Friday, June 29, 2007

(T) Cantonese Opera - June 26, 2007

Pix: The Star

EVERYONE, young and old, should take the opportunity to catch a rare glimpse of Cantonese opera during the Festival of Cantonese Opera, themed The Power and Passion, held at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac).

The festival, organised by the Rotary Club of Gombak, brings the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy First Troupe (GCOAFT), the world’s best-loved Cantonese opera troupe, to our shores. The 60-strong troupe, led by renowned lead principal Ding Fan, comprises performers, musicians, and acrobats.

The six-day festival, from June 26 to July 1, features several opera favourites, including Swapping the Prince with a Civet (June 26 and 29), The Emperor Tang and Yang GuiFeiA Night of Excerpts (June 27, 30 and July 1) featuring excerpts from stories such as Mui GuiYing, Journey to the West, Zhong Kui, and the King of Ghost. (June 28 and July 1), and

It’s not too difficult to fall in love with Cantonese opera once you get past the high-pitched voices, exaggerated mannerisms and make-up. It’s all these and more that make the genre so unique. Accompanied by live Chinese orchestra, the performance is filled with beautiful, traditional music, accentuating scenes and punctuating emotions.

Watching Swapping the Prince with a Civet on the opening night, I was transported back in time to the world of palace politics during the Song Dynasty.

The moral of the story is still relevant today. To sum it up, Dilbert (a popular management cartoon)-style, management is blind, evil triumphs, the good gets exiled and those who are loyal get framed and die for nothing.

Having said all that, the stars are actually the loyal and good servants (Chen Lin, played by Ding Fan and Kou Zhu, played by Jiang Wenduan), without which the dynasty will not survive and prosper.

The Emperor Zhao Heng, already in his 50s, has no heir. When the emperor learns that both Concubine Li and Concubine Liu are pregnant, he decrees that whoever gives birth to a son first will be crowned empress.

When Li (Ye Bei) gives birth to a son, Liu (Chen Jinyun) plots with the palace guard, Guo Huai (Shi Jian), to swap Li’s prince with a civet, and accuses her of conceiving an imp. Li is sent to live in the Exiled Residence. Meanwhile, Liu orders her maid, Kou Zhu, to throw a meal basket into the Golden River.

The maid, not realising that the prince is in the basket, is about to throw it into the river when she hears the baby cry. Superintendent Chen Li comes to investigate. When they realise that the baby is the Crown Prince, they hide the baby from Liu.

The most exciting part of the show is when Chen attempts to smuggle the baby into Nanjing Palace for protection. He hides the baby in a fruit basket, on the pretext of bringing Zhao Defang (Yang Lihao), the 8th King of Nanjing, a birthday gift of fresh peaches.

Guo and Liu stop Chen when he is making his way to the palace. The tension mounts as Liu inspects layer after layer of the three-tiered fruit basket.

Just as Chen is about to open the third layer, which has the baby in it, Kou comes along and distracts Liu, thus preventing him from discovering the baby. Chen succeeds in taking the prince to safety. Zhao, upon hearing of Liu’s evil plans, agrees to bring up the prince as his own son.

Meanwhile, Liu gives birth to a son and is crowned empress. However, seven years later, her son dies and the emperor starts to look for a new heir. The emperor chooses Zhao Zhen (Huang Zheng, the youngest performer), not knowing that he is Li’s son. When Liu realises that something is amiss, Kou and a few others sacrifice themselves to protect the Crown Prince and his mother, Li.

The story ends amidst the crumbling, burning Exiled Residence, and we are expected to watch out for the next episode, as if chasing a TVB Cantonese serial. It's equally additive, I would say. But while television is just entertainment, Cantonese opera is a must-watch work of art.

(D) Tradition and Transference - May 4, 2007

Pix source: The Star

IF I’d watched Arushi Mudgal dance side by side with her aunt, Madhavi Mudgal, on TV, I would have thought they’d used some high-tech gimmickry to have Madhavi’s younger self dance with her present self.

The uncanny resemblance was not just a result of blood ties between aunt and niece but also because of the similarity of dance style seen in the final Pallavi (in rag Bhairavi) that concluded Odissi: Tradition and Transference, a performance that was a part of Sutra Dance Theatre’s Under the Stars series 2007 (2nd Flush), held last weekend. Madhavi is a senior disciple of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra (one of the pioneers of the Odissi revival in India) and she has dedicated more than 35 years of her life to dance. Madhavi is credited with bringing a greatly refined sensibility to her art form. Her background in music has provided her with a rare insight into the art of choreography. She has received acclaim in the world’s major cities and at dance festivals worldwide and has received numerous awards and honours.

Arushi, born in 1986, started Odissi at the age of five under the tutelage of her aunt. Despite her tender years, Arushi has already toured extensively in India and overseas as part of her guru’s dance troupe. Her most significant performances have been in Brazil, France (at the Theatre de la Ville), Germany (Berlin Festspeile) and Morocco (Fez Festival), where she had the honour of dancing with the legendary Kelucharan and Madhavi as part of a recital that illustrated the continuity of the Indian dance tradition through three generations.

In this performance in KL, we witness the transference of tradition through two generations.

Madhavi’s refined sensibilities could be seen in the supple wrist work, distinctive hand gestures, and subtle head shifts. These were featured regularly in the dance that comprised of six sections – Mangalacharan, Pallavi (in rag Bageshri), Ashtapadi (Yahi Madhava), Abhinaya, Oriya Champu and Pallavi (in rag Bhairavi).

Madhavi’s Mangalacharan was one of the most simple and yet alluring invocatory pieces I’ve seen. Hands cupped most of the time, she swayed rhythmically to Sangitaratnakara, a 13th century musical treatise. Her feet stamped to the ever-changing rhythm and her consistent and gentle rocking motion invoked the image of cosmic balance and harmony. She moved like a slithering snake: one moment gliding smoothly, another, striking suddenly.

The Pallavi in rag Bageshri was choreographed and performed by Arushi. It was a demonstration of how successive generations can add to the development of Odissi. Madhavi’s imprint on Arushi was obvious, but her youthful interpretation was unmistakable.

In this pure dance item that celebrates rhythm and movement, the stage was her playground; and she took liberties with movements she had inherited to create a lively and energetic piece. The only movement that she did not quite complete properly was the balancing act – she had to rush rather quickly into the next movement.

Ashtapadi (Yahi Madhava) is a work choreographed by Kelucharan. Yahi Madhava is extracted from the Gita Govind, a 12th century Sanskrit poem that forms the core of Odissi for abhinaya (expression).

In this song, Radha (performed by Madhavi) is depicted as a hurt and jealous heroine – she has just noted the telltale marks of Krishna’s night of passion with another woman. But, rather than having loud hysterics as most betrayed women would, Radha’s interrogation and rage is gentle, as if scolding a young, naughty boy.

Abhinaya was a lovely personification of Spring through Cupid’s darting love arrows and flowers and trees and butterflies. This piece, performed and choreographed by Madhavi, overall, portrayed an aura of love.

Oriya Champu, written by Oriyen poet, Kavi Surya Baladeva Ratha, became a dance item and a wonderful abhinaya (Spring) piece. In this story, a sakhi (confidante) of Radha’s chides her for having fallen in love with Krishna. I thought Arushi did exceptionally well in expressing her mockery and questioning of Radha’s self-worth.

The Pallavi (in rag Bhairavi) I mentioned earlier concluded the performance instead of the traditional concluding Moksha. This was the only duet in the performance, the only time when Madhavi and Arushi danced together.

Madhavi’s choreography is made up of complex patterns with sequences arranged in an aesthetic order to bring out the architectonics of the tradition. She showed us double-sided views of a single movement with Arushi’s back to the audience and Madhavi facing us. Her combinations of synchronous and asynchronous structures also created visual uniformity.

The asynchronous structures implied that tradition can change and adapt with variations suited to the successive generation. But more significantly, Arushi was recording Madhavi’s movements and consciousness in that uniformity, hence “transference of tradition”. There is only one way to do that for dance, and that is to dance it, over and over again.

(D) Arousing the Spirit Within: Revelations in Odissi - Apr 27, 2007

Pix Source: The Star

ON a stage bathed in red, garlands of severed heads rested heavily on the bloody chest of the goddess that appeared in the revered forms of Kali, Tara, Sodashi, Bhuvaneswari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, Maatangi and Kamala. Her devotees trembled in fear and were shocked at the paradoxical revelations of the divine.

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” – this proverb, adapted from a line in the play The Mourning Bride, by William Congreve (an English author of the late 17th and early 18th centuries) certainly seemed accurate to describe the scene. Who would have thought that the usually sensual Odissi, one of the oldest Indian classical dance forms, could conjure up such emotions?

The choreographer for Arousing the Spirit Within – Revelations of Odissi was Guru Durga Charan Ranbir from India, a direct disciple of the late Guru Deba Prasad Das who was one of the four principal gurus who participated in the reconstruction of Odissi dance in the 1950s. He was the first to introduce this dance form to the world through the performance of his disciple Priyambada Mohanty in 1954.

Today, Durga Charan is regarded by critics and dancers alike as the successor of Deba Prasad’s dance legacy, which is distinguished by earthy poses, fiery energy and subtle but intricate gestures and emotions. Like his master, he believes that the performance should be all about keeping true to the dance vocabulary.

“I use the Odissi language to make my own choreography, which helps to further the Odissi tradition in its own way. And the key to keeping Odissi alive is to take it around the world to different audiences and students,” he said.

The recent show was presented by the Kalpana Dance Theatre, founded by Malaysia-based Bharatnatyam danseuse Shangita Namasivayam. The performance featured well-regarded danseuse Leena Mohanty and up-and-coming Odissi star Debashish Pattanayak from India, and Malaysians Daisygarani Vidhyakumari, Praveen Nair, Vidhya Pushpanathan and Anusha Nair

Deba Prasad’s dance legacy was displayed most convincingly in Sthai, which boasted an amazingly complex and tedious choreography. The dance piece revealed sculptured poses which were conveyed in a duet performed by Parveen Nair and guest artist, Debasish Pattnaik. The undulating torso and shoulder in seamless transition and motion – a natural effect of tribhangi (the body bent in three places forming an ‘S’ shape) – were tuned to the constancy of the mnemonic syllabic line which was sung hypnotically. Yet, their darting eyes, fluid wrists, twirling hands, and accented footwork reacted to the shrill melody from the flute lead.

The six-part dance also included Mangalacaran, Pallavi, Dhira Samire, and Moksha. Mangalacaran was an invocatory piece dedicated to Lord Shiva and the dancers demonstrated their devotion through prayerful gestures and by giving offerings. Pallavi was performed to the beautiful raag, Kedar Kamodi, an ancient classical Indian melody and the piece exuded a rather brisk Odissi style.

The stop-move-stop-move choreography challenged the fluidity normally associated with this dance form and the music was, on occasion, overbearing and distracting. The dancers could also have been more accurate and sharper in their movements to bring out the full essence of this brisk-style choreography.

Dhira Samire was an “abhinaya’’ or expression piece. There was intricate but subtle choreography for the facial muscles, eyes and fingers, making the dancers independent storytellers of the famous Geeta Govinda (Song of the Cowherd), a work composed in the 12th century by the great poet-composer Jeyadeva of Puri, Orissa.

In this story, Radha’s confidante urges her to meet Krishna who is waiting for her by the Yamuna River. The boost of confidence gave Radha the opportunity to develop a relationship with Krishna. In this scene, Leena Mohanty, Daisygarani Vijayakumaran and Parveen Nair each played their part well.

Moksha, the concluding piece, did not depict a sense of independence or the joy of liberation. It heavily echoed the earlier Dasa Mahavidhya section and could not find release from its brooding sentiment.

One setback of tis production was the lighting. Though dance was the focus, a little attention to design and texture in lighting would have greatly enhanced the overall impact of the performance.

(D) Hiding Love - Jan 14, 2007

Pix Source: The Star

LAST weekend, in the cosy Panggung Bandaraya theatre in Kuala Lumpur, a tale of love and pain unfolded – rather murkily.

The story was told through contemporary dance, a genre rife with great risks and rewards: if you get it right, it’s spectacular; if you get it wrong?.

Not that the Kwang Tung Dance Troupe got it wrong. Choreographed by Steve Goh, Hiding Love had wonderful, lyrical moments that were executed almost flawlessly. What was lacking during the hour-long performance, perhaps, was enough story-telling and dramatic expression to convey the different facets of that most complex of human emotions, love.

The dance was performed by Faith Toh, Samantha Chong, Louise Yow, Tin Tan, Chin Kah Voon and Goh himself.

It began as a mellow affair. Complex situations force people to hide their true feelings, thus the sombre overtone projected during the performance. To match, black and white prevailed in costumes and backdrop.

In the first of five sections, Goh danced mechanically with his partner, showing no love, nor any other emotion. Instead, he stole glances at another dancer who was stretching sluggishly under a spot light.

In the next section, a dancer emerged, her movements portraying happiness, yet still quirky and erratic – until, that is, Goh joins her. Suddenly, arms, legs and bodies work smoothly and the pair are synchronised.

But the happy moments are as fleeting as their flitting movements between the pillars. Too soon, she realizes that this happiness is not hers to take and she pushes him away. At the back of the stage, hands are extended from around the pillars, reaching, grasping, and finding only thin air: love is beyond reach.

A beautiful duet ensued describing the intense pain of one having to hide love. This was the most expressive section of the dance.

It entailed a lot of travelling, lifting and jumping. The notion of tension and release characterised the movements of this duet, and there were clear repetitions of sequences.

In the end, all the dancers emerged wearing white. Each had their turn performing solo. But each was surrounded by chaos.

There was a fury of movement as the dancers ran back and forth and to and from the pillars and in circles.

Movements were fast and furious, displaying a sense of agitation and unsettledness – of people having to hide deep emotion, I presume.

The busy group work calmed down and a dancer wearing a bright red dress performed a silent solo that concluded the performance with a final display of pain and agony.

Overall, Goh displayed a good grasp of the modern contemporary dance genre though there was a hint of modern ballet in some parts of the choreography that undermined the “contemporary” tag.

In the end, though, it’s not the purity of the genre or the complexity of the theme that makes for a standout performance. It’s how you tell your story, and Goh could have handled that better.