Monday, November 17, 2008

(D) Pebbles 5 - Nov 10

THE regulars in the audience at a RiverGrass Dance Academy production know not to expect professional dancers on stage, except for the academy’s founder herself, Mew Chang Tsing.

After founding the academy in 1996 and staging several productions, Mew developed a strong belief that anyone can use dance to explore and discover his or her own identity.

Out of that belief came the Pebbles series that allows all the students at her academy as well as at other dance and theatrical schools to perform on stage before a live audience.

Hence, Pebbles 5’s loosely structured and heavily improvisational programme with the younger students performing dances called Fairies, Hula Hoop, and Water Hyacinth and with Mew’s older contemporary dance students presenting Lady in Red.

What we saw on Monday night at the Actors Studio Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, was essentially raw material and spur-of-the-moment dance creation. I especially liked the attempts made by the young ones to “feel” the music and be moved by it.

Associates of MyDance Alliance added variety to the programme while the Nanyang University Alumni Social Dance Group led by Mew’s mother presented two items, Golden Hip Hop and Line Dance. They showed everyone that even the old are happening, groovy, and fashionable.

Silat by Astana 7 was a choreographed performance featuring silat exponents moving to music with exciting drum beats. Like break dance, there was always a “challenge” component in it. The Elsa Dance Company presented Flashy, a belly dance performed by two sexy ladies in flashy Middle-Eastern costumes.

The highlight of the evening, though, was Mew’s performance, a new solo work entitled Tunnel Through Time: A Study of a Woman’s Spine. Thankfully, her piece was not as long as her title! In quiet and still contemplation, Mew literally profiled a woman. The side projection cast a melancholic silhouette on the wall as Mew danced within the confines of a small space.

The study saw Mew in various poses akin to those featured in calcium and osteoporosis advertisements. The side-view position that she took gave us a clear outline of the spine being depicted. Her deliberate slouches formed the shape of an “old” spine and then, in a quick reversal of “time”, she squatted and wrapped herself in a foetal position, depicting the growth of the “young” spine.

There is no happy ending for this bony body part as the tunnel through time only shows a sad conclusion at its end. Mew’s slow-moving, weighty movements mirrored the spine’s inevitable painful deterioration over time.

To me, it was a simple yet moving performance that showed just how important the thought process is a successful improvisation piece, as the dancer needs to have an idea or a basis for improvisation. Otherwise, it would just be meaningless movements on stage.

While this work reflects Mew’s personal journey along her own ageing process, the Pebbles series, on the other hand, is a platform that encourages the growth of her young dance students.

I hope great things will come of this small little stepping stone.
Photos by KAMAL SELLEHUDDIN / The Star

Thursday, September 11, 2008

(D) The Nutcracker Ballet 2008 - Sept 6

Dance Space, a dancing school in Klang, founded by Datin Jane Ng in 1992, presented The Nutcracker Ballet 2008 last weekend at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac). The first production, Magic Shoes, two years ago, gave them the experience and confidence to produce their second. This time around, they looped in choreographer Steve Goh, winner of four BOH Cameronian Awards in 2007, and renowned music producer Chor Guan Ng to choreograph and compose for the ballet.

The Nutcracker ballet is based on the story The Nutcracker and the King of Mice, written by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, better known by his pen name E.T.A. Hoffman. He was a German Romantic author of fantasy and horror. Hoffmann’s stories were tremendously influential in the 19th century and he was one of the key authors of the Romantic Movement. The story is about a young German girl who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and the fierce battle against the Mouse King with seven heads. Russian balletmasters Lev Ivanovich Ivanov (1834 – 1901) and Marius Ivanovich Petipa (1818 – 1910) were credited with choreographing the premiere of The Nutcracker in 1892.

To this day, this story is much loved and oft performed worldwide. Although there are different interpretations, the basic plot remains.

In Goh’s interpretation, the ballet traces a little girl’s experience and journey with a toy turned Prince during Christmas. During a fun Christmas party, Claire (Chew Zi Xin) receives a nutcracker toy as a present from a magician (Tan Chai Chen). Claire’s jealous sister snatched the toy and eventually broke it. Heartbroken, she places the toy aside and goes to sleep. She awoke in the middle of the night to see that her toy had turned into a Prince (Chen Fun Yen) and was being attacked by the King of Mice. Seeing that the Prince was badly outnumbered, she came to his rescue and fought off the King of Mice. Then, Clara and the Prince travelled through a snowy land in which they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, who welcomed them and entertained them with Chinese, Arabian, Spanish and Russian dances.

Goh’s neo-classical choreography was not technically difficult; which was ideal for this production because there were very few senior dancers, a lot of intermediate dancers and plenty of kids. However, the flow of the performance, the delightful costumes and wonderful props all created a fantasy wonderland that all kids, and even adults enjoyed. But this is how it should be, as The Nutcracker is, after all, a ballet designed for children.

The kids have plenty to do in the ballet, and they do it well. But even if they’ve missed a beat or a step, it is very easy to forgive because they all looked so adorable. One of the more memorable scenes was when the kids, dressed as dirty little brown mice, came out en masse to fight with the toys. The coordination work was very impressive for such a large group.

The older students performed the Grand pas items, dances that do not directly contribute to the ballet’s story. They were the snow princesses dressed in white tutus with sleeves of dangling tiny snow balls. They opened the scene impersonating snow on Christmas Eve, and the formed pathways for Claire and the Prince in the scene of snowy forests. Together, they formed very elegant figures offering smooth transitional entertainment for scene to scene continuity.

What made this production memorable were the minor characters. At the Christmas party, the magician brought out some life-size wind-up dolls to entertain the kids. The older performers managed the jerky motions of the dolls while keeping en pointe.

17-year old Chew was delightful to watch and proved dance-worthy of the principal role she took. Chew was almost flawless in terms of execution and she showed good showmanship with her brilliant smile. Together with Chen, they delivered several impressionable pas de duex (duet) items. Chew was also the better actor of the two.

As usual, there were shortage of danseurs (male dancers), and for the duets, Chew, Tan Yeong Kiean and Jensen Goi, were invited as guest dancers. Tan and Goi performed the Spanish dance.

There were two local ballet productions (including The Nutcracker Ballet 2008) within this year. The number of participants in each production is huge numbering at least 160 each. It would be exciting to have Malaysia’s first professional ballet company. And, I think the time is ripe enough to ask for one.

(D) Devi: In Absolution - Aug 23

If dance was a sport, Mavin Khoo could easily have won a gold medal and a datukship. To prove his weight, he had the audacity to compete for audience against the closing ceremony of the spectacular Beijing Olympics last weekend; and managed to garner a full auditorium of fans.

Devi: In Absolution was his first full-length production (1.5 hours) since he returned to Malaysia. It was performed in aid of Pusaka, a non-profit organization established by his brother, Eddin Khoo, to conduct research and create a comprehensive documentary archive of traditional performance in Malaysia.

Mavin’s fascination of Devi as a child grew into an infatuation, which later led him to create Devi: The Female Principle with French choreographer Laurent Cavanna for the Venice Biennale in 2006. That work was a duet in neo-classical ballet form. To further investigate the subject matter, he turned towards literally works and scholars in Chennai. The manifestation of his research is Devi: In Absolution, a solo bharatanatyam which depicts three aspects of Devi: Meenakshi, the child and the bride, Durga the warrior, and Kali the destroyer.

O.S. Arun, one of the most gifted Carnatic musicians in the country, opened the curtain to a black and white film with his sonorous voice. The film portrayed Mavin in a foetal position, then on all fours. It was symbolic of a child being born of mother Devi. An eerie figure of a woman in a red sari appears to shadow Mavin. The representation of Devi should be kept symbolic because the mystery and awe one feels towards a Goddess is immediately lost in the appearance of an imperfect human form. The most effective use of this media was the touch of a woman’s finger sliding down Mavin’s back on film, and his reaction towards it in live performance. Mavin’s stood still with his back facing the white screen. The visual stillness easily achieves what people say, ‘less is more.’ A slight twitch of facial expression reacting to the woman’s touch connects film and stage.

The mood of the first act, Meenakshi was cheerful and playful. Mavin chose the basic stances and movements of bharatanatyam, packaged it in a light-hearted sequence; and repeats the sequence with increasing speed. His palms, painted in red, drew imaginary red lines as he drew circles in the air. He depicted the image of a curious child, his hands always forming and feeling various ‘shapes.’ He would open up containers and peer into it. In a communal scene, he would sit in a circle, talking, chatting and thoroughly enjoying company.

In the next scene, the ‘child’ shows off his dancing skills in a series of complex footwork. He explores isolation, treating his right leg and feet like a creature separate from his body. This ‘creature’ moves to Arun’s voice like a snake would to a snake charmer’s hypnotic music.

The story of the bride was less exciting, focusing mainly on stoking her hair and playing a musical instrument. Perhaps it is my bias against nritya, which does more storytelling and portrayal of moods.

The second act which featured Durga and Kali displayed none of the aura of innocence that the first had. It was difficult to negotiate the image of femininity with such masculine motives. There was a lot of energy, just like the first act. But instead, this energy spells power and domination. In fact, the territorial nature was subtly implied in the use of space which Mavin covered with extensive travelling.

Movements were subdued in the next scene. Mavin shifted slowly from pose to pose behind the white screen that projected the black and white film earlier. A strong beam of light cast down vertically on him. Initially, my eyes was on Mavin but Arun’s commanding presence became more and more obvious in the absence of movements and my eyes riveted to him. In this particular piece that he sung, he whipped up such musical personality that even Mavin faded into the backdrop.

In the concluding scene, Mavin danced with such violent fury, stomping the world flat with his feet and slashing everything that comes in his way. On film, bloodshed was shown quite literally, as a consequence of such destructive force. On stage the red dust that the world is reduced to pours down on Mavin.

One can read a dancer from the way he dances; and Mavin is a perfectionist. His drive to excel makes him a flawless and impeccable dancer. It shows in the perfect lines, total control over his body and minute attention to detail. All these are the makings of a world-class dancer. And in this piece, he deserves standing ovation.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

(D) Tracing - Aug 1

Tracing: Dance Dialogues in Singapore and South Africa
1 & 2 August 2008
Fonteyn Studio Theatre

Pix source: Rimbun Dahan

What does a South African and a Singaporean have in common? Not much really.

Mcebisi Bhayi is a South African Xhosa man who swears by his customs and clings to his roots while Joey Chua is a modern Singaporean woman grappling with her Chinese Hakka identity, or perhaps, the lack of it.

So when the two got together in a dance collaboration project, one would expect a mammoth task in merging the two cultures and mindsets. But they got along like duck to water.

Tracing is still work-in-progress and like a reality show, we audience get to butt in and comment on their progress after the 25-minute preview.

On the preview

The duo got straight into action with continuous and energetic movements in School of Fish. The modern and contemporary vocabularies evident in this segment were indeed the language that helps them find common ground despite their cultural, physical and psychological differences. Throughout, they kept a safe distance from each other as they chug along (somewhat like their choice of music) while going through identical sequences in this tight choreography. This no-contact dance perhaps spells the need to respect each others’ space while trying to get into each others’ minds.

Two solos ensued; first by Mcebisi and then Joey. Mcebisi’s Speaking with Amadlozi (Ancestors) is African-contemporary, and naturally, it displayed the energy and body language very much attuned to his African roots. He painted the setting of ‘home’ with mimicry of farmers sowing seeds and described watering holes and wild animals with his actions. But this young man was not feeling at home at all. He was angry, suspicious and wanted to run away from it all. The intense performance aroused my emotions if not his ancestors.

Joey’s solo, Precious very much described her growing years living in a controlled environment. The good intention of typical Asian families to dote on their kids (to suffocating levels) took a negative turn and brought out their worst instead of their best. They learn to lie, rebel and are constantly on vigil to cover up each lie. Joey’s svelte figure accentuated her anxious movements, having to be, always ‘on her toes.’ We hear and see her suffocation from the rope tied around her neck and the ‘heavy-breathing’ music.

Tracing consist primarily of contact work and we see how the two grapple with coming to terms and accepting each other. The conflict on stage says ‘I-love-you-I-hate-you’ and sometimes ‘I-like-you-but-I’m-not-sure-I-can-live-with-you.’ It is this fight in tracing each others’ minds and bodies that sparked off an interesting ‘conversation’ in their dance vocabulary.

The dance may require some site specific improvisations given that they use the studio’s walls, curtains, bars and such in their interaction with space.


Although the audience was very small, the discussion was very animated. Questions posed included the duration of the final presentation and the ability to sustain the intensity if extended beyond its current length. The dancers considered a full-length piece of one hour but the FNB Dance Umbrella 2009, the festival in which they would perform their finished work had set a maximum time limit of 35 minutes.

In terms of the use of voice, Joey admitted that it was an amateurish attempt and she looks forward to working with a dramaturg to help them refine both text and speech.

While Mcebisi’s characterization was very clear, Joey’s was rather vague. The audience suggested a stronger characterization on Joey’s part of either showing a more prominent side of her roots or to prominently show her struggle of grappling with her identity.

Mcebisi shared that it was very enlightening working with Joey as they approach choreography very differently. Mcebisi tends to address the movements first whereas Joey wants to question the each step.

When asked if the finished work would look anything like what was presented, Joey said that she did not like to take the easy way out in choreography and she will constantly experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. She even challenged Mcebisi to deconstruct the entire dance while she is away for another residency.

Would that affect the synergy necessary for the success of a duet? An audience noted that he felt moments of disconnect between the two.

Last words

It was a pity that so few were there to share and contribute to the creative development of this dance. The involvement of audience in the choreography process certainly gave them a sense of ownership in this project and they all wanted to see the finished work. Audience involvement in choreography may be the way to go to promote ‘audienceship’ of completed works.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

(D) Stirring Odissi - Jun 13

May 21-June 14, various venues

This is the first Gotipua performance in Malaysia

ANY fan of the classical Indian dance form of Odissi would have been in seventh heaven in the last few weeks. Stirring Odissi 2008, the country’s biggest ever Odissi festival, presented performances, exhibitions, and talks galore, all centred on this ancient dance style.
The festival was held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Malaysia-India diplomatic relations. It was presented by Sutra Dance Theatre, which is celebrating its own anniversary, the 25th, this year.
Run over three weeks and encompassing various venues in the Klang Valley (with one performance in Penang), Stirring Odissi brought together some of the world’s most accomplished and renowned Odissi dancers as well as musicians, visual artists, scholars, and enthusiasts of the dance from across the globe.

Madhavi Mudgal’s brilliant choreography for the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Repertoire created a contemporary feel while using the traditional syllabus

Odissi certainly has many admirers, for it is a breathtakingly beautiful form of dance. It was originally developed in the temple of Jagannath in Orissa, East India, as a form of worship and meditation.
The dance form was kept alive, first, by the Maharis, and then the Gotipuas.

The Maharis were devadasis (chosen servants of god) who would sing and dance for the deity Krishna. They performed dance sequences that expressed lyrics from the Gita Govinda, an epic written by 12th century poet Jayadev.

Various reasons have been presented by academicians to explain why the Mahari tradition died out to be replaced by the Gotipua tradition. The latter tradition arose from the fact that the Maharis never performed outside the temple’s grounds; instead, they taught the dance to Gotipuas, young boys dressed as girls.

It was these performers who took the dance into the public milieu. Odissi was seen for the first time outside the temple in the early 16th century.

By the 1940s, however, Odissi was on the verge of extinction. But some might say this might have been a blessing in disguise – for the determined spirit of Odissi re-emerged to dance with even more beauty and pride than before, thanks to a handful of great gurus of Orissa.

Odissi now encompasses both the traditional and the contemporary. It has stood the test of time and evolved into a truly living classical art. It has found acclaim and international audiences, effectively dissolving national, racial, and religious boundaries.

In Malaysia, through renowned dancer Ramli Ibrahim, Sutra Dance Theatre has been at the epicentre of the flowering of Odissi. Ramli can be credited with creating immense interest in this dance form as well as nurturing talented exponents of it.

Ramli must have been proud indeed to see Stirring Odissi 2008 take place: The festival was a red-carpet Odissi affair involving eminent scholars, dance critics, dancers, and distinguished rasikas (audience).

Talking about the dance

The Seminar Series had sufficient fuel for robust intellectual discourse with topics presented by India representatives Sunil Kothari, leading dance historian, scholar, author, and dance critic of Indian classical dance; Shanta Serbjeet Singh, senior arts columnist and critic, author, and cultural activist; Ashish Mohan Khokar, author, dance critic, and dance publisher; Sitakant Mohapatra, acclaimed Oriya poet and critic; and many others.

The panel sessions were facilitated by prominent Malaysian arts practitioners and educationists such as Alex Dea, Joseph Gonzales, Marion D’Cruz, Mohd Anis Md Nor, and Soubhagya Pathy.

Some of the key issues discussed by speakers, panellists, and members of the audience include concerns about the difficulty of fundraising for supportive and educational activities. While some fretted over the nature of “evil, capitalist corporations”, others raised the need to compromise and to find an alignment between a potential donor’s goals and that of the performance or art form seeking funding.

Many arts practitioners were new to the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR), and were delighted to find that this would be a good avenue of funding and sponsorship.

I feel it’s a little unfair to tar all corporations with the same brush – after all, Stirring Odissi 2008 was presented in part by Maxis. And the fact that the telco did not insist on calling the event “The Maxis Odissi Festival” shows that some corporations are willing to allow their beneficiaries a free hand, and that they do attempt to give back to society earnestly.

Some voiced out their concern about the possible disappearance of the innocence and authenticity of the Gotipua tradition.

The threat actually lies in the increasing “sophistication” of the dance, and its irreversible effect. Parallels were drawn with our own Mak Yong tradition; that is, the “urban” Mak Yong is more “sophisticated” than those that taught and performed in rural areas.

Although innovation in any ancient art form is to be encouraged, the preservation of authenticity is of even more importance because of the irreversibility that “sophistication” has on dance.

The most hotly debated topic was Cultivation of a New Audience and Making Odissi Relevant in the 21st Century. The Indian panellists raised concerns about the fact that the dance is losing its audience (and dancers!) in India, and applauded the fact that there has been some measure of success in gaining a new audience for Odissi in Malaysia.

Ajith Bhaskaran Das, a Malaysian bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer based in Johor, offered his theory on today’s “restless contemporary audience”, and said that there is a need to repackage the Odissi repertoire to suit changing audience tastes.

Doing the dance

The festival showcased the grace, energy, and artistry of some of the world’s most renowned Odissi gurus and dancers.

It was humbling to be in the presence of Guru Minati Misra and Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, who had received training from the first generation of modern Odissi gurus such as Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Debaprasad Das, and Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra.

Female and male solos as well as group performances were presented at Gandhiki Hall, Penang; Amphi-Sutra, KL; the Malaysia Tourism Centre, KL; and the KL Performing Arts Centre.

The performances that I found most enchanting were Rituvasant, a duet performed by female dancers Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen (on June 8), and the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Repertoire (June 11), a group performance choreographed by Madhavi Mudgal.

Rituvasant is a pure dance that expresses the freshness and lyricism of Spring set against a backdrop of intricate paper-cut patterns.

The choreography was tightly knit, and exhibited great tandava (masculine) energies despite being performed by women.

The dance played on symmetry and asymmetrical patterns befitting a duet, and accentuated the tribhangi (a pose formed with three “bends” of the body) to great sexy effect.

Both dancers exhibited the kind of charisma that keeps the eyes of the audience affixed on them.
Despite being based on a traditional syllabus, Madhavi’s choreography for the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Repertoire created a contemporary feel with its exploration of space and use of unique music.

The first item, the slow and easy going Kalyan, created the ambience of an evening walk through the fields.

The second item, Aakaar Prakaar, had sections that reminded me of parachute formations, when skydivers come together to create a shape and then break away quickly.
Dance literature was also sold at the festival. Some of the titles include Attendance by Ashish Mohan Khokar, India’s only Dance Annual, and Rethinking Odissi, by Dr Dinanath Pathy, a study that strives to understand Odissi dance at the advent of the 21st century.

Stirring Odissi 2008 marks an important milestone in the history of our nation’s performing arts, and that is, the recognition of Malaysia by India as a growth centre of Odissi.

‘Stirring Odissi 2008’ was presented by Maxis and the Sutra Dance Theatre. The exhibition of multi-media works centred on the theme of Odissi is still on at the Galeri Petronas and will continue until June 22.

All pictures: from The Star.

(D) My Calling, My Stage, My Act - May 2

My Calling, My Stage, My Act, a solo dance performance by Loi Chin Yu, was staged at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) last weekend.

Loi is a fine arts graduate and set designer. He acquired his dance training from the Kwangsi Association (Malaysia). His dance credits include The Tree, Lady White Snake – The Revenge, When Durian meet Banana, Red Banquet, Four Men One Face, and SeeSaw, amongst others. After a four-year hiatus from the stage, Loi was itching to dance again.

For this Taoism-inspired performance, Loi decided on a one-leg-kick approach - he was Artistic Director, Choreographer, Performer and Set Designer. However, playing too many roles actually worked against him. The outcome of the performance merely encapsulated the saying, “Jack of all trades and master of none.”

I felt that, if Loi’s intention was to make a comeback in dance, then he should have focused all his energies on creating a more enriching dance experience, both as a journey for himself as well as for the audience.

The dance itself did not move me, pique my interest, nor enlightened me. The rich philosophies and rituals of Taoism, I felt, were either not thoroughly addressed or not properly conveyed. The sword-wielding and kung fu antics were completely random and looked like a rejected scene from the now screening (in cinemas) Three Kingdoms and Forbidden Kingdom.

Loi’s space was framed in an elevated platform that somewhat resembled a boxing ring. It may not be an award-winning set, but at the least, it served its purpose as a confined dance space.

The lighting was badly designed. It was blinding and distracting. And worse, the rock concert ambience did not gel with the Taoism concept.

The first part of the dance was action-packed with the Eastern element clearly and strongly projected. The song that accompanied the dance was a modernized Japanese piece that had both a rustic and modern feel to it. The second half of the dance was the complete reverse. Loi knelt down before what seemed like an altar and stayed still through an entire song. The choice of song used at this juncture was a very mushy English number that produced a sense of hair-raising tackiness. It contradicted and destroyed the Eastern concept that Loi was working on earlier. His exit strategy was predictable and was not well thought-out.

And when it finished, I left feeling rather dissatisfied.

(D) Passion - Mac 28

Judimar Hernandez (Laura) and Steve Goh (Young Man)
Pix source: The Star

The passionate Tango from Argentina has enjoyed its share of popularity with Hollywood hits danced by Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman,” Arnold Schwarzenegger in “True Lies,” and Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in “Shall We Dance.” But none came close to Carlos Saura’s award-winning “Tango,” a film that was beautifully conceived and meticulously executed to capture the dramatic power and physical presence of the dance with unforgettable style.

This film also inspired “Passion,” a production brought together by two of the most respected artistes in Malaysia’s performing arts scene – director Joe Hasham and choreographer Judimar Hernandez. The dance drama, held last weekend at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), featured a cast of Malaysia’s more popular performing artistes including Hernandez (Laura) herself, Joseph Gonzales (Maestro), Aris Kadir (Mario), Amy Len (Elena), Steve Goh (Young Man), Elaine Pedley, Nell Ng, Lou Chi Yu, and Thou Chun (dancers) and Dalili Azahari (student).

The dance format is contemporary: for most part, it’s Tango without shoes, signalling liberation from the clutches of tradition. It was also not Tango per se but draws the essence of the dance heavily as a metaphor to reflect the weaknesses of humanity.

The tango is a dance of sensual exchange: it is sexy, promiscuous and predatory. Its couplings and sudden isolations portray the complexities in gender relations. Tango’s innate physicality is in the interlacing of legs and the balancing of bodies as they collide. There is also the element of control and surrender – the man leads and the woman is led. But yet, there is also mutual dependence as two figures glides across the dance floor with legs dovetailing salaciously. Tango has both a light and sinister side. Of the two, the dark aspect was more thoroughly lubricated to ejaculate powerful, passionate expressions.

And so, under Hasham’s direction, the narrative thread which ties the whole performance together with this metaphor, explores the meaning of ‘passion’ going beyond the simple love triangle of requited and unrequited love; and going beyond safe, vanilla lives.

Mario, the principal dancer of a dance company is desperately in love with Laura. From the first moment he laid eyes on her he knew that he wanted her. For two years, they had the most passionate of relationships but one night, for reasons that Mario cannot comprehend, Laura announces that the relationship is over. Mario is devastated.

The story is set in a dance studio, similar to than in Saura’s Tango, where the company is in a rehearsal for a major production. Mario sees his lost relationship reflected in everything that happens during rehearsals: he sees a competitor in the Young Man and tries to find solace in the sensuous and mysterious Elena.

In the dance studio scenes, we clearly see that not every dancer had the flair for Tango. And that was not deliberate: a certain ‘stiffness’ persists. ‘Sexy’ is just who you are and not what you try to do.

The smouldering sultriness of Tango comes (not from the swivelling of tight behinds but) from the passionate embrace of dance partners Laura and ‘the young man,’ whose faces were pressed intimately close and whose entwined bodies delight in sensual caress. The music evokes an air of romance with just a tinge of sadness, characterizing frustrated love; in which the only reprieve is release through wild abandon. However, this scene, which Mario looks on with burning jealousy, could have been more erotic had the Young Man fully reciprocated.

Mario, disgusted with the coupling act, conveyed the feeling of pain through the quiet poise of Tango, and showed his indignation through crisp footwork and aristocratic elegance.

Amy Len (left) a Elena
Pix source: The Star

Elena was portrayed as the slut that goes for any man, or woman - first Mario, then the Maestro, and lastly Laura. The ending was therefore, predictable. Laura was much better off in a heterosexual role versus a homosexual one. The relationship between Elena and Laura was more sisterly than intense, ending the drama with a fizzle rather than a climatic end that was suppose to follow a passionate ‘fore’ play.

(D) Harihara - In Love with Vishnu and Siva - Mac 23

I’m inclined to call this show a part of the Mavin Khoo Emerging Talent Series. This is of course, not official. But since Khoo’s return to Malaysia recently, he has been fishing out talented Malaysian dancers (classical Indian dance), nurturing them, and giving them a platform to perform and to carve a career in dance.

In the second show of this ‘series,’ Khoo collaborates with Shangita Namasivayam, founder of Kalpana Dance Theatre (KDT) to present Daisygarani Vijayakumaran. The Bharatanatyam performance was held last Sunday at Auditorium Tunku Abdul Rahman, MATIC, Kuala Lumpur. All pieces were choreographed by Khoo except the first item.

This is Daisyga’s second solo appearance, after SHARIRA – My Body, My Temple in 2006, held in Sutra. In HARIHARA, Daisyga explores the different possibilities of the relationship between the human and the divine, dramatically revealed through some of the most beautiful compositions in Karnatic music. It further juxtaposes two deities; ‘Hari’(Vishnu), which represents preservation, and ‘Hara’ (Shiva), which represents destruction.

In Todaya Mangalam choreographed by Padmashri Adyar K Lakshman, she performed an invocatory dance to Vishnu from a kid’s-eye-view, injecting something refreshing into the familiar. The quick movements naturally followed the joyful treatment and the very youthful interpretation of this piece, which makes it very engaging to watch.

In what seemed like a very long Varnam, Varnam: Sami Ninne Kori frames the conceptual theme of “love in separation.” The drama of this emotion was enfolded starting with the more traditional choreography incorporating Bharatanatyam’s more basic movements. The body language used was literal and easy to understand. One particular gesture was intentionally used extensively; I thought this was rather exploratory and creative. At this point, Khoo on nattuvangam sang his part in a rather hushed and deep tone injecting a sense of suspense into the ambience. Daisyga looks as if she’s enjoying herself as she immerses herself in Khoo's guiding voice. I maintain that it is always exciting to watch her facial expressions. There is never a dull moment.

In the middle of this piece is where the great storytelling starts. Daisyga sat down on center stage and using only her upper body, hands and head, she describes the distance of a travelling arrow and where it hit. A lot of ‘space’ was covered while staying put on one spot.

Yaro Ivar Yaro briefly describes the point where Princess Seeta gets a first glimpse of Rama. Daisyga plays the curious onlooker, who feelings of desire for Rama grow the more she ponders. This story is taken from Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic, in which the principal characters are Rama and Seeta.

The feelings towards a man could not be compared to the consummating power of desire for the love of a deity, Krishna. In Ashtapadi: Sakhiya Kesi Madana Mudaram, Radha is engulfed with rage and guilt and torment waiting for Krishna’s fickle love. Sick of waiting, she climbs hills and valleys to find Krishna. And when she does her is anger quickly dissipated; her heart is at peace finally, in his arms. It’s a strange thing, this obsession for Krishna. No man would enjoy such tolerance for infidelity. Daisyga managed to engage the audience by keeping them in suspense on what her next emotion or reaction would be towards Krishna.

In the last piece, Thillana, Khoo first profiles the dancer putting her in poise and balance projecting straight body lines. These were followed by turns and footwork danced to the HARIHARA theme song. Daisyga tackled all these with ease, thus concluding the night with great applause.

(D) Transcendance - Mac 18


Geetha Shankaran-Lam in TrancenDance
Pix Source: The Star

TranscendAnce marks a new chapter for the school of dance at the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA): they finally have a repertoire to call their own. But then, what were the other wonderful works that the TFA dancers were learning and performing all these while?

For one, it’s Ramli Ibrahims’, Malaysia’s very own classical Indian dance doyen. Geetha Shankaran-Lam, one of Ramli’s foremost students, received many generous ‘gifts’ from him. And others, works and/or styles of legendary visitors that visited TFA, including Guru Kelucharan Mohapartra, Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, Leena and Leesa Mohanty, Rahul Acharya, and others, who hail from Orissa, India, the land of Odissi.

Late last year, TFA commissioned Guru Durga Charan Ranbir to choreograph several pieces of work that they could call their own. Last weekend, at Panggung Bandaraya, Kuala Lumpur, Geetha, TFA’s Head of Odissi, presented the first repertoire of these works in her interpretation called TranscendAnce. Most of these works, meant for solo, was reworked by Geetha for a group.

Mangalacaran, the opening dance which is usually invocatory, gives honor to Lord Shiva using the spiritual metaphor, the swan or hamsa. Dancers personified the swan arching their backs and fluttering their arms. This distinct feature promises an Odissi version of Swan Lake, which I thought would be an interesting idea and a challenge to explore. However, since TranscendAnce follows the traditional Odissi structure, this metaphor was explored only sporadically in some pieces. This choreography must be a challenge to some of the younger dancers performing this piece as towards the end, a few began to tire and cheated on some fine details.

Sakhi He Keshi Madhana Mudharam is based on Jeyadeva’s Gita Govinda sung daily during worship at the Puri Jagannath temple in Orissa for centuries. It stands as the apex of inspiration for the arts. The music has provocative beats that creates lush erotic imagery and describes the human depiction of the Divine Romance between Krishna and Radha. This choreography describes Radha’s obsession with Krishna through her shameless imagination and erotic fantasy, which was accompanied by poetic narration further seducing us with explicit descriptions of lovemaking. Guru Durga Charan had chosen a storyline that is easier to describe through words than dance, and it would take someone as experienced as Geetha to pull it off. Pity I was sitting quite far away. The expressions were too faint and I could not enjoy the rasa, which was the crux of the piece.

Admittedly, I have a bias for Pallavis (pure dance). This is where the spirit and energy of dance truly comes out. This Pallavi is set to the Keervani raag, a typical South Indian scale, which has an elegant and carefree mood. Two voices maintained throughout this piece; one carrying the melody and the other, the rhythm. It was quite exciting to watch the dancers interspersing between moving to rhythm and moving to melody. Quick tribanghis were punctuated with strong accents creating very clear visual representation of dancing sculptures, and not just ‘dancing the sculpture’. The giant lotuses that made up the stage props, conjures an image of Thumbelinas dancing on a giant pod on a lake under a full moon. Such is the free spirit and carefree mood of this piece.

Anila Tarala is also a nritya piece, this time a duet. Radha pours out her feelings on her suffering of separation from Radha to her confidante. This piece has a conversational feel, each dancer reacting or rather, responding to the other as Radha expresses her woes.

The Arabhi Pallavi was reinterpreted by Parveen Nair and Geetha and was performed solo by the latter. It is always a joy to watch Geetha dance. A seasoned dancer stands out simply by virtue of how confident and comfortable she is with her body and every move she makes especially the beautiful turns and excellent footwork. Geetha masterfully maintains the nritta of this piece by not over-personifying the many moments of beauty and joy of a maiden picking and making garlands out of fragment flowers.

Radharani Sanghe Naache was the least appealing of all the works presented. It leans a bit too close to ‘Bollywood’ for my liking. It was rather difficult to tell Krishna from the gopis. And because of this difficult differentiation, it is easy to generalize (unfortunately) that the character of Krishna (or all the Krishnas!) was only too playful and childish.

Well, this is still the first repertoire. In time to come, we’ll see more exciting interpretations.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

(D) Madhurya - Jan 25

Young dancer Hemavathi shows great potential as she plays out the love story in Madhurya.

For a 19-year-old, Hemavathi Sivanesan displayed plenty of maturity as a dancer when she performed Madhurya – the Sacred Feminine in a Journey of Love recently at The Actors Studio, Bangsar Shopping Centre, Kuala Lumpur. The show was presented by the Temple of Fine Arts.

Hemavathi was spotted during her arangetram (solo debut) last September by Mavin Khoo, Malaysia’s very own veteran and critically-acclaimed classical Indian dancer. Khoo immediately proposed a project to further hone her creativity and emotive imagination.

Khoo is back in Malaysia for yet another short stint and it seems his mission this time is to promote and encourage emerging artistes such as Hemavathi. Madhurya was specially choreographed by Khoo for her.

Hemavathi studied ballet for 15 years and bharatanatyam for 13 years. Interestingly, Khoo started dance at the Temple of Fine Arts when he was seven years old under the tutelage of Vasuki Sivanesan, who is Hemavathi’s mother and dance teacher.

Coming full circle, Khoo now guides Hemavathi as guru and nattuvanar (rhythm master) playing the nattuvangam, small cymbals that sound out the detailed rhythm of the feet.

Madhurya is a solo bharatanatyam piece with more drama than dance. It explores the many complex layers and nuances of the female soul. The theme of love echoed throughout the five pieces, presented in two acts. I found that Hemavathi danced better in the first act and “acted” better in the second.

In Varnam (in act one), she displayed terrific spirit, stamina and strength, and great mastery of technique. Hemavathi tackled Khoo’s difficult and sometimes even punishing choreography with practised perfection and completed it with only faint signs of fatigue.

However, to accomplish this feat, I felt that the emotive part was compromised, somewhat. The feeling of empathy that she was trying to create for the yearning-for-love heroine role could not be sustained throughout.

In Padam (in act two), however, Hemavathi embodied the confident and no-nonsense woman calling for Krishna to come to her grandly. Coaxing Krishna gently, she looked every bit a mother persuading a guilty child.

Given the maturity that she displayed as a young dancer, I would say Hemavathi should certainly be given every encouragement to pursue a career in dance. And, thanks to the strong support from her mentor and the entire arts institution, I’m sure, for her, dance would be a “journey of love”.

(D) Qi - A Dance of Wushu - Dec 29

THE young Jet Lis were in their element on stage. They displayed all the controlled grace of the Chinese wushu champion and action star – but with the added dimension of nature-inspired dance choreography, they seemed, at times, to lift the martial art to a higher level.

Control ruled the night: With wushu training under their belt,
the dancers leaped, tumbled and cartwheeled across
the stage with grace and beauty.
– Photos by SIA HONG KIAU / The Star

Qi: A Dance of Wushu by the Lee Wushu Arts Theatre was inspired by the power of nature in the form of qi (energy) and the ancient Chinese belief in the power of the five basic elements that are said to compose the universe: metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

The 80-minute contemporary Chinese dance performance had every element of Chinese culture you could think of in it – a little bit of Chinese dance (with flags, ribbons and fans), modernised classical Chinese music as well as Chinese opera, poetry, and most prominently, wushu (both bare fisted and with weapons). All these were linked together by the language of dance.

The programme was divided into nine parts: Origination of Heaven and Earth; Realisation of Truth in the Grounds of Cultivation; To Seek Direction from Where He is Led; Fire, Earth; The Omnipresence of Yin and Yang; Metal, Wood; the Cessation of Yang and the Emergence of Yin; The Union of Heaven and Man; and Flow of Qi.

The concept seemed very philosophical and ethereal. It was based on the transmission and convergence of qi that affects the balance of yin and yang (the “male” and “female” aspects of qi) energies, thus producing, integrating and dispersing the five elements. Wow. All the philosophy was too deep for me, so I resorted to simply enjoying the kung fu flicks, wonderful costumes and music that was put together.

It was clear that the prerequisite for these performers is strong fundamentals in the art of wushu. Their troupe’s founder had, after all, started as a wushu practitioner first. Lee Swee Seng had been practising wushu for 10 years when he decided that he would not limit himself to the martial arts; he explored Chinese opera and dance – the latter interest surely a natural result of wushu’s graceful movements.

Since founding the troupe in 1998, Lee has produced Wushu and Dance (2001), Wushu and Dance United (2003) and The King’s Sword (2005). This production, which was in celebration of the troupe’s 10th anniversary, was put together with the assistance of dancers and choreographers Albert Tiong (based in Singapore) and Mark Yin Hao (based in Shanghai), who served as art instructors.

Wushu was the strong foundation on which Qi was based. The dancers’ lean bodies executed the martial arts movements with an authenticity that comes only with years of tough training, and with a beauty that dancers trying to fake wushu movements could not possibly achieve.

The integration of acrobatic moves such as cartwheels, handsprings and such was no surprise; these are customarily used in martial arts as they emphasise strength, flexibility and acrobatic and balance skills. What surprised me were the perfect tours en l’air (literally, “turn in the air”) executed by the male dancers, none of whom had, as far as I know, any ballet foundation at all. Tours en l’air is a jump into the air with, typically for a male, a full 360° rotation. And if my eyes did not deceive me, some of the dancers even achieved an amazing double rotation (720°)!

The only element in the programme that jarred was a character presentation taken from a Chinese opera. A roaring man tried his best to look and sound fierce without much success. There’s a good reason performers of such character roles traditionally wear masks with exaggerated features on stage: conviction.

Okay, this didn’t work: Man trying to act fierce. The character masks traditionally used in Chinese opera would have worked.

When the performers stuck to combining wushu and dance, they were magnificent. Qi is a reminder that, with strong fundamentals in any traditional or classical art form, versatility comes naturally.

Here’s to even better and more sophisticated works from Lee and his troupe – hopefully, while remaining steadfast to their Chinese roots.

(D) Patches of Dreams - Dec 21

Capping the year in the local contemporary dance scene was Patches of Dreams, a German-Malaysian dance collaboration organized by the Kwang Tung Dance Troupe and sponsored by Gothe-Institute Malaysia, The Ministry of Culture Arts and Heritage, and Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac).

This performance is the output of a dance workshop for the troupe held in September 2007. Choreographers Amy Len (Malaysia) and Ben J. Riepe (Germany) shared their experiences from their Asian and European perspective respectively.

Ben J. Riepe

For Reipe, the multi-cultural heritage is a big draw for him. He said, “When you are a foreigner, naturally you will find the local culture extremely interesting. I was interested to see what these dances had in common and what was different between them. In Europe, we had ballet, then expressionist, and then contemporary. The dance we have today has no connection to our heritage. You may say we have either lost it, or you may say that we are free from it. It depends on your point of view.”

Ben J. Riepe studied dance and choreography at the Folkwang Hochschule, Essen. He worked at the Neuer Tanz, Dusseldorf and was a guest-dancer in the Ensemble of Pina Bausch at the Tanztheater Wuppertal before forming the Ben J. Riepe Company in 2004.

As a tutor for the dance production, Riepe focused on the technical side of arts. According to Len, “We learnt many new methods that help us to enlarge movement possibilities and translate it into dance. We also learnt how to work with material, make good choreography, focus our thoughts and create the right ‘taste’ and theme.”

Len, the winner of Best Performer award at the 4th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2006, was trained by the Kwang Tung Dance Troupe. She is one of the founders and the Artistic Director of the Youth Studio of Dance. Len is a full time dance instructor, choreographer and dancer. She is active in promoting dance art and dance education through dance productions and projects. This project is the latest that she’s embarked on.

The program comprised of two collaborative works and two dance videos.

One would have thought it was Len who choreographed “LAH,” the first dance, as it had every flavour of locally assembled thoughts, memories and movements. But it was in fact Riepe who choreographed this piece, assisted by Len. The dancers, all from the Kwang Tung Dance Troupe, dressed plainly in black sleeved shirts and tight-fitted slacks that threatened to rip, danced to classic Chinese oldies reminiscent of the romantic ‘Shanghai Tang’ times. The dance schema, progressing from non-movement, to slight movement, to large movements, and back to slight movements, is common but done tastefully. The vision that remains of this piece is the moving lips in bright pink lipstick lip-syncing to the lovely melodies. The appeal of this piece is its boldness in simplicity.

“Winter at 33°C” was choreographed by Len with Riepe as dance tutor. This piece, not unlike other strange contemporary works, did give me a feel that it was battling the Asian mindset of what dance ought to be. Use of material was evident; the robotic caterpillars with blue-lit antennas were indeed the highlight of the dance. What wasn’t clear though was whether the material inspired the caterpillar-like movements or vice-versa. However, thematically it was weak as it was difficult to relate the ideas in this dance, though interesting, to a scorching hot winter.

Given the outcome of both works, an interesting thought came to me: should we ask, “Who’s the better choreographer?” or “Who’s the better teacher?”
Dance Videos

The concept of dance videos (not MTVs) is new to Malaysians. If not for the 10th Annual “Dancing for the Camera: International Festival of Film and Video Dance” that I attended in 2005 at the American Dance Festival, I would not have seen such film.

Reipe’s “Amour Espace – Le Film,” which was created towards the end of this year, was a lengthy film (although it was called ‘short’). His experimental film combines the surreal and real world and draws its parallel with clear continuity of ideas from disjointed scenes. However, the film drags on, there’s more theatre than dance, and the acting could be more refined.

Len’s “Wall,” created in 2006, was a test of patience as we watch Len, who also danced in this film directed by local filmmaker James Lee, literally rolled (against the wall) in and out of ‘frame’. Thankfully, this was not repeated. The silhouette of a man appears and begins a monologue about the inability to communicate with his true love, hence the ‘wall’. Unfortunately, this monologue was repeated until it drives you up the wall!

Patches of Dreams was like the year (2007) that just flew by. There were moments of fun, pain, boredom, anticipation, but yet, hope; especially for those who dare experiment.

Friday, February 01, 2008

(D) Asyik - Dec 16

ASYIK means to be mesmerised or transfixed in Bahasa Malaysia. It is also a type of Malay royal court dance with mesmerising and hypnotic qualities, which has its roots in palace and temple traditions.

It was an apt title for Asyik ... The Beauty of Classical Dance, a recent production by the Dance Department of the National Academy of Culture, Arts and Heritage (Aswara), which showcased a repertoire of classical styles from the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures through a simple dance drama.

Asyik is a graceful court dance

“Reclaiming our past has to begin by first learning about and loving its constituents! Our cultural heritage is resplendent in its grandeur and diversity,” says Joseph Gonzales, who has been the head of department since 1999.

“My dream is to take this production on tour one day. The level of appreciation for classical dance versus pop culture leaves much to be desired. Foreign perception of our dances is still very commercial. I want the world to see the real thing.

“I also want to take this production to other states in Malaysia because I find that each state has very little idea about classical dances other than its own.”

Gonzalez, the artistic director of Asyik, stresses that, “One must eliminate the misconception and fear that culture is about religion. A Chinese dance is not about being Buddhist; a Malay dance is not about being Muslim; nor an Indian dance, about being Hindu. The performers are simply Malaysians, and they are good at dances that are not from their own race!”

Come into my arms: The 1,000 Hands dance was a spectacle to behold

In 2000, Asyik was performed by eight students (two borrowed from Aswara’s Theatre Department) and only 17 people turned up for the show. There were so few dancers that only a limited repertoire could be presented – joget, zapin, endang and mengadap rebab (the opening dance of the traditional theatre performance, Mak Yong).

The academy has come a long way since then. This year’s production had 80 dancers, 25 musicians and an audience of 350. The repertoire included Gurindam, Silat Gayong Ota-Ota, Joget Gamelan Topeng, the Chinese court banquet dances Ruanwu (sleeves dance) and Jian Wu (warrior dance), Bharatanatyam, Warrior Silat Dance, Asyik and Terinai.

Gonzales’ idea for the production was borrowed from a bangsawan (Malay opera) tale, which somehow fitted in nicely with this genre and prevented it from looking like a commercial variety show.

The story is about a young prince who hears a melodious voice and is drawn to the magic of the lyrics and the hypnotic quality of the voice. The king summons his soldiers and orders them to find this person for his love-stuck son. The soldiers bring guests from near and far who present themselves to the king and prince with a showcase of their culture and precious gifts. The prince finds his love when a princess sings and dances the Asyik accompanied by maidens from the royal Kelantanese entourage.

For this performance, the talent of choreographers such as Wong Kit Yaw, Umesh Shetty, Vatsala Sivadas, Hajijah Yaacob, Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi, Firdaus Mustapha Kamal and Sharip Zainal Sagkif Shekwere sought to find exciting and fresh ways to present the dances.

Of all the performances, 1,000 Hands drew the most applause. The dancers, decked in resplendent white costumes, emulated the goddess of compassion (with 1,000 hands) in graceful synchronicity and with great aplomb.

Warriors show off their prowess in the Jian Wu.

In the Asyik, dancers, seated most of the time, swayed their upper bodies hypnotically like human pendulums and gazed fixedly at the slight but fluid and continuous movements of their own hands, each dancer very much absorbed in her own world. The bonang (bronze kettle drum) lead stood out as it lent a unique flavour to the music that accompanied the dance.

Overall, the performances served their purpose of educating and entertaining, although with practice, they could be perfected. But if the production manages “to fan the fire of patriotism and pride in being Malaysian” in even a small portion of the population, as is Aswara’s hope, then it would be deemed a success.