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.