Faculty of Dance, ASWARA
25-27 September 2015, Black Box, ASWARA


Jamu rolls around so regularly it’s like a State of the Nation address, filtered through the consciousness of faculty members at the Dance Department of ASWARA, the National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy. For years the Dance Department has enjoyed remarkable artistic independence, despite being part of a government institution. A few years ago, a certain site-specific performance in Jamu involved the dropping of items far more subversive than balloons – an act which, in today’s surveillance state, would earn more than the few raised eyebrows it merited at the time.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that, given my recent brush with the law, I interpreted certain works in this year’s Jamu as reflections of our current political crisis. The mixed-bill performance opened with ‘Tanah Pusaka’, by Dr Joseph Gonzales, who was dean of the Dance Department for ten years, until he was removed from his post in June this year. Two lines of dancers at the back of the stage, wearing a range of street clothes, act as the chorus, in a repeating pattern of tight rebellious-looking movements – a fist slamming into an open palm, both fists raised, or the whole body dropping to the ground. Two male characters emerge to don suits and engage in a kind of decorous combat. Neither will allow the other to advance. In between their attitude turns and trick lifts, they do the joget – the Malay folkdance which also involves both arms raised with loose fists, the flexible wrists indicating the direction of the body through space. That raised fists can be read both as rebellion against the status quo and as reference to tradition suggests we might have a tradition of rebellion; I don’t know that this is strictly true, but it’s a hopeful gesture.

At times, ‘Tanah Pusaka’ feels overburdened with meaning. At the start, streams of rice rain onto sandboxes on stage, and then, at the end, dancers lie in the sandboxes like captured prisoners with their arms clasped behind their backs, as other dancers look down on them. But the work effectively sets the stage for some of Jamu’s recurring themes: senseless competition, group accusation, and the pervasive threat of captivity.

Norsafini Jafar’s ‘Tangga’ takes up the competition theme, with Muhd Nur Azammudin bin Tumiran and Fatin Nadhirah bte Rahmat, clad in nationalistic red and blue, fighting to be on top of the ladder. Fatin Nadhirah impressed me with a gutsy willingness to throw herself into lunges, slides and hops in a pushup position. The dancers progress through all the possible things you can do with a folding household ladder, including slamming the two sides together very fast (the person sitting next to me winced – you can’t help but think of pinched fingers), and photo-worthy poses of a dancer balancing on one leg on the very top.

Jamu only gets darker from there. Norbaizura Abdul Ghani’s ‘Disequilibrium’ descends into horror movie territory, with a creepy soundtrack chanting, “If you don’t come play with us, then we will kill you!” A pop-up tent upstage fills with menacing shadows. Three women in black roll and shudder onto the stage. Chong Hoei Tzin touches the figure next to her with trepidation and then recoils in horror, as if she has been forced to face her worst fears. At one point, the dancers manage to join hands, but one glance towards the tent tears them apart. Eventually the tent sucks all the dancers into it, and the work ends with the inevitable camping-ground massacre, with flickering torchlight and agonised hands thrust out into the canvas.

Wong Kit Yaw’s ‘Time Asking’ plumbs the depths of a more psychological nightmare, as Mohd Azfar, a slim dancer in an everyman outfit of white shirt and black pants, drags himself around a circle of light containing a single chair, his hands clasped behind him as if he is handcuffed. A chorus of men in black rush him with accusing fingers, but every one of them has one red palm – the blood is, literally, on their own hands. As an interrogation room dance, ‘Time Asking’ is saved from being too overwrought by its layered polyvocal musical score and Mohd Azfar’s delicate physicality. His body seems a pitifully frail receptacle for blame. As the black chorus circles him, he puts his head through the frame of his chair and wears it upon his back like a yoke, his long narrow hands with their fragile wrists thrust out in quivering appeal. As he spins with the chair on his back, for an instant it seems he might be able to annihilate his captors with the force of his own desperation – but then they win, as they always do.

Murni bt Omar’s ‘Salam’ offers a bit of a reprieve. Wong Chi Ying and Yee Sue Ki, with big boofy ponytails, launch into an apparently inexhaustible repertoire of quirky gestures – a twitching bottom coupled with a frozen grin, one dancer blowing raspberries to a melody, or both gasping in rhythm while throwing their hands in the air. I couldn’t help wishing that the choreographer was performing in her own work – her exquisite physical sensibility would have made much more of some of the movements. Still, Yi Ching and Sue Ki were well-rehearsed, energetic yet exact, and utterly dedicated. Towards the middle, the work started to lag, but it succeeded in suggesting the arbitrary connection between speech or social gesture and meaning. What if putting the sole of your foot to someone else’s neck was an acceptable form of greeting? When, at the end, the dancers finally salam in the conventional way, the movement seems at first robbed of all significance, and then morphs into something intensely sinister, as skulking figures among the audience rise to demand, “Nak salam? Nak salam?”

The penultimate work, Mohd Seth Hamzah’s ‘Derma’, is a more conventional exercise using the movement vocabulary of silat and tari piring. A large ensemble of dancers, occasionally looking a little rough and inexperienced, manipulate white plates in shifting group patterns, thrusting them out in entreaty. Large finger rings which produce a percussive click on the plates add interest. The work acquires a layer of patriotic meaning because all the dancers wear batik-print pants and tourist t-shirts which say IMY. The dance is also bookended by a blind beggar and his guide, wearing impressively horrid outfits tie-dyed with the Malaysian flag, who engage in comedic repartee. Perhaps the work compares political demonstrations, which are always demanding something, with the emotional blackmail practised by roaming beggars – can the moral force of mass appeal sometimes be akin to violence?

Jamu’s final work, ‘When They Ate the Apple’, was choreographed by Yunus Ismail, who has assumed Joseph’s position as head of the ASWARA Dance Department; thus the whole show carries a sense of the old guard ceding territory to the new. ‘Apple’, a quiet and dark solo, is an unusual choice for the ending slot, usually reserved for a high-energy large-group spectacular. The work begins with Maria Devonne Escobia, as a white-dressed Eve, posing in downlights with a poisonously green Granny Smith. Then she starts her routine, a dance of varied but repeated movements. Quick businesslike walks with swinging arms drop into a lunge to side plank. She poses with head thrown to the side and one arm extended, like a demented Black Swan. Now slinky, now wild, now out of control, coiling into a tight contraction or springing into a sudden leap, Maria Devonne coolly possesses it all with her substantial personal style. She has an inexorable way of moving – her movement simply is. When little red apples roll onto the stage, she kicks them nonchalantly away. By the time she takes a bite of her own fruit, you’re convinced that she had all the knowledge before she even began. A man in white appears in a spot upstage. As she exits, Maria Devonne hands him the apple, incidentally. If this is Eve, Adam doesn’t stand a chance.

ASWARA Dance Department has long been known for the strength of its male dancers; perhaps part of this new regime is the rise of the women. Three out of seven of the choreographers in this year’s Jamu are women, and female dancers take the lead in four of the works. One of the greatest challenges of an educational institution is giving equal emphasis to every new generation of students that comes through, especially when a lot of the old stars are still in attendance, in ASWARA Dance Company. Perhaps it’s serendipitous that this year, due to multiple demands, many of the ADC dancers are otherwise engaged, and younger, less experienced, performers have taken the limelight. There’s still a lot of growing to be done, but it’s remarkable that ASWARA Dance Department seems to have achieved this passing of the baton in a way more graceful than the crisis of leadership currently convulsing our nation.


Many thanks to LH Tang for the generous use of his photograph.

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