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