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."

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