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.