Marina Beaumont while Datin Zabedah Zessey held the role of Artistic Director. There were 10 dancers in the group and they had the opportunity to perform with celebrities such as Sudirman and Joanne Ng.

However, at the end of 1986, the group disbanded and the dancers all went their separate ways.

However, Gonzales affirms that the Saint Moritz experience had left all the dancers inspired to become even better dancers. In fact, almost all of them left Malaysia to pursue dance – three went to London, including Gonzales; two to Singapore; Tan Bee Khuan went to United States and Faustina, to Germany.

Another dancer, Frances Teoh, a keen competitor of Peter Choo, also set up her own dance company, Comscapes (1987) which comprised of three choreographers - Christopher Ng, Michael Voon and Engku Majid. The company specialized in jazz and Martha Graham. However, this group too was soon disbanded.


In the early 1990s, Lee Lee Lan of FAB revived the interest in jazz and tap with classes that took off with Joseph Gonzales and Chan Mee Kuen at its helm.

Chan, due to an illness, had passed away early last year.

“Chan came to me when she was 16 years old to learn dancing. She had no dance background but she badly wanted to dance. I auditioned her and found that she had natural talent and allowed her to take lessons from me and to join the Sayang Dancers,” said Farah.

Between the mid to late 80s, Chan pursued dance in Singapore, and subsequently in the United States of America (America) where she received training at the Boston University Theatre Institute and the New York University. She was one of the privileged few who had studied under the legendary tap dancer Gregory Hines. During her stint in New York, she was mentored by established choreographers such as Barry Weiss, Christian Polos and Jan Mickens.

Sunny Chan Hean Kee, President of The Dance Society of Malaysia who had record of Chan’s credentials said that she was the society’s Secretary for 4 years.

In addition, she was Director of Dance Workshop, her own studio and company, and in that capacity, conducted workshops such as the Dance Society Workshop and the FAB Dance Workshop in 1993. She also took part in the International Summer School organized by the London Studio Centre and the Federal Academy of Ballet.

She had choreographed for the Police Field Force Tattoo, TV3’s Image, Health and Fitness programme, and numerous stage and television personalities (including Sudirman and Ning Baizura).

Chan also choreographed for children in stage musicals such as Flower Drum Song, South Pacific, Show Boat and Carmen for Operafest Productions Sdn Bhd.

Her biggest contribution to the history of jazz and tap in Malaysia was the introduction of Luigi jazz and American tap (Broadway) into the dance scene. Being a first-generation student of Gregory Hines, she also played a key role in spreading his influence.

Her signature choreographies included tap and theatre dances of Broadway musicals such as West Side Story, Chorus Line, Cats, and a few hip hop items.

At a FAB performance at the Petaling Jaya Civic Centre in April 1993, a reporter was enchanted by Chan’s Ragtime to Raptime which showcased dances from the 1920s Depression era, and hip hop to rap.

However, in the mid-90s, Chan left Malaysia for New York to pursue a professional dance career.

Celeste Theunissen (40) who hails from South Africa made Malaysia her home in 1990 after she married a Malaysian. She received her training in South Africa from the University of Cape Town Ballet School (Diploma in Ballet) and the Capad Ballet Company. She also received the Solo Seal Award from the Royal Academy of Dancing (Ballet).

“I feel that the standard of jazz dance was higher in the early 90s but it had somewhat declined after 1995,” said Theunissen.

Theunissen founded the Celestar Jazz Dance Technique and Syllabus with hopes of training and producing more good jazz dancers in Malaysia.

“In this program, my students can choose to pursue the dance course with my school’s affiliate, the Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop, Colorado, United States after the course’s Level 5 examination, which is equated with the pre-professional level of advanced ballet,” said Theunissen.


Today, most dance schools do offer jazz and tap. However, the old hands (and legs) still teaching jazz are Joseph Gonzales at the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK) and Celeste Theunissen at Celeste Studios.

“Jazz was incorporated into the ASK syllabus only in 2000. Over the last two to three years ASK managed to produce a few very good jazz graduates,” said Gonzales.

Two former students of Chan are teaching tap now - Shireena Hamzah, who owns Dancesteps Studio, (she learnt American tap under Chan at the Plaza Dance Academy when she was 16 years old) and Toh Kong Eu, who teaches Rhythm Tap at FAB.

The biggest dance production during this period was the launch of e-village in 2000. Experienced dancers such as Theunissen, Ann Tan, and Gonzales were called on to participate. The production had a full set of costumes enacted from movies themes such as James Bond and Austin Powers.

Earlier this year, Farah Sulaiman produced Dance Hysteria 2 incorporating jazz, tap, and hip hop items.

The more active jazz dance companies today provide more than just the jazz genre such as traditional dance and other dance genres to cater to commercial demands. Those that still specialize and provide mostly jazz are The Dance Company (Peter Choo), Switch (Michael Tan), and Gig Dance Company (Vince Khoo). Others include Red Hot Entertainment (Ann Tan and Trancy Koh), Crossroads (Joseph Gonzales), Kit Kat Club (Tiara Jacquelina), and The Dance Republic (Linda Jasmine, Shireen Woon).

What is the future of jazz dance in Malaysia? Clearly the past outshines the present and another revival is much needed to inspire more interest and passion in this genre of dance so that it would thrive.

(in memory of Ms Chan Mee Kuen, Jazz and Tap dance teacher, who not only taught but inspired)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

(T) April 11, 2004 - No Parking on Odd Days

KUO Pao Kun’s No Parking on Odd Days was the first theatre production to be staged at the Chamber in The Arts House at the Old Parliament. It was one of various performances held during No More Walls festival which marked the launch of Singapore’s latest arts venue.

No Parking was chosen to “house-warm” the Chamber in honour of the late Kuo, playwright, theatre director and teacher, and doyen of modern Singapore theatre. Active in promoting Mandarin plays in the 1960s, and English-language and multi-lingual plays in the 1980s and 1990s, had a hand in putting Singapore theatre on the world theatre map.

No Parking is a monologue about a man and his confrontation with bureaucracy over several parking summonses and his dilemma in court. It is also about his relationship with his son. The questions it poses are always pertinent: Will we stand up for what we believe in? How do we cope with the ever-changing social landscape? Should we just accept injustice or fight against it?

The new TheatreWorks production was produced and directed by Jeffrey Tan, who has 12 years of directing, writing and teaching experience. It featured veteran Singaporean actor Lim Kay Tong, who played the roles of No Parking Man, Father, Son, Compound Officer and various other characters in court.

This monologue operates on many levels. Literally, those who have been through the hassles of fighting the legal system will be able to relate to the pain and emotional stress No Parking Man feels. The law may say that one is innocent until proven guilty, but in real life, one is often deemed guilty until proven innocent.

The two chairs on the runway represent Authority, a dominant force in Kuo Pao Kun's No Parking On Odd Days.

On another level, Man has this on-going moral debate: Should I just conform and relieve myself of the emotional stress and move on with life? How much will it cost me to uphold justice in terms of money and time?

The character of the son provides the twist to the story. Knowing full well that some people have no moral values or conscience, the play singles out the important thing we have at stake – our children. With that, we now have to address the consequences of our actions and decisions on those we hold dear.

There are some site-specific challenges in the Chamber. . The seats are high, thus blocking the view of the stage. For example, from where I was sitting (the second row beside the runway), Lim “disappeared” from sight whenever he sat on the floor, musing about injustice.

Art House has strict rules about adding lights for light design or whatever reasons. Productions will just have to make do with the permanent chandelier just above the runway and some lights affixed to the sides of the plastered ceiling. There are also no backlights.

As the Chamber was not built for acoustics, it was difficult for Lim to throw his voice to the audience. Despite that, the team had decided not to use microphones. As a result, the quality of voice projection fluctuated as he paced up and down the runway. Jeffrey and Lim had decorated the runway instead of the stage. Two chairs, representing Authority, sit on either end of the runway; between them is the “road”. The set illustrates the problems with bureaucracy and traffic rules.

(T) May 10, 2004 - Lady Swettenham

TO argue with a fool makes one the bigger fool. And so, to make the other happy, one party should back out or a compromise should be reached. The folly of pursuing a continuous duel that could last till you’re 78 years old would lead to a wretched existence and a tragic conclusion – just like the life of Lady Swettenham.

Lady Swettenham is Masakini Theatre Company’s maiden production. It was presented from April 23 to May 1 at Panggung Bandaraya, Kuala Lumpur. The play opened for a charity premiere on April 23 with proceeds going to the National Children Welfare Foundation.

Lady Swettenham turns out to be a study of character, behaviour and relationships with historical references thrown in rather than a narrative of history. No doubt the latter could make the play richer and stronger; however, the playwright chooses to focus on the former.

The play, written by Sabera Shaik and directed by Chris Jacobs, depicts the story about an intelligent, opinionated young woman and the chronicles of her acrimonious marriage to Sir Frank Swettenham. It takes us on Lady Swettenham’s roller-coaster emotions from “dying to marry” to “dying of marriage”, with settings in Malaya, Singapore and London.

The young Lady Connie Swettenham (Sasha Bashir) gets ready for her wedding in Lady Swettenham.

Sasha Bashir, a relative newcomer to the theatre scene, played the young Lady Swettenham, or Connie. She sets foot in Singapore, full of expectations for romance and adventure. But she is vastly disappointed as life is not what she expects it to be. She goes into despair, experiences complete loss of confidence and constantly runs into trouble. In the end, she arrives at lunacy after many years of being manic-depressive from the years of unhappiness.

Not quite the trophy wife that Frank wanted, Connie tires of her husband’s neglect and egoistic control and slowly begins to lose her mind. But each time she exits the rest homes that she’s been placed in, she becomes more determined than ever “to get back into the social scene”.

But there are certain expectations of a woman, especially of “first ladies” or those aspiring to be one. Even today, it is not easy for women married to leaders of society to just quit marriage. There are many implications to consider even if it is legal to seek divorce.

In any circumstance, the turning point in a woman’s life is when she uses her ability to take control of her own life, exercise the power to make a change for the better, and to stand up for what she believes in.

For example, not only was Lady Swettenham the architect of the Taiping Botanical Garden, she was also a very keen horticulturist and had won several competitions for the best ferns and orchids. She also became an active member of the theatre clubs in Selangor and Perak. Tired of complaining and moaning, she simply did “whatever pleased her”.

For a pilot performance, Sasha did considerably well. Sasha was able to handle her lines with good diction and vocal variety.

Those who also acted their roles well were Sandy Philips, who played the old “bird” Lady Swettenham, Stuart Payne, as the dominant, egoistic Sir Frank Swettenham and Zahamin Baki, Sir Frank’s houseboy.

Not all the cast shared the same calibre. It could be a casting issue, or that of a young actor being assigned too many roles to handle. I could not differentiate between the roles of Cecil (Connie’s brother) and Walter McNight Young (Frank’s illegitimate child). Moreover, he was wearing the same costume throughout. Throwing on a scarf did not help.

It was much easier to differentiate Juliana’s roles of Siti, Eliza, and Nurse because the costumes were different.

Ditto for Silvester Loo’s role of Papa and the Sultan of Perak. But to be fair, even mature actors can stumble when handling multiple roles.

The director deployed the time-freezing photographic technique in several scenes and it worked very well especially in the scene where Connie joins Frank in a social gathering for the first time. The party forms a haughty circle where they completely ignore Connie by freezing each time she tries to break into it.

The period costumes juxtaposed against the contemporary set came off nicely without being overly stuffy.

The ascending and descending planes on stage literally illustrated Connie’s state of mental health. The tempo of the play was well balanced but it may have been even better if some scenes were sped up.

(D) August 3, 2003 - Krishna, Krishna!

He was all of 35 and none of 53 years old when he took on the stage. That was the exuberant Dr Chandrabhanu transcending Krishna Krishna! in a solo Bharathanatyam performance held on July 26 at the Auditorium Malaysia Airlines Academy.

Chandrabhanu hardly needs introduction. His illustrious career as a professional dance artist spans over 30 years of creative and pioneering work. His contributions toward the development and promotion of Asian performing arts in various countries, including Malaysia, remain unsurpassed. In addition to studying classical Indian dance and music, he received tutelage from great gurus of other Asian art forms in Malaysia (Gendang Terinai Classical Dance) and Indonesia (Javanese and Balinese Classical Dance). He has also travelled and performed extensively.

Bharathanatyam is a semi-dramatic type of dance performed by a solo dancer who plays more than one role through gesture and mime. In the seven-part work, Chandrabhanu portrayed the different aspects of Lord Krishna, providing a broad compass of Krishna’s personality from various angles.

He insisted that the performance was not his alone but that of O.S. Aruns as well. In fact, the seven parts of the work were both song and dance titles at the same time. The songs were sung in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu, and Hindi.

The vocalist and his live ensemble, sitting at the right of stage, accompanied Chandrabhanu with captivating Carnatic music, on which the dance is based, adding zeal and vigour throughout the performance.

As this was a charity event by the Northern Indian community here in Malaysia, the performance incorporated two bhajans (Northern Indian songs) in the second half of the programme. These are songs chanted and sung in praise of various divinities. Although usually sung in a light manner, Arun sang them in a powerful classical way, putting emphasis on devotion and its lyricism.

The stage was simply set against a backdrop made of colourful cloths creating a temple arch with a picture of mirror-imaged peacocks at the top, symbolic of Krishna. The pillars at the side were sewn pictures of pots, each with a plant creeping upwards. These depicted spring, which is always associated with Krishna and love.

Chandrabhanu maintains that the structure of Bharatanatyam in this performance is still the same except that Thoday Mangalam (the first dance) replaced the Alarippu, Swagatam Krishna (the second dance) replaced the Sabdam, and the two bhajans replaced the Padams and Javali.

Chandrabhanu opened Krishna Krishna! with Thoday Mangalam, a very traditional, invocative dance giving praise to Lord Vishnu. More challenging than the Alarippu, in this dance the dancer has to quickly accommodate with the changes in the music – there were five different Ragas (scales) and Talas (rhythm cycle) in this piece alone.

Here, he constantly looks up in awe and puts his hands together in prayerful clasp to worship his deity. He introduces Krishna for the first time, depicting him as ‘the one with the flute and a peacock feather in his hair’.

This was portrayed with double-handed gestures (samyukta) implying the flute and a quick movement of his hand upwards behind his head showing a feather. In a pose, Krishna is always standing on his left foot with his right crossed-over in front and resting on his toes. His signature static movement is a stately 4-beat footwork consisting of a stamp-heel on the right foot, followed immediately by a toe-heel on the left foot.

This was recognisable in any form Krishna took throughout the repertoire, with various personalities differentiated by expressions and more elaborate combination of movements.

In the second dance, Swagatam Krishna, where Krishna is welcomed as King of Mathura, Chandrabhanu explored more circular movements both in terms of hand ones as well as when travelling in space. He wasted no time in displaying the variations in movements by inserting a lot more jumps, turns, and poses into this dance. He also created clear diagonal lines by subtly moving first his lower body and then shifting his central median (upper body).

In taking jumps to squats, he provided a refreshing variety in varying (height) levels in the otherwise traditional earthbound dance. He also took many opportunities to create triangular forms, the basic shapes of Bharatanatyam, in his movements and poses.

Varnam, the next piece, was the most difficult in the repertoire – it combined Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (expressive, symbolic, interpretative and semiotic dance), and Natya (dramatic components and role-playing).

The rendition showed both musicians and dancer pushing the boundaries of music and dance. Musically, it has a complex structure with powerful jathis (vocal percussion) that lend majesty to the work. This is interspersed with the poetry and lyrics of the piece, the abstract musical phrases, and variations on the raga.

Ambika Docherty, foremost disciple of Chandrabhanu, assumed the difficult and crucial role of the Nattuvanar, the musician that recites the vocal percussion. She determined the point of change in timing and gave signals to both musicians and dancer. Both Ambika and the mridangist, Balasri Rasiah, did well in holding the rhythmic fort together.

In this piece, Chandrabhanu played both Krishna and the devotee-in-love. Stretching his ability in Nritya, he expressed the pain experienced by the devotee who pines for Krishna and waits in vain for him to come to her. The feelings and expression emerged from the very details of describing the way she worships and adores his entire being, including his wardrobe, accessories, and body. As Krishna, he had to assume the trickster in each form transcended, whether human or animal.

In dance, he chose to be a bit more simplistic and disciplined. He characterised walking with a series of (foot) stamps with both hands resting at his waist, and there were a lot of movements symmetrically repeated. He also introduced a new move – leg-lifts, not by way of extensions but rather lifted in a tucked-in or inward manner.

In addition, Chandrabhanu went all the way to the floor when he impersonated the woman falling asleep while waiting for Krishna. In jumps, his leg extended towards the back when he landed, while both hands were extended in a slant looking like a triangle on the ground. In terms of timing, the dance progressed from one movement per beat to double time as feelings became more intense.

The cheekiness and smile on his face masked the exertion and tiredness. He ended this piece with a pose on one leg, while the other was tucked under the left knee, complete with sturdy, perfect balance.

The varnam took all of a master to perform as it requires a thorough understanding of music, the lyrics, mythology, symbolism and philosophy, besides the virtuosity in the hand gestures, body movement and facial expressions.

The dance immediately after the interval was Parthasarthy, a signature item of Chandrabhanu. He seemed to relish the challenge offered by the most dramatic part of the repertoire as it provided him enough scope to show off the different aspects of abhinaya. It was indeed very demanding having to switch roles in very quick succession – at least 6 roles, I counted: male, female, and animal.

Chandrabhanu brought to life the episodes of the Mahabharata: from the dice game to the abuse of Draupadi; from the battlefield of Kurukshetra to the revelation of Viswaroopam; from Arjuna’s awe to his slaying of Karna.

In the two ensuing bhajans, Chandrabhanu manipulated the more feminine abhinaya (dramatic expression) when he portrayed Meera Bai the tease in Meera Bhajan: Shyamatori, and the jealous and disappointed courtesan in Sur Das Bhajan. He made a very convincing woman in all seductiveness, coyness, and girlishness.

If Jim Carrey had a million faces in the movie, The Mask, Chandrabhanu had a million facial expressions, in a manner of speaking, with just one role revealing his prowess and control over dramatic expression.

He took advantage of this to convey the concept of Rasa to the audience. In essence, he wanted the audience to ‘taste’ the aesthetics of the dance and to evoke the concept of rasa in them by way of emotional and intellectual appeal.

Arun sung the delightful bhajans with such intense feelings and empathy. And being the ingenious and creative artist he is, he conveyed so much passion and expression that it felt as though he were serenading each member of the audience personally.

The night ended on a high note with Thillana, a joyous celebration of dance and rhythms. Phrases of pure dance were presented in different time measures, each ending with a complex flourish of theermanams (rhythmic finales). This he did with precision, speed and rhythm essential in the execution of the adavu, a rhythmic cadence of movements.

Prior to each dance, he took time, like a patient guru, to tell the story and philosophy behind the dance. His charismatic presence, the depth of knowledge, and the physical and spiritual strength he exudes on stage, as well as his ability to communicate his art to the audience, had given him the status of being a stirring, dynamic and magical artist of the theatre.

His great skill, style, eloquence and elegance were combined with depth and intellect to produce a unique artistry blending the elements of aesthetics, mysticism and scholarship in the form of Krishna Krishna!.

Short of a perfectly smooth show, there were more than a few jarring technical glitches due to inexperienced sound and light handling. At one point, Arun hit the microphone in annoyance and glared towards the direction of the console box. And Chandrabhanu, prior to his first storytelling, had to say, “Can I have some lights please? I think the audience would like to see me,” making a polite joke out of it. During Thillana, the last section of the Bharatanatyam performance, the air conditioning either broke down or timed-out, leaving the audience fanning themselves with their programme booklets.

Personally, Chandrabhanu has very great affinity with Krishna Krishna!. In this production, he emphasises bahkthi, which is a sense of devotion. This can be seen in the recurring theme where the female characters’ yearning to be one with Krishna can take on a more spiritual theme, where the yearning to be one with God is the basic ideology.

On Bharatanatyam in Malaysia, he is pleased to see that the dance has flourished but stresses that it is primarily a solo art form and that more weight should be placed on classicism.

Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) December 19, 2004 - Green Snake

Green is the colour of one of the snakes in that famous Chinese legend, Lady White Snake. It is also, as everyone knows, the colour of envy. Put the snake and envy together and what you have is a fascinating character.

Lee Swee Keong certainly chose an interesting character to explore in his recent dance production, Green Snake. Indeed, the snake, with its important symbolic role in many culture’s legends, fairy tales, and even religions, offers great potential in theme building. There are vast possibilities to examine, and the character can be developed in depth.

So, of course, many a curious Chinese literature buff turned up at the MCPA Theatre in Kuala Lumpur over the show’s three-day run last weekend to see what became of Green Snake.

The show got off to a promising start. A solo voice chanted, underlining the emptiness of the stage. The black box was bare save for green Christmas ornaments trailing down from the ceiling fan and resembling foliage.
Suddenly, a green spot light lit up, revealing Lee coiled amidst his old “skin” – the long plastic tube (or hose) was the perfect prop to represent shed snakeskin. In fact, with the chanting continuing, the scene eerily recalled snakes resting lazily in Penang’s Snake Temple.

The dance vocabulary that Lee used described a snake shedding old skin and getting used to new. His slow, writhing, awkward movements conveyed a slight sense of discomfort.

In the beginning, it was all floor work, but slowly, as the snake became accustomed to its new self, it gets up and explores the stage, moving its body in different ways. Lee also used simple but effective hand gestures to personify the snake.

Just as the audience was getting to grips with this “new” Green Snake, Lee abruptly froze, then, as everything else on stage began moving in circles – the light spots, the ornament-hung ceiling fan, the hands on the image of a watch projected on the backdrop, and even a reindeer that came out of nowhere – he, too, began running round in circles, suddenly stopping as abruptly as he began.

It was an interesting if disorienting effect but it was difficult to derive any meaning from it. There was also no continuity from the previous scene to this one, hence the confusion. The fact that it looked like Christmas in there when tiny bulbs lit up on either side of the wall, did not help either.

Lee explained in a post-performance discussion that Green Snake was very much taken by humans and was making an effort to become like them.

When the circus stopped circling, Lee sat down at the front of the stage to make up his face before a mirror. Caecar Chong, who had entered the stage earlier with the reindeer, sat on Lee’s left and began chanting. His role as the token human in this performance was minimal.

While Lee moved about the stage at a constant speed, the world around him moved from soothing to a wild frenzy, aided by Chong’s chant that changed from melodious to mindless shouting. The background music, too, turned from soothing to heavy metal, and even stage crew that were cleverly incorporated into this scene as they set up the next, began working faster.

When all the frenzy stopped, the stage had an Oriental chair and a red carpet, and Lee clad in a sarong. This segment was humorous, with the projected Chinese text on the backdrop behind a squatting Lee elicited laughter from the audience. And Lee constantly wore a cheeky, knowing smile on his face as he danced.
Just as the character Lord Krishna is depicted with certain movements, Lee repeated several poses, indicating that he was depicting Green Snake with them.

Here, I thought that Lee came across as a very muhibbah Malaysian. Whether it was a conscious effort or not, I noticed in his movements elements of butoh, tai chi, silat, even a bit of ngajat.

Lee ended the performance by painting the floor green to signify the Green Snake leaving a trail. Visually, it was powerful. However, the execution was rather crude, that is, simply running the roller up and down the stage floor. It, perhaps, could have been done more poetically with a sense of the snake gliding off the stage and then slowly revealing the painted trail with the aid of lighting. And the music was a tad too loud, sometimes to the point of being deafening.

Overall, I feel that those who had come wishing to see Green Snake, did not really see the character but the dancer’s personality. The show’s flow was choppy from scene to scene. There was no central theme and certainly not much storytelling. While the conclusion of stories can be left to our interpretation, surely the story itself cannot? At the end of it, it was still not clear what became of Green Snake. There is no doubt that Lee, in his movements, showed great control over his body and executed his choreography well. However, this production was not pure dance and it was obvious Lee needs to work on the dramatic aspects and perhaps not be afraid to use voice to better advantage.

(T) October 24, 2004 - Five Letters From An Eastern Empire

ONE actor and four directors make Five Letters from an Eastern Empire. This uncanny equation is the doing of Edwin Sumun, veteran actor and founder of Sumunda, a new theatre company formed in April this year.

Sumun is the sole actor; he directs himself, and was also directed by Zahim Albakri, Reza Zainal Abidin and Rohaizad Suaidi.

The effect of this play is somewhat like a good whipping: no immediate sensation at the point of contact, followed shortly by an incredible, searing pain. It is a very subtle satire that unfolds leisurely and strikes suddenly.

The social realism in the powerful text was neatly contrasted with abstract visuals conveyed through the set, lighting and costume design. A circular white frame holding descriptive images throughout the show was suspended in the back, while on centre stage lay a platform fashioned as an incomplete spiral, representing the twirl of twisted minds. The music, composed by Adeline Wong, was suitably theatrical and accentuated the moods of the characters and the events that took place in all the scenes.

Through five letters written to his parents, the play illustrates the life of Bohu as he rises from being the son of a corpse-handler to Imperial Poet. The tale, which is highly absorbing, simmers with sarcasm and subtle humour. It uses clever and timeless allegories to tell of how rulers and those who are obedient to them know all too well that the two key tools that keep them in power are education and communication; and when both fail, it is simple to eliminate the “unnecessary” people. The tragic Bohu is adequately brainwashed and groomed from young to create that one great poem that justifies the acts of the hegemonic power. He is happily trapped within his imagined greatness and self-importance by his conferred status and title that are enmeshed in etiquette, ritual and ceremony.

The most sinister character is revealed when the emperor turns out to be a puppet. Gigadib, the headmaster – or, quite suitably, “master puppeteer” – is able to influence all events and minds, even the evil emperor’s.

We see how Bohu realises this in the way in which he signs off his letters to his parents: the first, as “Imperial Tragic Poet”, with hope and anticipation; the second, as “Immortal”, in finally realising his destined role; the third, as “Nothing”, in disgust after he realises he’s being used; and the fourth, as “Son”, as he turns back to his roots and his family.

When Bohu realises that he is “nothing”, he wishes for death; when finally faced with it, he creates that one great poem, The Emperor’s Injustice, which condemns rather than justifies the emperor’s acts.

In the fifth and last letter, which is dictated by the headmaster, the audience is left with this horror: “To sum up,” declares Gigadib, “The Emperor’s Injustice will delight our friends, depress our enemies, and fill middling people with nameless awe. The only change required is the elimination of the first syllable of the last word of the title”.

(D) October 17, 2004 - Choreography: A Malaysian Perspective

WHERE have all the choreographers in Malaysia gone? While dancers are aplenty, choreographers are, by far, too few. Faced with this issue, Joseph Gonzales, head of dance at Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK), Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage, made it his duty to write Choreography – A Malaysian Perspective.

Joseph began his career in 1981 as a dancer with Frances Ballet. He has performed with KESUMA (the cultural centre in Universiti Malaya), Federal Academy of Ballet, St Moritz Gold Band Dancers, Kuala Lumpur Dance Theatre, Bush Davies School, and London Studio Centre in England. A passionate advocate of dance, he also serves as artistic director for international festivals, workshops, and seminars. Recently, he launched to further promote Malaysian dance. At ASK, he teaches choreography, a core subject for dance majors. This is his first book.

Having spent five years on research, compilation and writing, the author’s labour of love is not in vain. The book serves well in documenting the contemporary dance journey and its evolution from the 60s till today. As a dance practitioner and choreographer himself, and one of the handful who are part of the evolution of contemporary dance, it is imperative that Gonzales shares his experience and knowledge, and provide evidence of the development of contemporary dance in Malaysia.

Choreography comprises seven chapters – An Introduction; A Brief History; Where to Begin; Movement Manipulation and Choreography; Musical Theatre and Post-Modern Choreography; The Profession, and The Choreographers. It is worthwhile to also read the Preface and Afterword as these offer some salient points and perspectives about choreography.

The book, written as introductory reading for young choreographers, is comprehensive enough as it takes readers through basic choreography jargon, sources of inspiration, techniques and exercises, history, and career opportunities. It even introduces a few influential and respected local choreographers, like Ramli Ibrahim, Lena Ang and Marion D’Cruz.

Gonzales starts by defining and qualifying the term “contemporary”, and putting it in its proper context. Insofar as describing choreography from a Malaysian perspective, he generously offers examples of past works and highlights aspects of choreography in those.

Those singled out boast diverse cultures, influences, training and education – and these are clearly reflected in their works, some of which are grounded in classicism and tradition, while others are bold and cutting-edge. This gives readers a clear idea of past efforts and collaborations, and an indication of areas unexplored. There are also photographs of some of the more significant and memorable choreographies.

The tone of the book is rather informal – a sharing of the author’s personal experience – and this makes for easy reading. The style, slightly inconsistent, shifts between the voice of the “veteran”, when going through history, and the “dance teacher”, when describing choreography.

Gonzales also takes care to define concepts and dance terminology so that even the lay reader can understand them.

The chapters on choreography specifically are a little more technical. He is right in stating that choreography is a wide subject, and even more so in multi-racial Malaysia. As such, many of the areas on choreography are beyond this book. As an example, the brief section on “fragmentation”, a useful tool for choreography especially when using traditional dance material, is insufficient. Choreographers have to read more about deconstruction and then reconstruction of movements in order to fully appreciate or maximise this tool. But for young and aspiring choreographers, these chapters are a good introduction to the basic principles of choreography, which help bridge the chasm between the dance genres in Malaysia.

On the whole, the book expresses the need to produce and nurture not just more choreographers, but quality ones who are mindful of their roots, have an open mind and most of all, have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. This attempt to complement the oral tradition (of teaching dance) with practical and functional literature is very much welcome.

Since most of today’s local literature on dance is locked away in private libraries and remains inaccessible to the public, it is heartening to know that local bookstores are giving shelf space to Choreography, which marks ASK’S foray into publishing. A good move as this encourages the process of documentation. Perhaps, next, they should invest in a dedicated publishing department to ensure consistent quality of production, and to market these books internationally.

(D) May 16, 2004 - Saturday Night Fever

THOSE from the disco generation would have survived their mid-life crisis and are possibly experiencing hot flushes by now. But flush or fever, the Broadway and West End hit musical, Saturday Night Fever, currently playing at Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, sure brings back fond memories of the glorious ‘70s. The curtain opens on Adam-Jon Fiorentino, who plays the lead role of Tony Manero, striking the signature disco pose. He then struts about the stage to Saturday Night Fever’s theme song, Staying Alive, by the Bee Gees.

This stage adaptation of the movie tells of 19-year-old Tony, who works in downtown Brooklyn, selling paint for Fusco’s Paint. He blows all his money at a local disco joint, 2001 Odyssey, where he reigns as king.

Tony is introduced as a narcissist. He stares into his bedroom mirror and is pleased with what he sees – bare-chested, pants unzipped – and takes forever to comb his hair. As he yells, “Would you just watch the hair?”, when his father hits his head, we know that this young man has got his priorities all wrong.

When he proudly tells his parents that he’s gotten a raise, his father puts him down and mocks him. Even his mother blames him when his older brother, “Father Frank Junior”, decides to leave the priesthood. At the disco, Tony gets to escape from his dysfunctional family and the harsh realities of life.

Framing the set at Istana Budaya are the permanent structures of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. In the back are shifting scenes of the close-up and distant views of that bridge, downtown Brooklyn, the neighbourhood basketball court, and the disco floor. The bridge is more than just set design – it signifies the link between reality and dreams.

To be honest, I loved the songs and the dancing, but not the acting. Both the female leads are quite annoying. Renae Berry, as Stephanie Mangano, Tony’s object of desire, is appropriately pretentious but her “super” bimbo character eventually got on my nerves.

Monique Montez, as Annette, who desires Tony, is annoyingly desperate. She proves to be much better at singing than acting with her stunning rendition of If I Can’t Have You. And Darren Tyler, as the whining and whimpering Bobby C., is slightly more convincing in his role; the song Tragedy earns empathy for his character. The mirrors behind him highlight his loneliness as he turns and sees no one but himself in them.

Fiorentino suffers the mammoth task of having to live up to John Travolta – who played Tony in the movie –in every way, from the swagger, the talk, the moves and the attitude. It took five scenes before I stopped comparing him with Travolta, and noticed that he fell into his role quite naturally.

The crowd favourite, “Disco Duck”, was DJ Monty (played by Dale Pengelly), the testosterone-charged God’s gift to women. He represents the classic ‘70s archetype with his bad perm, gold-dusted bell-bottoms and his will-you-just-look-at-me-baby attitude. He is an exhibitionist who “shakes” well and shamelessly displays his infamous bulge. This musical leans on two themes – escapism and learning to grow up. Two things can happen in times of Depression: people jump off bridges (now skyscrapers), or a surge of talent bursts forth in retaliation to the state of repression.

And faster than George “Shorty” Snowden could say, “?they’re flyin’, just like Lindy did!” the disco wave swept through New York. Shorty was the New York swing dancer from the late 1920s who renamed the swing dance, Break-a-way, Lindy Hop – after Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who flew 33 hours across the Atlantic Ocean from America to France in 1927.

Couples started doing what was tagged as the “Disco Swing” in the ‘70s. Most disco dances have strong roots in Swing and Latin American dance forms. Disco Swing would later come to be known as The Hustle (a line dance).

Some of the finest choreography for this musical is staged in 2001 Odyssey, where patrons both line-dance and perform in pairs. Here we witness spectacular “flyin’” scenes, followed by lots of hustling, with beat-to-beat precision. Throughout, the dancers had a jolly good time and it showed on their faces. Seeing them, it is easy to understand why the disco is a place to forget and just have fun.

I loved the scenes in Odyssey not only for the dancing, but also the glitter, the mirror balls, and the whole wild, decadent atmosphere. A mirror hung high on the wall reflects the dancing lights in retro colours, as well as the patrons on the dance floor, making the stage look more crowded than it really is. The image on the mirror looks surreal, like in a dream.

At the 2001 Disco Competition, Tony appears dashing in his signature white suit, “accessorised” by Stephanie, in matching white dress. But the most impressive dance here is performed by the couple from Portugal, in their fiery competition number. Here we get a glimmer of the Latin Hustle that was born even before Gloria Estefan popularised Crossover music.

I enjoyed the easy-going Boogie Shoes five-man dance item and the scene in which Tony and Stephanie first practise dancing in the studio. Part dancing and part choreographing, the scene is sensual in its own way.
Tony finally grows up after Bobby’s tragic death. And with a touching rendition of How Deep is Your Love by Tony and Stephanie, set against a sunset view of the Verrazano Bridge, the show ends.

But you see, disco isn’t meant to be listened to passively. So when the cast encored their disco dance scenes, everybody got up and clapped and danced along. And that was how the night ended.

(T) January 26, 2004 - Talking Tech

IT WAS a week-long affair, the Japan-Malaysia Technical Design Workshop, organised by the Protem Committee of Malaysian Alliance of Technical Theatre (MATT) as well as the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur, and supported by The Actors Studio, MyDance Alliance and Studio Chombrang. Forty-five participants attended the workshop.

MATT’s inaugural technical and design workshop presented five courses – lighting, sound, costume, stage management and video. The series was the first of its kind in Malaysia and provided technicians, designers and management staff within the performing arts fraternity the opportunity to work and learn from Japan’s top technical and design professionals.

To top it off, a dance collaboration between one of Japan’s top Butoh dancers, Ko Murobushi, and Malaysia’s very own Mew Chang Tsing, Caecar Chong and Kiea Kuan Nam helped facilitate the learning process as they became the live subjects with which the participants worked.

The week concluded last Sunday with a Butoh performance at The Actor’s Studio Bangsar, showcasing what the participants had learnt.

Like most great ideas, MATT came about after several teh tarik sessions where the fellowship of theatrical technicians bemoaned the lack of recognition in their chosen profession. That was two years ago.

Realising the idea were the original team members comprising six senior technical professionals in Malaysia – Mac Chan (lighting designer and theatre consultant), Lee Jia Ping (production, stage manager and technician), Bayu Utomo Radjikin (set designer, director and visual artist), Alvin Tan (sound designer and IT consultant), Teoh Ming Jin (theatre and production manager and theatre consultant) and Godzilla Tan (freelance stage manager).

They have just taken on two committee members – Ken Takiguchi (arts administrator and winner of the 2002 Cameronian Arts Awards’ Artseefartsee Cross-Cultural Champion of the Arts Award) and Kennedy John Michael (production and stage manager).

“In Malaysia, technical theatre is still an ‘after five’ job. Very few of us are in this full-time. In order to encourage more people to pick this profession, we have to work very hard to promote it as a recognised professional practice in theatre and create more job opportunities in this area,” said Chan.

MATT, a non-profit organisation, aims to enable, facilitate and support the improvement of technical expertise in Malaysian performing arts through training, networking and exchange of information; and to establish and manage a database of technical expertise, equipment and suppliers.

In line with the first objective, the organisation aims to explore ways in which the industry could learn the best practice of theatre technicians and designers from around the world in the following disciplines – company stage management, production management, stage management, technical stage management, theatre electrics, set design, light design, sound design, video/multimedia design, costume design, hair and make-up, health and safety.

Some of the activities in store are master classes or workshops where a leading proponent in any of the above fields are invited to Malaysia to conduct a course or a workshop that would ideally have both theoretical and practical elements; training where a theatre practitioner is chosen to train at an international venue or company; joint productions involving international cast and local technicians and or designers, guided by an international technical director or designer; seminars or talks from visiting international companies on production values and technical tips; and building a video library collection of international theatre productions that can be viewed by MATT members to keep up with new ideas.

“There is also the lack of education opportunity in Malaysia. Most performing arts courses offer Technical Theatre as one of the subjects but there is yet a school that offers this as a major. As such, we hope to engage as many institutions as possible to provide students with additional training. We are also building a resource centre to help local practitioners obtain up-to-date information and techniques,” said Teoh.

To kickstart this training, MATT, together with Japan Foundation, brought in five of Japan’s top technical and design professionals: Masaaki Aikawa (lighting design) Shinobu Ishii (stage management) Toshiyuki Ochiai (sound and music), Akihiko Kaneko (video art), and Shingo Tokihiro (costume).

In response to some of the questions asked during the question and answer session with the audience that followed the performance, Lee Jia Ping said that MATT is planning more collaborative events and in the process of talking to art councils and embassies. The organisation also hopes to conduct a stage management, lighting and sound course for beginners in the near future.

As we all know from history, oral and practical traditions die with the person who owns it. As such, I find Faridah Merican’s question on documentation an important one. Although the entire workshop was videotaped, written documentation plays the primary role for due academic and professional recognition. At it is in its infancy, this is something that the organisation should look into.

(D) January 25, 2004 - Breaking Boundaries with Butoh

THE interview with Ko Murobushi was conducted over two days during a weeklong workshop. Then I watched him in a performance last Sunday – that added up to three trips to the Actor’s Studio, Bangsar, in Kuala Lumpur, for me. But then, this man that I “stalked” is one of the best-known butoh dancers of our time, so you’ll understand my enthusiasm.

Butoh is a performance art that originated in Japan during the post-World War II era. The art was created by Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986) and Kazuo Ono (b 1906). Their early exposure to modern dance, the German neue tanze tradition, and their feelings of post-war Western rejection drove them to rebel against conventional dance forms and to search for a way of moving that better fit their bodies.

Born in Tokyo on June 14, 1947, Murobushi was a student of Hijikata and by 1968 he had already studied and performed widely with his sensei in Japan. He has since performed all over the world to high acclaim. He was in Malaysia as part of the weeklong Japan-Malaysia Technical Design Workshop, organised by the Protem Committee of the Malaysian Alliance of Technical Theatre and the Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur. The week concluded last Sunday with a butoh performance – Open with Sand, Draw with Sand – showcasing what the workshop participants had learnt.

As I delved into the mysteries of butoh, I was forced to wipe the board clean and unlearn everything I knew about dance. This is an art form that dumbfounds critics for the values that most people would seek are not the ones exponents of butoh strive for. Defining butoh is futile as its meaning has a way of mutating, hence eluding definition. But there are certain ideas that gather around butoh, according to Murobushi:
“Butoh has as much to do with the mental state and meditation as with physical movements. Its movements are derived from an inner image that the dancer holds during the dance. The movements then come from impulses created by the image rather than conscious choices by the dancer. The butoh dancer would hold an image or several images in his mind during a performance and then allow the body to freely respond as it will to it or them.

“The other is the concept of the empty body. It is a feeling of returning to the starting point of a child’s body, which explains much of the movement in this form – slow, crouched – and seeming to constantly rediscover the use of limbs and torso. Like a child, dancers of butoh empty themselves of lifetimes of movement memory and remove the existence of their bodies from the social environment.”

The essence of butoh lies in the mechanism through which the dancers stop being themselves to become or transform into someone or something else. If the image that is held is “sand”, the final goal is not to imitate sand but to become sand and think like sand. The significance is not so much the transformation into sand, but the transformation itself, that is, the fact that the dancer changed. Only in this way can they bring the body back to its original state.

For Hijikata, his inspiration for butoh goes hand in hand with the literature of his time. He used words to inspire themes of movement in butoh. This influence is evident in Murobushi as he, too, used a keyword in the dance workshop, ”sand”. Each grain of sand has a solid body and yet it has a fluid quality that comes with no distinct form. He used that word as a medium for the dancers to find common movements and to explore what they usually cannot do with their bodies.

Murobushi is a minimalist when it comes to props. But in this choreography performed by Malaysian dancers Mew Chang Tsing, Caecar Chong and Kiea Kuan Nam, he decided to use sand based on an idea proposed by Chong.

“Prior to Malaysia, I had travelled and shared butoh in several Asian countries.

“There is always a sense of cultural ‘hybrid-ness’ in these people as during the course of history, cultures go missing and then are rediscovered and born again.

“Communication with fellow Asians is very interesting as I witness the meaning of butoh taking its own form.
“How butoh is expressed or read may not be as spoken or understood by the Japanese. In that sense, the word itself is deconstructed,” said.

As far as my memory goes, butoh was first introduced in Malaysia in the mid 90s by Penang-born dancer Lena Ang. Currently, the only butoh-influenced dance company in the country is Nyoba and Dancers led by founder Lee Swee Keong.

The performance by the Malaysian trio, although choreographed by Murobushi, saw a new interpretation in this next phase of butoh in Malaysia. It was interesting to see the word reconstructed as it interacted with the dancers’ identities – all three are Chinese-literate overseas Chinese who are Malaysian in every sense. The lighting and sound technicians picked up on this as they watched the dancers at practice.

The “soundscape” had multi-tracks of Mandarin text, Chinese music with a di zhi (flute) solo and other electronically engineered sounds including the fluctuating thumps of heartbeats. The lighting accompanied the dancers through creation as the front of stage was lit where the dancers were balancing at the edge of a seemingly “new world” (standing uncertainly at the very edge of the stage) while the rest of the stage was engulfed in darkness.Chong and Kiea each carried a bag leaking sand. As it spilled forth in front of them the dancers left a trail of footprints behind them. Chong took a straight path that Mew followed while Kiea drew a winding path. Jade-green light followed the trails of sand and as both path met, the dancers encircled each other, forming a circle of sand at the centre of the stage. Patterned shadows were thrown onto the winding path and, for a moment, the stage looked like it was littered with the scales of a dragon.

Murobushi’s solo performance was a shock to the system, especially for members of the audience attending their first butoh performance. But then the dance has been known to be even more shocking and disturbing than this, though it may not always be so.

You could feel his pain as he violently threw himself on to the ground and banged his bald head on the floor.
You could even feel the disgust and the fierceness of absolute rejection as he crunched loudly on a mouthful of sand and then spit it out. As his screeching got louder and more frequent, the level of discomfort increased.
There wasn’t any choreography or direction in that item. What we witnessed was simply the purer form of butoh where Murobushi did as he pleased, moved by impulses created by his mental images – none of which we could see.

There was a distinct difference between his performance and the Malaysian trios’, yet both were butoh. But then, butoh is supposed to be constantly changing and, in that difference, we have experience change.
And because of the nature, meaning and concept of butoh, it is difficult for the art form to get a bad review!

(D) January 8, 2004 - Awang Sulung Merah Muda

AWANG Sulung Merah Muda is a story familiar to most Malaysians – well, at least to those (yours truly) who endured this as compulsory reading in Malay Literature studies, in addition to other classics such as Hikayat Hang Tuah and Sejarah Melayu. The story, staged as a dance drama by the Petronas Performing Arts Group, was presented over two days last weekend at the Dewan Philharmonic Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.

This folktale and many others could have been lost to us if not for a few English blokes who were interested enough in matters other than politics, governance and trade, to pen down stories narrated by various Malay penglipur lara (storytellers) in the days of yore. These stories were collected by Abraham Hale in Negri Sembilan and by A.J. Sturrock and Sir Richard Winstedt in Perak, and published in the Royal Asiatic Society journals.

Winstedt captured the more familiar version of Awang Sulung Merah Muda from the famed storyteller, Pawang Ana. In this dance drama, the adaptation of the text is quite different from the original story which details the birth of Awang Sulung Merah Muda, his journey and adventures, and finally a happy ending in which he achieves success in all his endeavours, and marries four princesses rather than two.

Scriptwriter-cum-director Zahari Hamzah has chosen to put more emphasis on the warrior and thus has developed the story around the character. In fact, he even introduces a few characters such as Putera Kediri, Pangli-ma Hitam and Puteri Duyung.

Dance movements, music and song are the main elements used to enhance the characters. Non-representational acting, which relies on exaggerated acting, makes the eight-scene dance drama even more dramatic.

The set design is simple and is split into two levels to depict the land and the sea. Dewan Philharmonic Petronas was built for excellent acoustic effects but, due to stage limitations, it is hardly a choice venue for an elaborate set and a dance drama where voice and sound take second seat to body movements and facial expressions. If not for the excellent musicians and chorus singers hidden behind the stage making beautiful music and songs, the capacities of the hall would have been quite wasted.

The story begins with Awang Sulung and his wife Puteri Nuramah on their honeymoon. The choreography in this scene is a simple contemporary Malay fan dance depicting the Malayan jungle. What steals the show is the beautiful green costume complemented with a big red flower as head gear, and the matching fan prop made to look like banana leaves.

Bujang Selamat informs Awang Sulung that there is a man lying on the beach and they both go off to investigate. Meanwhile, Puteri Nuramah goes off to bathe, taking with her a basket of food.

The man who is washed ashore awakes and wanders around the island. He stumbles upon the food and devours it before he notices the princess. Just at that moment, Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat arrive and see the stranger looking at Puteri Nuramah. Awang Sulung pounces on him and demands an apology for being rude to his wife. The man then reveals that he is Putera Kediri, the Prince of Mangkahulu, and starts to tell them how he ended up on the beach. As he relates the tale, the sound of the rebab takes the lead.

From here on, as the travel and adventure begin, we see the meeting of two cultures – Malay and Javanese – in the dance choreographies.

The dance of the concubines, which is a contemporary form of the Javanese Jaipong, is very teasing with its unique and flamboyant head, arm and shoulder movements. Coupled with music, I found this to be a very attractive and seductive dance.

At Mangkahulu, one of the concubines seduces Putera Kediri but he is framed for trying to seduce her instead. The King, in his blind anger, sends him into exile.

Meanwhile, Raja Mambang sends Panglima Hitam to kill the prince. Panglima Hitam arrives at the island and demands that Awang Sulung hand Putera Kediri over to him. A brawl takes place and Putera Kediri is killed. Panglima Hitam captures Puteri Nuramah and takes her back to Mangkahulu.

In this fight, we see two different types of movements used by the male characters. In Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat, we clearly see movements that resemble those of silat whereas Panglima Hitam and his followers display movements similar to the Javanese “Gaga-han” characters in their large movements.

Awang Sulung then prays for help. His prayer is answered when all of a sudden Puteri Duyung appears from the sea. She gives him a magic walking stick (Tongkat Semberani) and a sacred mousedeer (Kijang Kencana Emas) to assist him in his mission. This scene introduces animal-like movements depicted by Puteri Duyung in her beautiful “scaly” dress as a fish swimming on stage and the prancing mousedeer that skips and hops with pointed feet.

Gifts accepted, the nafiri heralds the start of Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat’s journey to rescue Puteri Nuramah.

The people of Mangkahulu lead a hard life after a mishap befalls them. In a deliberately listless dance, they beg for assistance from Panglima Hitam and the ministers of Mang-kahulu but to no avail.

Upon arriving at the country, Awang Sulung witnesses the hardship faced by the people and helps them by using his magic walking stick. The noble act touches the heart of Puteri Seri Jawa, the daughter of the King of Mangkahulu.

In the next scene, it is not established that a spell has been cast on the King of Mangka-hulu. He enters the scene already half-para-lysed and is escorted to the palace by Puteri Seri Jawa and Raja Mambang Saujana. Amongst the subjects of Mangkahulu are Awang Sulung and Bujang Selamat who have disguised themselves as paupers. Awang Sulung waves the “Tongkat Sembrani” which instantly sets the King free from the spell cast by Raja Mambang Saujana.
As a gesture of gratitude, the King grants Awang Sulung permission to marry his daughter. Raja Mambang Saujana, in his last attempt to gain power, threatens to kill Puteri Nuramah if the King refuses to hand the throne over to him. A ferocious fight ensues and Raja Mambang Saujana is killed. Awang Sulung Merah Muda is reunited with Puteri Nuramah; he also accepts Puteri Seri Jawa as his second wife.

All in all, the dance drama was a good effort at bringing literature to live.

(D) December 21, 2003 - Homecoming

IF your perception of contemporary dance is jaundiced, you will be pleased to know that there are better offerings around the world. These were brought home by four internationally-renowned Malaysian dancers and choreographers from Dec 12 to 14.

Ng Teck Voon, Ong Yong Lock, Albert Tiong and Wong Thien Pau performed at the Malaysian Chinese Performing Artists (MCPA) Theatre in Kuala Lumpur. Homecoming is one of the best shows I have watched this year – at least where contemporary dance is concerned.

It was produced by Choo Tee Kuang and organised by the MCPA Alliance to raise funds for a new theatre floor. Ideally, a dance floor should be made of wood; at present, the MCPA’s floor is made of tiles covered with a black mat – definitely not safe or dancer-friendly.

The “black box” in which we sat had no mirrors and as the dancers warmed up in front of the audience, some of them made use of shadows to look at themselves, for want of mirror reflections.

It was hard to identify a favourite item, as I liked most of them, especially those before the intermission.
Excessive Space, Constricted Space had the audience enraptured right from the beginning with its upbeat music held together by the frantic sound of electronic lead guitars. The piece was conceptualised by Aaron Khek Ah Hock of Ah Hock and Peng Yu (AHPY), Singapore. Ix Wong Thien Pau was the choreographer, dancer (solo) and lighting and set designer.

The guitar music featured seems to be in vogue across the Causeway. A recent performance that I caught entitled Little Asia 2003: Melatonin 2 by Daniel K. at The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay also explored dance with such sounds.

In Excessive Space, I found the coordinated use of light with dance to describe space very authentically. The dance, with the exception of some parts, comprised a few repeated phrases. Wong travelled in parallel lines along and within the constricted space of the light-line created by lights from opposing sides of the stage.

The “running man” who ran away from or towards the light signalled movement into excessive space. On one occasion, he ran so hard that he went beyond space and suddenly found the light behind him instead of in front. He did not move from his spot; instead, the light behind him lit up while the one in front went off, hence giving the impression that he had gone beyond.

When he did travel or move around the stage, it was in clean, straight lines. At the end of the performance, a narrow ray of light shone down vertically and there was Wong standing in it, drinking in the light and allowing it to bathe his body.

Another splendid solo item was Act. Rest... choreographed and performed by Albert Tiong, a graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Tiong joined the highly-acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taiwan, after which he became the principal dancer of Odyssey Dance Theatre, Singapore. He’s back in Malaysia to promote dance education.

Tiong was obviously very comfortable with his body. With what little he was wearing, the audience could clearly see and enjoy the near-perfect physique of a dancer. As he danced, he revealed the contours of his body and muscles that moved along instinctively.

That reminded me of Body Worlds, the controversial anatomical exhibition of real human bodies by Prof Gunther von Hagens, which enabled viewers to understand the source of (motor) movements. And if I may refer to Isadora Duncan’s theory of natural dance, only a mature contemporary dancer like Tiong can identify the source of the body’s natural movement. After the action in Act, he sought sleep in Rest, lulled by a nostalgic Taiwanese song.

Ong Yong Lock’s literally blinding choreography, Sat Sa, paired Isaac Lim with Judimar Monfils (who was the better of the two). Ong focused on understanding the movements of Dao, a Chinese teaching that links the movement of the universe to ones’ body, mind and soul.

The movements were akin to a vast whirlpool constantly moving away and then returning to its source in the process of self-actualisation. The dance employed a large sheet of aluminium to enable viewers to identify with the ebb and flow of waves, enhanced by the thundering sounds it created.

As with most duets, Ong made the most of both symmetrical and asymmetrical motifs and poses, and several impressive lifts characterised by weight exchange. This founder and artistic director of Unlock Dancing Academy is based in Hong Kong.

Ng Teck Voon, now based in Holland, worked with up-and-coming local dancers Wei Jun, Eden Lim, Amy Len, Mun Lee and Lim Thau Cun in Different Flow on Mutual Ground. The same group, together with Steve Goh and Isaac Lim, appeared in his second choreography, Circle of Unity.

Different Flow was the better of the two. While the second piece was more colourful and lively, a few minor “accidents” with the prop hindered the otherwise smooth flow of the performance.

The show ended with Dance Dedication, an improvisational session during which the performers interacted with the audience. The Hands Percussion Team and a few local musicians were there to provide accompaniment for the impromptu dance session. If the government can invest in technology transfer, why not artistic transfer as well? With Homecoming as a shining example, the outcome can only be positive.

(D) December 7, 2003 - Riverdance

THIS is the real McCoy in which Irish history is abbreviated into about two hours. The title Riverdance is analogous to that history. Like a river that is fed by many streams, and then flows out into the ocean, the Irish people came from different origins. Centuries later, they “flowed” out of Ireland to other parts of the world.

At the same time, it also signifies the return of the Irish from different parts of the world and different cultures converging back into one mighty river. The relationship with the river immediately reminds us of our emotional connection with nature.

Listening is an important activity in order to appreciate this show. One has to listen to the ebb and flow of the dance as much as seeing it and immerse into the synchronised sounds of tap to music, song and storyline. The story is explicit, simple and clear – it takes you through movements of creation, emigration, and homecoming. Some of you may find this a relief, as you are no longer left to “interpret” the meaning of the performance, unlike contemporary dance.

While still holding true to the traditional Irish dance form, the production has introduced and incorporated various dance styles and cultures into their act. You will spot three types of “percussive” dance – Irish dance, American tap, and the Spanish Flamenco. You would also notice jazz, modern and ballet dance infused with the signature Irish legwork.

I have conveniently lumped Irish dance, American tap and Flamenco into the percussive dance category because these three styles, using the feet, produce rhythmic sounds, which come from the dancers’ shoes. These can be dance items on its own or it can act as a percussion instrument, contributing and complementing to music in an ensemble. When this happens, the dancer also assumes the role of a musician. They treat the floor as a drum and his or her feet would execute the rhythms, which can become more complex and challenging as ability increases.

The Irish dance is more “folk” of the three dances. Central to folk dance is the sense of community where a group of people congregate to dance. As such, you will usually find the dance performed in a group although there are solo items. Observe how they cooperate to build formations of circles and squares. Various patterns come into place when the formation becomes more complex with a fair amount of travelling (use of stage space), and the multiple layers of circles and squares, Vs or its conventional straight files.

When the dancers move in unison, there is a sense of participation in the mass movement. The group becomes one in conscious strength and purpose, and the feeling of oneness with one’s fellows which is essential to collective dancing is one of the principal reasons for the growth, persistence and enjoyment of folk dancing.

You will also notice an element of progression in the dance where the first individual, couple or group starts the dance and not until the second repetition of the dance does another become active. It demands from the dancer the perception of the beat and sensitivity to musical phrases.

The Irish dance primarily comprises legwork, while the upper body is kept stiff and straight. The intricate and blindingly fast footwork producing the loud, tapping sounds, which are in time with the music, is something to listen and look out for.

Apparently, there is a debate among archaeologists about the origins of Ireland’s first inhabitants. Spain is a likely source as there is evidence of a civilisation that existed before the Celts arrived from parts of France and Britain.

Aside from historical digs, the dance itself provides clues of the more permanent presence and impact left on Irish culture by the latter countries.

Of course, I could be wrong but some of the legwork is suspiciously similar to ballet, in which its basic (dance) positions were born in France.

For lack of a better description, most of the “shuffles” (two consecutive tap sounds created using the balls of the feet) are sort of in the first position (feet together in a V shape) but with one leg shuffling in front and the other providing still support at the back. It is very unique to find the female dancers doing a 360-degree turn on pointes (standing on their toes to turn). This is evidently more ballet-ish and feminine when performed with soft-shoes known as “ghillies”, which are made of soft leather; but it can also be done using the hard shoes. Other signature legwork is the full leg lifts (resembling an “assemble” where the ballet dancer would throw one leg up and springs off the other) which they extend towards the front, and the partial leg lifts in which the lower leg flicks towards the left or right.

A lot of footwork consists of tap that requires speed, agility and accuracy, but the legwork requires the balance, grace, and strength of a ballet dancer.

The dynamics of this dance is very strong and there is a very high level of energy reverberating through the stage. But a good choreographer would tell you that you shouldn’t stay in one dynamic for too long. That would be the technical reason, storyline and history aside, for incorporating other types of dance into the whole show to break the monotony.

The item “Trading Taps” depicts the culture clash between traditional Irish dance and American tap that ends in mutual respect. Here we see the obvious difference between the two styles. The American tap is highly influenced by elements of jazz and hip hop and allows a considerable amount of whole-body movements.
It is said that the people who really know the worth of rhythm are tap and jazz dancers. It demands an acute coordination between ear and body, awareness of accent, energy punctuated by beat, and the control of the change or shift of body weight.

The Flamenco is most versatile in terms of dynamics. While the feet can be in staccato, arms and body can move simultaneously in legato. The rich mixture of those sinuous, sensuous arms combined with exciting heel-beats cooks up a feast for the eyes and ears. One can be totally seduced by the dramatic maturity of the dancer, her deadly eye contact and the flaming red dress!

In addition to dance, there are of course many other things to look out for – the mesmerising live accompaniment and beautiful singing, both in groups or solo, colourful costumes, unique set design, glints of cultures from around the world, and so on. All in, it will be a night to remember.

(D) October 12, 2003 - A Star is Born

SITTING on the floor mat in the cool, semi-open-air hall, I observed the members of the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA), Kuala Lumpur, with intrigue and interest.

It was the eighth day of Navarathri (literally meaning “nine nights”) and there I was catching a glimpse of one of their most important festivals, together with members from Malaysia, Singapore and India.

Starting Sept 27 (till Oct 5), they had been worshipping Devi in the form of three divine aspects. Durga (goddess of strength and courage) presided over the first three days, Lakshmi (wealth and prosperity), the second three, and Saraswathi (learning and speech), the last three.

That night, the children paid tribute to their gurus, both present and past, with a surprise item titled A Star is Born.

The simple production was a performance within a performance. It depicted how the TFA members have made performing arts very much a part of their lives. Their love for dance, theatre and music, their turning to God in regular prayer, and their respect for teachers and elders have clearly been embedded in the young as they showed their gratitude and appreciation in a most meaningful show.

The item began with the graceful entrance of the Apsaras, who showered the crowd with rose petals and (holy) water. Apsaras were believed to be lesser goddesses renowned for their beauty. Their duty was to dance for the higher gods. These heavenly nymphs were inspiration for love and possessed extraordinary seductive powers.

The Apsaras proceeded to display their beauty with an enchanting free-style Odissi dance cleverly worked into the drama. The audience was undoubtedly captivated by their elegance. The dance, which left Odissi teacher Geetha Lam beaming with pride, revealed the coming of age of 24-year-old choreographer cum dancer Chinmayee Thiagarajan, who is based in Madras.

The story revolved around the growth of a student dancer. The uninspired, frustrated and clumsy youth turned to the gods in prayer for help to improve. The Apsaras heard her cries and came to inspire and guide her during practice sessions. She made great improvements and was selected to be the lead in a production entitled Dharma Ashoka (a story about the most famous Buddhist king). Before the show began, the cast lit oil lamps and chanted prayers to pay obeisance to the gods and the stage. When the show started, the dancers became instruments of the gods as they were guided to move and communicate their story.

The dance drama was reminiscent of Gopal Shetty, the late creative leader of TFA and a symbol of Indian classical dance to many Malaysians. He died in April 1990 at the age of 59, but his soul and spirit continue to dance, resurrected in the bodies of TFA’s children as they now call upon him (during practices and performances) for guidance and blessings.

The performance ended with the entire cast getting down from the stage and standing in line to kiss the feet of their mahaguru, the visiting Swami Shantanand Saraswathi (Swamiji), founder of TFA International. It was a teary moment for the community as he blessed Chinmayee, praised her for being a shining example, and declared that, “... a star is born.”

I remember the hopeful look on the face of a young mother sitting near me, as she gazed approvingly at her two-year-old daughter. The child had moved instinctively to the sweet and hypnotic bhajan sung by Hardev Kaur earlier on. For TFA, each child is a “star” who will become a teacher one day, carrying with her the responsibility of nurturing the next generation.

(D) October 6, 2003 - A Cluttered Sign

THE genesis in AWAS clearly took inspiration from Biblical verses taken from the story of creation?”In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the power of God was moving over the water.”

Lights slowly came on revealing three transparent water-filled basins on four-legged stands dotting the corners of the stage. Dancers at the basin stirred the water, creating a gentle and soothing ripple.

The dancers gracefully and slowly came on stage one by one, each wearing headgear resembling the horns of a stag, except that it had burning joss sticks attached to them, leaving a trail of smoke as the dancers moved. The elements of fire and water were indeed beautifully juxtaposed in this respect.

While all the dancers were in squatting position during the beautiful Mak Yong-style entry, one dancer stood out. As she was not too tall, the slight variation in the address of height created a visually appealing landscape. It was a good introduction to say the least.

After touring four states (Penang, Perak, Pahang, and Johor), AWAS finally ended with its grand finale at Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman, MTC, Kuala Lumpur, on Sept 29 and 30. The abstract full-length contemporary Malaysian dance theatre presentation also explored current stage technologies and contemporary issues in the country.

Joseph Gonzales’s baby is now five years old and had hoped to take flight with this four-act production journeying the life of every man with “Beginning”, “Life”, “Death”, and “Beyond”.

This is my first time watching AWAS. Hence, I am not able to form a basis for comparison with regards to past productions. But judging from this performance alone, I conclude that this toddler still needs to sturdy its walk before taking flight.

In the programme, which I am always grateful to have when it comes to contemporary dance performances, the production claims to be inspired by the concept of “image and response”. To the Toms in the streets, this is but a question mark. The average Advertising Joe, however, would be able to very simply explain that “image” is very much the business of looking good, and “response” has a sense of urgency and is designed to generate action.

If I may further use the advertising analogy for the performance, it was like how some creative producers of advertisements put in all the high-tech components, utilise first-rate designers and production teams, and yet miss the message that needs to be communicated.

In our everyday living, we are all victims of too much noise and distraction, resulting in what some psychologists would call “stimulus flooding”. If that was what the dance drama was trying to achieve in terms of effects on the audience, then it had succeeded. Otherwise, it was cluttered with too many messages.
For example, commercialism in today’s world was communicated via a child’s voice-over praising a product while the dancers ran around feeding the audience potato chips and packet drinks. Power and control were depicted in an urban setting amidst the ringing of alarm clocks and howling sirens. There was flashing of words in the background screaming “religion”, “policy”, “laws”, and so on.

AWAS had a lot to say but it needed something stronger to tie all those messages together in a more cohesive manner.

What was also missing was the drama in the dance. Though most of the dancers have pretty good dance credentials, the acting, facial expression and the emotions that needed to be communicated via their body were still unrefined.

While they seemed to be getting the movements right, I could not connect with the dancers’ emotions. I could not feel the pain and angst of death, nor the fear and mystery of the spiritual world beyond death.

This is a pity because the production has been painstakingly detailed in incorporating all the elements of aesthetics such as the lit candles floating in the basin of water, the depth of stage created by the video images, and so much more. When voice and language were not present, the dancers needed to understand that the body was the prime means of expression in association with the media of light, sound and space. In between scenes, the dancers could not sink into the sudden changes in moods, much less the audience.

Saidah Rastam’s music did live up to expectations. In fact, her excellent choice in creating haunting effects using the sound of a single flute nearly upstaged a (dance) soloist as I found myself looking more towards the flautist than the dancer.

However, the sounds of one of her musicians munching on potato chips and his slurping his drink (during performance) were not part of her composition, I am sure.

The choreography for the most part was commendable. There were a good variety of actions on stage, including quick entrances and exits moving in opposition to each other, male-female partnering, lifts and jumps and gravity defying runs on the wall.

Unfortunately, there were several occasions when the young dancers could not live up to their potential. The duets and solos proved to be a test of mettle for them as they were more exposed to technical errors, which, true enough, were more evident than when they were dancing in a group.

Some incomprehensible text was audible in the “Bollywood” bits, and laughter was mainly derived from the slapstick depiction of a transsexual “Ama”. But the same transsexual role played by the same individual to portray the issue of social degradation and sin in prostitution did not sit very well as the audience still had the same visual comic perception of that individual embedded in their minds from the earlier scene.

It was a far cry from Spring in Kuala Lumpur (a recent collaboration between Five Arts Centre and Pappa Tarahumara). What seemed like loonies running around on stage was actually organised madness, with a consistency; and the prowess and precision of its performers made a big difference to its execution. And each dancer was allowed to do what they do best.

In AWAS, everything was there. The image was aesthetically correct. And the audience did respond (with laughter). But the dramatic intent missed bull’s eye and many left not fully satisfied. The end result of being “fully human and fully alive” did not come across, as the aura of “despair” was more prominent than “hope”.
While the beginning was very beautiful and clear, the performance lost sense of its direction along the way and was unable to engage the audience through to the end.