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.