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!”