Some artists want to break boundaries, to stretch the definitions of their disciplines and get their names in the history books. Other artists are content to toil within established confines, honing their craft, and making their works deeper and richer. Fauzi Amirudin, a young choreographer of ASWARA Dance Company, who recently presented four of his works in the program Pit Stop in the Black Box at ASWARA, may be one of the latter. His dances revolve around old-fashioned aims – like melding the movement to the music and designing intricate group patterns – but he demonstrates a masterly understanding of the genre which belies his age.
‘Face It’, the first work in the Pit Stop program, is also the newest. Its theme – of achieving inner peace by finding your true self – may be hackneyed, but Fauzi’s execution lends freshness. The dancers emerge from a gap in the black curtains at the back of the stage, revealing a mirror behind. As the dancers scuttle backwards like crabs, their gaze is fixed on the mirror. A light from downstage shines into the mirror and bounces back, blinding the audience. It’s like being hypnotized by your own selfie.
Azizi Mansor, as the dancer suffering from self-doubt, is rejected by the group and reduced to anguished solos. Although these demonstrate his technical strength, with lots of shoulder stands and kip-ups, they are not very choreographically interesting. More compelling is Naim Syahrazad as the group ringleader, with his dismissive talk-to-the-hand authority, as well as the movement vocabulary of some of the group floor work, with its hurling, whirling, dipping and bouncing energy, driven by momentum and breath, which represents a new direction in Fauzi’s work.
The lighting is haphazard throughout the evening, but during a duet encounter between Naim and Azizi, a single cool white light offsets the scene beautifully. In the same way, Fauzi’s work succeeds most when it focuses on craft and composition, and doesn’t pander to demands for entertainment or novelty. At the end of ‘Face It’, the dancers are sucked back into their mirror hole, but Azizi escapes, striding towards the audience with a smirk. Narratively it works, but it seems rather forced and not in keeping with the work as a whole.
The second work, ‘Fullhouse’, deals out dancers like a pack of cards, clad in black and red and standing flat to the audience. The idea goes back at least as far as Alice in Wonderland, but Fauzi employs a layered rhythmic score by Irina Taib to good effect, teasing out its subtle accents and finding moments of physical pleasure. A sequence in which each dancer mimes a series of complex arm gestures, fanning out cards and slicing through a deck like casino dealers on Ecstacy, is beautifully precise and in line with the crisp beats of the music. In another moment, a group of dancers lies on the floor shoulder to shoulder with their knees up, as Raziman Sarbini, standing at a distance, mimes thrusting them. The line of knees collapses onto each other, like falling dominoes.
Dancer Maria Devonne Escobia, with her cool disdainful presence, is a standout in ‘Fullhouse’; she seems to understand the logic of the movement. Murni Omar is also a joy to watch, displaying clean lines and refreshing lack of physical affectation as she is manipulated in the air by two men. Raziman takes on a difficult solo role with energy and attack – spinning fast, leaping high – but it feels like showboating, and he doesn’t quite fit with the restrained precision of the rest of the group. Fullhouse also has a hammy ending, but on the whole the work is a satisfying play of shifting patterns, as mesmerizing as watching a trained card player laying out tricks on a green baize table.
The third work, ‘Shadow’, was unveiled in 2013 in a program at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas which paired local choreographers with contemporary music composers. Yii Kah Hoe’s score ‘Buka Panggung’ is devilishly complex, with unpredictable rhythms and immense variations in volume and instruments. Many a choreographer would allow the music to wash over in the background, but Fauzi stays valiantly close to it, finding a physical equivalent for every moment, whether it’s a climactic chorus of horns, or a whisper of strings sliding away into silence.
Rizianah John, as the female puppetmaster of a clutch of male puppets, looks relaxed and easy in her role, and she holds her own in the group, a difficult thing to do when you’re up against ASWARA’s infamously strong male dancers. She is the dominating figure, lifted high above the action while the men stagger beastlike beneath. In a picture-perfect final moment, she stands on a male dancer’s thigh and unfolds her arms and upper body in a high diagonal towards the ceiling, her fingers still twitching witchily. With images like this, ‘Shadow’ serves the drama of the music well, but the dance lacks the compositional depth of Fauzi’s other work, maybe because the music is so uncountable.
The evening closed with ‘Stalemate’, which Fauzi made for his final choreographic project as a Bachelors student, and which is now almost a Malaysian classic. It borrows the vocabulary of tari piring, the plate dance of the Minangkabau, and gives it an irreverent, contemporary, spin. Dancers meet in mock battles, daring each other with their eyes, as the plates flash, whirl, slide across the floor, are tossed from dancer to dancer, yet never break.
‘Stalemate’ is a crowd favourite, trotted out for numerous performances, and the ASWARA dancers shine in it. Ruby Wahid faces off with Faliza Saad with almost amused confidence. Azmie Zanal Abdden releases his coiled energy in contracted jumps and sudden drops into wide-legged positions. Naim Syahrazad is lithe and deer-like when standing with a foot poised upon a plate on the floor, but also a canny opponent. His duet with Azmie starts in silence, the two of them facing each other cross-legged, their hands stabbing patterns on the floor between them. After an interweaving tustle, Naim turns away, as if bored with the game, deliberately drops his plate—and, just before it hits the floor, Azmie catches it, to the first beat of the music. It’s a practiced and precisely choreographed dramatic climax, and yet – for the audience – it works every time.
The costumes are new for this performance, and I must say I miss the ceremonial tone of the old costumes, as well as the restrained yet dramatic lighting of previous versions. I also miss the presence of dancer Khairi Mokthar, now pursuing his studies in Korea – his natural charisma used to triangulate the energy of Azmie and Naim. And sometimes I wish Fauzi would know to leave well enough alone; ‘Stalemate’ is a great work, and it doesn’t need any more tinkering. But he is still a young choreographer, and it is delightful to see him attacking new challenges and conquering personal mountains. As a full night’s program, Pit Stop testifies to Fauzi’s prodigious understanding of his craft, and it certainly sent me back on the road with refuelled confidence in Malaysian contemporary dance.
Photos provided by the choreographer, courtesy of Shafiq Zainal and LH Tan.