Picture by Dua Space Dance Company
by John Stephen Moses
Date:1 October 2015 (Thursday)
Venue: Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
From dust to dust, one by one the ensemble brought the soil to the edge of the stage, carefully upheld it in their palms, entering the stage with graceful precision. This opening sequence was a spectacular beginning, alluding to the growing of a tree from a humble dried seed, as hinted by the projection. The bare stage of the Istana Budaya was filled with multi-coloured visuals, with the weary free dancers moving contradictoraily to the drumming by ICool Percussion. It was a land flowing with harmony and peace. The production titled The Tree resonates with the poem by renowned Taiwanese author San Mao: “If there was an afterlife, may I be born as tree”. This aspiration is evident throughout the entire performance ,stylistically; performers from Dua Space Dance Theatre and Aurora Dance School transformed like a seed growing into a plant, or perhaps a tree, branching into newer grounds, budding and blooming into flowers of harmonious splendour.
Dua Space Dance Theatre is a full time professional contemporary dance company in Malaysia. Founded by Anthony Meh and Aman Yap in 2003, it aims to promote sharing and interaction of dance forms from different genres. Understandably, the merging of the traditional and modern dance elements is evident in the production. Choreographer Aman Yap, who graduated from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts with a major in dance, was meticuluous in sewing different textured ethnic patterns into his choreography.
Besides him, the Vice Principal of Aurora Dance School Suhaili Micheline was also invited to guest-choreograph and perform in the production. Suhaili Micheline is well known for her full length dance work ‘Flatland’, which won many accolades in 11th BOH Cameronian Arts Awards such as Best Dance Ensemble, Best Choreographer, Best Set Design and Best Lighting. In The Tree, she presented the pieces in chapters ‘The Land’, ‘Abiding Withered’ and ‘The Tree-Soaring on The Land’ — All of them preach to the audience to listen the bonds of trees.
If one would view these series of performances as dance-drama pieces; then there is a neglect in an important purpose in dance choreography, which is story-telling. Stories drive a performance. Dancers tell stories through movement, expression and emotions. The Tree presented a myraid of emotions. They are varied ,in terms of disciplines and genre. However, modern movements (mostly extensions) contradicted the traditional techniques. They failed to connect the audiences to the notions of “belief” and “dream” portrayed by the Aman Yap’s choreography. No matter how sharp and precise the executions were, audiences needed a more fundamental connection to the choreographies. Metaphorically, a tree should be known not by its trunks, but its branches and leaves. It is also valued for its fruit bearing will. The dancers delivered the choreography but the audience were not able to receive the fruits of their labour as it failed to represent all the true meaning of the multimedia visuals. One may be enamoured by the visual stimuli, but the diversity within the cultures of the ethnic groups in Malaysia can’t be conveyed fully. Therefore, the disconnect between the visuals and the series of choreography is evident. If these multimedia visuals (motives of ‘Songket Tenun’, Batik, Dayak, Dusun, Silk and many more which are found in traditional Malaysian textiles or handicraft) are supposed to represent the multicultural facets in Malaysia, the diversity of within the choreographies is clearly lacking. Although fragmentation of traditional dance steps i.e. Zapin Johor, Joget Pahang, Bharathanatyam, Melanau and many more are inserted in the performances creating a fusion likens to contemporary movements — for instance the use of bamboo by Aurora Dance troupe was similar to traditional Melanau Bamboo dance. The beauty within the diversity was shadowed by the contemporary movements, which on the whole resembled a ‘Citrawarna Festival’ (a festival held annually in Malaysia to promote togetherness and harmony) fuelled by political ideologies. Thematically, this has been done over and over by many government organisations, academies and NGOs, in line with vision and mission of Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia.
To me, one could only appreciate the traditional dance in its purest form. Everything else becomes new and modern and could not withstand the test of time and societal changes. Henceforth, as The Tree tries to be new at many levels, it lacks the gravity to sustain the intracacies of the traditional forms.