A Review on ATMA, a dance production by Maya Dance Theatre
Date: 26th October 2007
Time: 8 pm
Venue: The Esplande Studio Theatre
by Richard Chua
27th October 2007
Last Friday, I walked out of the Esplanade Theatre Studio after watching Maya Dance Theatre’s ATMA with a nagging question in mind. What’s the significance of Ravana’s story in this production, be it the Indian or the Indonesian version, when the production was clearly talking about Atma (The World Soul).
It is a simple question, but answering it is difficult. If Maya Dance Theatre hadn’t used Ravana as the narrative thread, what could they have used to explore this elusive topic?
If Maya Dance Theatre’s artistic strategy were to explore the world soul through Ravana’s, would storytelling be more tedious as they would have to re-tell the Ravana’s story first before analysing his life, in order to discover his soul? Ravana’s story is not simple. According to some, Ravana is a scholar and noble man. Others regard him an evil demon. In some stories, he is also known to have ruled the Kingdom of Lanka well. Lanka flourished without hunger. And, perhaps the most interesting part of his life – his virility is unrivalled, with endless conquests on women. These are just fragments of Ravana’s rich background story.
Using Ravana as anchor point doesn’t seem to be suitable. For the story of the 10-head demon king of Lanka is simply too complex to be fitted in a 90-minute production.
Maya Dance Theatre obviously has bitten off more than they could chew.
But, one may ask why did Maya Dance Theatre choose to tackle the topic of Atma – the world soul – in the first place? What’s their definition of Atma? Are they referring to a place where all individual souls derive, and to which they return as the supreme goal of existence?
It is indeed a difficult question to work on, for the soul is too elusive an entity for discussion. Such difficult venture calls for strong artistic direction, where markers are set to achieve effective presentation of the findings. Unfortunately, ATMA did not set a strong artistic direction for the project, for the project prides itself in being ‘an amalgamation of asian dance forms,’ that ‘expound the karmic cycles of Ravana,’ which eventually sees the ‘redemption of his soul-moksha.’ Is Ravana’s soul representative of the world soul of mankind?
Nonetheless, Maya Dance Theatre’s ATMA attempted this difficult journey to try figure out what the soul – or Ravana’s soul – is. I went with them on the journey, but did not get any insight in the end. As much as I admire their courage in trying to soul-search Ravana, at least what they could do is to present their limited findings plainly on stage, rather than making proclamations using conventional wisdom, through performer Noor Effendy Ibrahim. He was visibly mis-cast as the narrator of the production. His non-dancer body did not contribute to the dance production, for his constant struggles on stage trying to shift his bodyweights while attempting to perform Indian dance is a distraction from the narrative of the production.
Singapore dancers paled in comparison to their Indonesian counterparts. Khairul Shahrin bin Mohd Johry and Huang Yuzhu lacked technique of any kind, coupled with weak bodyweight transfers. Juraimy Abu Bakar’s movements had limited vocabulary, while Kavitha Khrisnan’s Indian dance movements were trite and uninspiring. The Indonesian dancers, though stronger in the technicality of dance, are not without limitations. I Gusti Ngurah Sudibya and I Nyoman Sura lacked the power and energy needed in bringing out the strength of the characters in certain sections. I Gusti Ngurah Sudibya, at times, was visibly drowned by excessive choreography, while I Nyoman Sura’s overtly feminine movements hindered his portrayal of some masculine characters. However, what makes the Indonesian dancers more engaging to watch is the rich cultural history they have brought with them through their bodies.
Lighting and sound were the only strongest elements in the production. Yeo Hon Beng’s lighting exuded mystical qualities that added colour to the production while Alex Dea’s experimental sounds made a good impact in creating the atmosphere for the production.
But all of the above did not save the production from suffering a weak artistic direction. ATMA has the essential ingredients for a possible good dish, but the art of cooking falls short in bringing out the tastes. That brings us back to my initial argument emphasising the importance of good artistic direction. It has to be present in every single piece of artistic creation. Only with a strong artistic direction in place can the various elements of theatre come together and bring out the best in an artwork. Technical theatre could never be an effective façade for bad art. As much as lighting and sound can add texture to ATMA, the weak premise simply cannot hold the production together.
Perhaps, thematically, there isn’t really a need to explore the soul, for there is really no such thing as ‘a soul’ in this world. What’s commonly been considered soulful is really about being true to yourself, believe in your direction in life, passion and beliefs. Maybe, the soul is about accumulating wisdom, trying to understand what the world has become and be able to accept it as what it is, to move on and adjust yourself to new circumstances? My theories might be wrong, but who cares, the story of Ravana is an Indian myth anyway.
– end –