Monday, December 25, 2006

(D) Sankai Juku

WHAT wonderful opportunity it was to catch Sankai Juku, one of the world’s foremost butoh dance companies, in its first appearance in Malaysia.

After performing in 40 countries, the company finally arrived on our shores to present its award-winning Hibiki: Resonance from Far Away last weekend at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

From the first appearance of the dancers, I was held enraptured. They appeared on stage with their bodies painted completely in white, looking identical and surreally ageless. There did not seem to be any reflection of the passage of time on their faces.

According to Ushio Amagatsu, artistic director and founder of the 30-year-old dance company, the life of an individual is “non-continuous”, in the sense that there is a start and an end. But the life of mankind could be described as being continuous, like a flowing river because, as a species, mankind has been alive for centuries and will continue to live. The resonance created by this “non-continuity” and “continuity” is what inspired Hibiki.

Pix source: Japan Foundation, KL

The six-part dance comprised Sizuku (drop), Utsuri (displacement), Garan (empty space), Outer Limits of the Red, Reflection and Toyomi (resounding).

The first sounds heard in the theatre were “drops of life” – water dripping from suspended glass urns into water-filled concave glass lenses on the sand-covered stage. The set looked like an oasis in the desert; an apt metaphor for Sizuku (drop), which is about the source of life. The first hint of music stirred five figures that had been curled foetally in the spotlight, which was, presumably, the womb.

Three dancers remained on the darkened stage in Utsuri (displacement). This segment seemed purposeful and directed with its slow and steady synchronised movements. The dancers’ fingers and hands were always pointing forward; and as they moved forward, they engaged in a triangular love affair with gravity, courting tension, relaxation and resistance.

At some points, the dance seemed to depart from traditional butoh movements (which are slow and very stylised), especially when the dancers started to gyrate and twirl their hands above their heads like Hawaiian hula dancers. Unlike most butoh performances I’ve seen, in which movements are extremely tense, a sense of relaxation permeates Amagatsu’s work.

In the next segment, two dancers entered as asymmetrical dancing twins. They carried out simple, everyday actions – they waved their hands, pointed their index fingers upwards, beat their chests, tapped each other’s shoulders, and so forth. As this duo entered, the earlier trio exited. Action took place at two ends of the stage in this simple, elegant choreographic design.

In Garan (empty space), a solo dancer stood in one spot making slow, miniscule movements; his face serene and his eyes far away. He reached down to dip his finger in the “pool” of water and tasted it. And his reaction seemed to say, “So that’s what life tastes like!” This piece somehow emanated sensations of comfort and security. It put us at ease because, deep in our primal self, we recognised that resonance of life and we are always comfortable with what we know.

In Outer Limits of the Red, four ghastly figures in crescent formation hovered over a bloody concoction in a glass cauldron. Men in skirts, corsets and earrings muttered spells and flicked “blood” from their hands into the cauldron.

If dance has a horror “genre”, this scene would surely be representative, as it had all the elements of a good horror movie: fear, danger, suspense, shock, and even “bloodshed”. And, yes, it even had a climax, one that made every effort to startle and engage.

Reflection, on the other hand, was anticlimactic. I was at lost trying to understand what the solo performer was trying to convey. The lighting was interesting, though. An “X”-shaped path was “drawn” with orange light across the blue-lit stage and a red “pool” was distinctly marked out by a spotlight.

Toyomi (resounding) paid tribute to birth and the cycle of life. As the dark curtains behind the dancers were drawn away on either side, I felt like a baby witnessing my own birth from inside the womb and seeing light for the first time as my mother’s legs are drawn apart in preparation for my arrival.

And then, in a coda that surely demonstrated the cycle of life, the dance ended as it had begun, with the dancers in the foetal position.

To the thunderous applause of the audience, Amagatsu, in true prima donna fashion, gave us even his bow in butoh style. He can get away with it because, I have to concede, Hibiki was certainly one of the most beautiful butoh choreography I’ve seen.

Pix source: Japan Foundation, KL

Saturday, November 25, 2006

(D) Tapestry 2006 - Nov 19, 2006

THROW away those racial unity textbooks and pick up performing arts instead. It’s becoming obvious to me that that’s the better way to foster the much-talked-about muhibbah spirit: once you sing it, act it and dance it, you will inherently live it.

At Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara), each student is instilled with a thirst for knowledge, the urgency to preserve her cultural heritage, and a deep respect for diversity. It is one of those few places where everyone is genuinely interested in cultures other than their own.

With scant regard for race, religion and background, students from its dance and music departments got together to put up Tapestry 2006, a showcase of Malaysian folk repertoire, at the Experimental Theatre, Aswara campus, Kuala Lumpur, last weekend. The songs and dances were stitched into an evening celebrating Deepavali and Hari Raya.

Eleven dances were presented, many of which are rarely performed in KL. One such is the colourful dansa of the Malay Cocos, who live in Tawau and Eastern Sabah. If not for the hint of batik, one would have thought that this was a Western folk dance.

Performed by couples, it is similar to the European dances of Spain and Portugal in terms of music, costumes and movement, with Spanish melody, lively footwork and loud, frilly blouses worn by both the men and women. Dansa is believed to have been passed on to the local populace by sea-faring tradesmen and travellers.

Another item featured was the rejang be’uh, a Bidayuh dance taken from the village of Semeba, near Kuching. This dance is known for its fast tempo and there was a playful quality between the male and female performers. Many of the movements are derived from daily activities, like imitating birds in flight, as well as footwork that focuses on weight transference.

Rejang Be'uh. Pix source: The Star

Adai-Adai was originally a Brunei folk song. It tells about life in the fishing villages, where the men leave early in the morning to earn their daily keep and the women folk await their return. Over the years, a new traditional dance has been created to accompany this folk song.

The highlight of the programme was the tari inai, a highly skilled folk form from Pasir Mas, Kelantan. It is a derivative of the mak yong and silat in movement, costume and music. The blare of the serunai (flute) and the delicate fingerwork are strong references to the mak yong tradition, while the swooping hand movements are culled from silat. Also unique in this item was how the dancers bent all the way back to pick up a piece.

Tari Inai. Px Source: The Star

Zapin Bunian, widely performed in Johor, takes its name from the area where it was developed – Kamping Sri Bunian in Pontian. The dance is thought to have been brought to Malaysia by Arab merchants in the 1500s and is synonymous with the spread of Islam. The unique movements of the torso, and the changing rhythms and dynamics of the dance and music make it one of the most exciting folk forms. Originally performed only by male dancers, zapin is now choreographed to accommodate male-female pairs, like in this piece.

Zapin Hanuman was inspired by the Ramayana. Infused with elements taken from the dances of the Middle East, this dance became popular in the 1970s through the work of choreographers such as Syed Hanasuddin and Yahya Abd Hamid. At Tapestry, this item was fast and vigorous – the dancers were practically running, and they performed many turns, hops, and little kicks. It was certainly a test of stamina for them.

The inang renek was choreographed by Wan Nor Mohammad Wan Alam and danced to the tune of Inang Tua. This must be the Malay version of Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. This cute and endearing piece saw the dancers take tiny little steps while shaking their hips regularly.

The production also featured two Indian and two Chinese dances.

Veteran classical Indian dancers Radha Shetty and Vatsala Sivadass guided the students in a stunning classical jatiswaram kalyani performance and a spear-bearing Assam dance. Jatiswaram is a pure dance section of the bharatanatyam repertoire, a classical Indian dance form, while Assam is a folk dance from the Indian state of Assam. The latter depicted village men hunting and women tending to their children and farming.

Assam Dance. Pix source: The Star.

Aswara lecturer Wong Kit Yaw choreographed the Chinese lantern and fan dances. Both pieces manipulated hand-held props to full effect. Wong always makes his work visually appealing; it felt as though I was watching a piece of art take life.

Lantern Dance. Pix Source: The Star.

The performance concluded with joget, a folk dance form that is widely regarded as one of Malaysia’s national dances. It is similar to the branyo dance, which has Portuguese origins, due to its distinct time signature and the quick change of weight with the feet. Aris Kadir’s composition had a lively, cheeky quality and was performed by playful partners.

To sum up, Tapestry 2006 displayed the vibrancy of our cultural heritage and a celebration of unity in diversity.

(D) Interview with Ushio Amagatsu - Nov 22, 2006

Photo by Bridgit

The world-renowned Sankai Juku dance company, which specialises in the highly stylised Japanese dance form known as butoh, will make its first appearance in Malaysia with the award-winning dance, Hibiki: Resonance from Far Away. Break-a-Leg has an e-mail interview with Ushio Amagatsu, artistic director and founder of the 30-year-old company.

AMAGATSU-SAN, you have, reportedly, created your own version of butoh. What is it like?

I would say, “to each his own style”. What those of my generation went through, the experiences that I’ve had as well as my qualities as an individual are different from those of the first generation of butoh dancers such as Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.

You were trained in Western classical as well as modern dance. Why did you choose to focus on butoh?

The 1960s and 70s in Japan was a time in which doubts and questions were being raised about the arts. Through my encounters with numerous people during this period, I was introduced to our own dance style, butoh. I did not make the decision to immediately enter the world of butoh after watching its performances. But, eventually, the attitude toward creativity and the methods utilised by the first generation of butoh dancers made a tremendous impact on me.

I find it interesting that you have reportedly described dance as ‘a dialogue with gravity’. How does this relate to your dance philosophy?

The word “dance” is a synonym for tension, and human movement is composed of two states: “tension” and “relaxation”.

A newborn baby spends about one year on its back before he stands and begins to walk. Once he learns to stand on one leg he can produce steps and rhythm to form a dance; or, in other words, being able to stand on one leg is the beginning of dance. But my approach to dance looks at the body before it learns to stand, as well as the process it goes through to get there. This is the dialogue that the horizontal body has with gravity until it learns to stand. It is the attempt to master tension from a base of relaxation.

Western dance would generally relate to the concept of liberation or rebellion from gravity while the basis of my work would be a synchronisation with gravity.

In 1980, you were invited to perform in Europe for the first time. How do Europeans relate to butoh?

I believe that the way butoh utilises the human body is not the same as the way Western dance forms utilise the body. Butoh’s different method of expression has been accepted as a distinct approach towards contemporary dance. Those who have been influenced by it have gone on to create yet other styles and forms.

You have performed in more than 700 cities. Are there similarities and differences in how butoh is received around the world?

Similarities would be in the primitive emotions expressed so well by butoh; primitive emotions that all humans possess, and the impression that they get from seeing these emotions within butoh. But there are some minor differences in their (the audience’s) reaction depending on race and geographical region.

What is the inspiration behind Hibiki?

The life of an individual is “non-continuous” in the sense that there is a start and an end. But the life of mankind could be described as being “continuous”, like a flowing river, in the sense that it has been around and will continue to be. The resonance of life in relation to this “non-continuity” and “continuity” is my source of inspiration.

How is Hibiki different from your other works?

I do not think there is any major difference from the other works. There have been 15 Sankai Juku works so far but I’ve not thought of doing something that is totally different from my previous works for the sake of variety. My works are a culmination and snapshots of the creative process that had taken place up till that moment.

You have done well in your career. Do you think that you have accomplished your personal goals?

For me, unresolved issues are the impetus for creation, and so, there probably is no final goal. And although I make the effort to search for answers, it is probably because no clear answer can be found that I can continue to create.

(D) Seven Graces - Nov 3, 2006

CAN you imagine a group of senior citizens dancing on stage and attempting more movements than their osteoporosis-ridden bones allow? It’s a thought that makes one cringe.

Sadly, our socially-conditioned image of dancers – perfect physique, graceful and agile movements – leaves very little room for us to think otherwise. Generally, mature dancers performing tap, folk and social dances can get away from scathing comments. But not so for those who take up ballet, hip hop, breakdance and contemporary dance.

“I am most interested in exploring the richness and the possibilities of a mature woman – I’m 50 this year – expressing herself without pretending to be younger than she is,” said Anita Ratnam, who is bent on challenging conventional mindsets.

Ratnam was in Kuala Lumpur last weekend to perform Seven Graces, as part of the third (and final) flush of the “Under the Stars Series” 2006. The show, which rounded up Sutra Dance Theatre’s performance season for the year, is her solo “operatic” creation. She worked in collaboration with Hari Krishnan, an India-born, Canada-based dancer, choreographer, teacher and dance scholar.

In India today, Ratnam notes, solo work does not figure in contemporary dance, which usually features group choreography. Thus her solo dance challenges yet another “norm”.

Chennai-based Ratnam wears many hats. She is dancer, choreographer, transcultural collaborator, arts presenter, scholar, writer and cultural activist. With a career spanning four decades and having staged over 1,000 performances in 15 countries, it’s not surprising that she is one of India’s most recognised dance icons.

Apart from being trained in bharatanatyam and the Kerala dance traditions of kathakali and mohiniattam, she holds a Masters degree in theatre and television. She returned home to Chennai, after a highly successful 10-year tenure as TV producer and commentator.

Seven Graces highlights Ratnam’s perspectives on goddess worship, and the many facets of Buddhist goddess Tara, and feminism.

Tara is one of the most ancient of goddesses still worshipped extensively in modern times. Legend has it that White Tara rose from a lotus blooming in the lake that formed from the first tear of compassion of the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara – tears that fell when he first beheld the scope of suffering in the world.

In other parts of the world, Tara is known as Tar (Finland), Kuan Yin (China), Terra (South America), IshTar (Egypt), Isis (Italy) and Agni Tara (Northern and Central Asia).

But this piece is not a literal re-telling of Tara’s attributes. Instead, Ratnam used the mythology of the goddess as a thematic reference point and each facet of Tara’s life reflected the choreographer’s personal journey as an urban Indian female.

Seven Graces had seven sections, each represented by a different hue – black, yellow, blue, red, green, white and saffron. Black represented birth and the darkness of the womb; yellow, childhood; blue, a youth negotiating her inner space, and discovering herself; red, a woman’s fierce passion and compassion; green, her wisdom and intelligence; white (where all colours merge into one), motherhood; and saffron (the most holy of colours), the woman’s embodiment of Buddha and her renunciation all things worldly.

Ratnam created a whole lexicon of gestures for the piece. Her gestures were not the conventional mudras used in classical Indian dance, but gestures developed from statements that represented significant areas of her life – such as “my children” and “mother holding on to the umbilical cord” – and from statements on the goddess Tara, such as “centre of the universe,” and “there is no one like her”.

The soundscape was particularly interesting. The blend of music from western and eastern (Tibetan) instruments, voice and sound effects culminated in a composition that enhanced and complemented all seven sections of the dance.

The music made Ratnam seem as if she was moving faster than she actually was, allowing her to move in ways natural for her age. Anita did not try to be younger than she was and she managed to maintain her dignity as a mature female dancer.

In this contemporary piece, the distinctive Indian flavour was not so much a derivative of classical Indian dance but more, a derivative of Ratnam, the archetype of today’s urban Indian female – intelligent, vocal and successful, yet grounded in tradition.

(D) Interview with Anita Ratnam - Oct 29, 2006

Anita Ratnam. Pix source: Sutra Dance Theatre

She’s lived a rich life, and now she wants to share it through almost one hour of non-stop dance. Break-a-Leg speaks to the great Indian dancer and feminist, Anita Ratnam.
ANITA Ratnam wears many titles: dancer, choreographer, transcultural collaborator, arts presenter, scholar, writer and cultural activist.

Add to all that the fact that her four decade-long career encompasses more than 1,000 performances in 15 countries and it’s not surprising that she is one of India’s most recognised dance icons. Apart from being trained in bharatanatyam and the Kerala dance traditions of kathakali and mohiniattam, Anita also holds a Masters degree in theatre and television.

She returned to her home base in Chennai, India, from New York after a highly successful, decade-long tenure as TV producer and commentator.

Malaysia will see this connoisseur’s dancer on stage when she presents Seven Graces early next month at Amphi-sutra, Kuala Lumpur.

Seven Graces is Anita’s solo “operatic” (see her explanation of this intriguing concept below) creation in collaboration with Hari Krishnan, an India-born, Canada-based dancer, choreographer, teacher and dance scholar.

The piece features Anita’s perspectives on goddess worship, the many hues of Buddhist goddess Tara, and feminism.

In an e-mail interview, Anita shares her thoughts about Seven Graces and about a subject close to her heart: feminism.

Why did you choose goddess Tara as your reference? /strong>

Goddess Tara chose me! My good friend, Arvind Iyer, a writer in Bombay and a Buddhist, saw me as the goddess in his dream. In his dream, he saw the colours, the moods and the images and sketched the first mood-mosaic of the goddess Tara for me.

The goddess is so full of life, humour, passion and compassion – like a mother. I loved that, being a mother (of two teenaged girls) myself. These elements lent themselves perfectly to choreography.

What are the seven graces?

Seven is the “number of the Universe” – there are the seven ages of men, seven cosmic stages, seven charkas of human consciousness, seven pillars of wisdom, seven sacred rivers, and so forth.

The number represents completeness, totality, perfection, plentiful-ness, rest, reintegration, safety, and synthesis.

In this work, I speak of the many stages and moods of a woman and a goddess – from the pain and darkness of birth, to the wonder of a young girl discovering her space, to a woman and a mother kindling the inner and outer worlds, the healer and shaman at work, an ascetic in ecstasy and, finally, the invisible space and colour for reunification and renunciation.

Seven Graces is a colourscape, a moodscape, a dancescape, and a lifescape. It is my life danced in one hour. It is the images and moods of the mythology of the goddess Tara collapsed into the personal mythology of who I am today.

Can you explain how these feminist and goddess worshiping themes came about?

I led the most unconventional life between the ages of 21 and 35 – I left my hometown and country for New York and lived there for 13 years – and I was married twice. The first marriage was arranged by matching horoscopes, and then, later, I fell in love with an older man. All these experiences transformed my views of feminism and contemporary mythology.

Reclaiming the “sacred feminine” is a very large part of my worldscape and my dance motifs. The goddess (not just the goddess Tara but the feminine aspect of all goddesses) does not only dwell in temples and churches. She is everywhere today – in nature, in music, in our bodies, in art, in architecture, and in every breath we take.

So worshipping the goddess (in the form of the goddess Tara), to me, is not merely through prayer or ritual but through a life lived with passion, honesty and curiosity.

What do you mean by “operatic creation” in the context of dance?

The word “opera” has a larger-than-life connotation. When it comes to Seven Graces, well, for one thing, it is not often in solo contemporary dance work that a performer occupies the stage without a break for almost one hour – that’s quite “large”!

Also, music, sounds and emotions are plundered and go beyond the merely beautiful and appropriate.

All this has the sense of not just dance or drama, but also of opera. Through the dance I really am, in the words of writer Pico Iyer (one of the world’s best-known travel writers), “a continent of one”.

How is Seven Graces a departure from conventional contemporary Indian dance?

I use props almost always in my work. Not having any was new for me. Not having any text to work with, no script, no cohesive music score ... these are all very new in an Indian contemporary dance context.

Most contemporary dance in India does not deal with solo work. Group choreography usually signifies contemporary work in India today. The classical dance format, on the other hand, is primarily a solo form. In life I am a loner and it seemed most honest to continue this thread in my work Another thing that is different about Seven Graces is that I am most interested in exploring the richness and the possibilities of a mature woman (Anita is 50 this year) expressing herself without pretending to be younger than she is – and this, too, is rare in Indian contemporary dance today.

Where does feminism stand in India?

India is virtually throbbing with many versions of feminism and I am truly proud of being a woman in this country today.

Women in villages, cities and slums are simultaneously claiming their place in society, whether at home or in boardrooms. One of the world’s most powerful CEOs is an Indian woman from my hometown – Indira Nooyi of PepsiCo (she took over the American food and beverage company on Oct 1).

Feminism in India today is about embracing our “female-ness”. “She” is not self-conscious nor does she negate any aspect of herself. I am a feminist and a “womanist”. I have chosen to live alone as a single mother of two teenagers for the past 16 years and that has defined me more than any other experience.

Where do you think feminism stands within Asia?

I feel that Asian women are particularly challenged when it comes to freedom. Not just in India, but in Malaysia, Korea, China, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand.

Women have more options today, yet they are more objectified than ever in music videos, movies and mindless television serials. We are being made weaker and dumber, and our bodies are encoded with layers of patriarchal condescension.

Mythology and history can teach us of the potential that lies within each woman. After all, (Indian goddess) Kali, (Egyptian goddess) Isis, (Greek goddess) Athena, (ancient Sumerian goddess) Inanna and (Chinese goddess) Kuan Yin are only reminders of the qualities that are dormant within all women.

What were Hari Krishnan’s contributions to this collaboration?

Hari served as co-choreographer and director of Seven Graces. He helped me with research as well as on the extended improvisational sections of the work.

Being much younger than I am, Hari brings a fresh dimension to the piece and challenges me constantly to remember my strengths as a woman and a dancer.

He insisted that I create phrases from personal sentences I had written in my research for this piece so that my own personality as an urban Indian woman could also surface and co-exist in the work.

Hari, too, thinks that Seven Graces represents a departure from conventional contemporary Indian dance in many ways. For example, we deliberately chose not to work with any text or slokas (Sanskrit verse).
Also, I want to perform the work without props, since I feel the rich movement vocabulary, emotional intensity and eclectic soundscape will be sufficient for the work to speak to a range of audiences.

Hari Krishnan. Pix source: Sutra Dance Theatre

Why did you choose to dedicate your life to dance?

I don’t think that one can choose dance. Dance chooses you. In my case, I ran from dance at age 21. But I was pulled right back into it at age 33. Dance is not a job or a profession. It really is a calling. Also, while I am known best as a dancer, I feel that I have so much more to communicate to the world. For now it seems to be that dance is the way for me to engage with the world.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

(D) Kuilenga - Sept 9, 2006

The spirit of West Africa took Akademi Seni Budaya Dan Warisan Kebangsaan (or ASWARA, formerly known as Akademi Seni Kebangsaan) by storm last weekend as students, graduates and teachers gathered at the school’s Black Box Theatre to witness Kuilenga, meaning The Door, in the Burkinabe language, Moaga. Best of all, the performance was free since the academy wants to expose local audience to diverse and lesser-known dance genres in Malaysia.

Kuilenga is a full-length production by the Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project (BT Dance Project), a contemporary dance company directed by Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Olivier Tarpaga. The husband and wife team founded the intercultural company in 2004 and they are based in Los Angeles, California and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Olivier Tarpaga and Esther Baker-Tarpaga

But due to stage limitations at the experimental theatre, the couple presented only one segment of the full-length that addresses themes of love, immigration, displacement, and the physical boundaries between violence and peace.

Kuilenga, according to Esther and Olivier, is a reflection of their lives as they travel from place to place. While the dance is about how they move across time and space, it is also about the lives and movements of other people. This contemporary dance also drew movement vocabulary from West African traditional dances such Gourmantche (a dance from an ethnic group in Burkina Faso) and Sabar (danced to Sabar drums from Senegal).

The dance began with two still figures on stage. One remained still, while the other started twitching his upper body, exploring limb after limb before working himself up into a convulsion (movements from Gourmantche). The sudden explosion of drums after a period of silence signalled the first signs of body contact where the couple took turns to roll over each other’s back.

The dancers used the energies of “push” and “resistance” in actions that seemed like wild animals butting heads and people fighting each other. The message was that fights are futile and doesn’t get anyone anywhere, since spatially the dancers did not move.

Fighting done, they moved away from each other in gliding and sweeping movements across the floor. After moving one full circle, the dancers came together and locked themselves in embrace. It was only after this “kiss-and-make-up” scene that we saw the dancers share similar movements - sometimes in unison and sometimes one after the other.

Then, in full display of their individuality and identity, they each broke into a variety of West African dances bringing exciting, dynamic, and rhythmic energy to the stage. When the “this-is-me” statement was done, they walked off stage hand-in-hand with their back towards us, in a sweet, happy ending.

The couple were also in ASWARA to give a weeklong workshop, which the participants, comprised of drummers and dancers, at the end of it, showcased what they’ve learnt - Diansa (celebration dance) and Mandiani (fast dance for young girls). ASWARA students and graduates make up most of the dance participants while the drummers comprised of ASWARA students, guest performers Tony Tang (percussion teacher from Sri Cempaka) and teen Andrew Kam (child prodigy listed in the Malaysia Book of Records for passing his Grade 8 percussion exams at the age of nine).

It was a carnival when the students burst forth on stage singing, clapping, and dancing to the rhythms of the live drum ensemble led by Olivier on the djembe (a drum from Burkina Faso). It made me think what a great youth program this would make when I observed how much the kids were enjoying themselves. All those excess energy that the youths have were poured out on stage. The dance combinations were simple and easy to learn; but that makes the dance accessible to everyone, even those who are not trained in dance.

“I never expected the students to be so good at it,” said Olivier, “because this is a culture totally different from theirs. But they just went all out and enjoyed themselves! Judging from the response of this workshop, we will definitely make plans for more.”


Contemporary Dance in West Africa

According to Olivier, the contemporary dance movement in Africa began in the '80s and the leading proponents of this genre are his teachers, Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro.

“At first, the people in Africa did not understand contemporary dance because it suggests a different way of expression. In our tradition, we burst forth with energy and go all out to express ourselves. But in contemporary dance, we play with different levels of energy. The people were afraid that it would hurt their tradition.”

“But now, people realize that contemporary dance does not hurt our tradition, but in fact, complements it. The contemporary dance scene is blooming in Burkina Faso. Every two years, we hold the Choreographic Encounter of Africa and Indian Ocean where 11 pre-selected dance companies compete against each other. The winner will get financial support and will be toured worldwide. Other developments include the building of the first Centre for Choreographic Development in Burkina Faso.”

(D) Sharira - My Body My Temple - Sept 8, 2006

I COULD not take my eyes off her face. No, this is not an introduction to a love story, but rather, a confession of what struck me most in Sharira – My Body My Temple, a solo bharatanatyam performance by Daisyga Rani from Kalpana Dance Theatre. She presented it as part of the Under the Stars Series 2006: Second Flush by Sutra Dance Theatre last weekend at Amphi-Sutra, Kuala Lumpur.

There are many ways a dancer can manipulate the movement vocabulary in bharatanatyam, but the expression (abhinaya) she projects makes a marked difference in the quality of delivery. The presentation by Daisy (as she is fondly known) is one such example, and it was refreshing to see her emphasis.

Daisy performed her arengetram (graduation) in February 1999 and has since been actively performing and teaching bharatanatyam in Malaysia.

Watching her perform was like watching a silent movie, except that it was live and in colour! From Puspanjali (an offering of flowers) to Ananda Narthana Ganapathy (a devotional item for Lord Ganesha), Daisy delighted by “talking” to the audience with an animated expression. She had so much energy and so much spirit in her.

In the Varnam, a piece that emphasises the need to be united with Shiva, Daisy displayed her technical mastery. She was not rushed in her execution and had a good sense of timing. What was attractive about this piece was the amount of attention paid to details, such as the description (through dance) of a leaf falling to the ground and a seed thrown upwards, which then blossomed in mid-air, among others.

Keerthanam – Chinna Chinna Padan (Little Krishna) was an interesting depiction of Krishna. It was the first time I’d seen Krishna depicted as a child. The opening of this piece had several children dressed as “little Krishna”, each in a different mode of play. The scene ended, to everyone’s delight, with one of them drinking buttermilk from a pot – a familiar scene from stories of Krishna’s childhood.

While the children had no problem playing little Krishna, portraying a kid was no child’s play. Daisy was only able to hold the role convincingly in parts.

In Padam – Netrandi Nerathila, Daisy played a heroine who sees her lover, Lord Muruga, flirt with another woman by a riverbank. In the dance, she confronts her lover and describes her pain. Wonderful as she is as an actress, the dance repertoire was overwhelmed by too much storytelling.

Finally, when the Thillana, a pure dance item, came on, I sat back and simply enjoyed the physical beauty of a trained body in movement.

In this production, Shangita Namasibayam, Daisy’s bharatanatyam teacher for 15 years and also artistic director of Kalpana, worked with Lam Ghooi Keat from the Temple of Fine Arts on the narration. They did a good job of carefully choosing words that best explained the meaning of each item in the repertoire.

(M)(D) Crossing Borders - Sept 20, 2006

CROSSING Borders, part of the Under the Stars Series 2006: Second Flush by Sutra Dance Theatre aimed to challenge definitions as we know them: like, what is traditional and what is modern? What is indigenous and what is foreign?

Performances were held last weekend at Amphi-Sutra in Kuala Lumpur. The evening began with Christopher Yohmei rendering Ichijo (The Immutable, composed by Seiho Kineya in 1975) on a shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). Yohmei looked like a saxophone player, from the way he held the vertical instrument to the way he carried himself. But what he played was no typical jazz piece. The tune he rendered was distinctly Japanese. For several minutes, I enjoyed the haunting, gentle and mellow music. But after a while, boredom set in.

Traditional Japanese music played on the shakuhachi, just like the Chinese bamboo flute, can be manipulated to reflect the many sounds of nature – trickling rain, rustling leaves, birds chirping, the sound of horses galloping on a wide plain, and so forth. No doubt nature is a wonder in itself, but listening to this piece, I felt as if I was watching a plant grow.

Unfortunately, his next piece, Hienso (The Transitory) was no different. The “I-can-grow-old-listening-to-this” was reflected in the dance interpreted and performed by Ramli Ibrahim and Guna. They tried to show the concept of amica (impermanence) – meaning all things would eventually fade and die.

Ramli appeared as half-elf, half-shaman, flitting on stage with a stem. It was difficult to identify him as a delicate, blossoming flower – the image he was trying to portray. Ironically, the younger Guna appeared as the (artificially-greyed) old man bent with burden as Ramli left the staged. The interpretation of Hienso was all too literal.

I was stricken by Starstruck, choreographed by Rathimalar Govindarajoo. She attempted to cross borders by incorporating the kinetic energy of Bharatanatyam and martial arts, while informed by contemporary twists and sensibilities. However, “crossing borders” requires more refined and subtle treatment. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair as I watched the choreographer force different forms of art and ideas into her work, in invasive and intrusive ways.

A party comprising S. Felix (on the sitar), Jaya Sekhar (veena), Ravin Sikander (tabla) and Theban Arumugam (mirdangam and ganjira) provided musical relief with jughalbandhi, a blend of northern and southern Indian music which evolved 50 years ago.

They “crossed borders” by sharing one tune, rag keeravani (a melodic mode in Southern Indian music), and one type of rhythm – a 16-beat cycle (called peen paal in the north and eka paal, the south). It was sheer pleasure listening to Felix and Sekhar (the main artists) improvise on their respective instruments. Accents at different places gave delightful bursts of detail when one least expected it. The performance had my feet tapping throughout.

Next, a qawalli (devotional music of the sufis, performed throughout India and Pakistan) entitled Yadaan Bichde (Memories), which focuses on the theme of love was presented. Principal vocalist Haider Ali (who studied music under the Qawal family of the late Ustad Selamat Ali Khan), supported by vocalists Shah Rukh and Shabeer Ahmed, sung about how memories of a lover could pierce the heart. They then begged God to banish this pain of separation.

The style of singing was close to theatrical. The vocalists seemed to be having a conversation with each other and their animated expressions certainly looked it! At some point, I thought the singing was too loud and piercing, but I was told it was supposed to be that way.

Finally, all the musicians came together to present an improvisation on the rag gunkali, a melodic mode in Northern Indian music. In the improvisation, the Japanese shakuhuchi combined with qawali vocals and Indian instruments (veena, sitar, table and mirdangam) to create a cross-cultural and cross-musical experience.

The Hindustani rag shares almost the same melodic mode as the traditional Japanese miyako bushi scale (one of the scales used in Japanese art music). In this piece, the shakuhachi took the place of the bansuri (side-blown Indian flute) while maintaining its tonal characteristics.

Together, the musicians returned to the thematic melody to punctuate the improvisations while keeping to their own styles. They also collaborated with Sutra to present the highlight of the evening, a sneak preview of Navarasa (nine rasa) conceptualised by Ramli and Guna.

Navarasa (pix source - The Star)

The pair, together with seven other dancers, emerged masked. Their “frozen” faces were a direct contradiction of what the piece intended to portray – the nine human sentiments, that is, love, valour, compassion, wonderment, mirth/laughter, terror, disgust, anger and serenity. Even after the masks were removed, the faces were slow to melt into the sentiments. But, to be fair, the snippet we saw of the full-length Navarasa was too short to draw out the full potential of the choreography.

Friday, August 25, 2006

(D) Dream'n Butterfly - Aug 20, 2006

Pix source: The Star

JACK Kek Siou Kee performed Dream’n Butterfly, his first solo, to a packed Experimental Theatre at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre last weekend. He also did the choreography.

The 29-year-old Trengganu-born lad (who was raised in Kuala Lumpur) was introduced to dance at 19 – he watched Lady White Snake by Mew Chang Tsing, principle of RiverGrass Dance Theatre. The performance spurred him to take up theatre and body movement classes with Woon Fook Sen, a theatre supporter and activist, and subsequently, contemporary and folk dance with Mew.

In 2002, Kek was offered a scholarship to pursue dance studies at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, where he majored in Chinese dance and took tap and contemporary dance as electives.

“I majored in Chinese dance because as a Malaysian-born Chinese, I want to discover my roots. Hong Kong is the best place for multi-cultural exposure. I learnt a broad scope of Chinese dance encompassing folk, classical and even acrobatics. If I were to study in Beijing, I would have to specialise in one pure Chinese dance style because the schools there follow a very systematic syllabus,” said Kek, who graduated in July this year with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in Dance.

Dream’n Butterfly is a full-length contemporary Chinese dance based on a poem by Zhuang Zhi (369-286BCE), who describes how he dreamt of a butterfly, but woke up wondering if the creature had also dreamt of him.

“When I stand on stage as a performer, I make people believe that I am someone else. Offstage, I’m another person. Who am I? Through this dance, I want to make people wonder the same thing. “I chose this poem because Chinese poets rarely reveal how romantic they are. Most of them write about philosophy. If they do say anything romantic, they would not be so direct “Also, in Chinese culture, the butterfly is symbolic of something significant in life. For me, it’s a dream fulfilled – going to Hong Kong to pursue dance. The lifespan of a butterfly can be as brief as two days; as such, life is very precious and very fragile. I sacrificed all my money and time not knowing what the returns would be. But I really want to do this and I am savouring every moment of my dance pursuit,” Kek added.

Dream’n Butterfly reflects the “it’s-my-last-day-on-earth” attitude that drives him towards excellence.

In the first part of the dance, he portrayed a “man” surrounded by butterflies, as well as a “butterfly”. He toyed with illusion, the way magicians David Blaine and David Copperfield do: without leaving stage, he made both “man” and “butterfly” appear and disappear by interchanging his roles seamlessly.

He fashioned his own butterfly (usually represented by the middle finger touching the thumb with palm facing downwards) using hand gestures. He explored Chao Xian (a type of Korean dance) to depict the starting point of a butterfly’s graceful flutter. He used its breathing techniques to coordinate his body movements as he attempted to follow the erratic flight of the butterfly.

Kek tapped the water (or long) sleeve dance, Han folk dance and Chinese martial arts as the basis for his movement vocabulary. We watched his slow transformation into a butterfly as he first donned a costume with one long sleeve, then a bolero with two long sleeves.

The segment in which he wore one long sleeve was infused with a sense of torment, as if he was lost and unsure about his identity. He wet his sleeves in a makeshift gully filled with water that dripped continuously from the ceiling. He twirled the sleeve to form a “rod”, which he then used to hit several rows of metal rods hanging on the left of the stage, causing them to clash noisily.

The moments of torment passed and he ended with a multimedia segment filled with peaceful images – quite a contrast to the earlier scene. The dancer had found peace with his new identity – a white butterfly.

He assumed this new identity with confidence. With two long sleeves at his disposal, he showed his mastery in the water sleeve style. Like a reptile catching its prey with its tongue, he unfurled his sleeves, then retracted them with lighting speed. He displayed control by using them to form ripples, creating images of water flowing down a stream.

Pix source: The Star

Showing a touch of improvisation, Kek turned his sleeves into square handkerchiefs, the prop used in Han folkdance. Interestingly, he performed to tribal-sounding drums in this routine, giving the piece an uplifting feel.

In the final scene, a backdrop unfolded across the stage from left to right, revealing three layers of white vertical panels. He shed his wings and fled behind the panels, which were strongly lit with white lights.

Occasionally, his hands created a butterfly that appeared inbetween the panels, or as a shadow behind them. And then Kek, as man or butterfly, left the darkened stage. The butterfly was gone.

Dream’n Butterfly evoked a feeling of the surreal. What’s real is that Kek has proven his mettle in contemporary Chinese dance.

Friday, August 11, 2006

(R) Happy Birthday to good old me - August 11, 2006

Dear God,
I thank you for this day that you've given me,
for giving me life and for moulding me into who I am.
I thank you for your blessings, especially my loved ones.
And my dog :)

Monday, August 07, 2006

(T) August 4, 2006 - Wangi Jadi Saksi

Dalam hasil teater Wangi Jadi Saksi, U-Wei Hajisaari (Pengarah) menjemput penonton memikirkan siapa sebenarnya wanita yang bernama Dang Wangi ini. Ya, nama yang ditinggalkan dari zaman kegemilangan Kesultanan Melaka yang kini lebih dikenali sebagai salah satu stesen perhentian LRT di Kuala Lumpur.

Kisah penderhakaan Hang Jebat dan pertarungannya dengan Hang Tuah tak habis-habis didebat di alam academia dan tak jemu-jemu dijadikan bahan teater. Sejarah menjadi saksi bahawa kontroversi dan skandal laris. Isi kandungan media hari ini buktinya.

Produksi ini mempunyai set yang kontemporari dan serba ringkas. Kononnya, U-Wei berfikir, tidak perlu membazir berjuta-juta seperti PGL. Kos yang dibelanjakan untuk menghasilkan set tidak penting; yang penting, keberkesanan penggunaannya.

Saya mendapati kekurangan dari dua aspek: monotoni dialognya yang melesukan pendengaran dan penggunaan ruang pentas yang kurang variasi yang membosankan mata. Malah, saya hampir tertidur ketika menyaksikannya.

Yang menarik ialah pendekatan feminisme yang digunakan untuk menyoalsiasat sejarah yang dicatat dari perspektif patriaki. U-Wei, bagaikan Jebat yang menderhakakan sistem patriaki, kini mengetengahkan suara wanita yang dahulunya tidak terdaya bersuara. Inilah yang menjadikan interpretasi adegan yang dijumpai di kedua-dua buku Sejarah Melayu dan Hikayat Hang Tuah itu segar lagi provokatif.

Wangi Jadi Saksi menceritakan kisah Hang Jebat yang dikhianati dan dibunuh, seperti yang dilihat dari sudut pandang kekasihnya Dang Wangi yang menjadi satu-satunya saksi peristiwa tersebut. Justeru, Dang Wangi menghadapi Patih Kerma Wijaya yang dianggap pembunuh suaminya. Kisah ini diceritakan dalam dialog antara Dang Wangi dan Patih Kerma Wijaya yang diselangi dengan penceritaan imbas kembali.

Dang Wangi menjumpai Hang Jebat cedera ditikam dari belakang. Abang Tuah tidak kelihatan. Yang ada cuma Patih Kerma Wijaya yang mengatakan bahawa Hang Tuah sudah pergi selepas menikam Hang Jebat.

Dalam berkabungnya, Dang Wangi berfikir – sanggupkah pahlawan terunggul Melaka menikam lawan yang tidak bersenjata apatah dari belakang?; sanggupkah Taming Sari melimpahkan darah bagi pendekar pengecut? Jawapannya jelas.

Dalam kontroversi yang tidak luput ini, yang pasti, kita jadi saksi: Tak Melayu Hilang di Dunia kerana berani menuntut hak rakyat membantah ketidakadilan. Suara yang kecil, betapa "wangi" (merdu) pun, ditelan masa, dilesap sejarah.

(D) July 28, 2006 - Adorations

Pix source: The Star

COULD you love someone you’ve never known? That was what solos Vidhya Pushpanathan (20) and Jagatheswara (17) grappled with in Ramli Ibrahim’s Adorations (Second Flush), held at Amphi-Sutra, Kuala Lumpur, over the last two weekends.

Adorations, first staged in 1985, fleshed out movements and philosophical ideas behind Odissi. This piece was a dedication and a tribute by Ramli to the style of Odissi propagated by his guru, Deba Prasad Das, who died in 1986. He was one of the revivalist pioneers of Odissi.

The guru role played by Mano Maniam was that of Deba Prasad Das.

While Pushpanathan and Maniam portrayed the more convincing teacher-disciple relationship, overall, the lack of rasa (feeling) and bakti (adoration) in both dancers were primarily due to the fact that Deba Prasad was not the guru they knew. Unless the young dancers-cum-actress/ actor can pull off a Grammy, it would be better if Maniam had played Ramli, the guru they can directly relate to.

While the “guru” that is represented could change, the parampara (school) of Deba Prasad Das should rightly prevail in the repertoire. Here we see the perseverance of Deba Prasad’s style, which is noted for its strong balance between the vigorous and the gentle, the masculine and the feminine. His style also combines elements of folk, classical and tribal dance.

“When you watch, you learn,” said Maniam as guru-ji to his disciple. “That was exactly what Adorations served to its audience – an enlightening “Odissi for Dummies”.

The performance began by introducing the basic steps in Odissi (chowka and tribanghi), then moving on to emulate four temple sculptures (veena player, the indolent maiden, cymbals player, and the drum player) or sthai, reprising the tale of Siva’s eight-fold forms, and concluding with moksha, the final dance of joy and release.

Some of the more enjoyable moments came from Maniam who read beautiful poems that inspire dance with verses such as “?things standing shall fall but the moving shall ever stay”. Maniam slipped into the dhoti-clad guru-ji role like a duck to water.
He stressed the need to maintain the essence of purity in the traditional dance form. “None of the kush kush stuff allowed,” said Maniam, as he angled his disciple’s arms into a perfect square shaping the chowka. “The line between the sacred and the profane is thin. We must not vulgarise nor prostitute dance.

“Bakti is adoration. The body itself is nothing. It must be made into the finest instrument dedicated to God. The dancer’s body is the perfect creation of God. The dancer must learn to adore his body. Not until the body is bored of a movement can you speak of freedom. Devotion to one’s art is adoration. It is through bakti that dance becomes yoga.”

Did the disciples bear any semblance to God’s perfect creation? Not quite yet.

Jagatheswara made his Odissi debut in this performance. When he first moved on stage, it looked very obvious that a body nurtured for Bharatanatyam was trying hard to adapt to Odissi, a totally different style.

Although I admired his attention to detail, the high-level of energy and the clearly accented movements, his style was too brisk and not fluid enough for my liking. His movements were still bound by consciousness to technique mastery and less on rasa.

Pushpanathan was evidently the more mature Odissi exponent of the two. Her soft, continuous and graceful movements embodied how the body should “melt”. She is on the verge of “freedom” (from technique) and is clearly showing signs of adoring her body. She was also much more focused in reprising Siva’s eight-fold forms (compared to Jagatheswara), where she tackled each form with fierce intensity.

Odissi is a dance traditionally dominated by men (Odissi was originally performed by Gotipuas, men who dressed themselves like female dancers). Thus, I found it interesting to observe how the dancers took on opposite gender roles and how they approached Odissi.

Jagatheswara was not as comfortable depicting the indolent maiden as Pushpanathan was with depicting the fearsome Indian gods. Was it a matter of shyness in the former dancer or merely lack of mastery in abhinaya (expression)?

Jagatheswara’s approach was clearly aggressive (tandava) whilst Pushpanathan took a combination approach; both tandava and lasya (soft and graceful).

Well, performing solo is no easy task. Often, it takes a charismatic dancer to keep the audience engaged. As the “chosen ones” for Adorations, Ramli clearly saw the solo potential in them. With more honing, they will certainly come to realise their full potential.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

(D) June 25, 2006 - Sanggar Koreografi 2006

MORE than a hundred kids actually gave up the World Cup in favour of dance, can you imagine? There is hope for the arts yet!

The event was Sanggar Koreografi Malaysia 2006, a platform for choreography presented by the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan’s dance department that is headed by the indefatigable Joseph Gonzales.

The event, called ilham, proses, karya (inspiration, process, creation), comprised a weeklong workshop for dance professionals beginning on June 11 at the academy’s campus in Kuala Lumpur and three nights of performances at its Experimental Theatre over the last weekend.

Participants hailed from all over Malaysia as well as the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) in Australia and Institute Seni Indonesia Yogyakarta (ISIY) in Indonesia.

In the heady early days of dance in this country, Malaysian choreographers attempted to fuse various local dance genres (especially classical, traditional and folk dances) with Western ones to create a “contemporary” style. The outcome was awkward and shallow – works that tried too hard to incorporate anything Malaysian.

Looking at the works of the academy’s lecturers and choreographers such as Umesh Shetty (Alla Rip Pu), Wong Kit Yaw (Under the Moonlight), and Zhou Gui Xin (Journey), as well as that of graduate Firdaus Mustapha Kamal (Om Swasti Astu), it is evident that Malaysian choreographers have progressed from merely “fusing” dance genres to reinventing classical, traditional and folk dances. For sure, the shape of “contemporary dance” in Malaysia is emerging, and it is a shape drawn from our own dance traditions.

The performances over the three nights could be loosely categorized into three types: contemporary Asian, thematic, and technical.

Umesh’s Alla Rip Pu is surely one of his best works. He merged the pure dance style of barathanatyam (allarippu) with contemporary dance. Originally performed by dancers trained in classical Indian dance, this version was performed by dancers who were not. Those who saw the earlier version might agree that the advantage of classical Indian dance training was very clear, but the advantage of this version is that it made barathanatyam accessible to other dancers.

Under the Moonlight by Wong was pure delight despite its done-to-death theme of youth and love. His perception of culture and life is deeply original and his interpretation, fresh. It made me say, “Hey, I’ve never seen it this way before!” Drawing movement vocabulary from Chinese folk dance, he recreated the simple lives of villagers and the vitality and exuberance of youths in love.

Journey by Zhou explored the xin jiang (a type of Chinese dance) style in a dance that portrayed the nomadic journey of a tribe and its quest for a home. The dancers, proud in their smart uniforms, marched to an anthem – grandiose music added to the nationalistic feel. Zhou used minimal movements focused mainly on the hands and upper body and maintained the clean-cut simplicity in formations.

Firdaus’ Om Swasti Astu (“welcome” in Balinese) is a Balinese dance contemporised by reinventing the context while maintaining the movement vocabulary. Originally a war dance (baris, a Balinese warrior dance) performed by a group of men, it was presented as a duet (between a male and female dancer) that told the story of the choreographer’s personal journey in life. And to Firdaus, it seems, life is a road full of battles. The two characters, in sudden and accented movements, nodded their heads violently as if they were having a fierce conversation.

Sonata Borobudur by Hendro Martono of ISIY did not successfully project the splendour of Borobudur (the biggest Hindu-Buddhist temple in Indonesia) and the sad feeling of how it’s degenerated into a tourist attraction did not come through. The pace was also too slow. In the end, it was not choreography but traditional costumes that bound “classical” and “contemporary”.

Two compositions by Suhaimi Magi were presented – Dulang and Paut. Dulang is an exploration of movement that is taken from the vocabulary of tari piring (“saucer dance”, a Malay dance). Far from reflecting a farmer’s daily activities (typical in tari piring), solo dancer Liu Yong Sean looked like he was exploring the many ways with which to play with the metal tray. Lack of direction notwithstanding, he danced it like he meant it – a highly commendable effort.

On the other hand, Paut was a beautiful duet, a love story of a couple never apart. The connection between the couple was symbolised by an umbrella (held by the woman) with a sash (held by the man) tied to it.

Theme, concept or idea-based choreographies were obvious favourites among the choreographers, both local and foreign.

Mew Chang Tsing (ASK lecturer and choreographer) derived her work from the concept of qi (energy) in her work The idea is to feel the qi and allow the (invisible) energy to move the body. One cannot find qi within a week – and it was obvious that the workshop participants presenting this dance had not.

9 to 5 depicted the hectic and bitchy life of the office. With wigs and wit, this piece by Gonzales (ASK lecturer and choreographer), offered fun and drama.

Angin-Angin by Sukarji Sriman (Indonesian choreographer, now Universiti Malaya lecturer) told of the winds of change. From a serene jungle setting, the dance moved on to concrete pavements. The transition was underlined by the soundscape that began with a Quran recital and then changed to jazzy tunes.

Graduates from ASK who presented their works were Arif Nazri Samsudin (Hai! Kak Long), Siti Ros Ezeeka Rahmat (Kejar), Fairuz Tauhid (Lemak Berjangkit), Sharip Zainal Sagkif Shek (Hitam Putih Kelabu), and Gloria Anak Patie (H...U...J...).

Of these performances, Hitam Putih Kelabu was the most captivating. And Sharip himself composed the mesmerising score that accompanied the dance. In the dance, two dancers dressed in black “flew” gracefully like birds, one behind the other. The dancers in white seemed to be the evil ones and they were envious of the grace exuded by the dancers in black. Is black good and white evil, or vice versa? Sharip left the matter grey.

On the last night, graduates of VCA presented Glimpse (by Yi Zhang), Playmate (by Marisa Wilson), Up to My Eyes (by Holly Durant, Harriet Ritchie and Amber Haines), Parental Guidance Recommended (by Sara Black), Persona (by Suhaili Ahmad Kamil), and 4 Phase (by Anna Smith).

The graduates were here in Malaysia because of the Persona Project initiated by Suhaili Ahmad Kamil, which is part of her Bachelor of Dance (Honours) program at VCA.

It was quite clear in VCA’s works that technique (especially in Persona and 4 Phase) was emphasised more than elements of culture and tradition. Delightful as the themed and character-based choreographies were, they seemed to be a little obsessed with “little girls” (Playmate and Parental Guidance Recommended). Another choreographic direction is the exploration of emotions and how that emotion can be heightened and conveyed through dance; for example, fear in Glimpse and angst in Up to My Eyes. Both were very dark pieces.

After three nights of such diverse dance delights, I must say that Sanggar Koreografi Malaysia 2006 was a great event, one that even suggested Malaysia has the potential to become a centre for international dance education. Kudos to the dance department of ASK.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

(D) July 2, 2006 - Choreography for Non-Choreographers

THE arts? “Oh, they're only for the arty-farty lah,” many people would say. Well, they shouldn't be. The arts need to be accessible to everyone, otherwise it's all just artistes being horribly precious and performing for themselves and a handful of pretentious fans.

Marion D’Cruz firmly believes in making the arts as democratic as possible. She began doing that by working with people who were interested in dance but who were not dancers, introducing them to movement and demystifying what happens on stage.

After years of putting non-dancers on stage, she thought about the next step: “If I can make non-dancers perform, I should be able to make the process of choreography accessible to non-choreographers.

“Basically, it’s a way of opening up the ‘sacred realm’ of the choreographer. It’s one more step in the democratisation of creative space.”

Her Choreography for Non-Choreographers is the second workshop in the Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series 2006 organised by of the Five Arts Centre.

Concluding the workshop two weekends ago, 11 participants put up a five-minute performance each at the mobile-phones-allowed makeshift performance space between Central Market and the Liquid Room dance club in Kuala Lumpur. Bravo! The average “Central Market Jo(han)” now has access to such performances.

So there were two levels of democratisation: choreography for non-choreographers and a performance for a “non-audience”, i.e., people who wouldn’t normally go to a dance performance. It's access, in other words.

D’Cruz was quick to qualify that this event was not about dance but choreography – perhaps she was a tad wary that the performance would be judged on dance techniques.

Although the word “choreography” can be applied in situations other than dance, the workshop blog at revealed that Choreography for Non-Choreographers was about dance-skewed choreography. It included conceptualising ideas, finding inspiration, understanding and expressing emotions (pain, anger, etc), communicating meaning and messages, understanding quality of movements, forming floor patterns, exploring improvisation, and making others execute your vision.

In her dance creation for non-dancers, certainly technique was not the prime concern. Because dance is not always about technique, why renounce it altogether? At the end of the day, what did the average Central Market Jo(han) see? Certainly not choreography, but dance - dance as they’ve never seen before and will never pay to see.

Not all trained dancers become choreographers. Most are merely executioners. The point where they start to become a choreographer is when they start to think.

So, were the 11 workshop participants able to think? Did they “get” choreography? Well, some more than others.

Indie film director and part-time photographer James Lee’s piece, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was a good choice with which to kick-start the performance. Performers shocked passers-by by telling them very rudely to keep quiet. This form of audience interaction effectively grabbed people’s attention and made them stay on to watch.

Throughout, the performers had to say, “Will you please be quiet, please?” Travelling across the stage, animated, they told each other to shut up in various ways – begging, shouting, whispering, and screaming. The appeal of this format was the comforting familiarity of repetition and the oxymoron of individuals telling others to keep quiet when they themselves aren’t being very quiet!

24 Minutes in Kuala Lumpur, 64 Minutes in Jakarta was a study of greed and consumption. This piece by NGO worker and theatre practitioner Gabrielle Low was certainly entertaining and fun. The skinny labourer (Mark Teh) works hard to feed the capitalists. It’s a glutton’s dance – one that saw the performers stuffing themselves silly and getting bloated. Finally, they are bowled over, constipated. editor Phang Khee Teik choreographed Hallelujah, an emotional piece that celebrates the right to love. Although the pace was a bit slow, the piece demonstrated that, regardless of the type of relationship (man and woman, man and man, woman and woman), we all experience the same thing: happiness and hurt, fights and make-ups.

Actor Mark Teh's piece meant to disturb – and its title obviously not meant to be understood! What on earth does Buang Ruang Kurang Kurung atau Tiap-Tiap Hari, Khabar Angin Lama, Surat Khabar Sama (Space Displace These Fears Erase aka Every Day, Old News Maker, Same News Paper) mean?

Title aside, I would say this was a great piece that described Malaysia all in one space. Malaysians live in denial: someone shouted, “There is no crisis.” Malaysians are shoe-polishers: someone shouted, “Yes, boss.” Malaysians are obsessed with celebrities: someone shouted, “Erra Fazira. Siti Nurhaliza.” Malaysians are hysterical: someone screamed bloody murder. And so forth. For the slap-in-the-face ending, the performers all grouped together and waved mini Malaysian flags shouting, “If they are not happy, they have to leave!” before putting the flags in their mouths. This is Malaysia, so swallow it.

The More We Get Together by assistant theatrical producer Kiew Suet Kim explored the touchy issue of showing affection in public. She asked, “How far can the hands of the State probe into our personal lives?”

Unrequited by advertising consultant and theatre practitioner Vernon Adrian Emuang, made one feel the agonising pain of unrequited love – though I’m not sure if that was also because the piece just felt too long. The performers walked in a dazed group from one corner to another, playing follow-the-leader. Although the point where a girl dropped “dead” and is carried by a saddened man was good drama, it was not a good call to have her walk on the other performers’ backs (forming stairs). Her fear of falling disrupted her focus.

Cita-Cita Saya by biologist (and frequent stage manager) June Tan tried to depict ambition but instead spewed over-optimism and over-confidence before nose-diving into sad reality.

According to the programme, Damaged by Five Arts Centre’s Adrian Kisai was followed by In One Piece by (theatre company) Dramalab’s Wyn Hee. I couldn’t tell that by watching as it wasn’t clear when Damaged ended and when In One Piece started – it seemed like both were actually one long piece of work. It sort of made sense: While one damages and the other puts back into one piece.

There was very little difference between Don’t Wake Me Up, I’m Sleeping by journalist Hari Azizan (who works at The Star) and A Sleepwalker in Transit by Universiti Teknologi Mara graduate Myra Mahyudin (aside from a big alarm clock in the latter). The execution was similar and after watching, one felt like asking, “So what?”

So what? Even professional choreographers sometimes produce choreographies that are not up to par. The point is, D’Cruz did make choreographers out of these non-choreographers.

However, this group of participants are not strangers to theatre in different forms. Wouldn’t it be interesting to try this workshop on an entirely different set of people, say, a mathematician, a bus driver, a nurse, a computer programmer and a chef?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

(D) June 11, 2006 - Evolving Horizon

Pix Source: The Star

THE sun rose on the choreographic horizon and turned the sky fresh-blood red. That was new hope painted by the young dancers and choreographers of the Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Kwang Tung Association Youth Section’s dance troupe in Evolving Horizon. For the past seven years, the troupe has organised an annual showcase series, titled Kua Bu (taking the leap forward) for its student dancers to perform and learn to produce shows.

This year, the troupe took the leap towards a professional production in a proper theatre setting.

Evolving Horizon, staged in Kuala Lumpur early June, featured works by six young choreographers. Of these, three showed great potential, namely Love in 4.28 by Tin Tan, Walk Out by Samantha Chong, and Passages by Faith Toh.

In Love in 4.28, dancers dressed as clownish waitresses were slaves to time. Like clockwork, they struck a pose at the end of each dance phrase. There was also a brilliant touch of humour as dancers reacted to music that sounded like it came from a scratched record. The notion of “love”, however, was less evident and only revealed itself vaguely in the tango scenes.

Sign language, the mode of communication used by the deaf, literally echoed through Walk Out. It successfully evoked feelings of immense emotional pain and lured the audience into the psyche of a person trapped by circumstances.

Underneath the soothing strains of string and voice lurked a deep sense of loss. Then, as the music became more vigorous, the dancers doubled their speed – sometimes in unison, and sometimes one after another – creating diagonal and triangular formations. Release!, Let go!, and Walk out! were what they intended to do in the latter part of the dance as they pulled their hair upwards to “over-extend” their bodies. They finally ended with a decisive clasping of hands.

Passages, which looked at man’s evolution, was also reflective of karma. Three dancers in diagonal position - one standing, one bending forward and one kneeling – formed a plane that rose on the left and dropped on the right.

The dancer on centre stage moved like an animal - she bent forward, almost on all fours. As though watching a scene from Animal Planet, I relished the graceful vertebrae-by-vertebrae movements. Evolving from animal to man, the second dancer took bigger steps and larger, sweeping movements whilst the third, standing upright, travelled across and around the stage.

It seemed like they had regressed from man to animal when, with backs bent towards us, the dancers flopped forward and shook their butts like birds ruffling their feathers after the rain. The “birds” then frolicked with a huge rubber ball but quickly abandoned it before taking flight in single-file migratory position.

Though I would have preferred a less jittery ending, the dancers, with their backs towards each other, shook their bodies repeatedly as they moved in circles until the lights blacked out. Thus is the passage of life, being born and reborn, and who knows what next?

Teresa Chian’s Two Pages for Kim differed from the other works in the showcase. This short piece featured a solo (performed by Chian herself) and used only the confines of a space encircled by lit candles placed on the floor. The movement vocabulary was primarily defined by the tugging of an invisible rope from both directions. I wondered if she was using ropes to turn two gigantic pages.

Busy. Rest by Louise Yow managed to create a busy environment on stage. The dancers moved in one direction but were rudely pushed by some invisible brute force that set them on the opposite path. There was a clear sequence of movement that was subsequently repeated in whole or in part. The soundscape alternated between music and silence, hence “busy” and “rest”. But the piece fell short of a balance between those two elements, as there was no “rest” for the body.

Behind by Chin Kah Voon and Mak Foong Ming lagged behind the other works, conceptually. It is great to be able to stitch together a series of movements but the choreography also needs to express something. What the pair aimed to say did not resonate clearly.

Dancers in this showcase comprised the above-mentioned choreographers, as well as Tan Bee Hung, Foong Siew Ching, and Kho Chin Aun. All of them proved to be competent dancers who certainly have the potential to improve.

It certainly looks like the Kwang Tung dance troupe’s efforts in training the younger generation are paying off.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

(D) May 19, 2006 - Babel

Pix source: The Star

Babel, a full-length contemporary hip hop performance, kicked off the week-long French Art Festival 2006 last weekend. The tri-culture (French-Malaysian-Chinese) full-length work, conceptualised by Najib Guerfi, sought to find a common language in dance.

I must admit that I went to the Istana Budaya with some reservation, having endured an awful performance (Recital by Compagnie Kafig) of the same genre at the American Dance Festival last year.

Thankfully, my fears were dispelled with the first flick of Guerfi's head (he was also dancing). Something good had come out of this collaborative attempt. The French (Guerfi and Lyliane Gauthier), Malaysian (Umesh Shetty and Elaine Pedley) and Chinese (Wang Tao and Cao Peizhong) dancers took to the stage to introduce their respective movement vocabularies.

Then Guerfi broke into a “windmill” (body on the ground and legs spinning in circle in the air) while Wang and Cao spun in continuous “butterfly kicks” (Wushu-influenced backward kick with one leg flying up, immediately followed by the other).

Quickly, the dancers re-grouped and moved in circular movements – their first common ground. Arms extended and curved at shoulder level; sometimes, arms whipping to define turns, or waving above the head, directing the body to bend.

Babel tells of man’s evil ways and, as a result, his impending doom. Using expression, the most basic of body language, the dancers affirmed that we are evil by grinning like the Joker (one of the bad guys in Batman) on and off throughout the repertoire.

When the three-tiered metal scaffolding, representing the Tower of Babel, arose on stage, the dancers rushed toward it and started climbing. Swinging and swaying precariously, they revealed moments akin to an audition for Cirque du Soleil.

Audition over, they moved to position standing in three tiers forming an inverted pyramid, and danced in unison. That was a brief visual delight before the “tower” sank and the dancers tumbled back on stage.

Pix source: The Star

Picking themselves up, they started to run in a slow and restrained manner. Like marionettes (directed and expressionless) controlled by the puppet master, they attempted “popping” and “locking” (robot-like movements) in a group.

Heavy drum beats heralded fight scenes in which group interaction and kungfu duels were central. But unlike the “challenge”, common in hip hop repertoire, the confusing duels resembled Capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art).

The music, specially composed by Gregory Guillemin for Babel, was an excellent Western-Chinese-Indian fusion piece. In a passage that was clearly Chinese, a melodic flute played against the steady rhythm resonating from a string instrument. Four solos were featured to this music.

Under a spotlight on the dimmed stage, Gauthier fluttered uncertainly and lazily like a butterfly discovering her wings. Pedley playfully showed off a headstand and froze in various inverted positions. However, when she rendered her bit of Odissi (an Indian dance ), it was obvious that her movements were not as and masterful as Shetty’s.

Tempo, another common ground in dance, was more obvious in Shetty’s and Guerfi’s solos. Guerfi’s arm wave (arms rippling like waves) and isolation of various body parts were performed slowly and steadily to the steady rhythm of the haunting Chinese music. Body part after body part appeared and disappeared on the darkened stage, creating an illusion that a row of lights and shadow were streaming across his stationary body. Shetty, sure and precise, took an off-beat approach in his contemporary Odissi solo. He burst into movement when you least expected it and left you begging for more.

Finally, the last common ground was how the three dances used varying heights in their approach to movements: the breakdance featured “drop down” sequences; Wushu had bended knees, and the Odissi, squats.

Babel as an intercultural contemporary hip hop package is funky, cool and engaging. Although it had a limited range of breakdance moves, the amount of hip hop was just right. And the incorporation of Chinese and Indian movement vocabularies was done smoothly and tastefully.

Merveilleux! Babel has taken street culture and made it art.

Monday, May 15, 2006

(D) May 14, 2006 -

WHAT creases a piece of cloth that is flung into the air? What shape do those ripples describe? Something that is there, yet cannot be seen?

Choreographer Mew Chang Tsing used soft, golden cloth to great effect in trying to capture qi, the energy that surrounds us invisibly. The cloth took on the form of anything with substance, be it a dancer’s body or the qi around the dancer – thus, shapes outlined by the cloth in the air.

This was, the sixth in Mew’s series on qi, presented in Pebbles 3 at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in Kuala Lumpur last weekend.

In this version, the dancers try to heighten their sensitivity to surrounding energies by being lightly blindfolded. By reducing the sense of sight they hoped to increase their sense of touch. Standing around a swath of the cloth encircled on the stage, they tried to draw from the qi chang (arena of energy). They stood relaxed and allowed the qi to gently sway their bodies. Two dancers, Kiea Kuan Nam and Liu Yong Sean, continued in this meditative state throughout the performance, even as they climbed the “stairway to heaven”, which comprised “steps” created entirely by lighting. In contrast, Gan Chih Pei seemed to be in turbulence, travelling across the stage, fighting the energies. Only Amy Len “became” the cloth, bent and swayed by the surrounding pressures of qi.

Kiea, Liu, Gan and Len are some of Malaysia’s more matured and accomplished dancers.

Unlike the earlier Qi.v that drew its vocabulary of movement from Chinese dance, this version offers a South-East Asian interpretation of qi.

Mew created motifs with gestures, adding subtle texture to the otherwise purely improvisational technique used by her and fellow dancers. But in this interpretation, I noticed a clash: – entering rasuk, a trance (a common phenomena in several South-East Asian dances), is not the same as being connected with qi. The former is a state of unconsciousness while the latter is a state of consciousness. In the end, Mew spins and spins in confusion, and finally hurls the cloth over her body. Symbolically, qi escapes her – and then, black out! The dance ends. is set to hauntingly beautiful gamelan music composed by Sunetra Fernando and Michael Veerapan for the album Rhythm in Bronze. However, the power of this piece leaves a gap the dance struggles to fill.

Pebbles 3 also featured two other performances, Catch That Thought and 1+1.

Catch That Thought comprised three items, presented by students from Mew’s Children’s Creative Dance classes – Picture Comes Alive (by children aged four to six), Look at Me (by children aged four and below) and Mark My Moves (by children aged eight to 12). 1 + 1 was an improvisational dance in which the dancers starts off in a position determined by the audience.

This production was aimed at raising funds to allow dancers of to perform at the Global Assembly of World Dance Alliance, which will take place in Toronto, Canada, in July. The dancers, who also make up the committee members of Malaysia’s MyDanceAlliance, will also bid for Kuala Lumpur to host the Global Assembly 2008.

(Break-a-Leg spent a year studying Qi Gong with folks double her age. Undoubtedly, they are all healthier than she is!)