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?