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.