Saturday, March 31, 2007

(M) Alih PungGONG - March 11, 2007

Pix source: The Star

"A WOMAN is like a tea bag. You won’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” That was my favourite line in Alih PungGong, a kick-butt performance presented by all-female gamelan group Rhythm in Bronze, Five Arts Centre and the Actors Studio at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre last weekend.

Alih PungGong is a continuation of the spirit of exploration that first emerged in Rhythm in Bronze’s Monkey Business in 2005 under the direction of the great, late Datuk Krishen Jit. The concept was based on music woven together with short theatrical pieces and movement.

And this time, it was all about women and what great creatures they are! The image that remains etched in my mind is of the performers holding percussive hitting instruments in mid-air as if ready to beat the daylights out of someone. I'm fondly reminded of Dixie Chicks' Not Ready to Make Nice.

While some women might have preferred to be throwing oranges (these days, with their mobile numbers scribbled on them), I was happy to be amused by the Mandarin Rebellion on that rainy Chap Goh Mei afternoon (March 3) entertaining such thoughts as, “Did a male chauvinist write the Kamus Dewan Bahasa?” while a performer read an endless list of negative adjectives that go with the word perempuan, Malay for woman.

The theme on women came across loud and clear in the dramatic interludes thanks to Nam Ron and Loh Kok Man’s theatrical direction. The interludes were inspired from the element of “extra turns” in bangsawan (Malay opera) that emerged in the early 20th century.

In these extra turns, dancing girls, clowns, jugglers and acrobats took their turns to entertain the crowd as the stage crew made scene changes. These short interludes became so popular with audiences that they became larger and larger in scale through the years, sometimes almost overshadowing the main act, in fact.

Not that the main act of this show was overshadowed. This time around, Rhythm in Bronze featured eight new compositions under the musical direction of Jillion Ooi and Susan Sarah John (making her debut as music director).

Mohd Kamrulbahri Hussin on percussion and Isyam Swardy Daud on guitar joined the troupe as guest performers. They introduced a wider range of sounds that went well with Rhythm in Bronze’s contemporary style.

Suita Malayanaries carried a soft, sweet melody while Sekar Anyar, in contrast, was fast and furious, painting what they described as a “landscape of fire and bronze”. With the saron (bronze slabs) leading the melody and the bonang (bronze kettles) echoing it, the sound kept to a high pitch.

Ketawang (traditional Malay court) depicted the mood of a “funky Sunday afternoon” with all the instruments coming into play.

My favourite was The Wind, a soothing, dreamy piece, with music by Hardesh Singh and lyrics by Yasmin Ahmad (yes, the filmmaker – multi-talented woman, that!). The lyrics describe how a kite makes us see the wind. This nostalgic piece would make for great chill-out music.

Lorna Henderson, a violin fiddling musician from Britain rendered a solo and later, accompanied by the bronze ensemble, gave us In the Beginning, a piece depicting insect heartbeats. Adding to the sound was the visual: other musicians, when not playing, held their hitting instruments in the air, hovering like insects.

Race, a “symphony of crabs” focused on non-bronze instruments. The highlight of this piece was the gambang (wooden xylophone) and the troung, a Vietnamese bamboo xylophone.

In Lagu Untuk Teman Lama, the bronze ensemble combined with the percussion ensemble to come back with umph! Most interesting in this piece was how the gongs, soft and subtle, droned a melodic bass.

Runtuh was filled with accents and punctuations as hitting instruments fell heavy on the bronze. With its interchanging melodies and rhythms, this piece was intriguingly more complicated than the rest.

Last but not least, I must applaud artist Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s beautiful set and costumes. The umbrellas, hung in the air, created several imageries at once: treetops, shades, and the familiar pelita (oil lamp).

I have to say that, since Rhythm in Bronze’s first attempt with this style in 2005 in Monkey Business, the “monkey” has evolved.