Tuesday, June 21, 2005

(D) June 19, 2005 - Jamu (II) 2005

The dance started with a gentle stir, just as a storm begins from deceptively calm conditions. Beginning close to the floor, it slowly built up into more explosive movements and exuberant leaps – just as a storm would build in violence.

The weather references are irresistible as Varsha, the name of the piece, means “rain”. Indeed, it was starkly clear that the dance revolved around the strength and fury of Mother Nature.

Varsha was one of the pieces created by Umesh Shetty for Inside Out, a music and dance event earlier this year that marked the debut of Inner Space, the Temple of Fine Arts’s newly formed professional performing wing founded by Umesh and three musicians.

Umesh, who is also a lecturer in Akademi Seni Kebangsaan’s dance department, presented the piece again at Jamu II, the second of three instalments of the academy’s contemporary dance performance series. In this second part, as in the first, the works of three dance lecturers were featured. This time, it was Umesh, A. Aris A. Kadir, and Loke Soh Kim.

(By the way, I felt Jamu II came along just a tad too soon after Jamu I, which was held only a month ago; it was heartening, however, to see that audience numbers had grown.)

Varsha, which started the evening off, had most of the elements of good choreography, including a good combination of solo, duet and group sequences. It was interesting how Umesh used different parts of the body to lead off movements. In one of the many jumps, for example, the elbow was lifted skywards first, almost seeming to pull the body after; a turn was led off by the head and then followed by the body.

The element of progression was used well: a dancer, or a row of dancers, would initiate a series of movements, which would be picked up by another dancer, or another row of dancers. In different scenes, this evoked beautifully the movement of leaves blown about by the wind, and of waves crashing to shore.

Also interesting was how Umesh, who trained in classical Indian dance, wove elements of bharatanatyam into this contemporary piece: the end of the “storm” was marked with a vibrant tillana (a series of quick movements set to a fast tempo) that eased gracefully into calmness.

Varsha was performed by some of the more experienced dancers in Malaysia. Strangely, however, the presentation last Saturday seemed almost messy. When synchronisation was obviously required, it just didn’t happen. I wonder what the story is behind that?

Dari Diri Dewi was choreographed by A. Aris A. Kadir. Using elements of Mak Yong (mostly dance and music, with a little bit of acting and singing), he attempted to present the feelings of a person under duress and experiencing fear and tension.

The dance was accompanied by live traditional music (rebab and percussion) played by the academy’s music department students. The lead dancer was dance department student Nik Nur Azlina Nik Ibrahim; she was supported by her classmates.

Dari Diri Dewi began with the Nur Azlina rendering a brief mengadap rebab (paying respect to the rebab, a Middle Eastern violin, and to the spirit of Mak Yong) followed by exaggerated Mak Yong dance movements. A multimedia segment followed with images of fireworks projected onto white cloths held by dancers that glided on and off the stage.

While that razzled and dazzled, I thought the best part of this piece were the mask scenes. Dancers, holding a mask and wearing one each, came to lure Nur Azlina to the “dark side”; finally, surrounded by these visually captivating masks, the dancer succumbed.

It seems Aris wanted to “reveal the individual at an emotional level”. Unfortunately, though, I feel the dance was more about the spiritual realm. It was heavy on symbolism specific to Malay rituals, which made it difficult for the layperson to appreciate the richer meaning it tried to convey.

Watermelon Juice and Durian In a Wheelbarrow by Loke Soh Kim simply delighted the senses. The choreographer successfully teased sight, touch, taste and smell with the fruit-inspired pieces. Both performances were characterised by humour, fruit-eating, and the horizontal line formation with which each began and ended.

In Watermelon Juice, the dancers were practically violent in handling the juicy fruit. Quite a number of watermelons were “sacrificed” for this performance as the dancers smashed slices of the melons onto their heads and the floor. They also drenched themselves in watermelon juice, turning their white shirts red.

In the second piece, the pungent smell of durians heralded the spiky fruits’ entrance in a wheelbarrow. The dancers moved slowly and gently. After all, thorny issues needed to be handled delicately.

At first, they savoured the fruit, but then they began to choke and “vomit”. The lesson the durian-obsessed dancers wanted to share was that being greedy has consequences.

This second instalment of the Jamu series was an improvement. I’m quite looking forward to third later in the year.

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