Wednesday, August 22, 2007

(D) PINK - August 15, 2007

Pix source: The Star

The last time I watched Lena Ang perform was about a decade ago. In one piece, she chased a chicken around the stage; in another, she casually swallowed some sort of vegetation for a good 10 minutes, with a blank expression on her face. That was my first exposure to the shocking world of butoh – a post World War II Japanese dance form. Ang had introduced a new dance genre to Malaysia via fowl and fauna.

After a 10-year hiatus, Ang, dubbed the “Queen of Butoh”, is back in Kuala Lumpur for a “reunion” performance with scattered members of the Taro Dance Theatre (which she founded). They are Ang herself (based in New York), Ana Barbour (Oxford, Britain), Janette Hoe (Melbourne), and globe-trotting Palani Narayanan.

Ang’s choreography, titled Pink, was performed over three days last week at The Annexe, Central Market. The five-part performance was staged in different sections of The Annexe, thus the audience had to move around Galleries 1, 2 and 3.

Pink is what I would call “street butoh”, which cleverly infuses jazz and hip upbeat music that appeals to the (wo)man on the street. It moved away from being an art for the artsy, to being an art for every (wo)man. In fact, its theme, “the sweet and sticky side of gender stereotypes”, wasn’t too hard to swallow.

The dancers’ movements were not grotesque at all. They opted instead for a combination of slow and slightly contorted movements with intermittent twitches and spasms. On many occasions, they even portrayed, through plain and direct actions, the vanities of (wo)men.

Life in Plastic is Fantastic, which kicked off the show, saw the dancers lying in a circle with legs up. As they slowly reached towards the ceiling with their legs, a Barbie doll in pink cheongsam was passed from foot to foot. The legs thrust in mid-air ooked like a flower laden with “active” pollen. That, together with Barbie, combined to give the image of a fertile female.

In the Pink saw Ang, Barbour and Narayanan donning pink gowns, coats and top hats, in their element. They made a pseudo red carpet entrance, each hugging a half-bodied, naked mannequin of the opposite sex. Everything about their movements and facial expressions screamed look-at-me-I’m-a-star as they basked in their narcissism. The physical connection they made with the mannequin – touching, feeling, hugging – implied sexual discovery.

Moving to Gallery 2 from 1 for Let’s Eat Carrots Together, we saw a two-tiered stage – one above the wooden ceiling beams, and one at floor level.

The world below was that of a little girl (Hoe). Veiled in pink curtains, shrouded in pink fluff, and lit by dangling multi-coloured light bulbs, the sickeningly sweet scene questioned if femininity was inborn or a conditioned trait.

The scene on the upper stage with Ang stuffing tissue into her bra and Narayanan lifting weights, showed, above all, that beauty and vanity are common across gender.

There was hardly any pink left in Dog-Eat-Dog save for Ang’s underwear and Narayanan’s tie. Ang emerged as a human Barbie in a short, white cheongsam. As the title suggested, it was all about power struggles, dominance, ambition and control regardless of gender.

The crisp mechanical movements in Let’s Eat Carrots Together and the numerous lifts in Dog-Eat-Dog were a departure from traditional butoh, perhaps in the manner they were executed. Whether or not they were improvised, they didn’t flow smoothly.

In Gallery 3, Pinked-Out obliterated any trace of pink with the whole set in white. Dressed in white, each dancer held a mannequin’s arm or leg. Their mouths wide open in visible anguish, they showed that wiping out gender stereotypes isn’t so easy. It could “cost an arm and a leg”.
When the dancers dropped to the floor and lay still, the lack of activity shifted our focus to the gentle stir of the suspended mannequins that made up the stage decor.

Ang and Barbour had their own butoh styles; Hoe’s approach was more contemporary rather than butoh, while Narayanan needed a bit more concentration and focus.

Overall, Pink was a whacky, humorous and straightforward presentation of stereotyped ideas. It didn’t try to weave in any heavy social messages. In short, it was “butoh lite” that anyone could enjoy. With this first performance in 10 years, Taro Dance Theatre showed that it had lost none of its lustre.

Break-a-Leg is a non-performing former student of Lena Ang. She has never performed after she graduated.

Friday, August 03, 2007

(D) TARI '07 - August 2, 2007

Khaol by Amrita Performing Arts (Cambodia)

Tari is the largest international dance festival that is sponsored by the Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry through the Dance Department of Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara).

With generous support from the government, Malaysia made its mark on the dance map as all the top institutions from the Asia Pacific region turned up in full force to attend what is now one of the most sought after dance festivals in the region amongst educational institutions.

A total of 15 institutions were selected to participate in Tari ’07, which was held at Aswara, in Kuala Lumpur.

The biannual dance festival began in 1994 to launch Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK) as it was then known and the festival now coincides with the development and expansion plans of Aswara, which includes launching new fields of study at undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

This year’s theme, Independence and Identity, gels with the nation’s celebration of its 50th year of independence. As the nation enjoys growth and stability, the focus turns to understanding and preserving our culture and identity.

One of the key components of the festival is its seminars where many papers presented on Dance in Tertiary Education. Compared to Tari 2005, presenters provided even more solid contributions. These will be compiled into a monograph that will record the teaching methods and challenges faced by these institutions and scholarship in the respective countries.

The dialogue and exchange of knowledge that took place strove to further improve standards of teaching, research and performance. The standard of arts education in Malaysia needs to be on par with that of other international institutions. It is heartening to know that the Ministry of Education has recognised the importance of dance education from young. This year, the Ministry had launched two new arts secondary schools in Johor and Sarawak.

The 70 paying participants attended 19 types of workshops, each conducted twice. In one place, and in one week, participants get to learn from prominent lecturers, professional dancers and choreographers from all over the world. The exposure and knowledge gained is tremendous.

For the participants, the total immersion in dance at Tari would leave an impact that would last a lifetime. It ignites enthusiasm, provides inspiration and gives courage particularly to the youth to pursue a career in dance.

“The path is unknown for a dancer. In that sense, it can be scary. Unlike a career in medicine or accountancy where you pretty much know where you’re heading, there is no certainty for a dancer because the industry is not mature,” said Joseph Gonzales, Head of Dance, Aswara. “That is why Tari is such an important platform. We also discuss how to provide the transition for a student into the professional dance circuit, or related or alternative careers.”

The showcases featured some of Malaysia’s leading artistes and dance companies such as Lee Swee Keong, Ajit Baskaran Dass, Dua Space Dance Theatre, Batu Dance Theatre, Temple of Fine Arts; as well as upcoming young artistes Suhaili Ahmad Kamil, Gayathri Vadiveloo, Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi and Liu Yong Sean.

A few international artistes have been invited to perform such as Mark Harvey, Herbert Alvarez, and Lena Ang who will be making her comeback in Kuala Lumpur after a long hiatus.

The showcase performance succeeded in giving a powerful presentation of creativity, independence and identity.

Each institution was required to present twice – once for its main performance, and the other during the Gala Night (July 27) or the Closing Night (July 28).

The most impressive and captivating performance came from The Korean National University of Arts (South Korea) with their piece entitled Space. Two figures in white, lithe and silent, moved amidst the soft lit floor exuding perfectly the emotions held in the voice that sung a Korean folk song.

The other performances that I liked were About Last Night by LaSalle College of the Arts (Singapore), Khaol by Amrita Performing Arts (Cambodia) with their excellent impersonation of Hanuman and an army of monkeys, and Indigo, an upbeat street piece by Aswara. These performances, I felt, had a professional calibre about them.

Both nights held an international flavour as schools from all over the world presented their favourite pieces. They include Dream Flower and Beauty Girl, both by Guang Xi Art Institute (China), Inner Voice by Edith Cowan University (Australia), Folk Bengal and The Rain Drops, the Sun and the Clouds, both by Mamata Shankar Ballet Troupe (India), Phantom Masquer by Chinese Culture University (Taiwan), Khatulistiwa by Institut Seni Indonesia Jogjakarta (Indonesia), Ang Kasal by the University of Philippines (Philippines), Tonight by Chinese Culture University (Taiwan), Never Fail Me by Queensland University of Technology (Australia), Angin-Angin by Cultural Center University of Malaya, In Place by Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Singapore), Cherd by Chulalongkorn University (Thailand), and the lovely The Troupe and Pacifika, by University of Auckland ( New Zealand).

These performances capped an amazing week that was the seventh Tari festival – and judging from the good response, there will be many more to come.

(D) Three Sisters - July 27, 2007

IT was a dance-drama featuring an intense, insane and chaotic journey by three brilliant performers. Three Sisters, staged by the Japanese dance theatre company Pappa Tarahumara in Kuala Lumpur recently, encapsulated the contradictions of unfulfilled yearnings and mature acceptance.

It captured the essence of the original play written by Anton Chekhov, first staged in 1901, which is about the decay of the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in the modern world.

This is conveyed through the story about three fatherless sisters, refined and cultured young women who grew up in urban Moscow; however, for the past eleven years they have been stuck in a small provincial town. The sisters are always dreaming of going back to Moscow, hence the feeling of frustration and disappointment, and of being trapped.

By elevating these emotions and showing anything but the refined and cultured side of these ladies, director Hiroshi Koike brought to fore a universal theme of a young woman's unfulfilled aspirations .

The props used were basic. The red kitchen utensils and a doll hinted of home but these and the wooden chairs that occupied the stage were not specific to any era.

And within the confines of the small square dance space, all hell broke loose. The dancers let go all pent-up frustration as if the characters were inherent lunatics.

The presentation took on a graphic, in-your-face approach, laying bare on the stage everything we (women) are in the privacy of our bedrooms (and worse, bathrooms!) including nose digging, masturbating, faking a cleavage, scratching (yes, even women!); things that we would never for the world, publicly admit that we do.

The in-your-face dance laid bare everything that women
are in the privacy of their bedrooms, and worse, bathrooms!

With high adrenaline all the way, the dancers combined aggressive movements in their jumps, kicks, falls, and turns with a myriad of facial expressions, vocals and narratives.

The first of three segments in the dance theatre piece depicted a child’s world at home where the sisters played cooking, and explored their sexuality and identities with youthful curiosity.

The second scene was drastically different, featuring the sisters in shredded black lycra acting out their world of fantasy where they see themselves physically perfect and capable of doing anything - and flexing their muscles to that effect. However, their clumsy uncouth demeanour show them up as mere wannabes.

The final segment rang a tone of resignation and pessimism. The sisters, donning simple dresses, decide to come to terms with and accept the lives they have.

The pink balloon that was blown and released on several occasions was a metaphor for the sister’s aspirations shrivelled and flown away.

Three Sisters' complex choreography looks at every single element in detail – right down to casting based on physical stature. Besides their natural physique, Rei Hashimoto, Mao Arata, and Sachiko Shirai as the eldest, middle and youngest children respectively, danced their roles brilliantly and convincingly, drawing out the essence of what it means to be a young woman growing up.