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.