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.

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