Even before you arrive in the theatre for a performance of Dua Space Dance Theatre’s Two, you already know you are in for an immersive experience. The foyer of KLPac’s Pentas 2 is festooned with banners of newspaper and frayed coconut-fibre ropes. As the audience waits to enter the theatre, we are surprised by the stars of the show arriving in our midst. Covered in white paint, Aman Yap and Anthony Meh cavort amidst the delighted crowd like good-natured sprites. They investigate handbags, sneak up behind unsuspecting audience members, and dance with a woman in a wheelchair. Despite the homogenizing body paint, the two dancers already display distinct characters – Anthony plays the boyish rogue, while Aman is shy and grave – and later on in the work these differences will come to the fore. Then, dancing and mutely gesturing, the pair lead the audience into the theatre.
Two, Aman & Anthony’s epic duet, was first performed in 1998 and has not been seen on stage since 2001. In the last 13 years, the two founders of Dua Space Dance Theatre have matured into stalwarts of the Malaysian dance community, and this work clearly demonstrates the pair’s ability to combine artistic vision with high production values. Two is an unapologetically modernist work, dealing with strong mythic themes and symbols, rejecting the deconstruction, self-reflection and anarchic play of post-modernism. It traces the path of life from inception (symbolised by chicken eggs contributed by the audience) to birth (struggles with ropes like umbilical cords), through the complications of human and gender relationships, to a zen-like release from life.
Two is a largely impressionistic non-narrative work. There is a lot less emphasis laid on movement quality, for a dance work, and more upon the entire staging experience. The elaborate set features long ropes strung with clothes-shaped cut-outs from newspapers, which run from the stage into the audience, invading the fourth wall. The changeable soundscape, now a cacophony of Chinese opera singing and gamelan, now a baroque violin solo or a startling foghorn, is composed by John Liew. Tan Eng Heng’s lighting once more creates uncompromising in-your-face states, whether with patterned goboes, or stark white boxes which may be wombs or coffins or both. Even in the small space of Pentas 2, Two is a work of ambitious scale, demonstrating once again the daring production values for which Dua Space Dance Theatre is renowned.
Because of its multi-disciplinary interest and its elements of audience participation, Two operates on all the senses. The smooth weight of a brown egg held in the hand contrasts with the roughness of frayed rope touching the face. The theatre smells like smoke and newsprint. Earsplitting noises punctuate the soundscape. But the visual sense is perhaps the best served, with Two presenting extravagant visual confections that seem made for photography. In one such scene, Anthony stands in a grotto upstage, strongly sidelit in pink and green, against a backdrop of the newspaper negatives of the cut-out clothing. At these moments, movement becomes secondary to staging – what the body does is not as important as its careful placement within these constructed environments.
Two is an immersive work, not just because the audience is surrounded by the set, with all senses alert, but also because Anthony and Aman literally pull audience members off their seats and into the action. In one such scene in the middle of the work, Anthony in an effeminate white mask drags people down onto the stage. He is good at managing the audience, cleverly using audience members to get other audience members involved. He encourages the female audience member to trounce the male, and everyone in the audience laughs at this lighthearted battle-of-the-sexes.
But the atmosphere quickly changes when Aman enters. Stern and commanding, he points his finger at Anthony, who flees into the audience and hides behind someone’s umbrella. Anthony plays the coquette, but Aman is unmoved, directing Anthony firmly back down onto the stage, where they sit on a box in a sharply divided down-light, half pink and half blue. The soundscape plays a dialogue of a man and woman talking, the man dictatorial, the woman acquiescent, as Aman controls Anthony’s movements, half dancing and half acting in line with the dialogue. Pathetically, Anthony appeals to the audience for help, and we feel a surge of empathy for his lonely vulnerable figure, but no one goes to help him. We are complicit in the violence, at which we were laughing only moments ago.
Physical theatre moments like this are the dramatic climax of Two, although both Aman and Anthony are dancers by inclination and training. And when they dance, you can see that neither has lost their physical capacity. They seem not to spare themselves at all, wheeling from flexed-foot turns into huge windmill arms, big cartwheels into whacking side kicks and then suspension handstands. Most of their dancing together is done in synchronisation, like twins, or they perform disconnected solos at the same time. Physical contact between the two dancers is short-lived, and I would have liked to see more of how they negotiate each other in the midst of movement.
At the end of the work, Aman pulls back the upstage right curtain to reveal more white masks – the disguises of our daily lives – hanging on a textured grid. He washes his face in a basin beneath, watched by the empty-eyed faces. It is like the washing off of the birth caul, or perhaps even the shucking of the mortal coil. Anthony, too, has lost most of his white paint, from his furious dancing and the wearing of the female mask. The innocent flawless white surface has been symbolically scarred and destroyed through a lifetime of living. In death, the work suggests, we become ourselves, without the paint.
From this moment on, Two seems calmer, less changeful and distraught, less the ‘vague path of life in which things are really complicated,’ as the program notes suggest. Perhaps Aman and Anthony are angels now. They unhook the basket of eggs from where it has been hanging on a baby rocker. Taking the eggs gently out of the basket, they hand them to the audience one by one. Aman gently presses the hands of the audience closed over the eggs, to keep them safe, to emphasise the value of the treasure. People hold the eggs like blessings and like prayers. The dancers place the egg cradle in the centre of the audience, like the baby’s manger in our midst. With these symbols of rebirth, fertility and future potential safely transferred into our keeping, the two dancers are free to leave. They walk together upstage, away from the audience, leaving us mortals with our lives in our hands. Mid-way they turn back to smile at us, but it is not really necessary; angels do not smile.
With Two, Anthony and Aman prove that they are masters at manipulating their audience, providing a full-body theatrical experience which both entertains and illuminates, evoking laughter and thought.
Images courtesy of Dua Space Dance Theatre.