Thursday, June 02, 2005

(D) May 29, 2005 - Jamu (I) 2005

When contemporary dance emerged in Malaysia in the 1970s, the trend was to mix and match Western and Eastern dance forms and to experiment with multidisciplinary styles. In this new millennium, however, the emphasis is on our own culture.

It was to Malaysian culture that choreograher Wong Kit Yaw turned for inspiration in coming up with his contribution to Jamu, the annual showcase of works by dance teachers at the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan. The performances took place two weeks ago at the academy's Experimental Theatre in Kuala Lumpur.

Specifically, Wong turned to the myriad rituals found in Malaysia. While some dances in themselves are rituals (especially traditional dance), Wong's approach was to build rituals into dance using cultural symbols. And to his credit, he did it tastefully.

Ritual I explores the Chinese death ritual. Death, at least within Chinese culture, is a taboo subject. Yet Wong's choreography managed to challenge how we "see" death by using visually captivating movements, exotic costumes and interesting props.

The conventional stiff, white mourning grab seen at Chinese funerals was transformed into barebacked, long, flowing white dresses; the six female dancers each held a white chrysantehmum, the symbol of rebirth, in the mouth.

The dancers began by scattering "paper money" on stage, their nonchalant movements contrasting with the "stiff" taboo topic and, thus, injecting humour into the morbid theme. The choice of music was also interesting. In the midst of eerie drones, a voice rapped out a familiar Buddhist chant. The effect was a remarkable mockery of our perception of death.

Ritual II was a mix of Indian, Chinese and Indonesian dance styles and rituals. While this part had a stronger dynamic, Wong tried to incorporate too many different elements into it, resulting in an unclear theme.

Apart from Wong, two other choreographers presented their works: Choo Tee Kuang presented Butterfly Lovers and Suhaimi Magi offered Tanpa Judul.

In interpreting the well-known Chinese legend, Butterfly Lovers, Choo used a very straigthforward storytelling approach - the story was related in (in Chinese and English) words projected onto a screen.

By choosing to use the full-length Liang Zhu Pipa Concerto unedited - all 28 minutes of it - Choo had to decide which parts of the story would be related through dance and which through multimedia. And these different parts had to be coordinated with the score.

According to Choo, he chose Amy Len (as Zhu Ying Tai) and Steve Goh (as Liang Sahn Bo) as his lead dancers because they have strong backgrounds in ballet and Chinese and contemporary dance. Len was the better of the pair because she exuded the right emotions while exhibiting good technique. Goh, however, was not able to hold up his end as an actor, especially during his solo in Falling Ill.

Choo's creativity shone in Forced Marriage. He used liberal splashes of red (the colour of celebration) in costumes and props to contrast joy with Zhu's misery. A red cloth, commonly used during Chinese weddings, hung above the stage and was cleverly used to represent a swing, a bed and a rope. Zhu's movements revolved around the red cloth, symbolising that she was tied to her destiny.

Suhaimi Magi's Tanpa Judul was disappointing. The fact that the piece had no title and no synopsis seemed an indication that not much thought had gone into it. Strangely, it looked as if bits and pieces salvaged during the academy's construction (a rubbish chute, a piece of zinc roofing and rocks) were used as props; and the academy's cafeteria might find some of its missing trays returned in bad order....

Until all works are consistent in quality, I would not be too liberal with the phrase "award-wnning" on posters and promotion materials. The mark of progress is continuous improvement and not complacency with past achievements.

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