Archive for ASWARA

Ethnic Ghettos in Malaysian Dance

Posted in Polemic, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , on 18 June 2014 by bhijjas
A scene from Christine Chew's 'Orchid', in the version presented at Gelombang Baru, platform for student choreography, at ASWARA in April 2014. Photo: Huneid Tyeb.

A scene from Christine Chew’s ‘Orchid’, in the version presented at Gelombang Baru, platform for student choreography, at ASWARA in April 2014. Photo: Huneid Tyeb.

If you squint your eyes and tip your head sideways, the two works Orchid and Habil & Qabil — presented last weekend as part of the final year presentations of contemporary dance choreography students from the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) — could almost be the same work. Christine Chew’s Orchid is set in the harems of Qing dynasty China, in which cloistered courtesans scheme and compete, form and break alliances, and plot to bring each other down. Habil & Qabil, by Mamat Samsudin, is a stylised rendition of the Cain and Abel story, with a fleet of male dancers dramatising the jealousy and resentment leading to the world’s first fratricide.

The structures of the two works are strikingly similar: both have a large group of mostly single sex dancers (the single girl in H&Q is there only long enough to establish the idea of Eve) in which a less-experienced chorus backs up a handful of lead dancers. Orchid adopts movements from classical Chinese dance, especially the speedy flexed-foot tiny-stepped walk, and H&Q takes its lead from Malay dance, turning that same flexed-footed walk into a rhythmic trot, striking the heel against the floor with each step. In both works, the same-sex groups, and the invisibility of the object of desire (Qabil’s pretty sister in H&Q, and presumably the master of the harem or the emperor in Orchid) lend a homoerotic edge to the sense of heterosexual competitiveness.

Another similarity between these two otherwise excellent works is their homogenous ethnicity. In H&Q, a work by a Malay male choreographer with a Muslim theme, the many male dancers and single female are all Malay. Orchid, a work by a Chinese female choreographer to a Chinese theme, has a few almost-unseen Indian girls in the chorus, but the four main roles are all danced by Chinese girls. [Christine, the choreographer, actually wanted all the dancers to be Chinese, so that they look uniform and anonymous, but there just weren't enough available Chinese dancers to recruit.]

This tendency of birds of a feather to flock together is not unique to these two works; it is just that the similarities between the works make it more visible. Nor is it unique to ASWARA in tertiary education — the dance department at the University of Malaya also leans largely in this direction. And certainly the phenomenon is not unique to tertiary education in Malaysia. In fact, dance within tertiary education is far more ethnically inclusive than dance in the general Malaysian community. Outside, it is such an established truism than Indians do Indian dance, and the only people who do ballet are the Chinese, that any exceptions to such rules — from Ramli Ibrahim mastering bharatanatyam and odissi, to the young Malay girl who recently won the hotly contested Category 3 prize at The Dance Society’s annual solo ballet competition — are cause for comment.

Some leaders in the dance community have long struggled against this tendency. Joseph Gonzales, the dean of the ASWARA Dance Department, has long championed the cause of ethnic diversity in the groups of students accepted to his university, as well as in individual dancers mastering art forms beyond their own ethnicities. All the students in the 3-year diploma at ASWARA are required to study all types of Malaysian traditional classical and folk dance, as well as ballet and Western-style contemporary dance technique. Under Joseph’s reign, Yunus Ismail and Norbaizura Ghani were the first Malay dancers ever to undergo the bharatanatyam arangetram, the rigorous solo graduating performance for this physically exacting Indian classical dance. And Ramli’s Sutra Dance Theatre has been the proving ground for a host of Chindian performers, as well as the occasional fully Chinese dancer, including January Low and Tan Mei Mei. [I wonder what it is about Indian dance that makes it the preferred stage for crossing ethnic borders. Is it because the fairly evenly matched rivalry between the Malays and the Chinese precludes them from venturing onto each others' pitch, but allows the 'third' culture, the 'Other' to both of the more dominant races, to become a more neutral meeting point?]

A scene from Mamad Samsudin's 'Habil & Qabil', from the version presented at Gelombang Baru, platform for student choreography, in April 2014. Photo: Huneid Tyeb.

A scene from Mamad Samsudin’s ‘Habil & Qabil’, from the version presented at Gelombang Baru, platform for student choreography, in April 2014. Photo: Huneid Tyeb.

Yet still the ethnic ghettoisation persists, as Orchid and Habil & Qabil show. What makes it more troubling is that at ASWARA this phenomenon is not unconscious, nor does it go unnoticed. At ASWARA, seeing the Chinese kids hang out together and pick each other for their works, the students jokingly call it “MCA”. [And when I say the Chinese kids, I mean, the Chinese girls. Chinese male dancers, for whatever reason, seem not to choose to go to ASWARA; perhaps because, if they are any good, they know they can get a full scholarship to Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.]

The Chinese dancers and choreographers (and, to a certain extent, the Malays) explain this self-selection by saying that the Chinese dancers are the only ones who have mastered the sort of technical skills that they want. Given that Chinese girls are more likely to have childhood ballet training, and that such training needs to kick in early for it to have much effect, that makes some sense. But there are also Malay female dancers at ASWARA who have beautiful flexible extensions and lovely arched feet, so why are they not chosen? The Malay choreographers, similarly, say that they require the indefinable ‘rasa’ that only Malay dancers have, in the way that they hold their heads, in the smooth articulations of the wrist. And yet I often see non-Malay dancers who have captured that mysterious quality of doing Malay dance (an example that I remember from years ago: Lim Yong Shean’s mesmerising Mak Yong Menghadap Rebab).

Sometimes this ghettoisation seems unconscious, and then it disturbs me even more. I remember years ago having a conversation with someone from Hands Percussion — it might have been Bernard Goh, one of the co-founders — who told me that Hands is a deliberately Malaysian group, that it strives to create Malaysian works. Why, I then wondered, was everyone in the large audience except me, and everyone in the cast, Chinese? Perhaps it was a Malaysian sense of Chineseness, as opposed to mainland Chineseness, to which he was referring.

I often feel that the Chinese have built the most impregnable barriers against outside access. Chinese dance, promoted only to Chinese newspapers, using Chinese text without subtitles, exists to a far greater degree than its counterpart in other communities. Time and again I have asked about the annual national Chinese dance competition, which is a highlight of the arts calendar of Chinese-language schools. I only ever hear distant rumours about it, usually when it is over. Chinese people express amazement that I should be interested in watching it. And in regular life, the degree of ghettoisation is similar. I remember my amazement when my choreographer and lighting designer friend Low Shee Hoe, a Chinese-educated man who grew up in Kajang, described how in his early life he had never really known a Malay person, except from descriptions in government-issue textbooks. It was only when he went to university that he started to actually meet Malays. And I have met several Chinese Malaysian contemporary artists whose grasp of other languages is so weak that they can really only function in Chinese. As a Malaysian, I find that appalling.

I can understand reasons for the Chinese ghetto, and to some degree I sympathise. The Chinese are distrustful of the Malays, and so they should be, considering the treatment they have received. They are afraid of being forcibly assimilated into the politically dominant Malay cultural discourse. And that is a real threat — just look at Indonesia. Unlike the Indians and the other minorities, the Chinese in Malaysia are a large enough and financially stable enough community that they can retreat behind their walls and bar the gates against the barbarians. But it doesn’t make it right. [To be fair to Hands Percussion, I think now they do have a Malay boy in their main group. If I recall rightly, he went to Chinese school and therefore speaks fluent Mandarin, which suggests that the barrier is more of a linguistic than a cultural one. And they also train in Malay gamelan with Susan Sarah John, as well as experimenting with a host of other cross-cultural mediums.]

But don’t think that I have only the Chinese in my sights. There is an astounding degree of blatant ignorance and bad faith in the Malaysian dance community wherever you look. This year, an Indian choreographer (who will remain unnamed) asked me for recommendations for male dancers to fill some empty slots in a commercial dance gig. He asked specifically for Malays, so, thinking that he had been hired to do a Malay dance, I ran through the names of a few young dancers I knew who might be free, all of whom were trained in Malay dance. The choreographer was evidently uncomfortable with my suggestions of Chinese dancers.

“But Bilqis, how are they to work with?” he asked, as if I was proposing that he hire Eskimos. “You know, lah, the Malays, we [implying, it seemed, the Indian dance community in general, or, who knows, the entire Indian community!] are used to them, we know how they are to work with…but… the Chinese?”

Good heavens, man, how old are you, how long have you lived in this country, and you have never worked with any Chinese?

Anecdotes like this are common to people in the Malaysian dance community. From Malaysian audiences, they elicit only a certain amount of indulgent eye rolling and tut-tutting. But I spend a lot of time with international artists visiting Malaysia and I am constantly required to explain Malaysia’s complex cultural politics to them. Without exception, the visitors are continually surprised by it. Their surprise makes me look at it through their eyes, see once again its strangeness, its cultural contingency, its non-inevitability. Why are we this way? Do we have to be this way? What can we do to change it?

This, then, is my plea to Malaysian dancers, to make conscious and deliberate change: not just to allow other dancers, other choreographers and other audiences into our dance halls, but to invite them in.

Last year, the Malaysian Tourism and Cultural Minister issued a directive to make it compulsory to include dances from other races (read: non-Malay) in cultural performances. Given my pronounced distrust of the intentions and efficacy of the Malaysian government, and the vagueness of the directive — does it mean hiring non-Malay dancers? Or just including non-Malay dance? Is it for performances paid for by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture alone, or all government ministries, or for the Malaysian dance community in general? How is it to be regulated? etc — I don’t think it will have much impact. I only heard about it because a journalist contacted me for comment [see:]. And I don’t think an autocratic top-down directive can be the solution, although perhaps it can help. It seems rather more likely to create opportunities for cronyism, and token multi-ethnic inclusions of dubious quality.

All of those arguments against affirmative action — that it compromises quality, that it encourages tokenism — are valid here. But there are now — thanks, in no small part, to ASWARA — many excellent young dancers whose practice crosses ethnic boundaries, and they need to be continually encouraged and supported. Yes, sometimes it takes a little time to seek them out. It takes extra effort in rehearsals to overcome the limitations of language. It takes extra patience to deal with the inevitable cultural misunderstandings, and extra self-knowledge to see how we ourselves might be misunderstood. But don’t we do this every day of our lives, already? Is not this a part — or the whole — of being Malaysian?

The same weekend as Habil & Qabil and Orchid, another performance in town was trying to do exactly that. Yeow Lai Chee is a butoh dancer who broke off from the established Malaysian butoh company Nyoba Kan to follow in the footsteps of Japanese butoh master Yukio Waguri. Lai Chee founded her own company (which really consists of just herself), called Soubi Sha, and last year she initiated a project with Waguri to produce a full-length butoh work in Kuala Lumpur entitled Reminiscences – The World of Strange Tales. In reaction to Nyoba Kan — a Chinese company which has transformed Japanese butoh into an art form more Chinese than strictly necessary, by merging it with ideas of Zen Buddhism and classical Chinese literary traditions — Lai Chee saw the necessity of attracting other dancers and audiences to butoh.

Malay butoh? Rithaudin Abdul Kadir in Soubi Sha's 'Reminiscence - The World of Strange Tales' at KLPac Pentas 2, 13-14 June 2014. Photo:  Gary Ng (c) Photography,

Malay butoh? Rithaudin Abdul Kadir in Soubi Sha’s ‘Reminiscence – The World of Strange Tales’ at KLPac Pentas 2, 13-14 June 2014. Photo:  Gary Ng (c) Photography,

2013 was a year of windfall funding, and Lai Chee received a grant to hold a workshop by Waguri explicitly targeting non-Chinese dancers. She managed it handily, and in June last year presented a work-in-progress of Reminiscences. This year it was redeveloped and re-presented last weekend at KLPac’s Pentas 2. Surprisingly — for contemporary dance in Kuala Lumpur, for butoh (which can be a rather off-putting medium), and for a new and fairly unknown company — both performances sold out. I think one reason for the audience response was the diversity of the dancers whom Lai Chee had personally chosen and invited to participate. Here is the list of performers:

Yukio Waguri, Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil, Foo Chiwei (trained, by the way, in classical Indian dance at Sutra), Lim Siew Ling, Rithaudin Abdul Kadir, Azmie Zanal Abdden, Tan Bee Hung, Lee Choy Wan, Kohini Balasingam, Lim Hooi Meng, Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid, Lee Ren Xin, Yeow Lai Chee.

Whatever the merits of the performance (and I have my misgivings about it — I actually preferred last year’s version, which, notably, had an equally diverse cast, with many of the same dancers) from the perspective of audience development alone, it seems to make sense to tap into other ethnic groups to enlarge the pool of talent and public interest. And whatever the feelings of the dancers themselves about the merits of the performance, I expect that they would all, without exception, feel that it enlarged their professional network and broadened their experience of working with ‘Others’ in an art form which is not native to any of them. Lai Chee’s project demonstrated the possibilities for conscious and proactive bridge-building between communities.

It can be done. I think it must be done. Some might disagree. Since Bersih 3.0, in our continuing discussion of what it is to be Malaysian, some people have argued that we need to cast off the restricting bounds of this constructed idea of ‘race’, and think of ourselves more broadly as just Malaysians, or just humans. I do believe that race is a socially constructed concept, that there is nothing biological that compells us to behave or believe one way or another. But I think to ignore our racial differences, after we have been brought up to believe in them so strongly, to say that we should just join hands and sing Kumbaya (or Negaraku, as the case may be), is also dangerous. Take heed from the feminist example. In our supposedly post-feminist world, after all the hoo-ha about gender mainstreaming, which was supposed to render gender differences a non-issue, we still live in a society in which women are paid less than men, occupy fewer positions of authority, and are subject to violence and abuse. Combatting these structural inequalities requires the deliberate and continual allocation of time, effort and resources. As in feminism, so in dance — and I shall leave the issue of feminism in dance for another day!

Building bridges is a slow process. So often a flood comes, and the foundations we have been laying so patiently get washed away. But eventually perhaps we will have some of those graceful bridges, as they do in Paris, where hopeful lovers come along, bolt a padlock onto the wrought-iron, and toss their keys into the river. Which reminds me of something else I saw at that recent ASWARA performance. Two of the student performers (who will, necessarily, also remain nameless), one Chinese and one Malay, had been a romantic couple for many years. Fairly recently their relationship broke up, because the Chinese girl knew that her family would never consent to a marriage with a Malay. But last weekend, when they had both done well with their performances, they gave each other a hug during the line-up for bows. Their knowledge of each other’s cultures now goes much deeper than dance, but it started with dance. They are an example of what dance might do, and where we can go from here.

The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on 26 February 2013 by bhijjas

Naim Syah Razad, left, and Fairul Zahid, in ‘Two’.

Choreographed & performed by Fairul Zahid & Naim Syah Razad
Co-produced by ASWARA Dance Company & The Actors Studio Teater Rakyat
22-23 February 2013
The Actors Studio at Lot 10

It’s difficult to stand out from the herd when you’re part of a big institution like ASWARA. By producing the contemporary dance duet Two, and presenting it at The Actors Studio Lot 10 instead of at ASWARA’s Experimental Theatre, Fairul Zahid and Naim Syah Razad of the ASWARA Dance Company have made a bid for the big time (if such a thing exists in the Malaysian dance scene).

Two is a nicely made and enjoyable evening’s entertainment. As in the work of many young choreographers, there is a lot of movement, where older artists might have opted for silence and stillness (if only to give them time to catch their breath!) but the movement is quick, clean and clever, and the artists are working with a broad palette of physical facility. The soundtrack is assured, using the right degree of familiarity to enduce an emotional response (an instrumental version of Gotye’s ‘Someone That I Used to Know’ adds a light but foreboding note to the first scene), and the lighting is well-planned and sympathetic.

The most outstanding thing about the work, however, is its subject matter: young love, specifically young gay love. There were moments of coyness about this, especially in the synopsis announced on the first night, which referred obliquely to “those who become marginalized from society either through circumstances or by the choices they make.” This was replaced on the second night with a more straightforward “Two is about people who meet and fall in love, sometimes surprising even themselves,” and those anonymous people are quickly revealed to be men.

The work’s fairly predictable narrative of boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, and boy and boy break up, was presented through an evenhanded distribution of solos and duets. Both Naim and Fairul were credited as choreographers, but Fairul’s hand seemed to be heavier on the scales, especially in the duet sections, making extensive use of the thrilling maneuvers which he has been fine-tuning over successive seasons of Short+Sweet Dance.


Fairul’s own solo, in which he emotionally distances himself from his partner after their first headlong descent into love, is full of technical whizzbangs, and seems to have been created with at least half an eye on the podium for Best Featured Dancer at the annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards. Long clean lines, especially in attitude position, are evident, interspersed by sharp staccato drills and a repeated introverted hand-curling motif. A highlight is a (triple?) pirouette which drops immediately into a controlled splat on the ground. The coolness of Fairul’s presentation, as well as the prevalence of a lighting spot far upstage and the accompanying cog-in-a-machine soundscape, distance his character from the audience as well as from his lover. So while Fairul seems to be the main driver of the narrative, it is Naim who captures the audience’s heart.

If I thought Naim might have absorbed some German minimalism from the 6 months he spent in Berlin last year working with Riki von Falken, I was mistaken. From almost the first moment, he shamelessly hams it up for the audience, liberally trading cheeky winks, pouts and eye-rolls until he has deposited the audience firmly in his pocket. After being dumped by Fairul’s character, and launching into the usual solo of desolation, he has no trouble turning on the waterworks. Naim’s lines are less clean than Fairul’s, the solo is less technical pizazz and more rough edged, but it makes him seem more human, and he never loses his emotional focus even in the midst of dense movement sequences.

During the final duet, backed by the emotional splendor of Dinah Washington singing ‘This Bitter Earth’ against Max Richter’s weeping strings, Fairul’s inscrutable character seems to yearn for a rapprochement with Naim’s, but again it is Naim’s emotional development which is the more captivating. Although heartbroken, he gathers up the shreds of his pride, so that when Fairul finally reaches for his hand and Naim jerks his away, you can see that it comes not from sulky withholding but from a real sense of self-worth.

Towards the end of the work, Naim grabs the pink helium balloon signifying his heart, and rips off its weight, letting it bob up to the ceiling of the theatre. On the first night, Fairul makes a grab for it and misses, which is poignant. On the second night he catches it, which is touching too, but Naim is already gone, transcended to another space.


It’s a bold move, making a narrative work about unrepentant gay love. One wonders both how they got it past the censors, and how well it played to the provincial family members of the cast. But for a gay story, how straight they play it! Fairul is definitely the man in this relationship, emotionally reserved and controlling, even abusive, and Naim is the shy wife, complete with fluttering eyelashes. In the duets, it’s striking how much you could replace Naim with a girl, and nothing would be amiss — he is the one constantly being lifted, manipulated and shown off by his partner. Naim is physically the smaller of the two, but this alone cannot explain these choreographic choices, which denote a rather boring male-female dichotomy. During the falling in love duet, dancers ‘merenjis’ each others’ hands, as they sit side by side on the front of the stage. Even the paper boats which the dancers fold in the hiatus between scenes are a very gender-specific pink or blue.

Occasionally the dancers perform the same movement, side by side, in sync, and then you can see parity between the characters, but it seems more a visual effect rather than a source of character development. And the matching outfits for both dancers, featuring socks and trendy overlong sleeves, have an unsettling effect of narcissism, as if the two characters are in love with either more or less dominant versions of themselves.

As Prof Anis commented to me after the show, for a gay theme there was nothing queer in its depiction. Perhaps these are inescapable themes of love universal — first the giddy fall, then affections unrequited, and finally heartbreak — but it would be nice to hope that a gay metanarrative could free itself of the tired notions of dominance that dog heterosexual relationships. I know the gay community feels like it just can’t win — on the one hand they must prove that they are just like straight people in order to protect their rights or validate their desire for marriage, and on the other they risk embracing convention and giving up the opportunity for a more liberated way of life. And Two is definitely a brave opening move in a country with a shameful history of homophobia. But I would like to see it put up more of a challenge to the trad model of heteronormativity.

Perhaps there is a hope of note at the end of the work. Having lost his heart, Naim returns to his paper boats, but finds no comfort there. Frustrated with these symbols of cosy domesticity, he shoves them offstage, and watches as they are dragged away by the bright stream. It is nice to think that he is rejecting the hideous dichotomy of pink and blue. When the sun comes out after all this, who knows, maybe there’ll be a rainbow.


Thanks to James Quah for the photographs. 


Posted in Review with tags , , , , , on 3 February 2011 by bhijjas


An Informal Showing of Dance
Saturday 9 January 2011
Experimental Theatre, ASWARA
Featuring Battery Dance Company

Sometimes the performances that spring up out of nowhere, cobbled together at the last minute and charging no entry fee, are the most satisfying. Perhaps it is because the audience arrives with full pockets and low expectations. Or perhaps it is merely felicitous chance that creates these unexpectedly enjoyable dance offerings.

Last Saturday’s informal showing at Experimental Theatre, ASWARA, was one such serendipitous event. It was originally intended to display the products of the five-day Dancing to Connect workshops organised by visiting artists from New York City’s Battery Dance Company. The end product, however, was much more lavish, with repertory works from host ASWARA, Sutra Dance Theatre (who are launching into a collaborative project with Battery), and the Battery artists themselves.

The evening opened with the delightful Joget Cak Kun Cak by ASWARA dancers. The ASWARA dancers’ familiar recipe of whoops and smiles never seem to get stale. With their natural musicality and unforced smiles — especially noticeable from Sufi and Mek — this was a fun little opening number, even when the dancers couldn’t remember what they were doing.

The joget was followed by the first Dancing to Connect workshop showcase, coached by Battery dancer Robin Cantrell. Dancing to Connect is a program that Battery has been introducing all around the world as a means of providing teenagers with the tools for getting in touch with the dancer within and choreographing their own performances. This particular group of teenagers was composed of refugees from Burma and Sri Lanka, brought together by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

[It would be easy, here, to regurgitate all the trite pleasantries about how inspiring and naturally talented these kids are, what a great opportunity it must have been for them, and how much they must be enjoying the therapeutic and uplifting qualities of Art. No doubt, but I think this goes for every group of kids learning to dance, and it doesn't necessarily illuminate the actions of this particular group, so I'll try to stick to what I saw.]

The UNHCR kids doing the wave.

There was a lot of pop culture influence in the movement material — plenty of hiphop bounciness and some popping and locking. I was struck by how much the refugee teens’ movement quality was similar to that of non-dancing teenagers I had coached at the International School of Kuala Lumpur — a combination of naive animal mimicry and the practice posturings of emerging sexuality — a curious similarity, given the very different backgrounds of the two groups. Apparently some things (like MTV) do cross cultural and financial boundaries.

Another notable element in the work were the graceful transitions. A small group of girls entered in a line, flapping like swans. After a few movements in place, they took off around the stage, gradually joined by dancers entering from the sides until all the dancers were on stage in a flock flying in a ring. Later, the circle of dancers repeatedly surged into the centre and then expanded again, leaving a single dancer behind in the centre to dance a brief solo. It was like watching waves at the seashore, coming in and going out, each time leaving a different piece of flotsam behind on the beach.

Third on the program was Alarippu, an old repertoire work by Umesh Shetty. In bharatanatyam, the alarippu is the introductory piece in an evening’s entertainment, in which the dancer systematically introduces all the elements of the body in movement (stamping, eye movement, hand gestures, etc) before launching into longer and longer combinations of increasing energy. This alarippu followed a similar structure but included movement vocabulary from Western contemporary dance and ballet, creating a more free-wheeling style.

Some very strong ASWARA dancers were performing — Faillul, Yunus, Norbaizurah, and Xin Ying among them — but the eye was automatically drawn to the newcomer: Kishore Kumar, a first-year student in the diploma program at ASWARA. Tall, powerful and statuesque, he’s definitely worth looking at, but it is the stylistic differences between him and the other ASWARA dancers that make him stand out. Previously from Temple of Fine Arts, Kishore is commanding in his bharatanatyam, and comfortable with the contemporary and ballet elements, but he simply cannot match the uniformity of the other dancers who have trained together for so long under the same unique syllabus. There is certainly a recognisable ‘ASWARA style’ emerging, and I look forward to seeing what ASWARA graduates will make of this in the long run.

Battery Dance Company contributed two short works from their repertoire to the program, both choreographed by the dancers themselves. The first was ‘She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not’, a duet created by Sean Scantlebury, and performed by Sean and Robin Cantrell. Robin starts squatting on Sean’s shoulders, before smoothly transiting into other lifts, including a lovely ‘Rolls-Royce’ arch standing on Sean’s thigh. Then follows a long sequence of movements in sync, in which Robin makes good use of her flexible torso. A repeated motif is Sean spooning Robin from behind, she sometimes accepting and sometimes rejecting his overtures. There is nicely controlled tenderness between the two, but the loveliest moment is the ending, in which the dancers perform the opening lift sequence in retrograde, cunningly running the movement backwards to return again to the initial squatting lift in a downward shaft of light. ‘She Loves Me’ isn’t rocket science, but it’s satisfying to watch these two strong experienced professionals going through their paces.

Then Sutra Dance Theatre had a chance to show their stuff in Ramli Ibrahim’s work ‘Kamala’. A homage to the female principle, the work references myths of Indian, Western and pop culture, including stories of Jesus, Shiva, Durga and, apparently, Lady Gaga. With Guna dancing as the token male, the female dancers produced a strong ensemble effect; Divya, especially, is growing into a stately presence. Rathimalar was unsurprisingly cast as the central female figure, which was a blessing. No one else could have carried off the blatant representation in the work — circling hands showing breasts, diving hands palm-to-palm indicating vagina — with such convincing dignity. It was interesting to watch the subtle play of her facial expressions; reigning herself back very firmly from melodrama, she allowed expressions to pass over her face like ripples on a pond.

I am not overly fond of homages to women or the female principle, and I feel I have seen a lot of them recently. For some, it may be quite acceptable that the pinnacle of womanhood is the ability to give birth to, suckle, nurture, dress, adore, mourn for and eventually consume society’s male god, but not for me. So I couldn’t enjoy ‘Kamala’ as much as I would have liked.

The following two works — the product of Dancing to Connect workshops with ASWARA students — went in quite the opposite direction to ‘Kamala’. Instead of being clearly representational and narrative, they were somewhat bewildering cauldrons of movement without discernible direction. Too many cooks spoiling the broth, perhaps — always a danger in large groups in which everyone is the choreographer. Nevertheless it was bracing to revel in the sheer energy and physical capacity of the ASWARA dancers, to be swamped by the power of the large group sections, and to pick out intriguing individual performances. In the diploma program group, Christine Chew had lovely lines and attention to detail, and made the most of every movement. Sufi showed a new capacity for subtle articulation and experimentation with movement vocabulary — he is definitely one to watch. In the degree program, Xin Ying displayed her usual confidence and finesse, while being tossed around between different partners, and the lifting combination of two women and three men created some interesting possibilities.

After the two ASWARA works, I was literally stuffed with movement. It was too much to stomach: huge chunks of dense movement material without lull or respite. But I did detect an inkling of newness in the ASWARA performances, a quality reminiscent of Ohad Naharin’s movement technique called Gaga. Gaga often uses visceral imagery to drive movement (imagine yourself squelching spaghetti in your fingers, for instance, or steering a heavy shopping trolley through a crowded supermarket). Naharin also frequently arranges his dancers in a mass on stage and has them go through the same movements, but without imposing uniformity. The result is that every person in the crush can be seen as an individual, sensitive to the ones around them, with blood cells, skin, muscles, guts and mind all completely in the movement. I hope the ASWARA dancers manage to maintain this new energy, as well as taking on board the creative tools that made it happen.

The last work in this gluttonous cornucopia of dance was ‘Black and White’, choreographed by Robin Cantrell for herself and Sean Scantlebury. Robin’s style is much more luscious and sinewy than Sean’s, full of rotating hips and high releases, suggestive of ‘Eurotrash’ choreographers like Jiří Kylián. The work starts with solos for Robin, in a black leotard, and Sean, in white bike shorts, to an atmospheric ambient musical score. Each solo is fairly loosely focused thematically but allows us to enjoy watching the dancer at play. Then the two dancers come together, highlighting the contrasts between their physique and personal styles. Again, there are some lovely lifts — in one Sean appears to be lifting Robin with two hands around her neck (really, she is holding onto his wrists). At the end of the work, the dancers take handfuls of coloured pigments from containers at the corners of the stage and daub themselves and each other in alternatives to black and white. In the final image, the kneeling dancers take it in turns to scatter pigment overhead, creating very photogenic puffs of colour hanging in the air, made even more memorable by the tiny interplay of the dancers’ fingers meeting over their heads.

Oh what a crazy unexpected afternoon of dance it all was! With the exception of the back-to-back ASWARA workshop showings, the arrangement of works served to highlight everyone’s strength and uniqueness. Last-minute lighting by Sutra’s Sivarajah Natarajan — particularly the combination of strong turquoise backlighting with amber sidelights — added theatrical magic. All the dancers, from the rank beginners to the hale professionals, brought their best game. It could not possibly have been any better, even with months of extra planning.

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Thanks as always to James Quah, who did a superlative job with the photos. More here:

Hits and misses

Posted in Review with tags , on 1 April 2010 by bhijjas

Gelombang Baru
26-28 March 2010
ASWARA Dance Department
Experimental Theatre, ASWARA

Any collection of works by young or emerging choreographers usually contains more misses than hits, but it is always interesting to glimpse the germs of new ideas and to track rising choreographers on the steepest slope of their learning curve. Gelombang Baru featured a few names that are already familiar as choreographers to a dedicated ASWARA audience, such as Suhaili Ahmad Kamil and Mohd Naim Syah Razad, as well as a few who are better known as dancers, and a number only beginning to come to attention.

The highlight of ‘Waiting’ by Mohd Hanafi bin Rosdi was its tasteful and restrained black and white dance video featuring a man and a woman meeting on a rooftop. At times the flesh and blood dancers on stage mingled with their projected selves. In one instance, a back-lit shadow of the woman brushing her hair appeared on half the screen, the warmth of her halo of light contrasting with the grayscale video. In another moment, the male dancer executed a phrase of minimal hand movements, which appeared simultaneously in the background video. The effect of seeing the two hands, one small and solid and the other enormous but two-dimensional, was enchanting.

Eventually the two dancers met on stage and executed some simple partner work, but actually I would have preferred them never to have met, maintaining their wistful separation up until the very end, and forcing the audience to consider whether the video represented a dream or a memory, or whether in fact the dancers on stage were only the echoes of the video’s voice.

Naim Syah Razad’s ‘Seasons’ was buoyed by the performance of a group of very talented dancers, a good indication of the choreographer’s worth as very often the best dancers flock to the most promising choreographer. In a series of solos and one duet, his dancers reveled in the meaty and unusual movement material. ‘Seasons’ contained a repeated motif of a single splayed hand reaching out, sometimes grasping another body part, which was used in imaginative ways. It also employed the structure that Naim put to good use with ‘Lines’: the dancers isolated within boxes which they do not leave even when they are all united in performing the same movements, creating a feeling of alienation and yearning. The video collage at the end was distracting and unnecessary, and the music editing ugly at some points, but the piece as a whole was noteworthy for its strong movement quality.

Muhammad Fairul bin Zahid’s ‘Not Only Me’ reportedly suffered various changes of direction during its development, but eventually came to rest as an expansion of the solo ‘Only Me’ which he presented at Lepas…Tetap Menari in July last year. The group of six dancers performed in the same lighting structure: spotlight circles running in a line from upstage to downstage. With more bodies on stage, Fairul was able to play with different methods of composition – copying, opposition, complementary movements, contrasting movements and cannons – to create something much more interesting than his solo.

The dancers would have benefited from more rehearsal time, but still the piece displayed some notable attention to detail. In one example, the dancers came to a brief halt, with the dancers in the first, third and fifth circle holding their working leg at the same height, and the dancers in the second, fourth and sixth circle in a slightly different position holding their leg at three different heights. For people like me who enjoy the abstract approach to dance, this kind of formal pattern-making is nothing short of thrilling.

Suhaili Ahmad Kamil and Dhanya Thunairajah’s collaboration ‘Salvage’ offered food for thought. Ostensibly it followed quite a simple plot line in which a Mother Earth figure, played by Dhanya, is gunned down by a personification of modernity, performed by Suhaili, who subsequently suffers her own destruction. The entire dance took place on a white cloth taped onto the stage, lit by a black and white video projection. Dhanya started by herself in a fluid sliding phrase, with Suhaili crouching outside the white cloth, illuminating Dhanya with a small penlight torch. Suhaili then joined Dhanya on the tiny stage, and members of the audience who had been primed beforehand approached with their own torches to sit outside the boundaries of the cloth and watch the proceedings within.

Suhaili told me afterwards that while crouching with the torch she had quite a different perspective of Dhanya, and that she had wanted the audience to enjoy the same close-up access. But to me, sitting in the stands, the act of watching the audience with torches watch the dancers — the deliberate doubling of our gaze – emphasized the voyeuristic quality of the event. Suhaili and Dhanya moved in the space like specimens in a petri dish, stabbed and probed by the beams of the torches. The layering of white torch light on white projection light on white-clothed bodies on the white stage suggested the fallacy of scientific objectivity. I was sharply reminded of those scenes in wildlife documentaries when some animal is about to meet a gruesome death, but the documentary makers always say they can’t save the animal because they shouldn’t interfere in the workings of nature. Really they don’t interfere because they know that death and destruction make compelling viewing. Similarly, we take pleasure in seeing Suhaili and Dhanya reenact the apocalypse on a tiny scale, while we hover above like gods, smug in our invulnerability. But just as Suhaili was once a watcher, but was then drawn inexorably into the fray, so the audience too is at risk of being enveloped in the struggle. Whether deliberately or not, this use of torches and the doubled gaze transformed ‘Salvage’ into a profound allegory of current environmental apathy, in which we all feel that saving the environment is someone else’s problem, until the day when our own lives are at stake.

The final work in Gelombang Baru that I would really like to see again was Mohd Azizi bin Mansor and Ng Xinying’s tender duet, ‘Beginning’. As someone who used to make similar duets and knows how challenging they can be, I have enormous appreciation for the technical difficulty, creativity and impressive performance ability the pair displayed in this piece.

They solved some classic choreographic duet problems with apparent ease and there were moments in ‘Beginning’ which left me awestruck, like when Azizi lay flat on the floor and Xinying calmly stood on his kneecaps, before transitioning to sit on his head. Now that may not seem hard, but knee caps are not generally considered strong enough to be stood on, and they also tend to roll from side to side, so they are incredibly difficult to balance on. But Xinying and Azizi made it look like a walk in the park. Ditto a lovely four-handed overhead lift towards the end, in which Azizi promenaded around so that we could all admire Xinying’s beautiful second split. Yes, it’s a very stable lift once you get into it, but it requires both strength and coordination to get there, and although Xinying is tiny and Azizi is sturdily built, there’s not that much size difference between the two of them.

The only thing I felt jarring in this work were the moments of overblown sentimentality – she looking around starry eyed as she was perched on his back, for example, or the two of them smiling and gazing deep into each other’s eyes in the midst of a roll on the floor. Just doing the work involved in ‘Beginning’ is enough – no acting is required. The depth of their relationship, the trust, connection and hard work are all perfectly evident in the movements themselves. In this instance, nothing can be more honest than the body.

All images by James Quah, with thanks. For more images of Gelombang Baru by James Quah, see

Gendered discipline dies hard

Posted in Review with tags , , on 7 March 2010 by bhijjas
Main Zapin — Generasi Baru
5-7 March 2010
Experimental Theatre

Last night I went to see Main Zapin at ASWARA, and, as expected, I was treated to a feast of colour and sound, with twelve different forms of zapin from different parts of Malaysia illustrating the richness of our cultural heritage in this one dance form alone. The crowd was boisterous, the dancers energetic, and the costumes came in every colour of the rainbow. Yet, as the evening progressed, I found myself thinking of the performance in terms of cold analysis rather than unbridled physical joy.

My problem, as I mentally teased it apart, was definitely not with the boys. In the mixed gender dances they were sublimely restrained young Malay gentlemen, solicitous of their partners, withholding their animal instincts only to let them loose in the male-only dances, when they literally whooped it up, bringing answering yells of appreciation from the audience every time they swooped down into the enormous forward dip that makes zapin so fun to watch.

No, my problem was with the girls. Not that they were doing anything wrong – quite the opposite. With their hair lacquered firmly in place and their false eyelashes blinkering their downcast eyes, they crept onstage in a perfect display of self-effacing demureness. They kept their backs bent in the polite tunduk position, as if asking permission for every move they made. They shielded their faces with veils, selendang or sarongs, or, when all else was lacking, their own gracefully raised hand. Then, having executed their routine with well-trained synchrony, they crept offstage.

When I kinaesthetically identified with the boys — when I imagined my own body doing what they were doing – I felt an impression of relief in the release of energy, and the joy of camaraderie, everyone pulling their weight together as if they were a chorus uplifting their voices in song. But when I kinaesthetically identified with the girls, the impression was quite different: I felt anxious and claustrophobic. I felt a rebellious urge to stand up straight, to stretch, to release my body in all directions. But at the same time I felt a deeply ingrained sense of social correctness, and pride in my ability to comport myself properly. Yes, this is the way a good woman, a lady, should behave.

Knowing the ASWARA dancers as I do, I’m happy to say that all this good little woman behaviour really is an act. In everyday life these dancers are as quick witted and sharp tongued, and as prone to displays of physical extroversion, as any young women you are every likely to meet; indeed, as any young men you are ever likely to meet. So for them, in order to main zapin, they deliberately play at performing a stereotype, one that is no more real than the mythological pastoral golden age that much of this Malay cultural reenactment tries to hark back to, an age in which all men are fishermen or farmers, and apparently all women spend their lives guarding their chastity.

But knowing it is all an act does not entirely defuse its sting. Because if you have ever unconsciously raised your hand to cover your mouth as you laughed, if you ever have trouble looking someone in the eye while they are talking to you, you will know that the physical disciplines that are ingrained in us from the day we are born are some of the most insidious and unbreakable kinds of social control that exist. And many of them exist to train us into conservative heterosexual gender roles [which, if you side with Foucault, are intended to ensure the systematic transmission of patriarchal control over resources].

All this made me wonder – how much are the boys, as well as the girls, performing a socially-acceptable fabrication? In the grand tradition of dance all over the world, the boys at ASWARA are past masters of the limp wrist, as well as being liable to fits of latah. They, in their everyday lives as well as in their zapin performance, are compelled to enact a version of maleness often quite antithetical to their nature. While watching Main Zapin, for once (and I will probably never say this again) I felt that there wasn’t enough transvestitism at ASWARA. How good would it have been to see the boys crouching and shielding their blushing cheeks with one hand, the girls standing over them in attitudes of proud and manly concern, one arm outstretched in a protective curve!

Nevertheless, we got the next best thing. In the final scene, a horde of kids dressed in exaggerated modern clothing stormed the stage, and precipitated a ‘dance-off’ with the previous songkok-wearing group. Eventually the modern kids took the field, and proceeded to let loose with a creative hip-hop version of the zapin form. Yes, the boys got to do the Beyonce chest bump, but it was much more satisfying to see the girls break free from their cucuk sanggul and their narrow sarongs to, as they say in hip hop vernacular, bring it. With hair flying and eyes alight, they leapt, thrust, kicked and spun.

You might say that in this sequence the girls were only performing yet another tightly gendered role, exchanging an obsession with sexual chastity for an advertisement of sexual availability. Or you might observe that, still, the boys danced in one group and the girls in another, only coming together very briefly at the end. You might even note how the crowd clapped to see order restored at the very end, with everyone dutifully returning to their traditional practice having been chastised by their teacher. But old habits die hard. At least we were offered an alternative. And it is true that without all the discipline in the beginning, we could never really have appreciated the freedom at the end.

Gorging on dance at the feast for the senses — Pt II

Posted in Review with tags , on 28 October 2009 by bhijjas

JAMU Program B
25 October 2009
ASWARA Experimental Theatre

The second program of the ASWARA Dance Department’s end-of-year show, featuring choreography by their faculty and performance by their students, opened to an excited audience at the Experimental Theatre. Our thirst whetted by Program A, we were eager to see more! Program B started with the work by artist-in-residence Wendy Rogers, which was also featured in Program A, and after that moved on to six other short works providing a veritable buffet of experiences.


Gan Chih Pei’s solo Before 40 is one of the most personal works on the program. For all dancers, and women especially, advancing age brings the loss of physical facility, which necessitates some soul searching, and perhaps a change in career. The age of 40 is a looming cut off point, before which so many things must be achieved. For women this is also the time when the demands of children are at their height and balancing careers and family becomes most difficult. Chih Pei’s solo touches on all of these issues; it is thoughtful but also heartening. As she strides across the stage, dragging on clothes, rushing bundles of laundry here and there, it is her forward momentum and energy that is most impressive, her continuing desire to get up and do things, to let no day pass her by.

JQC-9073Before 40 is made memorable by the magical confluence of Chih Pei’s movement and the live music of Sabahan flautist Razali bin Abdul Rahim. The work begins with Razali playing alone in a spotlight. Then he turns upstage and Chih Pei appears, as if he had conjured her into being with his music, as if he had said, “Come. Let me play for you the story of a busy woman sorting laundry in her house. Look. There she is!” As the work progresses, Chih Pei plays with repetitive movements, starting small and developing into larger and larger phrases, sometimes as if checking, “Yes, my body can still do that.” The musical score keeps track so sympathetically it is as if the flautist is channeling the humming that many choreographers make when they work alone in the studio. But Chih Pei is not in her studio, she is at home, with her couch covered in laundry, from which she wistfully lifts one tiny tutu. But for her, home must become the studio, and time and space for dance must be found in the midst of housework. This charming solo was the first work of Chih Pei’s I had ever seen, and I felt quite privileged to watch.

The third piece on the program was by Joseph Gonzales, head of the Dance Department at ASWARA, who is ever mindful of his responsibilities as a teacher, both to his audience as well as his students. So I was not surprised that his work Touched… adopted a theme with which many people in the audience could connect: a tribute to the many significant deaths which have occurred within the last year.


His choices are wide-ranging, from contemporary choreographers Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, to pop favourites Michael Jackson and Patrick Swayze, local film-maker Yasmin Ahmad and political aide Teoh Beng Hock. The inclusion of Beng Hock, who fell or was pushed from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, is notable – for a man employed by the government, Joseph never seems afraid to air his pleas for transparency and human rights, and I always appreciate the topical nature of his work.

OLI8064The structure of the piece was simple. A small group of white-clad dancers was backed by a projection showing iconic images and videos of the dead, and accompanied by a beautiful instrumental version of Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah interspliced with voices speaking about remembrance. The dancers assembled themselves in friezes or small phrases reflecting the people on the screen – for example, slow-dancing in a circle to commemorate Patrick Swayze in Ghost. The coda, with dancers collapsing to the floor in positions of death I thought a bit unnecessary, but otherwise this was a graceful tribute to those who have gone too soon. I especially liked the moment when clips of Michael Jackson showed on the screen, and the dancers turned to watch it. They offered no movement to compete with the man who inspired movement in so many – they could only watch.

OLI8204Then came the much anticipated Nerds Gone Nuts. I had missed this work by Suhaili Ahmad Kamil when it scooped the pool of awards at the first Short + Sweet Dance held at KLPac earlier this year, so I was eager to see it. You can tell why it’s such a crowd-pleaser – imaginative images, clever props, lots of jokes and a pace that never stops. From Naim tiptoeing past a floor light in pink pointe shoes (and those are his pointe shoes, in case you were wondering), to three girls sitting in a blow-up baby pool and spitting fountains, to the last image of a compulsive Rubik’s Cube player being strangled, there is so much to look at and take in you wish you had three sets of eyes and three heads (which I’m sure the nerds in the title would appreciate – if nerds take over the world, you’ll certainly get three-headed monsters, in addition to Transformer’s masks and the requisite inch-thick spectacles.)


With Nerds, Suhaili wanted to make something light-hearted, to counteract the usual somber stereotype of contemporary choreographers taking themselves too seriously. She certainly succeeds, but to me what makes Suhaili’s work so notable is the quality of movement. As with 2=1, this work is full of small jerky movements played at such high speed that the dancers are almost falling over themselves in their effort to complete them. The movements do not rebound from a natural limitation, as, for example, your arm will bounce back towards you when you fling it out to the side – her movements stop before their limit, so that it is muscle and not momentum that controls them. Kineasthetically, the result is a breathless claustrophobic kind of pandemonium that makes me feel like I’m hyperventilating. Nerds Gone Nuts is certainly a hit with the crowd, but it is not recommended for epileptics!

OLI8268Steve Goh’s Compromise is quite the opposite – dimly lit, serious and graceful, with lots of moments of classical beauty. It opens with a group of girls in spotlights with their hair down flinging themselves about, but the core of the piece is an extensive male duet between Mohd Naim Syahrazad and Mohd Yunus Ismail. In it we see a lot of the attributes that make Steve’s own dancing so gorgeous to watch – the long lines, strong extensions, and supple movements of the torso. There is no overt emotion between the Naim and Yunus as they dance, and they are so well-matched physically it is as if they are dancing with an abstraction of themselves.

Compromise is a cool and dispassionate work. The dancers are completely absorbed in their duets and do not reach out to the audience. Later on, the piece recedes from view even more, as floor-level backlighting makes the movement almost impossible to see. We just get an impression of bodies, as if we are having a near-death experience and are bemusedly watching angels intervene between us and the light at the end of the tunnel. The work finally concludes where it began, with girls flinging their hair, and when it is over we feel ourselves breathing again, as if we have returned from some out-of-body place with the fading memories of a dream.


Suhaimi Magi’s work Nyaman intermingled traditional Sabahan dance styles with a contemporary outlook. The piece retained ethnic flavour, thanks to costume – the three female dancers wearing argus pheasant feathers in their hair and beaded jewelry – and music – with the live musicians and their traditional instruments mounted on a kind of float covered in palm fronds. The main dancer, Ng Xinying, and her two counterparts traversed the stage like the condong of Balinese dance attended by her two legong. There seemed to be no narrative or even any rising action in their dance. When the music rose to fever pitch, the dancers remained calm and composed, perpetuating the sustained reverie of the title. Even when choreographer Seth as impromptu comic relief circled the stage in singlet and sarong and a stunned look on his face, the dancers did not let a crack mar their tranquil facade.

OLI8295I found Xinying very interesting to watch. The articulations of her slim but muscular arms, often with flexed wrist and straight elbow rotating from the shoulder, seemed odd in a way that I cannot quite define, as if she has hyperextended elbows or perhaps overly flexible shoulders. I was glad that the slow pace of the work gave me plenty of opportunity to study her and wonder at this small mystery.

Suhaimi’s son Shafirul produced the last work on the night’s program, Tapak 4, performed with a slightly different cast than when I first saw it in Lepas…tetap menari! in July. Its energetic fighting style was still a crowd-pleasing way to end the evening, and was more effective as a work of choreography using silat than Aziwahijah’s work in Program A. But I felt the group lacked the energy and infectious enthusiasm that I had seen in July, although it picked up towards the end, the dancers egging each other on with martial yells.


Overall, I felt JAMU Program B was generally stronger than Program A, with a greater range of styles and more successful choreographic choices. Program B left me at times curious, at times enchanted, and at some points frankly mystified, but it was always thought-provoking, and it is always uplifting to see the Dance Department at ASWARA moving from strength to strength.

Thanks once again to James Quah for permission to use his images. For more images by James Quah, see

Gorging on dance at the feast for the senses — Pt I

Posted in Review with tags , on 27 October 2009 by bhijjas

james9JAMU 2009
Experimental Theatre, ASWARA
22 & 23 October 2009

Once again the end of the year swings around, and ASWARA brings us JAMU, a collection of short dance works choreographed by their faculty and performed by their students. For contemporary dance lovers in Malaysia this is one of the must-see shows of the year. For a mere RM 10 (RM 5 for students), this is a chance to see many of the major movers and shakers in the local dance scene in action. There is something for everyone – from cutting edge to conventional, bold and brash to quiet and contemplative. This year, for the first time, JAMU is presented in two programs over four nights, because the number of works would not fit in one program. So it was with great pleasure and anticipation that I went gorge myself on a feast of dance in Program A, shown on Thursday and Friday, 22 & 23 October.

Wendy Rogers, visiting artist from the University of California, Riverside, developed her work KL/CA Mix – 10/09 from exercises she gave ASWARA students in her contemporary classes, who, I suspect, were much challenged by her requests. To a soundtrack of birdsong and daily noises, a large group of dancers in brown and green begins to move in front of a green sky that changes colour as the day progresses. There is very little face-light, so the emphasis is on the movement rather than the facial expressions, which is how Wendy wanted it – she asked the dancers to allow the movements to speak for themselves rather than forcing meaning into them through theatricality.


At times there are strong formal structures – a line that “eats itself” — the person at the back of the line coming to the front in an endless cycle, or two parallel lines of dancers extending upstage which engage in a richly textured canon. But mostly the work is composed of solo moments or conversations between dancers, displaying the personal movement styles of each dancer. This is a work that rewards a quick eye and a quiet mind. There is no overriding rhetoric, but with its seamless coming together and falling apart, its understated final moment with all but two dancers seated on the ground, motionless but breathing, and its harmonious colour palette, it has a very calming effect and is distinctly enjoyable to watch.

Siapa!!! by Mohd Seth Hamzah developed themes he had explored with his solo at Panggung Bandaraya late last year, playing with the form of wayang orang, in which costumed actors perform shadow play instead of puppets. This work made good use of the space, pairing a large group of dancers with six hanging backlit screens. Accompanied by bold rhythms supplied by live drums, the dancers launched into stop-start movement reminiscent of wayang puppets, with clawed hands, outflung wrists and jerky poses designed to be seen in silhouette.


The dancers, often divided by gender, seemed to take over the stage, but in the background, the audience sensed Seth in a wayang orang costume flitting between the screens, and at the climax of the piece he emerged to stand in the spotlight, at which all the other dancers fell down dead. As a way to question the agency of man – is he free or puppet? — Siapa!!! was a good attempt; as a development of a distinctive contemporary stylistic form, it was better.

james4Aris Kadir’s Nasi Putih once again eclipsed all competition. This version seemed slightly different from the one I saw at the Datin Sri Endon Performing Arts Awards showcase, but it nevertheless retained its power. Ismadian Ismail and Mohd Azizi Mansor displayed superb control in their duet as man and wife, transferring their sexual tension to the rice-cooking pot balanced between them. The percussive shaking of the dry rice in the pot built the suspense simply but effectively. Compared with the previous performance I saw, the mistress’ solo, performed by Sufinah Abu Bakar, seemed less withholding and more extroverted (the sarong rising higher above the knees), and the encounter between wife and mistress was less of a conflict and more of a blatant expression of their collective sexual desire.

james3In the end the wife has the last word, enticing her husband back to her skirts with her nasi kangkang, and the final moment, in which the wife, supported on the husband’s thighs, pours rice from the pot over them both, was so evocative it was almost uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the space of the Experimental Theatre that makes the work closer and more immediate than it seemed in Pentas 1 at KLPac, but the work was so unabashedly sexual that I felt a little worried for Aris, and hoped for his sake that there were no censors in the audience!

Zamzuah Zahari’s work Selangkah, Dua Langkah was the puzzle of the evening. What was it? Bangsawan or vaudeville? High school play or kung fu movie? Surrounded by a set evoking an imagined rural Malay golden age, two men fight, chat, make friends and meet a bunch of girls (or monkeys in disguise?) who summarily reject them.


Despite good performances from the dancers, especially Shaikh Hasrul Shaikh Anuar who played an amiable village idiot in a Chinese vegetable-grower’s hat, in the end the work failed to be cohesive. It had the kitschy atmosphere of the animated Sang Kancil stories which used to be shown on daytime RTM, but without the moral punchline.

Oozing retro chinoiserie, the dancers in Wong Kit Yaw’s Revisited were crimped and curled within an inch of their lives – kudos to their stylists! Clad in tight cheongsam and high heels, and sporting intricate lacquered 60′s hairstyles, the dancers bobbed, pouted and fluttered their hand fans in a tightly-spaced group like a swarm of vain butterflies. Behind them, a projection showed snippets from Wong Kar Wai’s film In the Mood for Love, with Maggie Cheung swanning through various scenes of poverty in gorgeous soft focus, and wearing a succession of stylish cheongsam.


It was interesting to watch how the dancers handled themselves, and their coiffures, in very small spaces. But the scale of the piece suffered from the cavernous space, and the dancers were too simple and sanguine to match the slow soulful heartbreak occurring in the projected background. Nevertheless I would be interested to see Kit Yaw develop this work further – it’s a beguiling beginning, and, after all, they already have the costumes!

james8Nostalgia continued with Vincent Tan’s Autumn, featuring a bunch of boys in solid-coloured pants and mock turtle necks enacting a heavily romanticised vision of youthful friends playing in the autumn air. Towards the beginning of the work, each of the dancers illustrated the character they were playing with a little sequence of movement, and remained in character for the rest of the work. There was a certain homoerotic adolescent tension in the work, especially related to the central figure in red pants who characterised himself with an out-thrust bottom, and a scene in which the boys make each others’ body parts move around by blowing at them. Much was suggested in the language of sidelong glances, but otherwise the work was an easy if rather retro study of a gang of young boys, more Brady Bunch or Secret Seven than strictly believable, some with the enviable easy grace of youth, some nerdy, some Napoleonic. The score, a scrappy polyvalent sound like opera performed by monsters and muppets, suggested a sophistication which the piece did not supply.

The last work, Aziwahija Yeop’s Depak Gentik, was a fairly conventional presentation of the skills his students had mastered in their silat classes. A vast bunch of headband-wearing boys and girls feinted, advanced, attacked and sembahed their way around their guru, who eventually dispatched a black-shirted sword-wielding opponent with ease. A nice visual effect occurred when the students surrounded their teacher in a circle of fighting couples, each in their own downlight. As the guru pointed around the circle, they decked their opponents one after another. Aziwahija reversed his pointing around the circle, and, like a film run backwards, the victors helped their opponents back to their feet, just as fluidly as they had fallen. In another striking moment, the whole phalanx of students duckwalked their way upstage, a testament to the strength of many knees and thighs, and a fitting ending to a night of ASWARA students displaying their physical abilities in addition to their teachers’ choreographic skills.


Many thanks to James Quah for permission to use his images. For more images by James Quah, see

Treasures salvaged from the wreck

Posted in Review with tags , on 22 July 2009 by bhijjas
ASWARA dancers in James Kan's new work Dream.

ASWARA dancers in James Kan's new work Dream.

Lepas…tetap menari!
17-19 July 2009
Experimental Theatre, ASWARA

The most dramatic event in the dance community this year didn’t happen on stage. The much-anticipated TARI ’09, to which 10 international tertiary dance institutions had been invited, and which has become the bi-annual showcase of Malaysian dance at a time when no other similar opportunity exists, was postponed by the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture due to the threat of AH1N1.

Needless to say all the participants were disappointed, but though the ship of TARI, in its July 2009 incarnation, is well and truly sunk, some things of value have still been salvaged from the wreck. From 17 to 19 July, ten short contemporary dance works (still a mere fraction of the number of items on the original program) were performed at ASWARA’s Experimental Theatre in the mixed bill show Lepas…tetap menari! Some of the works had been staged before, and looked a little worn and tired, and many more were laid low by heedless over-dramatisation, but from amongst the flotsam and jetsam a few true pearls emerged.

IMG_0660Angela Goh’s solo work filled and spilt was the first treasure on the night’s program. Like water rising in a bowl, projected light slowly worked its way up from illuminating just her feet — describing articulate configurations on the floor — to displaying her whole body. Simple text in the projection heralded a change of tone from one of quiet and restricted contemplation to larger and faster movement filling a greater space. A nicely balanced work, filled and spilt was especially charming for Angela’s unforced movement quality throughout, even in quick challenging moments. The softness with which she folded at the hip into forward bend, or caught herself on the floor in one of many liquid falls, displayed a great respect for the natural workings of the body and a degree of understated sincerity that many other items on the program would have done well to emulate.

IMG_8572The second highlight of the evening came during intermission, in a site-specific work outside the theatre. A representation of the story of Adam and Eve, Shakti featured choreographer Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi and Mahani Izzati Suleiman in a sand-filled courtyard at the base of one of the school’s stairwells, and was viewed by the audience standing in the stairs and corridors in the five storeys above it. Creating a work to be viewed exclusively from above brings with it certain challenges, which Shakti overcame with the simple expedient of transforming normally vertical movement into horizontal ones, with the two dancers twisting and writhing in full bodily contact with the sand, which was being constantly doused with water from a downpipe.

IMG_8594Dramatically side-lit in red and green, Shakti presented the familiar tale of Adam and Eve living harmoniously in Eden before the fall, then succumbing to the temptation of apples (dropped accurately into their waiting hands by accomplices from above), which incited a frenzy of self-knowledge which eventually forced Adam, at least, to quit paradise, leaving Eve to gnaw her apple with insatiable greed. The site itself, hemmed in by metal balustrades and thick foliage, created a claustrophobic air, as if paradise was a pit, a cage, begging for escape. In an appropriate homage to the recently departed Pina Bausch, Shakti was a work of self-punishing and painful-looking physical abandon. The dancers hurled themselves face-first, back-first, head-first onto the wet sand. Their inhibition was also notable in moments of thrilling danger, as when Shafirul walked on the surrounding metal balustrade in wet feet, or when he lifted Mahani onto a wooden bench balanced, apparently precariously to the watchers from above, on top of the balustrade. This work took the dramatic sensibility, which seems inbred in ASWARA dancers, as well as their predilection for iconic and mythical themes, and raised them a new and exciting level.

IMG_8615In the second half of the show, gears shifted again into a quieter and more cerebral mode with The Red Rose, a duet choreographed by South Korean dancer Kim Jungyeon and performed by Jungyeon and former ASWARA dancer Liu Yong Shean who has recently been studying in South Korea. Revisiting the classical ballet work Le Spectre de la Rose, this duet used impressionistic projected video – of hands sorting through rose petals, papers folded into turrets and towers, and finally petals made out of paper – as a backdrop for a work that contrasted the restrained and thoughtful movements of Jungyeon (depicting the woman who is imagining the spirit of the rose) with Yong Shean as the extroverted and extravagant rose himself.

IMG_8610The various scenes of The Red Rose were beautifully composed. In one scene Yong Shean’s hands played graceful shadow puppets in front of the projector, a reminder to ASWARA audiences of how his hands alone once dominated entire Mak Yong performances with their clarity and style. In another scene, Jungyeon moved with sliding feet and jerking hands in a rose-tinted solo, every step seeming exactly where she wanted it to be, not so much grounded as inevitable. And one multimedia effect worked particularly well, in which the dancers moved in front of the projector although the projection was not bright enough to illuminate the dancer’s body. Instead the shadow of the dancer on the screen behind became the focus of attention, a black void in a field of dancing lights. Although occasionally The Red Rose was a bit of an unjustified mish-mash of Southeast Asian dance styles, it was shot through with a thread of memorable images.

IMG_8626The evening’s program ended on an energetic note with Tapak 4, also choreographed by Shafirul. A group work for some of the most talented students of ASWARA’s recent diploma graduating class, the work displaying them all to their advantage. With the spirit and accent of silat but incorporating movement vocabulary from contemporary dance, Tapak 4 was a rollicking affair that rocked the audience to cheers. The dancers performed the work with combative seriousness, but occasionally they were so overtaken by the pure joy inherent in the movement that could not help bursting into grins as they went into the attack. Naim Syahrazad and Mahani Izzati Suleiman were particularly striking in their enjoyment coupled with their respect for the powerful and stylish movement.

With Tapak 4, Shafirul has created one of those happy works which pleases both dancers and audience. It was a fitting and uplifting finale for the program, illustrating the resilience of ASWARA and the dance community, and the unquenchable urge to dance even when times are tough. For these pearls, and the many more from Lepas…tetap menari! which are too numerous to be mentioned here, I am truly grateful.

An evening of enjoyment

Posted in Review with tags , on 13 November 2008 by bhijjas

Jamu 2008
Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan
9 November 2008
Experimental Theatre

Jamu is always a treat, as well as a safe bet. If, out of eight dance works between eight and twelve minutes long, you can’t find something that you enjoy, you may as well give up entirely! And this season’s Jamu did not disappoint. Showcasing the large amount of talent among the faculty at ASWARA, the multiple bill’s diversity of styles and its high quality of performance demonstrate how ASWARA has emerged as the beating heart of the Kuala Lumpur contemporary dance scene.

Joseph Gonzales' 'Random'.

ASWARA dancers in Joseph Gonzales's 'Random'.

The first work of the evening was ‘Tujuh Puteri’, a solo choreographed by Aris Kadir for Norbaizura Abdul Ghani. The dancer starts seated downstage, in a flurry of rose petals, twisting and pivoting through an elegant sequence of feminine gestures from Malay dance. As she advances upstage, her stance becomes more and more martial, until she is whirling and tumbling through a prolonged silat-like attack in a circle of light.

With this work, Aris Kadir proves once again why he is the darling of ASWARA, and the great hope for Malay culture in contemporary dance. His choice of movement is bold – the Malay style is so ingrained in him that he is not afraid to strike out with it. In Norbaizura he has found a sympathetic collaborator who can bring out the intricacies of his work. She is a talented dancer who seems to understand the intention of the movement exactly, knowing when a piercing look should replace a soft glance, and how to gradually transform the grace of her dancing hands into something more energetic and full-bodied. Aris and Norbaizura succeed here where others have failed, convincingly evoking the long tradition of strong and decisive Malay women.

The second work, ‘Time’, choreographed by Zhou Gui Xin, I had seen a few times before, and frankly I can never get past the first time I saw it performed with Jessica Ho in the lead – this classically lyrical piece seemed made especially for her. In this version the chorus was confident and well-rehearsed, and the leads equally assured and emotive. The decision not to include the projection of the poem at the beginning makes the work a lot tighter.

Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil’s work ’2=1′ was next, performed by herself and four dancers from Aurora Ballet School. Better known as a dancer than a choreographer, Suhaili was the only female choreographer in the night’s line-up (this is a topic on which I will continue to harp) and, perhaps because of this, her theme was a little more down to earth, and her style a little more self-reflexive and self-deprecatory than those of the other works.

The work started with a solo by Suhaili, demosntrating the impossibility of doing everything she is required to do in one day. She flings herself around within the circle of her dancers, who gently but unsympathetically repulse her. Then she retires and her dancers take over, portraying with quick, clean and quirky little movements and a preoccupied air how she eats, drives, teaches, performs, rehearses, prays, sleeps, and thinks. At one point Teo May Jean puts on thick-rimmed spectacles, and a person emerges from the audience to tell her, “Wow. So nice!”, a reference to how people always comment when they find out Suhaili wears glasses.

Suhaili was worried that people would dismiss her work as the ‘cute piece’ of the evening, but I think it came across as honest and personal. It also had a nice little ironic sense of humour that is frequently missing from Malaysian works, and which I found refreshing.

Humour there was aplenty in the next work — ‘Random’, by Joseph Gonzalez — but certainly not of the little or ironic kind! Joseph is a teacher to the core, and his work had pedagogical intent: audience members would pick three numbers from a box, corresponding with three movement phrases which the dancers would then perform. This was meant to introduce the enthusiastic but somewhat green ASWARA audience to elements of chance and audience participation which were prominent in contemporary dance in the last century.

'Random's stylish presenters -- Shariful Akma and ladies.

'Random's stylish presenters -- Shariful Akma and ladies.

It sounds a little dry, and perhaps for this reason Joseph introduced the item that will surely win the audience popularity vote for the evening: transvestites! There is something about ASWARA that always leads to cross-dressing. Rarely does an ASWARA show not feature it. I used to think it was due to hidden penchants among the students, but now I think that the faculty has been leading the way!

Nonetheless, if they do cross-dressing, at least they do it well, and with style. Shariful Akma as the Madam gave a creditable version of Amy Winehouse, and had a personality to match. The helpers in their slinky dresses, who proffered the box of numbers to the audience, were utterly convincing. My non-Malaysian guest, being unfamiliar with local traditions, had absolutely no idea what all the cat-calling was about – she didn’t have the slightest suspicion that they were all men!

The movement phrases that followed seemed rather an after-thought, although the portrayal of garlic and onions frying in a pan in the cooking section had me giggling. The ASWARA dancers performed with aplomb. Raymond Liew’s technical ability was noteworthy, particularly in the last phrase, and Chai Vivan’s lovely side attitude turn caught my eye. The group of boys clad in bright yellow baju, hanging around like backup dancers, had me completely nonplussed, until, after everyone left, they had a quick group hug and then turned upstage, as if in preparation to perform another work for an invisible audience. It was a magical little touch transforming everything that preceded it, which now remains in my mind as a colourful light-hearted romp. Random, indeed.

'Sum' by Umesh Shetty.

'Sum', by Umesh Shetty.

The next work I must admit was my absolute favourite – Umesh Shetty’s ‘Sum’. The three Kathak dancers from the Temple of Fine Arts shared the spotlight equably with musicians from the Temple of Fine Arts and from Hands Percussion Team. Neither one was relegated to the role of accompanist to the other, which is fine in theory but very difficult to achieve in practice. In effect, all were dancers, and all musicians. The dancers started their phrase in silence, their feet making their own rhythm, and voicing hissed cues to stay in synchronisation. The Hands drummers entered with full pomp and ceremony, and the sight of their performance, as usual, was as captivating as their sound.

The dancers were very strong, in control of the joyous movement, and expressive where it was required. The structure of their work seemed dictated most by the big Hands drum, to whose rhythm they struck strong poses and changed direction sharply. The calling of the vocalist from Temple of Fine Arts married with their quick darting hands and changes of focus. For a moment, they would stand still and mark the rhythm of the music with claps, like flamenco dancers, transferring the focus to the musicians. Then they would dive once again into the movement.

Members of Hands Percussion entering with their instruments.

Members of Hands Percussion entering with their instruments.

At one point, the dancers were visibly marking time with impatience, looking for the right beginning of a musical phrase so that they could start their movement phrase. They missed the cue, and had to skip the section, and start with the next. I gather they were quite upset about it afterwards, but for me it was a wonderful moment, seeing all the performers really watching, listening to and responding to each other, in a way that rarely occurs.

'Xin Dong' by Wong Kit Yaw.

'Xin Dong' by Wong Kit Yaw.

Wong Kit Yaw’s piece ‘Xin Dong’ was the first I had seen of his work, and I was not disappointed. It began with the dancers in the depths of meditation, clad in white and connected by red thread. Their movements revolved around an enormous prayer bell which rose to reveal two dancers beneath. The hypnotic swaying of the bell, manipulated by Aris Kadir, was reflected by the slow ceremonial movements of the dancers. Norbaizura shone once again in this piece, although no dancer was featured. Her quiet focus and the evident thoughtfulness invested in her hand gestures were exactly what the work required. When I spoke to Kit Yaw previously he said he wanted to show how the theory of his teaching at ASWARA could be illustrated in practice, and I think the work succeeded. The iconography of Chinese dance combined well with the element of improvisation, and created a work that seemed both timeless and extremely apt.

Male dancers in Vincent Tan's 'After Duet'.

Male dancers in Vincent Tan's 'After Duet'.

Vincent Tan’s ‘After Duet’ was a shift in mood, returning to larger movements and greater technical skill. I found the music choice initially difficult, but as the work progressed the movement proved itself a match for the music. The dancers were strong, especially the boys, whose daring physicality was well used without betraying any weaknesses in their technique. There were a few overwrought moments, but there were also some very satisfying ones, especially when couples locked in embrace were juxtaposed against the other dancers rushing past them.

Steve Goh’s ‘Unforgettable’ was the final work of the evening for obvious reasons: it featured a make-shift paddling pool half-filled with water, with rain falling into it from the ceiling. The work fulfilled the promise of its title with this visual stunt alone. It begins with a solo in which a shirtless (of course) Steve gets increasingly drenched in the midst of risky balances and romantic arcs of spray he kicks up from the pond. A multiple recipient of the BOH Cameronian Arts Award for best dancer, Steve is so talented that any self indulgence in this solo was forgiveable – we would probably watch him watch TV with equal delight. His obvious enjoyment of the set is interrupted by Nuur Faliza Saad, who bursts onto the stage and slides to a stop at his feet. He reaches for her and embraces her, but their connection ends there. She flings herself about like a thing unleashed, while he stands and watches, eventually quietly stepping back into the shadows. For the remainder of the piece, Nuur Faliza continues to hurl herself into the water, transforming the set into a violent Slip’n Slide, giving the work, as a few audience members commented, a very Pina Bauschian air. Nuur Faliza’s commitment to the movement was admirable – she was clearly holding nothing back – but in the end the work failed to make much of an impact apart from its first impression.

I really enjoyed Jamu, and I can’t wait for the next one. It’s a great introduction to some of the movers and shakers of the KL dance scene, and an easy way to keep an eye on their development. I even brought my arts-phobic boyfriend to watch, and I can honestly say that he enjoyed it too, which is higher praise than any I could give!


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