Wednesday, November 04, 2009

(D) Jamu 2009

Jamu 2009
ASWARA, Kuala Lumpur
22 – 25 October 2009

This year’s JAMU was a four-day affair with a long list of contemporary line-ups simply split into ‘Program A’ and ‘Program B.’ JAMU is an annual contemporary dance production of the National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy (ASWARA) featuring choreographies by the school’s dance lecturers and tutors.

Having followed almost all of the schools’ earlier productions including AWAS (2003) and the earlier JAMUs since 2005, JAMU 2009 finally displayed a crystallized Malay identity that melds smoothly into the contemporary dance form.

Wayang Orang by Mohd Seth Hamzah drew inspiration from our Wayang Kulit art form, creating dance emulating stiff puppet movements. Instead of the puppet ‘dancing’ behind the white screen, we see the shadow of a man dressed as a puppet acting the part of the real puppet. This concept revealed a unique reversal of characterization – puppets are usually created after human characters, but now, man reinvents himself as a puppet. This reinvention comes with the emancipation from the dalang as the man is free to move as he pleases. The stage was also decorated with white curtain strips from which dancers emerge to form two clearly delineated group works. The female group were gentle and graceful in their movements and seemed not to be in a hurry at all, while the male group provided the contrast with strong dynamics, befitting the Silat warrior.

When the film Perempuan, Isteri dan … featured the practice of nasi kangkang, a control spell cast on an unfaithful husband with the aid of a bomoh (witch doctor), it caused quite a stir. In this practice, the woman squats over a steaming pot of rice during the time of her menstruation, and then feeds her husband. Whether the spell works or not is debatable. Perhaps it is precisely this controversy that intrigued Aris Kadir enough to explore this topic in his dance Nasi Putih. The sarong- clad cast was predictable, featuring the long-suffering wife, the adulterous husband, and the temptress. Despite its also predictable storyline, the choreography, especially in its duets, explored quite thoroughly the various innuendos lurking in a triangular relationship including sexual tensions, sexual intimacy, male (gender) domination, domestic disputes, and rivalry amongst women.

Visiting Professor from the University of California, Wendy Rogers presented KL/CA Mix, a piece that is visibly different from her earlier Duet En Plein Air in which she performed with Jennifer Twilley at Lepas, Tetap Menari earlier this year. This piece explores chaos and order. We see how human structures ‘break from the line,’ and then, like karmic destiny, falls back into place/in line in a fluid, continuous momentum. KL/CA Mix displayed Rogers’ ability to create structures while giving dancers a free hand to develop their own movements.

Wong Kit Yaw takes more artistic liberties than he could in the still running Chinese musical I Have a Date with Spring by Dama Orchestra in Revisited. Wong’s tendency towards Chinese sensibilities in his works is apparent. Set against the 60s backdrop, he celebrates the female ethos of that era in a reminisce mood. A video plays in the background featuring a dim, smoky, collage of scenes taken from In the Mood for Love, a 2000 Hong Kong film set in the same era, directed by Wong Kar-wai; while at front of stage, the dancers distinguished themselves donning bright red or blue cheongsam and holding a pretty, dainty fan. The choreography was primarily group work sprouting effeminate gestures and small, subtle movements. A voice-over repeating the words ‘yesterday’s yesterday…’ in Mandarin became a constant reminder of the glorious years of past. In this piece, Wong did not focus on technique but on dramatic expression; and combined these with brilliant artistic direction that transports us into the past.

Of all Vincent Tan’s works I’ve watched, Autumn is the piece I enjoyed most. Light-hearted, playful, funny and colourful, the piece evoked the mood of a carefree, happy Sunday. Tan works with an all-male team to reflect on his cheerful youth. Each dancer had a unique character and the male-bonding did not miss boys’ disgusting traits and doses of cheeky nastiness in their interaction with each other.

Joseph Gonzales had preferred a more theatrical form in his recent works and I was pleasantly surprised when Touched featured a stronger dance element in it. To his credit, Gonzales’ Touched was the only piece that ‘touched’ on current issues; in particular, the recent deaths of several creative talents around the world. Current issues can be used as a powerful tool to engage the audience and thus, making it easy for them to understand dance – and this was the only piece that was largely understood. The tribute incorporated multimedia and projections of the deceased were screened larger-than-life, on the background and on the entire stage floor. Gonzales refers the deceased by first name – Michael (Jackson), Patrick (Swayze), Yasmin (Yusof), Merce (Cunningham), etc – as if he knew them intimately. However, the star of the show was not the dancers, but the multimedia projection. I found myself watching the video more than the dancers, who were relegated into a supporting role.

Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil’s Nerds Gone Nuts was a delightfully entertaining piece. The choreography recently won first prize in Short + Sweet 2009’s dance category. With two teams of nerds, lots of toys and wacky demeanour, the lively piece certainly left the audience in stitches.

Gan Chih Pei’s Before 40 is my favourite piece in JAMU 2009. Not because I fit into this age group, but because of Gan’s artistic intelligence in conveying very clearly, the difficult task of describing what she feels, turning forty. If the title and synopsis did not suggest her age, I would have thought that a twenty-something in her physical prime was performing on stage. Gan’s technical mastery was clearly above the other dancers in this JAMU. Walking back and forth at the back very quickly across the stage, she re-enters, carrying a bundle of clothes - the bundle grows bigger each time she re-enters, and finally, she throws them on the bright, red, modern sofa. The bundle represents clothes that she wore over the years ranging from a pink baby tutu to baggy t-shirts. As we identify the age of a tree by counting its rings, so do we, of Gan’s age, as she charts every ten years of her life by putting on a top throughout the dance; and she had on four layers of clothes at the end of it. The circular hand and legs movements that dominate her choreography nicely complemented the ‘tree rings,’ nature’s way of telling age. A musician in plain sight played the di zhi (Chinese flute) underlining the reflective piece with melancholic notes. Before 40 was a simple, honest, and moving piece.

There were many items featured over the two programs. Suffice to mention, these are my top picks. And for RM10 per show, JAMU 2009 certainly outshines many costlier productions.

Monday, October 05, 2009

(D) It's Just Me Coughing...Literally

It Is Just Me Coughing
Directed, Visualized and Performed by: Zan Yamashita
Visual Operator: Fumi Yokobori
13 August 2009Annexe Gallery, Central Market

When Zan Yamashita first set foot on stage, I almost expected Scooby-doo to follow suit. Dressed in a washed-out-of-shape t-shirt and comfortable sweat pants, he certainly looked the Japanese version of the lanky lead Shaggy with shaggy hair and rough goatee to boot. However, there were no monsters or ghosts giving chase – just Yamashita justifying his mere existence with the simple act of coughing, a reflex triggered by a consciousness towards mortality.

In 2002, Yamashita created a trilogy that explores the relationship between language and body. The first piece, “It is Written There” was presented at the Itami Ai Hall (Hyogo). In this piece, the audience were constantly invited to turn the page of the book given at the entrance, as the stage host called the page number backwards, and to enjoy switching their gaze between the action on stage and the literature on the page. Two years later, Yamashita created “Invisible Man,” with the expression of dance through words, which was presented at the Tokyo International Art Festival; and in the same year, he received the Kyoto Art Center Theatre Awards for “It Is Just Me Coughing,” the last piece of the trilogy.

In his final piece, Yamashita invites us to enjoy a linear journey of Ozaki Hōsai’s haiku, translated from Japanese to English, ushered by the change of screen projection with every punch of the ‘next’ button. We shift our gaze from the text typed out on the digital media, a minimalist projection, to the stage where Yamashita realizes text into movement. Over time, we learn to anticipate his movements by just reading the text first, because he would do exactly what the text read, over and over again.


In the programme, Yamashita says that the projection will change each time he has taken 10 breaths. It is not the detailed account that we should be interested in, but more so, the fact that we take breathing for granted.

Text cannot be read continuously without pauses for breath. Likewise, the body cannot move incessantly without inhaling and exhaling air. And, a genuine cough is involuntary, very much like breathing.

However, I found myself reacting to such literal expression with suspicion. Throughout the performance I kept expecting a break from the format, a surprise entry of something that would keep me guessing. I have been so conditioned to expect nothing more than ‘self-interpretation’ when it comes to contemporary works that I found it difficult, with my self-afflicted prejudice, to ‘just embrace’ the work as it is, when the meaning is generously served in both written and movement languages.

Yes, I’ve become a part of the cynical society that has adopted the convoluted notion that, if it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. And so, I was left in a state of constant impatience, anticipating how the piece would end.

While the work follows a direction that dictates the audiences’ imagination, clearly, I myself refused to be dictated. I was not a lonely cynic though. The disbelieving audience, during the post performance discussion, found it difficult to accept that the haiku was chosen simply because it was the shortest; and that he was just breathing, and not exhaling and inhaling in tandem with the score.

At the end of the trilogy, Yamashita finds that the relationship between language and body is a literal one. Why bother with such grand complexity when we can just appreciate simplicity? The lesson that we learn is that, if we stumble upon something that is too good to be true, it is, literally.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

(D) Kaadambari

Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival
Temple of Fine Arts
11 & 12 July 2009
Auditorium DBKL

At every performance, the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) would allocate a VIP seat for the late founder, His Holiness Swami Shantanand Saraswathi, or fondly referred to as Swamiji. They would cover the seat with a beautiful cloth and garland it with flowers.

My new friend, Shanti, whom I got to know just minutes ago, was seated next to ‘him,’ and she asked if I knew Swamiji. Regrettably, I did not. Not in person, at least. But I was one of the privileged few who saw him alive blessing Butterfly Lovers in 2003, the first of TFA’s many large-scale productions to raise funds for their now, near-completed performing arts building. While waiting for the show to start, I discovered from Shanti, that he was not only a kind and wise man, but a beautiful Bajan singer. No sooner did I express my desire to hear him sing, TFA played Swamiji’s Bajans to commence the programme – it was as if the ‘man’ in the garlanded seat heard my request. As we listened to the beautiful singing, Shanti was moved to tears, as his voice brought back a flood of fond memories for her.

Kaadambari simply means a garland of flowers. Just as the qualities and talents that make Swamiji a beautiful person, each item in the programme represents a flower strung together to make the beautiful garland that was presented to the audience.

The performance took us first to the southern part of India’s dance geography with Premanjali, a Bharatanatyam fare with throes of young dancers, each holding a small light in both hands. Against the deep purple backdrop, the dancers remind of delightful little fireflies decorating the night with random sparkles of light. Their movements were far from random though. ‘V’ and ‘X’- shaped formations dominate its structure and the dancers moved in ordered pairs. However, there was a kind of grandeur in the new-age like music that did not blend very well with a typical invocatory item. The battery-operated light that the dancers held introduced no danger and thrill into the performance, which perhaps, reflects on the rather safe choreography, having included very young dancers.

The second Bharatanatyam item, Dashavataram, was performed by seven talented young men, including Hariraam Tingyuan Lam, who made his debut with an Arangetram in May this year. Having followed their progress for years, I felt a sense of pride seeing the third generation of TFA coming of age. At the same time, I was absolutely delighted because male dancers are so difficult to come by – and there, on stage, were seven of them in their kinetic best. This piece featured the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The young men with their youthful looks and playful demeanour projected Lord Vishnu as a young God getting acquainted with the characters, the roles and the divine responsibilities to be undertaken. The dancers satisfied the essence of the incarnations with convincing nritya and near-seamless transitions of transformations; and ending with each posing a manifestation of Lord Vishnu.

Andhra Pradesh, another state in South India, is home to Kuchipudi, an ancient dance form, whose genre is likened as the older cousin of Bharatanatyam. An artwork with a dusty aura featuring grand columns and shaded corridors of a nameless ruin became a looming backdrop for the dancers, who used their bodies to reveal the nine sentiments or navarasa of human emotions in Marakatha Mani Maya Chela/Tarangam. The dancers displayed a strong sense of musicality, and this was evident from the coordinated jangle of the bells strapped at the ankles, augmenting the intricate footwork, which they managed almost flawlessly. For the finale, the lead dancer stepped onto a brass plate, to execute the “dancing on the plate” effortlessly, much to the audiences’ delight. As the Nattuvanar led the dancers into the more complicated jathis, the lead dancer, with her feet still bound to the brass plate, displayed body and hand movements that were as eloquent as those whose feet were free.

Compared to the earlier piece, Vajrakanti Pallavi, an Odissi piece, was more low-key. Odissi is a temple dance with origins in Orissa, west India. It was a subdued interpretation of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir’s original choreography, to display the sport of indolent maidens. The darker and smeared sketches of buildings served as the backdrop for the dancers’ casual and laid-back movements.

Contrary to the temperament of the Odissi piece, Theen Taal, a Kathak dance from north Indian, featured vibrant and energetic movements. The dancer made sharp head movements turning to the left and right, and sometimes diving down in both directions. Her footwork was swift, just as her hand movements were, deftly slicing the space about her with cutting motions. A key feature of this dance is the crescendo of pirouettes. Anchored at an axis, the dancer spins and spins with increasing speed until her yellow skirt and scarf blurs into a soft yellow trail. We held our breath anticipating a possible fall from the dizzying spin; but she did not. Just as quickly as she moved, she came to a quick stop and concluded with a triumphant pose.

The Bhill Dance of the Bhill tribe who are forest dwellers and hunters, and Call of the Desert, a contemporary folk piece about a journey across the desert, are works based on folk traditions. While each was delightful with their colourful costumes, lively music, and beautiful set, the choreographies befit a segment of a musical rather than a stand-alone item.

And finally, One Malaysia, a contemporary dance presentation that included several dances representing the multiplicity of our racial make-up was presented to celebrate the colourful cultural diversity of Malaysia, much like the variety of flowers that make up the beautiful Kaadambari.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

(D) Lepas: Tetap Menari

Lepas: Tetap Menari
17-19 July 2009

Lepas: Tetap Menari can be loosely translated to mean ‘Over: But Still Dancing.” It is an expression of disappointment towards the indefinite postponement of TARI ’09, the much-anticipated international dance gathering and performance offerings originally scheduled for 14 to 18 July 2009. TARI is a contemporary dance performance held every two years and is organized by the Dance Department of the National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy (ASWARA). The festival was expected to bring in nearly 160 international participants.

Joseph Gonzales, Dean of the Dance Department expressed his disappointment following the school’s decision recently amidst pressures from authorities ‘higher up’ to curb the H1N1 disease.

“However, such are the challenges in life and we must carry on. We are still going to stage a simple show from 17 to 19 July for us here in Kuala Lumpur and the best medicine is to put our best foot forward and dance! The show will be free to the public as we just want to celebrate the talents and the gifts that we have received”

And put their best foot forward they did with eight pieces of work from both local and international performers and choreographers.

James Kan, who left to further his degree on a scholarship with the Taipei National University of Arts in September last year returned on his summer break and presented Dreams, the most stylish and an engaging group choreography of the evening. The work displayed seamless and superb transitions with dancers, moving from frame to inter-frame structured by large grey tables propped up like tiles; rolling in and out of stage swapping roles and positions; and using the colours of costumes, from white to black, depicting the change of thematic moods, from a pleasant dream to a nightmare.

The five dancers in white, magnetised to the table, tossed and wriggled, grappling with the attraction. They finally submitted and displayed shameless affection towards the prop with hugs and stylish poses. The tables converged into a wall to hide all the dancers save one (played by Jessica Ho, one of Aswara’s best students). Left alone, the sole dancer backed up towards the wall and inched slowly from one end to the other shivering with fear and confusion. Two mysterious, fluttering hands that dropped over the wall, trailed her as she moved. As she reached the end of the wall, the two hands strangled her and pulled her body behind the tables, symbolizing the ‘death’ of the first scene. As soon as she ‘disappeared,’ dancers dressed in black appeared taking on darker personalities.

The staged blacked out and all attention was diverted to the right where a small stage was constructed. A sketch of thick barb wires on the wall seems to encase the dancer as he tries to escape the uncomfortable entanglement. When the stage lit up, we see visually neat lines where the dancers sat upright at the edge of the tables. The exploration of space above and below the tables was brief and as the dancers ditched the tables and move backwards, they continued till fade, exploring the space around them, some with angular, and some with circular arm motions. The brilliance in Dreams is in the tight choreography displaying random images resembling those that fleet in our minds.

Other group choreographies include Tapak 4 (Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi Magi), After Duet (Vincent Tan, Batu Dance Theatre), and Line (Mohd Naim Syah Razad Mohd Zin).

The Red Rose, choreographed by Kim Jungyeon (South Korea) is an intermedia piece combining dance and video projections. The piece intends to re-interpret a classical ballet Le Spectre de la Rose, based on a poem by Théophile Gautier, and choreographed by Michel Fokine. The classic first premiered on 19 April 1999 by the Ballets Russes and the dancers at the original performance were Vaslav Nijinsky as the Rose and Tamara Karsavina as the Girl. The story is about a debutante who falls asleep after her first ball. She dreams that she is dancing with the rose that she had been holding in her hand. Her dream ends when the rose escapes through the window.

Red Rose

The video projection toys with the idea of rose petals, stalks and leaves represented by orange colored paper shredded, rolled, spiraled, and folded. At the top right corner of the screen, a hand stirs the ‘petals’ in poetic fashion. Then, we watched the steady fall of ‘autumn leaves’ as it carpets the ground softly. A black and white projection that hints of Asian origami followed. The rigid nature-symbolic shapes of paper blown by a strong wind tumbles violently. The scene was played in slow motion as if to romanticize the severity of a tragedy. In contrast to the rusty, filmic qualities of these visions, another set of projections take on a futuristic feel with shades of aurora colors, repeated designs and an almost impressionist trajectory.

The Girl (Kim) moves in gentle swaying and rocking motion to the melodic and peaceful sound of a clanging bell. The feel was rather monastic especially with Kim wearing her head bald. The movement expression was also poetic, mimicking the image of the ‘petals’ stirred by the hand in the video. Liu Yong Sean, who is also back for summer break from the Korea National University of Arts, plays the Asian Rose making movements from Indonesian dance and Shadow Puppet Theathre (Wayang Kulit). Kim and Liu have wonderful stage chemistry; when the Girl glided down the body of the Rose, we could almost feel the passion and tenderness in the very convincing pas de deux (duet). This interpretation of the 18th century Romanticism maintains the Romantic ideals while integrating the zeitgeist of contemporary aesthetic experience using picturesque visions with a unique Asian taste. What impressed me was Kim’s research into dance literature and history and the thought she put into the reinterpretation, showing us that choreographers are indeed society’s thinkers.

Rasa, choreographed by Sharip Zainal, a multitalented lecturer of ASWARA, combines the music (heavy metal and blues), vocal, dance and theatre disciplines, putting his skills in the four areas to good use. The storyline was so simple yet entertaining, telling us how we all feel (or rasa) the effects of ageing, putting on weight, and decreasing libido. Despite these signs of mid-life crisis, he’s ever the optimist and has a solution for every problem and shows everyone that ‘he’s still got it.’ This piece was absolutely hilarious and effectively conveyed the messages it intended.


Wendy Rogers from the University of California performed Duet En Plein Air with Jennifer Twilley. Rogers premieres her new duet that continues her exploration of dance as an ‘architecture’ of action; and investigation of the ways people shape place, and the ways place shapes human movement and interaction. However, what I saw, rather, was an exploration of how humans, through movements, emulate the shapes of abstract objects in the environment. The hypnotic strumming of the two strings in The Sonata for Harp and Guitar OP.374, Parts I and II playing in the background helped conjure up an image of a gentle drizzle, where the two dancers ‘became’ the shape-shifting droplets of water suspended in mid-air.

Duet En Plein Air

Shakti, another duet, was a site-specific work, which drew inspiration from the story of Adam and Eve, with apples included. The audience was ushered to the floors above the site so when we lean over the edge to watch the performance, there were several moments when our eyes were tricked into believing that the floor was actually the wall. The direction in which the bench was placed, and the dancers’ movements around it, created the intentionally confusing perspective that served visual suspense and excitement. Dancers Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi Magi (and choreographer) and Mahani Izzati Suleiman, clad in sarong, splashed about the wet gravel in the confines of a small rectangular space. The non-stop action and to-the-point choreography exudes a sense of tribalism and a kind of rawness that befits the story of man’s Beginning.


Solo works are a bit tricky in that it not only relies of the merits of the choreography but also the charisma of the dancer. Both solos presented here, Only Me, by Mohd Fairul Azreen Mohd Zahid from ASWARA, and Filled and Spilled, by Angela Goh who is on a dance residency at Rimbun Dahan, displayed both these characteristics.

Mohd Fairul proved to be a powerful dancer reveling in jumps and turns, running in sprints traversing the stage and even showing off a burst of floor gymnastics concluding with a full split. Strong spotlights marks the floor in a vertical line and Fairul enters each, basking. Plainly, this narcissist piece had ‘only me’ written all over it.

Goh’s piece was quite the opposite in its treatment. It featured very soft dynamics and gradual disclosures of her body and the dance. The lighting design shaped an empty glass on the floor that was gradually being ‘filled’ with light inching its way from ground up. The dainty, uncertain footwork graduated to confident arm and body movements. Though the ‘filled’ aspect of her work was obvious, the ‘spilled’ portion is still underdeveloped in this work-in-progress performance.

This production may be small but the people that made it happen were big in spirit, motivated by the drive to continue dancing, regardless.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

(D) Unleash!

June 4-5
Experimental Theatre, Aswara, KL

Last week, the 2009 dance graduates of Aswara (the Malay acronym for the National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy) performed their last show, Unleash!, before they were, well, "unleashed" from school, having completed three years of training.

As part of their finals, the 22 graduates were graded over two nights of performances, featuring Living Traditions (traditional dances), then New Directions (contemporary dances).

Aswara has expanded the range of traditional dance genres taught and graded as compulsory subjects. They include Bharatanatyam (Indian dance), Tari Inai, Tari Piring, Zapin Pekajang, Tarian Gamelan Ayak Ayak, Terinai, Ngajat, Zapin Lenga, Zapin Putar Alam, Tari Piring and Mongolian Dance (Chinese dance). This is good for the students, as they get to learn more. But it also means that the exams are tougher!

As they dashed in and out of the stage tackling one dance after another in Living Traditions, I was impressed that they did not mix up the dances and that they exhibited good mental and muscular prowess.

My favourites were the graceful and hypnotic Tarian Gamelan Ayak Ayak (a court dance from Trengganu) and the Terinai (a dance from Perlis, performed at weddings), and the action-packed Tari Piring, which reminded me of Chinese acrobatic shows that had tricks with porcelain plates. The trick to keeping grasp of the plates in both hands is to move fast enough to defy gravity. One student found this difficult and had to use her thumbs to steady them.

Prior to each dance, we got to see candid video clips of the students goofing around, rehearsing and sharing what they know and understand about the dance they are introducing. These are shown on the spanking new projector screens hoisted on either side of the experimental theatre.

Over the years, Aswara has invested in traditional costumes and accessories tailor-made for each genre. Every piece of songket, necklace, or hairpin that completes the attire and the way it is worn also forms part of our rich traditions.

More wonderful than the resplendent costumes on the graduates was their inter-cultural connection. A Chinese student performing the Terinai spoke earnestly about her love for this dance and trying to feel the Malay ethos as she embraces it. A Malay student marvelled at the Mongolian dance while attempting to visualise the expanse of Mongolia, with wild horses racing across its landscape in abandon. There was genuine interest and respect for each other’s cultures.

I enjoyed the contemporary showcase of New Directions. There are so few choreographers in Malaysia that one looks forward to new blood, with its promise of new ideas and unique personal styles. But at the start of the evening, I wondered if the works presented by the three graduates, who had the same foundation in dance and were being graded as choreographers, might be similar in one way or another. My fears were unfounded.

Chia Yan Wei’s Another Me explored the part of ourself that we want to hide. A cupboard without doors on the centre of the stage served to compartmentalise and box up the different facets of our lives. In contrast to the dark theme, Chia dressed her dancers in bold, bright colours. Two girls in baggy purple tops addressed some weighty issues. Two guys in striking red shorts and green, striped long-sleeved T-shirts seemed to be inseparable, displaying obvious affection in a captivating duet that addressed homosexuality.

A guy sprinted onto the stage for a brief solo and was out before we could catch anything meaningful.

The final segment clearly reflected female competitiveness as the dancers tried to get ahead by pulling back those in front of them. Echoes of the thump of machines signalled the entry of each group and their movements were edgy as if nervous about being found out.

Raymond Liew Jin Pin showcased Speak Out, a whole new way of venting. The dancers, wearing their favourite pyjamas, had their heads fully wrapped in off-white cloth and they performed with their heads covered throughout. The covered heads represented muffling. Frustrated, the dancers released their tensions through erratic, bird-like movements.

Liew fully utilised the space by having activities in dispersed clusters. These clusters gradually converged into a clump that looked like a large breathing organism as one by one, the bodies heaved up, then fell back into place.

It was also fascinating to watch how the dancers related to each other in the absence of sight, with their eyes covered. (NOT CLEAR!) Their movements were coordinated, as if they only needed to feel what the others were doing. One memorable scene was when two dancers locked elbows to execute a lift. The girl, facing forward with legs bent, looked as if she was seated as she hung from her partner’s arms.

Mohd Hafiz Untong’s Tadah ambitiously incorporated theatre and live music into the choreography. The dance started with a husband-and-wife duet featuring movements from various Malay dance vocabularies and silat. These combined effectively to tell the tragic tale of a faithful wife who waited for her man’s return until the day she died. The act of snuffing out the candles signalled her demise.

There was interaction between movements and props as the dancers dug their hands and inserted one leg into bins, and then moved about as if dragged by the weight of the bin. Hafiz certainly showed that he has the potential to move on to musicals.

So what’s next after graduation?

ASWARA is recommending Chia for a four-month choreography workshop in Taiwan. Fifteen of the graduates plan to pursue degrees - one at Universiti Malaysia Sabah; two at the Korea National University of Arts, and the rest at ASWARA.

Six graduates are awaiting replies from Petronas, Istana Budaya and Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur on full-time jobs as dancers. Liew hopes to go to Germany to pursue a dance career.

About 15 of the grads are involved in two shows scheduled for August - Noordin Hassan’s Intan Yang Tercanai, choreographed by Sharip Zainal and produced by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, and Tun Razak the Musical, to staged by ASWARA at Istana Budaya.

Five others will perform in Jakarta from Aug 6 to 9 in a repertoire of contemporary dance.Well, nothing beats performing for a dance graduate. As Oscar Wilde put it, "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

(D) Sutra – A ‘Monk-trous’ Feat

Sutra – A ‘Monk-trous’ Feat
by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Antony Gormley, Szymon Brzoska and Monks from the Shaolin Temple
Singapore Arts Festival 2009
22-23 May 2009

When it comes to performances that involve monks and Kung Fu, I’m always wary that it would turn out to be just another Kung Fu demonstration. I refuse to watch those touring performances that claim to be Shaolin this and Shaolin that because, in principal, I do not agree that spiritual men should join the circus and that their sacred duty is not to entertain.

The very act of perfecting the martial art is to use the body as a measure of discipline, endurance and perseverance for the development of mental strength to cultivate the spiritual mind. In a similar vein, disciples of western dance forms also share the same religious fervour going by the practice-makes-perfect mantra to arrive at technical perfection. The challenge for Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Larbi) is to manage the delicate matter of examining intercultural similarities and differences underlined with the philosophy of Buddhism and to conceptualize a vision that marries all these elements.

Ultimately, Sutra turned out to be quite a vision – a ‘monk-trous’ feat that converged choreography with architecture, in a collision of movement, structure, space and illusion.

Structure, space and illusion have always been the domains of architecture. And because of its constant presence and the frequent interplay of these elements throughout the work, I’m inclined to put British sculptor and collaborator Antony Gromley as Larbi’s choreographic equal. In many ways, the lidless, man-size wooden box, embodying the Buddhist concept of the body as delimited space, conceived by Gromley inspired many parts of the choreography. The various structural formations necessitated and dictated a number of movements.

On its own, the box served Larbi’s imagination. It becomes what he wants it to be – life boat, coffin, swimming pool, tight cave, and even stairs! Perhaps the inclusion of the child monk represents this child-like versatility towards imagination. Give an object to a child and he will turn it into a toy or anything he fancies in a wonderful world of make-belief.

Collectively, the boxes, like oversized Lego blocks, formed larger-than-life structures –maze, pillars, pedestals, walls, arches, stacked coffins, stage, eroding cliff, waves, snail shells, and lotus. At times, Larbi is the voodoo witch constructing the formation of the miniature version of the wooden boxes while the monks obediently move the man-size boxes about following suit. It is possible that the ‘invisible hand’ that motions the monks is meant to indicate the presence of a higher being in control. At other times, Larbi meandered amongst the monks as an observer attempting to emulate them but always unsuccessful as the clumsy outsider. Even Larbi’s box is painted silver, designed to stand out from the other unvarnished boxes, and to differentiate him.

The hollow, lidless box allowed room for illusion. The monks disappear and reappear on stage by simply immersing themselves in the box and then emerging again on cue, like a monk-in-a-box. Depth and gravity, or the lack of it, within the box is created at a whim. Depth and dimension too was created on the stage itself by virtue of the organized configurations.

When the monks appeared looking rather smart in their handsome suits, I wondered if Larbi was poking fun at Stephen’s Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, where the axe-wielding Chinese triad wore similar attire.

Inevitably, the monks did do some Kung Fu demonstration. Thankfully this did not make up the bulk of the performance. At the very least, these demonstrations of various fighting styles mimicking animals such tiger, toad, praying mantis, scorpion, and the mythical monkey god, and some weapon play, served to show us the martial art in its original form so that we can later appreciate the comparison when the martial art crosses dance. And, at the very least, we could also marvel at the strength, agility, balance, and precision displayed by these warrior monks honed through years of practice.

Larbi’s direction, together with the music composed by Szyman Brzoska, brought the two (martial art and dance) disciplines closer. In effect, we saw the monks ‘dance.’

Like fingers running through a scale, in which one note follows the other, the monks, lined up in a row, each echoed the movement of the monk in front creating what looked like a visual sound wave resounding with increasing velocity. This was accompanied by sounds from movement – body slaps and involuntary shouts that comes with the use of force. The Strings become more intense the more the force. Even the pause is important in the score. In the silence we hear the whoosh of the wind interrupted by blows, and the ruffle of the monk’s uniform when they kick and jump.

When the monks sat atop the pedestals, soft musical phrases accommodate the tempo of graceful hand movements like sign language spoken in chorus. On the ground, the monks seem to be practicing Tai Chi amidst a serene, quiet atmosphere. The naturally slow and graceful Tai Chi movements have a subconscious connection to music, which culminates beautifully into an elegant Eastern waltz.

All in, Sutra offers a compelling perspective that places the essence of the philosophy and faith behind the Shaolin tradition into the contemporary context using the vectors of movement, space and music.

Sponsorship Acknowledgements

Special thanks to:
National Arts Council, Singapore
Singapore Tourism Board

Sunday, May 31, 2009

(M) Rhythm In Bronze (RiB)

Rhythm In Bronze (RiB)
22 to 24 May 2009

Esplanade, Singapore

I really love sitting by the bay at the Esplanade in the evening. The scorching sun gone, I embraced the gentle bay breeze that caressed me as I let myself relax. Sitting alone at the open air theatre, I relished the moments of solitude accompanied only by my packed dinner and Evian. Time stood still for me while the rest of Singapore’s financial district packed the MRTs rushing home from work.

After shopping for four hours, I was a proud contributor to Singapore's economy! Give me another four hours and I would have lifted the republic from its recession. I chose a seat with a pillar behind me because I was feeling rather tired and spineless (by then). I wanted a good break and was looking forward to Flipside, the daily free performance at the open air theatre in conjunction with the Singapore Arts Festival. And lo behold! It was Rhythm in Bronze, our home-grown gamelan troupe performing that evening.

In the crowd, there was a good mixture of locals and foreigners. An Indonesian man sat right in front wearing a batik headscarf on his head tied to look like a hat (what do you call this?), and wearing a t-shirt that had “Visit Indonesia 2008” boldly written on its back. And because he was sitting on the front-most bench, everyone behind him could read it. I loved the irony…hah! What also caught my attention was the number of young Singaporean Malays - dressed as if they’re going for Avril Lavigne’s concert – making this an outing with friends. What this proves is that RiB, despite its obvious traditional genre, has managed to find its appeal, through its innovation and use of some Western instruments, amongst the young seeking an identity they can relate to.

And when they played, the traditional ensemble rocked the crowd with infectious melodies, and catchy beats. I almost wanted to shout out ‘Malaysia Boleh’ and let it echo amidst the stunned audience; but then I refrained. No need for a side show, especially since I was croaking that day. But, wow, the performance totally rocks!

Photos courtesy of RIB.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

(D) Toilet

Toilet – Not Flushed
20-24 May 2009

When I read that theatre director Loh Kok Man’s earlier work Untitled featured in 2003 received rave reviews, I was eager to see how it’s new version, now titled Toilet, turned out. Toilet featured a mix of original and new cast comprising mostly dancers. Apparently, the former was primarily a theatre piece while the latter infused more dance.

Loh recently bagged the Best Director award with his interpretation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and also the Best Lighting Design for the play Air Con at the recent Boh Cameronian Arts Awards (Cammies).

Despite these accolades, Loh’s directorial brilliance was not evident in his latest production. Loh’s intention, when he chose the less-than-appealing title for this performance, was to suggest, rather crudely, topics of taboo and problems in our society. It is the metaphor for all things ‘dirty’ and represents that which society expels. He took a huge risk in using this approach, and I guess luck was not with him in this gamble. I prefer a more subtle direction, purging the grouses of society without being lewd or distasteful.

The very notion of Toilet suggests privacy and meditation. On the ‘throne’ of undisturbed contemplation, we empty our minds (and bowels) only to have it filled afresh with new aspirations.
Alone in the toilet, our minds are free to drift into a private, ideal world. The opening dance seems to reflect this best. On the surface, it seems to be a coordinated dance uniformed by wooden benches, a childish theme, and object-inspired movements. But on closer inspection, the oblivious looks and cold contact hinted that the five dancers, while moving in common space, were indeed in a world of their own.

This aloofness and detachment carried through in Amy Len’s solo performed against a narrative that describes the essence of being human. The four readers, seated at each corner of the stage, droned on until the collective voices became a comfortable, lulling murmur. Amy reacted to these sounds with strong, accented movements interspersed with contractions. Sequences were repeated with increasing speed until she collapses, breathless. Despite her technical competence, the lack of interaction and association with the context of the narrative rendered the performance rather soulless. Within that square space, it is possible to explore the various human dimensions and the underlying social processes or driving forces behind the individual and the society; but this opportunity was not exploited.

Gan Hui Yee and Tin Tan had the unenviable task of tackling the more mundane scenes where time seems to pass with difficulty. This include a dreary slow-motion scene in a park where Gan plays a woman sitting on a bench polishing off one banana after banana while Tin Tan plays a girl walking with her balloon with her mouth perpetually ajar. In another scene, the duo stretched their vocal chords to feverish pitches as they competed for vocal space and talent recognition. While I admired their patience and their vocal strength albeit a bit off-key, I could not really tell the meaning and purpose behind these two vignettes in relation to the main theme.

The duet rendered by Leng Poh Gee and Louise Yew explores the complex dynamics that surround human relationships using contact improvisation technique as their main vocabulary. Using this language, we witness the paradigms of social exchange in motion where the operant and respondent are players in a consequential relationship. It is a conceptualization of relationships or social interactions among two (or more) people. All human beings feel the need to have and develop relationships, yet, while in these relationships, individuals strive to maximize their rewards – and this may be anything that satisfies human needs or desires.

What Toilet could have been, is a platform to a richer understanding of the complex dynamics that surround the individual and his or her relationship with society. When radical social conditions are mentioned, apologists for present practice take a philosophical turn and defend their own conception of human nature as the final explanation of the predatory competitiveness of our age of waste and greed. It should mention the truth that we don’t want to hear – that as humans we have always been greedy, grasping creatures, entirely absorbed in ourselves. All human ties of love, affection and social unity are really manipulative appearances that conceal the sheer private opportunism that actually motivates us. And, these traits of individualism are the social diarrhoea that needs to be flushed away.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Little World - Steppe-ing into Kazakhstan

My Kazakh date never showed up yesterday morning. But his replacement did...40 minutes late.

So while waiting, I browsed a coffee table book on Kazakh art. The first thing that struck me was the different energies that exuded from works of male versus female artists. Firstly, the subjects of choice by male artists were typically men at war and skillful hunters - all on horseback. I cannot forget the picture of a warrior whose body turned towards the back ever so slightly that no one would notice a little bow readied at waist-level with a tensed arrow, will soon be released on some poor bloke who is giving chase. It was a picture of strengh, of skillful horsemenship and most of all, of a warrior's cunning. The obsession with muscles, chiselled with care, on these male images and on the horses were hard to miss. The women artists painted women who were just lying there, swooned, in a clearly, anti-climatic expression. The somewhat lack of 'Yin' energies were compensated with vibrant colours and meticulous detail - but still, the 'connection' with the painting remains lost.

A photograph on the wall simply took my breath away - large eagles with wings spanning several meters were flying alongside their masters on horseback against the backdrop of snow-blanketed steppes. This traditional art of hunting with eagles is called 'berkutchy,' practiced by professional hunters, an inherited profession. I was immediately seduced by the romance of these wild lands. It is the people and the living arts that they survive, that flames the fire of romance and adds character to the vast landscape. This is exactly what's missing in the 'barren' outbacks of Australia, which explains why the movie, named after the country, failed miserably, in romancing cinema-goers. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman were simply not children of the outbacks, and no amount of good acting will make them one.

I did not hear hoof steps when my replacement date arrived. Wearing trousers, shirt and tie, he looked very much an urban Asian on his way to work. When I demanded for the missing book on Kazakh dance, he apologetically said that they did not have one, and then shyly assured me that Kazakh people do like to dance. I assumed that this shyness has something to do with the male ethos that has more respect for horsemenship than say, dancing?

I also noticed that we share the same oriental features. No wonder he agreed to meet me! I could actually pass off as a Kazakh girl - as long as I keep my mouth shut and continue swooning.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Little World - Maldives' Last 'Resort'

I had an interesting meeting with a blogger from Maldives yesterday afternoon and he talked about the various 'brands' of Islam and how a certain brand of Islam does not provide a conducive environment for dance to survive (what say flourish).

"Personally, as a Muslim, I do not see anything in the Quran that prohibits dance," he said.

The island cultures filled with festival, music and dance, that he experienced as a kid are no longer practiced in those islands.

"But you can always see the dances in the many resorts that we have in Maldives. There are always Maldives Nights and performances for the tourists."

That's when I questioned the authenticity of the dances - are these performances created for tourists authentic? Will you get the same experience if you were to watch the same thing performed in the villages?

"Unfortunately, this is all you get. The resorts are the only places that these artists can make a living. Currently, the resorts are the only thing that's keeping our performing arts alive."

All is not lost. I was glad to hear that there are some people in Maldives who are trying to revive these island cultures. My blogger friend is now considering writing papers on the revival efforts of these art forms...when he retires.

You need to do it now, my friend!

Little World - Russia's Pride

I met a tall, beautiful, young Russian lady yesterday morning. Sporting a Bvlgary white gold necklace and charm, she looked every bit a poised figure, and one with tastes for the finer things in life. It was no surprise that she rubbished ballet in Malaysia and wondered what's all the fuss we make about some British certification.

"How can you make ballerinas if the kids only practice twice a week? In Russia, parents send their kids to the ballet school every single day.

I agree with her. That's why we have a school for young talented athletes in Bukit Jalil. But we have nothing of that sort for performing arts. We also do not have a Bolshoi ballet to look forward to for a career.

"In Russia, we are very particular about the classical form. We are very conservative and traditional in that sense. We do not bother with the neo-classical or modern forms. Classical ballet is the only true form. That's why Russian ballet is number one in the world," she said.

Ballet is Russia's pride. Other than nasi lemak and teh tarik (which Singapore has already claimed), what are we proud of?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

(D) Gostan Forward

Gostan Forward – Lecture Notes
8 May 2009
The Annexe Gallery, Central Market

The programme, as written by Mark Teh (Director of Gostan Forward), read like an obituary of Marion D’Cruz. Then, as he opened the show with talk of ‘memories,’ and how fluid it is, Anne James (guest performer) looked on with eyes glistened with tears.

But here was the woman, very much alive and performing in front of us; and making us laugh so hard that we could die laughing in our chairs or roll over on the tikar laid out on the floor.

Gostan Forward is an invitation to step into the mind and body of Marion D’Cruz, and to remember and to rediscover her in our own ways. It was a performance she just had to do in this lifetime and it almost felt like Marion’s rite of passage signalling her arrival at a certain phase in life – the celebration of Five Arts Centre’s (which she founded) 25th Anniversary.

And so, Marion was ‘delivered’ through a solo performance lecture that spun well-told stories using text, movement, music and images, referencing some of her favourite and significant pieces of her 60-odd choreographies. After years of collaborative efforts with artists, filmmakers, and the like, the ability to merge all these elements seamlessly into one production became her forte. It was a magical way of teaching the process of thinking, creating, discovering, rehearsing, and finally, seeing the final product. And most of all, it is about going back to reflect and contemplate to acquire the wisdom to move forward.

As we gostan (reverse) into Marion’s own history, we see how intricately it’s linked to Malaysian dance history and social history. The pieces selected chart her thoughts and experiences since the 80s, the era when Malaysia’s National Cultural Policy was formed. Marion’s own determination to overcome social ethos made her the first non-Malay woman to perform the lead male role of Terinai, and one of the two women to become a Dalang for Wayang Kulit.

The word ‘provocative’ rightly describes Marion. Wearing a black shirt (on a no-black-shirt day) with words that say ‘Let me speak,” Marion had plenty to say about the state of the nation and the deplorable state of affairs in Perak, which she calls a ‘Civil War.’

This set the stage for reliving a recent work, Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya (BMBR). It was created at the time when the Marion turned 57, a time when she experienced deep, extreme grief and loss – for Krishen, her husband, and for a nation that had ‘lost its plot.’ She invited 40 people to participate, out of which 22 agreed. The idea was to create multiple stories. The challenge to the participants was, “if you were given time and space, what would you say to Malaysia?” They had to come back with an idea that was tangible. The participants came back with Panadol, Rukun Negara, ‘Good Morning’ towel, kaleidoscope, and a picture of a gun, amongst other things. The idea was to create ‘multiplicity’ to represent the many bodies and minds of Malaysians. While, she claims, the democratic space in Malaysia is shrinking, the democratic space in her little Taman Tun studio is expanding. When she talks about the challenge of negotiating rehearsal schedules and different characters, she quickly drew a parallel to negotiating democracy. BMBR was Marion’s personal search for a Malaysia that is sweet but lost and far away. It is about her desire for every Malaysian to become the elusive ‘Chilayu woman.’

Marion shifted the gear stick to reverse and took us on a journey to New York with a frustrated rendition of New York New York, the popular broadway number. Projected on the wall is a painting of the city’s skyline cramped with towering buildings. It’s splashed with strong, fiery red at its base, and slowly its intensity recedes to a lighter orange, then yellow as the colours creeps skywards. And when it reaches the sky, the canvas burst into white, the all-colour. The receding tone paint Marion’s attempts to break free from being a dancer to becoming, simply, herself, the creator and collaborator of all arts. When you are free from syllabus, you can make dance, drawing inspiration from various sources.

Makna – creating movement from music

Marion reminisces about her first collaborator, Margaret Tan, a small, intense lady who graduated from Julliard, a prestigious dance school in New York. She created music that expresses her own intensity and favoured discovery of East-West collisions. Marion, who lived beneath Tan’s apartment, had been stirring curry to Tan’s music; and having digested every note, she was the right candidate to create dance to her music. Thus Makna was created using a combination of Silat and Topeng (which she admits to picking up from watching a video) vocabularies. She confessed to her first mistake, which was to ‘cut and paste’ traditional vocabularies into a contemporary one, but quickly said that the work was ‘saved’ by having a concept – a ritual of putting on the mask, and by “…feeling the music for ten seconds in a frenzied dance”. The ‘cut and paste’ method is a reflection of early attempts in dance productions to incorporate elements of traditional dances into a contemporary dance. Makna was presented to the legendary John Cage. And to think that the dance inspired Cage to write a mesostic with Marion’s name as its spine - it is a huge compliment especially coming from Cage, one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century who was also instrumental in the development of modern dance through his association with Merce Cunningham.

When she returned from New York, she immediately launched into dance-making with Solo, the first one-woman dance performance touring most parts of Malaysia to introduce the country to contemporary dance. By 1988 she discovered the joy of improvisation and became an ‘armchair’ choreographer working with non-dancers who are ‘mad enough to join her in this journey.’ Solo became the prototype method of showing-telling-performing that is repeated in other works.

Urn Piece – creating movement from objects

When ‘presenting’ the Urn piece, she describes how the shape, strength and function of the object inspire the movements that make the dance. Like a lullaby, she whispered to us the feeling of sitting inside the urn, tapping our kinaesthetic memory of being in the womb. She seduces us with the idea that as a performer, she has the power to create reactions, and she proves her point as our eyes follow intently the movement of her hands (running around the rim of the imaginary urn) anticipating its next move.

Sook Ching – creating movement from paintings and video

Sook Ching, meaning ‘purification by elimination,’ was painted in 1990 by Wong Hoi Cheong to describe the horrors experienced by the people during the Japanese occupation. Sook Ching became a multi-media presentation of video, performance, painting and dialogue between Marion, Wong and Anne James, which was presented at the International Video Art Festival, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. Marion shifted from pose to pose showing us how the movements were derived from the painting. After looking at the painting and video countless times, they became the characters “…walking out from the painting.”

Swan Song – creating movement from text

Maria Zaitun is a poem by WS Rendra on the last seven hours of a prostitute’s life. The poem is rough and uses strong language to describe how the prostitute is rejected by all systems in society. After 11 months of preparation, the ugly topic became Marion’s Swan Song. This piece speaks of her religion, her politics and her being. Marion likens dance to vomit – you absorb and absorb and at some point you need to vomit it out – implying that Swan Song was the catalyst for her purging women pieces. James joined Marion in a duet. They both sat back-to-back on the table swaying hypnotically as Marion sings a beautiful but sorrowful song about “…an unfortunate whore who is not pretty enough and too old”. The last part of this dance uses the Terinai vocabulary because the wedding dance symbolizes union between Maria Zaitun with her Maker. James was so moved when revisiting this scene that tears flowed freely. At some point in every woman’s life, we must have felt the sinking feeling of helplessness and desperation that circumstance puts us. It is a poem that every woman can read and reread; and as James puts it, “…to grow old with.”

Terinai – putting soul into movement

In the finale, Marion expounds on the difficulty of mastering Malay classical dance. While the movements are easy to catch on, not everyone can put ‘soul’ into the dance nor internalize the dance. She stopped talking for the first time in the performance, put on her mask and proceeded to perform her favourite dance, Terinai, a wedding dance from Perlis. We are fixated on her flexible curved fingers and her gentle hands in constant movement pushing away from her body and then retracting it. At one point, her white-grey hair cropped short blends with the male-faced mask and for a moment, she ‘became’ the mask.

Moving forward, Marion declared an inclusive policy for dance. Through Five Arts Centre, she wants to make dance so ordinary that it is extraordinary; to make dance that make people say ‘wow’ but at the same time say, “Hey, I can do that!”

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Speech by Ms Choy Su-Ling, ADC Launch

Speech by Ms Choy Su-Ling at the ADC launch

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you so much for coming today.

I would like to share with you how AsiaDanceChannel came to be.

AsiaDanceChannel is first and foremost a corporate social responsibility programme with the objective of promoting dance and preserving dance heritage.

In the scope of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, ADC’s CSR projects fall under ‘Social.’ While many Environmental and Governance projects are already in place, ADC provides one of the most comprehensive touch points to address Social issues, using dance as a channel.

When we talk about dance in the context of Asia, it often cannot be separated from music and theatre because all these are intrinsically linked together as the manifestation of the culture, custom, and lifestyle of a certain community. We need to make a collective effort to preserve these multi-cultures without which the substance for interculturalism would not exist.

As a nation, we are not only blessed with natural resources but also cultural resources. As we transit into an innovation-fuelled economy, the driving force in the next phase of our development will be the imaginative and creative capacity of our people. The new architects of the global economic landscape are those who apply their imagination, creativity and knowledge to generate new ideas and create new value. Multi-dimensional creativity – including artistic and literary creativity – will be the new currency of success.

Many countries now see the creative industries as a key competitive advantage in the globalised economy. Ideas and imagination have become valuable assets and drivers of economic opportunities and growth. We must harness creativity and the power of innovation to forge ahead in a competitive and globalised economy. To succeed and thrive, we must tap on the creative cluster - which are arts, culture, design and media – and recognise them as one of the vanguards of economic growth.

Industries which are inspired by cultural and artistic creativity have the potential to create economic value through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property. For example, dance repertoires are intellectual property.

The efforts include developing creative capabilities, stimulating sophisticated demand and strengthening industry players to become credible and significant players in the global creative landscape. This is a tall order and we cannot do it alone. AsiaDanceChannel strive to bridge dance communities with business communities. For a start, we are making an effort to lobby for cultural philanthropy in corporate CSR agenda. We need to create a unique people-private-public collaborative platform providing various levels of support, including facilitation and funding.

The emerging social contract dictates that profit seeking must be carried on within a broader context than the traditional economic calculus. The corporation is a social organization as well as an economic organization and its performance will be appraised in social as well as economic terms. Businesses must restructure its objectives so that social goals are put on par with economic goals.

If I were to ask you who is the Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham of Asia? Nobody knows. This is a pity because in Asia we have so many Grand Masters and dance exponents who are custodians of dance heritage. In 2005, UNESCO declared mak yong, a traditional dance-drama from northern Malaysia, a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” wants to put Asian talents and culture on the world map. By promoting and raising the profile of Asian dance and dancers, we hope that the younger generation would develop an interest in inheriting these art forms.

Most of the large continents such as USA, Europe and Australia, have dance magazines, so why not Asia? Asia comprise of an aggregate of the cultural heritage of many nationalities, societies, religions, and ethnic groups in the region., as a new media channel fills the gap for rich Asian content and gives dance in Asia the share of voice it deserves.

The objective of the dance magazine is to create dance ‘audienceship’ converting individuals with no prior inclination towards dance to someone that does.

Last but not least, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Media, Dance and Southeast Asia Departments of University Malaya for their collective efforts in putting up the International Dance Day celebrations. I would also like to thank Creative Technology Advances Sdn Bhd, our technology sponsor, for taking the lead in cultural philanthropy through the provision of their technology support.

And finally, happy International Dance Day!

Thank you. – Asia’s First Online Dance Magazine Launch – Asia’s First Online Dance Magazine Launch

29 April 2009 marks an important date for the dance communities as Asia’s first online dance magazine,, was launched in conjunction with International Dance Day. The double celebration heralds the revival of society’s interest in dance.

“Most of the large continents such as USA, Europe and Australia, have dance magazines, so why not Asia? Asia comprise of an aggregate of the cultural heritage of many nationalities, societies, religions, and ethnic groups in the region. fills the gap for rich Asian content and gives dance in Asia the share of voice it deserves,” said founder Ms Choy Su-Ling, a dance blogger.

“Who is the Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham of Asia? Not many people know. This is a pity because in Asia we have so many Grand Masters and dance exponents who are custodians of dance heritage. In 2005, UNESCO declared mak yong, a traditional form of dance-drama from northern Malaysia, a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” wants to put Asian talents and culture on the world map. By promoting and raising the profile of Asian dance, we hope that the younger generation would develop an interest in inheriting these art forms.”

However, the online dance magazine does not only cover traditional and classical dance forms. It also covers contemporary, ballet, modern, jazz, Latin American and other dance forms practiced and enjoyed in Asia. The online dance magazine now features dance reviews, interviews, event listings, and videos. Readers are able to plan ahead for shows and festivals not only in their own country but even as they travel Asia.
The magazine not only targets dancers and dance enthusiasts but also people who have a general interest in culture and art, and travellers. In fact, the goal of creating dance ‘audienceship’ is to convert individuals with no prior inclinations towards dance to someone that does.

More sophisticated modules of the website are in the pipeline and has Creative Advances Technology Sdn Bhd (CAT), the technology sponsor, to thank. CAT is the developer of the highly successful, the official e-tourism portal for the Ministry of Tourism, Malaysia, which today receives over 30 million hits and 1 million pageviews a month. Following the success of the portal, CAT developed the Malaysian Tourism Online Unified Reservation System (myTOURS), a consolidated tourism e-business platform funded by the MDeC development grant.

“We recognize that in Asia, dance is an integral part of the culture and therefore the agenda to promote and preserve dance heritage can be achieved by fully harnessing the power of communications technology through myTOURS. We are very pleased that AsiaDanceChannel invited us to be a part of this initiative that contributes such a tremendous intangible economic value to the nation,” said Mr Vincent Kok, Chief Operating Officer of CAT, when officiating the launch of the online dance magazine.

International Dance Day was celebrated jointly with the Media, Dance and Southeast Asia Departments of University Malaya. Students put up an afternoon of performance featuring the taklempong ensemble, and Zapin, Ngajat Iban, Bharatanatyam and contemporary dances. According to tradition, the International Dance Day Message circulated around the world by the International Dance Committee of the International Theatre Institute UNESCO (ITI/UNESCO) was read out.

In 1982, the ITI/UNESCO founded International Dance Day to be celebrated every year on 29 April. The date commemorates the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre, born in 1728, who was a great reformer of dance. In 1995, in an effort to unite dance, the ITI/UNESCO entered into a collaborative effort for the celebration of International Dance Day with World Dance Alliance as their only official partner. Every year, a message from a well-known dance personality is circulated throughout the world. This year, the honour goes to Mr Akram Khan, an acclaimed choreographer of Bangladeshi decent. The intention of International Dance Day and the Message is to bring all dancers together on this day, to celebrate this art form and revel in its universality, to cross all political, cultural and ethnic barriers and to bring people together in peace and friendship with a common language - Dance.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

(D) A Delicate Situation

A Delicate Situation
Rimbun Daham, Lina Limosani

12-13 December 2008 (8.30pm)
14 December 2008 (3pm)
Pentas 2, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

Rimbun Dahan’s dance residency programme featured its third resident choreographer, Lina Limosani, in a full-length contemporary dance performance entitled A Delicate Situation. Limosani graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia in 1999 and shortly after became a member of the Australian Dance Theatre from 2000-2005. She is more familiar with comedy but decided to dabble with the horror genre instead having been inspired by the story of our Malaysian Pontianak.

Apparently, she walked into her room at the residence one day and caught a glimpse of something white floating in the air. Coming out of her shock, she bravely ventured closer towards the ‘thing’ that caught her imagination. To her relief, it was just a piece of white cloth hung on a clothes hanger flapping away due to the wind sweeping in from a nearby window. She then decided to ask about Malaysian ghost stories and finally settled on the Pontianak, the ghost of a woman who dies while giving birth.

That ‘close encounter’ at the residence certainly had an effect on Limosani as she went on to use a lot of white cloth on set and for costumes; so much that even textile superstore, Kamdar, could have run out of supply! The clever use of material and lighting created a naturally creepy ambiance on the dim stage. The audience was held in suspense, anticipating the sight of the horrifying creature wrapped and hidden in the white cloth cocoon as it tries to claw through it. The back light that cast on the ‘creature’ created a shadowy hint of what it might potentially look like. I always take my hat off to those who can do so much with so little.

Thanks to show producer Bilqis Hijjas, Limosani had the benefit of working with four of Malaysia’s best contemporary dancers - Suhaili Micheline, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, Elaine Pedley and Low Shee Hoe.

Low played a young man eaten alive by the pontianaks. Humans are crunchier than I thought, from the crunchy sound chosen by composer Hardesh Singh in the scene where the pontianaks happily mauled Low. It injected a comical feel, which I felt, was wrong for this scene. Low did a good job in playing the victim and was very passionate in his role. However, I thought that the show could go on quite well without this character (and this has got nothing to do with Low).

Micheline and Govindarajoo both played Pontianak while the very pregnant Pedley played the pregnant obsessive compulsive housewife and pontianak victim. Limosani settled on insect-like movements as the core dance vocabulary for the pontianaks. This worked particularly well in the scenes where the creatures were hidden and semi hidden by the cloths and in the scene where the Pontianak attacked the pregnant lady. The ‘unhumanly’ and contorted movements created visually disturbing images of the dancers.

Between Micheline and Govindarajoo, Micheline was the more convincing pontianak of the two. This was partly because of the characterisation – Micheline had the opportunity to become the only true pontianak as she attacked and devoured the pregnant lady; and for Govndarajoo, it was partly because of her winged costume. It gave her a certain stiffness that made her look like a predatory air-borne alien. And at the end of the Alien vs Pontianak tussle (in her character), the aliens won.

A delicate situation does apply to the amazing Pedley, who, 8 months into pregnancy, and against advice from well-meaning friends and family, insisted on performing. At the rate she was moving and shaking, she could have fooled the audience into thinking that she was simply acting the part. Her role was a breath of fresh air introducing theatrics proper into the dance. As the pregnant lady, she displayed a knack for keeping her house in order and does so by perpetually cleaning and shifting things around. She began to sense an evil presence in her home when she noticed that the item she moved was not in its place. It could be basic maternal instinct at play because Pedley acted out with conviction the fear and attempts to protect her unborn baby.

When I spoke to Limosani after the show, she said that there were areas that she felt can be improved on and felt quite relieved that everything went well despite the short time she had to put up the show. She praised the Malaysian dancers for their dedication and excellent work. Having enjoyed the process of creating this work, she has this to say to the audience, “Watch out for more horror!”

Friday, April 10, 2009

(D) Rasa Unmasked

Rasa Unmasked
Australia Month
7 – 12 April 2009
Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

Rasa Unmasked is the work of three pioneers of classical forms presented in the contemporary context. The show, held during the Australia Month at KLPac, is the result of collaborative efforts between Ramli Ibrahim, Artistic Director of Sutra Dance Theatre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Anandavalli Sivanathan, Artistic Director of Lingalayam Dance Company, Sydney, Australia, and Alex Dea, Javanese gamelan specialist, Ethnomusicologist, Composer and Musician based in Indonesia.

The work tries to establish common grounds between Indian and Indonesian cultures and they found it in the blending of sounds, contemporary interpretation of classical dance forms and Rasa, or emotions. The universality of these three elements transcends racial and national barriers.

Pix by The Star

In particular, the work expounded on the Rasa theory and quite literally explored emotions such as Adbhuta (wonderment), Sringara (love), Veera (valour), Karuna (compassion), Hasya (laughter), Bibhatsa (disgust), Bhaya (fear), Raudra (anger), and Shanta (serenity).

Great care was taken to use certain classical dance genres to present a certain emotion. Odissi, with its more feminine style was used to portray wonderment, in a scene that represents birth, and fear, stereotyping women as weak. January Low was especially convincing in bhaya (fear) and even beneath the veiled costume, every muscle in her body suggested fear and oppression.

Bharatanatyam has a more masculine style and was naturally the preferred genre to project emotions of disgust and anger. However, the composition of these pieces were not refined making the dancers look rather clumsy.

Kuchipudi, the precursor to Odissi, was the choice of dance to describe the most basic of human emotion – love. In Anandavalli’s Kuchipudi solo, she mimed the words of the carnatic song to bring out fully, the courtesan’s passion and longing for love for the nayak (hero).

Ramli’s solo was the Balinese Baris (warrior) dance to display a hero’s valour. However, I thought Ramli does a better job at performing classical indian dance. This valour scene depended too much on the gawdy kavadi-like prop to exude the energy and confidence of a warrior instead of conveying the rasa through sound choreography. The outcome was, unfortunately, a strange peacock dance.

Attempts were made to evoke characters from the epic ramayana with movements taken from both Balinese and classical Indian dance styles. The approach of combining both classical dance styles was used to interpret the characters rama and ravana but somehow the execution of it was rather awkward and unnatural. On the other hand, the contemporary interpretation of masked monkey characters, representing Hanuman, the monkey god was beautifully done. The characters in themselves were not alien given the evident influence of hinduism in both cultures.

Rasa Unmasked not only brought together different dancing traditions but takes a step further to merge Javanese and Indian classical music to great effect. The combination of voice and classical instruments lends an interesting texture to the mood of the performance. In fact, I was more impressed with the scores than the choreography.

The dancers generally put up a commendable performance with the senior dancers carrying the rasa more profoundly than the younger ones. The choreography, I felt, had an obvious Sutra stamp on it. However, I am not familiar enough with Anandavalli’s works to identify her influence on the choreography and artistic direction.

All in, I was not entirely moved by the performance. The projection of rasa is one thing but making the audience feel it is quite another. While I applaud the concept and idea behind Rasa Unmasked, the choreography and overall execution did not make the audience feel the rasa. Not enough thought was put into examining the delivery of movements given its rich intercultural context. Hence, the full potential of rasa was largely untapped. What’s missing is an expert in Balinese dance who could provide invaluable insight into the element of rasa in Balinese dance. The performance was good but because of this missing element, it fell short of a standing ovation.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

(D) Conquest of the Galaxy: Mars

Conquest of the Galaxy: Mars
By Condors
19-21 March 2009
Pentas 1, KLPac

I’m always happy to spend an evening entertained by men. Thus, I had no resistance at all to the idea of a Friday-night conquest for Japanese testosterones that promises to be ‘sweaty,’ according to some reviews, and offers liberal use of shitck. I’m talking about the all-male Japanese contemporary dance troupe, Condors, founded by Ryohei Kondo in 1996, performing in Malaysia for the first time.

Apparently, wherever they go, Condor performances always send their audiences spinning with amazement, shock, and laughter with their trademark school uniforms, comedy, parodies of local clichés, and the use of overblown video imagery. It seems they are attempting to create a new form of dance and to push its boundaries for the 21st century.

Joseph Gonzales, a veteran figure in Kuala Lumpur’s dance scene, has been researching the meaning of ‘contemporary’ in its application to dance in Malaysia and to date, he admits, that a concrete definition remains elusive. It is a frightening coincidence, in my observation, that Gonzales choreographs similar works these days and also claims to be ‘pushing the boundaries.’

It would by hypocritical to rave about Conquest of the Galaxy: Mars (CGM) and disapprove of Gonzales’ Random (choreographed for Jamu 2008). Although high in entertainment value, I was rather disappointed with both works.

While Random was not to my liking, 9 to 5 an earlier work in similar format by Gonzales certainly rank amongst my favourites because of its excellent dance and entertainment value. Marion D’Cruz is the first person in Malaysia, to my knowledge, to seamlessly weave theatre into dance (sometimes more theatre than dance) without short-changing the audience of dance. Bravo! She had also put up numerous performances choreographed and performed by non-dancers. So the idea of putting stiff men on stage is nothing new. If CGM is the benchmark for contemporary dance, then these works by our Malaysian choreographers are certainly more deserving of a global tour.

Some may share my sentiments that we cannot fully appreciate CGM as a form of contemporary dance. I would appreciate contemporary dance as more dance than theatre, video, puppetry and contests; if not, then these other elements should add value to the quality of the dance performance in its’ totally, and not distract the audience away from dance. Anything less and the dance-going audience would feel short-changed. CGM was, to me, little more than an entertainment piece. You watch, you laugh, and you go home.

A noteworthy item in CGM was the concluding dance piece depicting a day at the beach. Here, Kondo displayed his ingenuity in using the human body to form objects (toilet bowl, surf board), and to illustrate the character of waves. Two men bundled up together to form a turtle laying eggs – a gem! Another burst of creativity was displayed in a football field scene - a man curled up into a ‘football’ and when kicked by the striker, he rolled in his curled up position, into the goal post.

The intermittent dance scenes were nothing to shout about. The choreographies featured some wannabe boy band-ish backup dancing to too-loud rock music and poor remakes of dance scenes from High School Musical (in fact, High School Musical was better).

Humour was abundant throughout this show but after a while, the formula becomes old, cliché and not so funny. For example “101 things to do with a toilet pump” was funny but the subsequent “101 things to do with a French loaf” in France, projected on video, was lame. Rotten Street, a mockery of Sesame Street was what it intended to be – rotten.

A friend in the Japanese dance scene told me that in Japan, Condors is defined as an “entertainment contemporary dance” company. The director, Kondo, appears in television programmes and so forth to reach out to a new target audience for contemporary dance (and not only to the culturally-inclined), and therefore his works are important.

Did Condors push the boundaries of dance? No. Did they reach new audiences in Malaysia? Judging from the packed theatre, I think the obvious answer is yes.

Friday, February 27, 2009

(D) Elephant in the Room - 2 January 2009

Kwang Tung Dance Troupe & Mind Production
Jan 2-4
Pentas 2, KLPAC

THE elephant in the room’’ is an English idiom which describes a problem that everyone knows about but nobody wants to address. It suggests people in the room would rather pretend the “elephant’’ is not there by busying themselves with small issues instead of the looming one.

That said, the recently-concluded Elephant in the Room performance comprised two pieces of work, I Can Almost See the Light by Jay Jen, and No Exit by Amy Len. In all honesty, there was no way the audience could have ignored the “big picture’’ in this showcase.

Dance can be used as a means of social critique and Jen addressed this idiom with a farce, the more uncouth twin of satire. This was the only way to “see the light” in his piece, characterised by Chinese humour that few could appreciate, and the deliberate use of absurdity and broadly stylised dance movements.

Jen returned to Malaysia from Hong Kong in July 2005 and his experience as a professional dancer with the Hong Kong Dance Company, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company probably shaped the distinct Chinese flavour of his choreography.

In the story, as the idiom goes, the main problem was the society at large but the people could only see the magnified antics of the lunatic Lu Bao Bao, the main character. Her occupation was to blow balloons “with her head”, it seemed.

However, the voice-over for Lu displayed superb diction. Coupled with good acting, one could almost empathise with Lu’s innocent albeit twisted personal convictions.

But since not all the dancers could act, the performance was not as refined as that of professional farce actors. On the whole, the choreography was overshadowed by the theatrics of the piece, but one must praise the idea behind it.

The artistic direction of Len’s piece, No Exit, was remarkably simple but effective. Who would have thought that fluffy tutus could project the image of an elephant’s ears? With very little light on a somewhat dusty stage, the dancers, hunched forward in a horizontal row, projected a slow-motion scene of an elephant stampede.

The gentle swaying motion of their dangling arms imitated the movement of the elephant’s trunk. To show entrapment, fast and furious movements ensued with hands wildly pushing and shoving the head until at last the hands came to a rest, clasped together in front of their faces. Accompanying the flashing movements were desperate and sharp breaths of air, clearly audible to the audience. The tone of the music was dramatic and cinematic; and together with the lighting, Len succeeded in presenting the struggle for the unattainable.

What was exciting to see was that the number of dancers of both genders had grown, and that the overall production quality of the 28-year-old Kwang Tung Dance Troupe continues to improve.

And the troupe also stayed true to its objective to cultivate and promote local performing arts by providing a platform for the newly established dance company, Mind Production (founded in 2008 by Jen) to showcase its work.