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.

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