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.

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