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.