By ASWARA Dance Company
9-10 October 2015, Black Box, ASWARA
Review by Joelle Jacinto
It is an understatement to say that I see a lot of ASWARA Dance Company – ever since my arrival in Malaysia in 2014, I only miss their performances when I am out of the country. This kind of habitual patronage allows an almost intimate familiarisation with the dancers in that company, and, if you’re keen enough, with the works in a dance company’s repertoire. Given this, I could say that James Kan’s ‘Utopia’ is one of the, if not the, strongest of the short pieces in ADC’s contemporary lineup, and not only do I not tire of seeing this work, but I came back for a second viewing of ADC’s 3 Faces on October 10 (I caught the premiere on the evening prior) just to watch it again.
So what is it about ‘Utopia’? It is a very well-constructed contemporary work that provokes thought as much as it shows off its dancers. It depicts alienation and desperation in eight individuals, driven by an aloof and judgmental society, never mind that each individual contributes to this detachment themselves. That could be the description of many contemporary dance works these days, but the solos given to each dancer, profoundly situated within the seamless, almost inhuman, yet riveting ensemble work, make it memorable amongst contemporary choreography about dystopian societies. It is also that the dancers, specifically those who are not from the original cast, have grown into these adopted roles and have made them their own. Naim Syahrazad Zin’s specially spotlit solo was reportedly originally danced by a girl, but I’ve only ever seen him dance this part and the exquisite dexterity he brings to the role negates any desire to see anyone else perform it. There is also Raziman Sarbini taking over Faillul Adam’s opening solo as a grasping youth in search of a friendly, or at least non-antagonistic, connection, and Kimberly Yap Choy Hoong’s mesmerising takeover of Ng Xinying’s excruciatingly slow arches and extensions, which Yap does gorgeously, effortlessly and very controlled, though none of this control shows up on her anguished face.
With Fauzi Amirudin in a choreolab in Singapore, Imran Syafiq resumes a role that was once his but which he is said to avoid after being too much in character – manhandling Xinying in an earlier performance, resulting in her accidentally hitting her head and bleeding after he dropped her to the ground. Fauzi does this manhandling quite well, always looking sinister and genuinely evil, especially compared to a more careful Imran, who looks as if he is cradling Kimberly in his arms instead of abusing her. Imran redeems himself in his solo, so deliciously fluid with every unfolding and twisting of his limbs and supple torso, a sneer on his face as he looks down on the rest of society (who are doing a simpler version of his solo on the floor at the same time).
Mohd Azizi Mansor’s own solo is where the stops are pulled out; to people who have seen ‘Utopia’ before, this is a much-awaited moment, and the limber, gravity-defying Azizi does not disappoint. Usually, ‘Utopia’ ends with Rabiatul Adawiah Abdul Wahid’s attempt to come to terms with her own loneliness, but she is absent from this production as she had to concentrate on her lead role in ASWARA’s Aduh, Seroja! at the DBKL auditorium a week before. Her place was taken by younger dancer Athilia Mazlan, who is unfortunately not as effective as her predecessor, though, admittedly, few dancers have Ruby’s experienced skill and presence. It is likely that Athilia will grow into this role and make it her own as well if she works on it enough.
This seems to be a recurring theme in 3 Faces: of new dancers trying their best to fill the giant dance shoes of those who came before them, as the other works in the evening’s repertoire are all tried and tested works in the company, a “Best of” sampler, if I may. The three faces of the title are bharatanatyam, zapin, and contemporary dance, the latter featuring Umesh Shetty’s ‘AlaRIPpu’, Joseph Gonzales’ ‘WiRama’, and Raziman’s ‘Dikir’ in addition to ‘Utopia’. The bharatanatyam items are excerpts from the Crossing Borders production in 2014 and Imran and Kimberly’s recent PeTA, and the high level of Indian classical dance technique performed by non-Indian dancers was quite impressive. So much so that the zapin ghalet, which immediately followed the first Face, was quite the anticlimax. That the younger generation of ADC boys were only playing at embodying the refined qualities required of this zapin did not help, though it was nice to see the ADC girls looking more polished and skilled in comparison. When it was time to do the more rousing versions of this beloved Malay classical dance, joined by the bharatanatyam dancers after a quick change, everything then levelled up and eventually presented a proud second Malaysian face.
All three faces were actually quite impressive, but not entirely perfect. If you had not seen Shetty’s modern experiment with the traditional alarippu before, you wouldn’t know that previous incarnations were smoother and more polished. The current cast could do better with more rehearsal, which I heard was difficult to schedule due to the record-breaking schedule of productions that ASWARA had committed to within the short 3-month time frame. Gonzales’ ‘WiRama’ must have suffered the same challenge; although this is my first time to see this now-classic work, I can imagine how it would look with the dancers moving more in sync with each other, especially when the five gather in the centre and hold the iconic poses associated with the piece. As such, the “hold” doesn’t take long enough, and some dancers haven’t even “held” their poses yet before they are supposed to hold another. But some of these new dancers are quite promising, particularly the long limbed and flexible Mohd Azfar Shukri, the sharp daredevil Syed Haziq Afiq, and the beauteous Farahin Omar with her lovely instep and very expressive hands.
Raziman’s ‘Dikir’ was an inspired finale, and I must say I like how it started with a smaller cast, even though this decision was made because the ‘Utopia’ dancers needed to change costumes. I loved this piece when I first saw it at Fairul Zahid’s NY-KUL workshop sharing, but was somewhat disappointed when it was performed at Tepak Tari on 3-4 September 2015. The festival version had a cast of 24, and while it may be intimidating to have a large stage full of seemingly disgruntled, impatient, be-saronged youth tapping their feet, slapping their sarongs, poised for attack, all these are only fully effective if all 24 move together – just as the ‘Utopia’ cast consistently does in each staging. But more dancers means more chances to make mistakes, and while a lot of people fed off the energy of the Tepak Tari performances, I felt they could be better synchronised. In 3 Faces, all the younger dancers who begin ‘Dikir’ successfully move as one, and they continued to do so when the older dancers, including their choreographer, joined them. This was much more satisfying, and the impact was greater.
One thing that I did love about the Tepak Tari version was how you did not notice when the dikir barat “caller” was replaced with another dancer; this series of uprooting the leader was more subtle and fluid, and to me, posed a more threatening symbolism of how the people who run things are not entirely upfront with their intentions to the general public. The new version has more obvious transitions, with the new leader pushing the old leader off the chair; finally, a woman pushes off the man who has occupied the chair, who falls to the ground with the rest of the cast. It carries its own symbolism, and while just as valid, it seems too obvious and specific. Of course, the choreographer can change his work whenever he wants, which is something a lot of the ADC artists are encouraged to do and which helps them hone their choreographic skills.
And this is the point of school-based dance groups: to give their dancers and choreographers, who are also students and alumni, a platform to improve their skills and grow into their capacities. These dancers are rather lucky because they already have the amazing, awe-inspiring repertoire that they can grow further into. And this is why I am always at their shows – it is this growth that I am fascinated with and continue to look forward to.