Monday, January 24, 2005

(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.

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