Becoming King – The Pakyung Revisited
Theme & concept by Joseph Gonzales
Performed by Faculty of Dance ASWARA
Black Box, ASWARA
10-13 December 2015
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
At Friday night’s performance, Ruby Wahid won the crown of the pakyung, the god-king character in the traditional Kelantanese dance theatre of makyung. Becoming King – The Pakyung Revisited is not actually a makyung performance, it’s a contemporary dance production, combining makyung with contemporary dance vocabulary and physical theatre, in a gameshow format where the audience votes for a winner. Ruby – who convinced the audience with dramatic prowess and her statuesque physique – knelt to receive the crown with a sly smile.
Ruby then led the dancers in the Mengadap Rebab dance, symbolising the beginning of her reign. As Ng Chor Guan’s martial score swelled, she suddenly made her move. Rushing around the kneeling dancers, she dashed the ceremonial rotans from the hands of the men, and raised the women to their feet. As she assumed command at the head of her reshuffled cabinet, some in the audience wondered what kind of monster they had let loose upon the world.
Directed by ASWARA lecturer Joseph Gonzales, Becoming King is partly an attempt to revitalise interest in makyung, and partly, as Ruby’s actions showed, a reflection on our political system. In the spirit of makyung as an art form characterised by improvisation, each night’s winning dancer decides how they will play the ending. In rehearsal, the dancers practiced many alternatives – benevolent kings, evil kings, religious kings, carefree kings – but even they had no idea what the victor would choose. And during the show, the audience was so engrossed in getting to know the candidates and understanding the game, they were not prepared for what a real king might do.
This year’s Becoming King is more structured and coherent than last year’s version, which rode on the excitement surrounding the 2013 federal election, emphasising the drama of counting votes and watching the results roll in. What has happened to the country in the past year has driven home the risk inherent in choosing our leaders. This year’s version of the Becoming King focuses on the dancers displaying their ability to dance, act and sing in the makyung style, before the audience make their choice. But its final message is that no matter how carefully you choose, you can never be sure you aren’t voting for a tyrant.
This year’s Becoming King is also a better looking show, thanks to Lian Kian Lek’s slick hairstyling and tailored grey costumes. Loh Kok Man’s lighting gives the work the atmosphere of a smokey backroom where political deals are made, and his ratan construction upstage, like a splayed sun or watching eye, adds perspective. This version also makes closer use of Ng Chor Guan’s original score, especially the postcolonial pomp in its second half.
In the contemporary-flavoured first scene (with wide-legged positions hinting at makyung’s groundedness) the dancers glory in their physical ability. Smiling, they acknowledge each other’s right to contest the crown, as they engage in bravura feats: triple pencil turns, high tuck-legged jumps and huge spread-eagled leaps.
But makyung is more of a challenge. Zamzuriah Zahari, a young queen of makyung performance whose Jalan Primadona is currently holding court at klpac, shows them how it’s done, playing the archetype of leadership. In traditional getup, accentuated with gilded heels, and with her deep voice and upright stance, she really is commanding. The other dancers seem burdened by their coming responsibility; Zamzuriah literally sits on them as they kneel on the floor. In the tradition of the pakyung as spiritual healer, she sings courage into the dancers with her brassy “Awé-wé!”, conjuring them into movement with a flutter of her outstretched fingers.
In their makyung solos, some dancers capture the quality better than others. Only a few master the verbal intonation, not just the Kelantanese dialect but the way a line falls away gracefully at its end. Some were rousing only when they broke into the movement segue, a high side-to-side prance, which signals the start of a journey or the casting of a spell. Kimberly Yap made good use of her singing ability; Ruby exploited her dramatic range, from whirlwind fury to abject contrition. Other dancers polished their comic chops, like Imran Syafiq who rolled around the stage tackling an invisible deer. Naim Syahrazad as a young prince threw a royal tantrum, and then hilariously whacked himself with his rotan all around the circle.
The rotan berai, a whisk-like bundle of twigs symbolising authority, was inventively used, as whip, sword, elephant’s trunk and mouse’s snout. The dancers’ physical humour was also impressively creative. Ruby went wild with krumping. Kimberly, the sole Chinese performer, used her rotan as incense sticks to beg for divine intervention. Fauzi Amirudin showed us who was really in control, transforming his rotan into the gear stick of a fast car. The dancers teamed up against each other in two parties, went into a huddle with the stamping feet of bharatanatyam, and used their rotans to machine-gun their political foes.
Alas, when it was the audience’s turn to show what we could do, we went to the polls full of chattering excitement but very little sober analysis. As in real elections, the dramatic fever of political theatre trumped consideration. Friends voted for friends, or – as we do so often in Malaysia – according to ethnic lines. Candidates who won on previous nights tended to garner fewer votes than their performance might deserve – the audience wanted to see what a new king would do. (In this way, Becoming King differs from how we usually vote in Malaysia, forever cowed into opting for the devil we know, rather than the devil we don’t.)
The program for Becoming King reads ‘a work in progress’, raising the possibility of a third version. A year from now, where will we be as a nation? Ground deeper under the gilded heel, squashed flat by a despotic rump? Or will the audience be brave enough to upset the docile rules of theatre, and take control? This year’s Becoming King is a triumph of clear structures, fine performances and theatrical effect; I wonder what next year’s will hold.
Photos by Maureen Jafrey and Gary Ng, courtesy of ASWARA Dance Company.