Sunday, August 21, 2005

(D) August 21, 2005 - En-Body-Men

Picture by TVSmith

WEIJUN of Wj Powerhouse expanded his solo work, EN-BODY-MAN, to a piece which involves an ensemble of six. A good move, since this adds colour and character to the contemporary dance, now called EN-BODY-MEN.

In the hour-long full-length production at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre on Aug 18, Weijun, 27, proved that he might well be the embodiment of young Malaysian dancers and choreographers. To boot, he also composed the euphoric fusion music (pop, R&B, rock, jazz) for the dances.

Wearing street clothes and sneakers, contemporary dancers Eden Lim, Kiea Kuan Nam, Teresa Chian, Steve Goh and Loke Soh Kim burst onto the stage, which had the audience seated around it. Hip-hopping in a self-engrossed manner, they used the body as a means of expression. Life is so much more complicated these days and its pangs are eased through dance. The smiles on the dancers’ faces said, “Heck it. We're living life to the fullest.”

Moving into a circular position, they bent from the waist and let their fingers “run” along the floor and through thin air. And before they made their exit, they sidekicked and flung their limbs in all directions, as if unlocking and loosening their bodies.

Weijun, in red sneakers and torn jeans, hogged the red spotlight. This no-music solo section focused on the strength and grace of the body. There was more ballet and contemporary dance vocabulary in this part of the piece. With ease, he jumped and pirouetted, posed in what looked like a bird in mid-flight, and combined both staccato and fluid movements in his upper body.

There is a scene that allowed the dancers to show their individuality; each carried a personal item – tissue paper, pillow, jacket, lipstick, and an orange - and dressed in the attire of their choice. Eden made the stage her bed and “sleep-danced” away with near-impossible elbow stands, back bends, and front splits.

In an elegant voice-led segment, poetry became music. Teresa and Kuan Nam took turns to recite the verses, in English and Mandarin, while the other dancers reacted to them.

In the male duet (Kuan Nam and Steve) that ensued, a different choreographic process took place. The dancers created their own movements using a form of contact improvisation technique. The last “touch” or movement of a dancer triggered the movement of another (dancer). Steve, who is duet-trained, took the opportunity to incorporate some “lifting” moments. Weijun joined them, but too briefly. Hopes for a male trio were dashed as he broke into another solo as the others left the stage.

Two couples, arms on each other’s shoulders, criss-crossed like grapevines onto stage.

In interspersing homo- and heterosexual pairing, the dancers played tug-of-war until Loke, the fifth dancer, entered and introduced imbalance and entanglement into the sequence. The music then broke down like a broken record and the bodies contorted to that.

Finally, the dance ended with the same hip hop sequence that it began with. As simple and straightforward as it looked, marrying hip hop and contemporary dance, if not done properly, could have disastrous results.Their union in EN-BODY-MEN was smooth, giving birth to what Weijun called a “pop contemporary dance”.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

(D) August 14, 2005 - Scream - A Response to Munch

A PICTURE paints a thousand words (and movements). But can the same be said of the reverse?

Anthony Meh’s Scream – A Response to Munch is a contemporary response to The Scream, by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). In Munch's Post-Impressionist work, the central figure appears to be locked in a state of terror. The silent scream reverberates within the painting and out to the viewer.

Meh’s dance made its debut five years ago, and was presented again last week by Dua Space Dance Theatre at the Malaysian Tourism Centre in Kuala Lumpur. The 70-minute production combines dance and installation art, and modern and traditional aesthetics to express issues which the choreographer feels strongly about.

A huge rectangular patchwork of batik is spread on centre stage, awaiting the dancers. Aman Yap, as the urban character in black suit, makes his way from the main entrance while Tan Yau Kent and Justin Wong enter from either side of stage to pick up the patchwork batik and form human frames for the artwork.

Tan and Wong wear “batik-looking” attire that complements their male physique. The outfits are made of orange and green stretchable fabric, sewn together into a short-sleeved and thigh-length bodysuit. Flower motifs are patched on. The costumes, designed by Akma Suriati Awang (costume designer for the movie Anna and the King) give the dance a local drape.

As the light switches on and off, the dancers play window-display mannequins with the patchwork batik. A different “display” appears each time the stage is lit. Finally, the urban character is seen stealing away with the artwork spilling out of a luggage he is carrying.

In the next scene, the focus is on a woman with a yellow Post-It on her forehead. The woman, trapped in the video projection, reacts in fear towards the dancers on stage who Post-It-assault her head. Consequently, with a head for notes, her image would have made a more relevant lead-on compared to the dumb-blond-and-snatch-thief drama that preceded the projected image of The Scream.

A physical portrayal of entrapment follows the video. Two dancers emerge briefly with two thick bamboos (held horizontally) stretching out several rows of metal clothesline that sun a laundry of yellow Post-Its. But when held vertically, the prop becomes a yellow wall. Meh, who also dances in this piece, darts in between the clothesline, unable to get out.

The build-up is slow and finally the “scream” gets louder. Meh combines modern dance and quasi Chinese Opera to make a statement against abuse of power. This part of the choreography features four dancers, one red Chinese dance fan, and a table.

Three dancers conspire against Meh so that he doesn’t get the fan, the object of desire. The three sit on the table, obviously a position of power, while Meh cringes below. The white table top, when adjusted to face the audience, reveals flower motifs that match the dancers’ costumes.

Moving forward, we see dancers in Afro wigs and bathing suits compete for towel space on a beach. The comical scene soon gives way to (video) images of destruction caused by the recent tsunami. The dance has a bouncy quality that matches the music. But it is not a happy piece. At least one dancer lies listless on the patchwork batik throughout this scene. The cloth is now a corpse wrap.

The piece becomes darker as Meh ponders on war, execution and death. The dance vocabulary is vigorous and aggressive. The dancers, with leaps and turns, conquer the whole stage as if claiming land.

Meh returns to the first scene where the urban character is stealing away from stage. The character is captured and defeated.

Insofar as the dance goes, Meh is able to paint pictures of what pains him. However, the involvement of installation artist Liew Teck Leong raises the question: at what point does set design, props, multimedia, and even lighting turn installation art? The point of differentiation and its place in this dance are not clear.

Friday, August 12, 2005

(D) August 12, 2005 - Penetrating the Rasa

The haze in Kuala Lumpur hid all the stars but one. India-based Odissi dancer Rahul Acharya shimmered on Amphi-Sutra at Sutra Dance Theatre’s Under the Stars 2005: A Season of Odissi last week.

Rahul performed a six-part solo repertoire – Penetrating the Rasa – composed by Guru Shri Durga Charan Ranbir, an important guru of the school, or parampara, of the late Guru Deba Prasad Das.

In Mangalacharan Shiva Charanamrita, the invocatory piece, Rahul offers flowers to Bumi, or Mother Earth, and pays homage to Lord Siva.

Sthai is a forte of Deba Prasad Odissi dance where dancers emulate the classical dance sculptures in Orissan temples. This outstanding choreography keeps to the strict style of Guru Deba Prasad but incorporates a new concept.

Usually, a Sthai would begin with a chowka (square positions), but instead, this choreography begins with Pranata, a phangi (a style representing a sculpture).

The Pranata can be identified by the infolded hands (palms together). While keeping that gesture constant, Rahul dove and manoeuvred his hands and body like a slippery fish.

The other main phangis are: Alasa – the body stretches out in all directions emulating a lady trying to break her laziness; Manjira – the thumb and forefinger are locked holding imaginary cymbals, while the arms are in hitting and swirling motions playing the instrument; Mardala – this is the drummer’s position where palms face the ground and hands are flexed.

The chowka marks the change from one phangi to another, while the tribanga (three bends of head, torso and hip) brought the “moving” sculptures to live.

Rahul feels and enjoys every movement in his body as he morphs into various sculptures. The constant changing of body weight and coming back to centre almost seemed easy.

Oriya Abhinaya – E Ghora Barasa Kale and Abhinaya – Mamiyam Chalita Vilokya are both expressive dance interpreting literature. The former interprets the composition of poet, Kabi Samrat Upendra Bhanja. Two protagonists, Anukula Nayaka (hero) and Prositabhartruka Nayika (heroine), are separated and the nayaka imagines how his nayika would miss him. The latter is based on an excerpt from Gita Govinda by medieval Orissan poet Jayadeva. In this unique rendition, it is Krishna who feels the pain of separation from Radha. Krishna is remorseful of his wanton ways and causing grief to Radha.

A member of the audience later asked Rahul: “How convinced were you of Krishna’s love for Radha?” If the abhinaya did not convince, his answer certainly did!

“In Gita Govinda, Krishna is not as important as Radha. In fact, Krishna asks for the lotus dust on Radha’s feet so that he can rub it on his head” replied Rahul. “It is also destined that Krishna and Radha belong to each other eternally.”

The pure dance item, Pallavi – Raga Shankaravaranam/Arabhi, was executed with tenderness and grace. In contrast, the concluding piece, Sivashtaka, was dynamic and masculine.

There are seven classes of Tandava (masculine stylisation) and Rahul dances the Kalasava Tandava, which is the toughest of the seven. With heavy foot accents and fearsome expression, Rahul was Siva at his fiercest, destroying creation.

Insofar as being the hotbed of Odissi in Malaysia, Sutra Dance Theatre ( has been successful in attracting and raising star-quality dancers.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

(R) Happy Birthday Break-a-Leg!

Happy birthday to me
Happy birthday to me
Happy birthday to mee-eee
Happy birthday to me!




Having a good fog may not be the best way to celebrate my birthday. Turning xx years old IS a state of emergency. The Government declared it so. I also confess to open burning - when I blew the candles, the API raised a few notch. I have to mask my disappointment when celebration plans have to be postponed. But well-wishes came on time, leaving me choking with emotion. Well, there's hope that the future won't be as hazy as today.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

(D) August 2, 2005 - Dance Criticism in the Dance Ecology

(That's why we're critics!)

“Dance writing in Malaysian newspaper is deplorable.” Krishen Jit’s voice at the dance seminar held during MyDance Festival (MDF) 2003 still resonates in my head.

He did not proceed to say how it could be improved, but being the only journalist there, I did notice that my made-in-Malaysia MyThickSkin bullet proof vest was suffering severe damage.

Instead of one local speaker, a panel of three foreign speakers presented papers on dance criticism during the Asia Pacific International Dance Conference held during this years’ MDF. This time, journalists from more than five vernaculars attended the seminar, which is a marked improvement.

Since braving the bullets two years ago, I sought to improve writing through research, trial and error before I stumbled upon the Institute of Dance Criticism, a dance criticism fellowship held during the American Dance Festival (ADF). The gruelling 3 weeks was worth it. I learnt about dance criticism and more.

The Fellows wrote reviews twice a week. And then, peer and facilitator (10 people excluding me) would tear the piece (and our egos) apart. We attended movement and choreography classes to experience first-hand (and appreciate!) that dance and creating dance may not be as simple as it looks. We also had the opportunity to meet and interview choreographers, dancers, policy-makers, and other key figures involved in the development of dance.

A dancer would take years to hone his or her ability in one dance genre. The dance critic is expected to describe and comment on all genres from article one. The dance critic is thus a dance generalist and the onus is on him or her to continuously read, research, and yes, even dance! A dance background would be advantageous - though it does not guarantee that one would write better, it does train the eye to capture and read movements.

Dance is a movement language and the critic needs to translate this language into a written one. I liken it to painting fleeting images with words.

It is no surprise that few dare to venture into this area of writing. Unlike painting, literature and sculpture, dances do not “sit still” permitting the critic to scrutinize them leisurely. The literary critic can stop at will to re-read a difficult passage; the art critic can examine a painting from various distances or walk around a sculpture several times; the drama critic often has access to a text; and the music critic has access to a score.

The dance critic must make do with a burst of sensory impressions. The challenges are seeing the movement clearly, remembering what was seen, and finally, describing what was seen in a manner that will be comprehensible to the reader. Mastering note-taking in the dark is a bonus.

In a dance review, descriptions are important as one must not presume that everyone has watched the work. Description is valuable because it establishes the reality of the dance, lending some degree of permanence to an otherwise elusive and ephemeral event. The cruel paradox is that the critic is doomed to lose the reader in a literal, moment-to-moment account of what strikes the eye and ear. So, to keep the reader’s interest, the critic needs to interpret the work and also discuss the issues that it raises - all that within 500 to 800 words. Performances are often at night and editorial deadlines can be as soon as noon the next day.

A review must be constructive and not destructive. Justification must be made on why a work succeeds or fails. For example, Niluksi Koswanage’s Compelling, Complicated Debut (17 July 2005, The Star) and Antares’ No Silk Purse (
are both well-written negative reviews. Comments on these reviews are good indicators that Malaysians are thinking and talking about dance.

The tone should be encouraging and not demeaning. One should not intimidate emerging talents nor destroy an artists' career. Some critics show off how witty or how well they write at the expense of the artists. Some serve to pass judgement as though they are the Almighty Critic who has descended upon the Holy Theatre. As it is, there are only a handful of dancers in Malaysia. The work (the dance) and the cause (promoting dance) are more important than an inflated ego. At the same time, dance critics must also uphold their journalistic responsibilities by being honest to their readers who may be potential ticket-buying audiences.

Dance critics are like artists in some ways. Our works are subject to public scrutiny. And so, feedback from readers could also intimidate emerging writers or destroy a writers’ career. And most of us are struggling, impoverished freelancers driven only by passion for dance.

But dance criticism pieces are by far too few. There should be more than one voice on a piece of work. While there are plenty of previews, these do not count because it’s publicity driven. Dance needs to be documented and this cause is greater than self. Historians would one day reference such articles as sources of a periods’ social and cultural environment.

Dance critics are part of the dance ecology. They keep dance visible in the media. They form the vital link in educating and creating dance audiences, which in turn would help drive demand for dance and dancers; and hopefully attract more sponsors to fund dance projects.

Should dance academics write? Sure. But, a dance academic’s first love is to research and to develop knowledge. Professor Dr. Mohd Anis Md Nor (Professor of Ethnomusicology and Ethnochoreology, University Malaya) attests this. Should dancers write? Sure. But a dancer’s first love is to choreograph; to dance. The desire to move, to dance, is entrenched in the the dancer.

Clich√© as it sounds, I was a fallen dancer. One back surgery, months of physiotherapy, and packets of pain killers and nerve vitamins later, I’m back dancing. But this time, I poise my pen and “tap” on my keyboard.