Where Two Seas Meet
16-17 April 2016
Choreography by Lau Beh Chin, Chai Vivan and Katja Grassli
Damansara Performing Arts Centre
Review by Joelle Jacinto
Where Two Seas Meet is a collection of dance that necessarily sees Europe coming into contact with Asia, specifically Malaysians, but not specifically Europeans and Malaysians. While the last two pieces were by Swiss-born Katja Grassli, and one can see her fascination with Asian imagery in the last two works, the first two were choreographed by Malaysians who had spent some time in Europe, and somehow, you can see the influence of that culture clash in their work. Furthermore, Jinn Lau Beh Chin credits some of her creative work as having been inspired by writer and intercultural dialogue expert, Marc Colpaert, who joined the production as a cultural philosopher commenting on the works in progress.
The first work, Lau’s “Speaking Three…,” feels like a sequel to last year’s “Speaking To…,” a poignant reenactment of memories of the choreographer’s late father. I heard that she was just originally planning to simply restage the work, but had to change the track when left with two dancers from the original four. The end product collaborated with pianist and improvisation artist Goh Yen Lin, who provided the soundscape from spring-wound toys and percussive objects while performing with dancers Matt Tan and Leo Yap. Despite the inclusion of the playful and inquisitive character provided by Goh, replacing the dramatically different tragic persona portrayed by Alana Sim, there are many moments that echo “Speaking To…”, especially in the riveting scene where the two male dancers fight over a shirt, tearing it from each other’s backs. There is a fluid physicality in Tan and Yap’s dancing that makes this scene, and the work, quite compelling.
But Three is not as heavy as Two: the contact with Goh is not as violent as the three men with Sim, and at the end, a baby arrives (in real life, the choreographer’s own baby) and lightens the scene. As if to show that the loss of Lau’s father is made bearable by new life. In this way, “Speaking To…” is suffused with more meaning, and it would be nice to see both as a fuller work in a future performance.
There is also a strong physicality in Chai Vivian’s “In_Timate,” through Jabar Laura’s unconventional built, which has always been surprisingly lithe and controlled. Yet we do not focus on Jabar’s dancing, we are instead looking at the large watermelon he has broken in half and is burying his face into. Then, we are looking at the large projection on the floor of what seems to be blood and muscle, and imagining that this is what Jabar is wolfing down instead, and we are somewhat disturbed by the imagery. Having consumed all the fruit, the dancer walks into the projection and is himself consumed by it, contracting further and further into himself, into the floor, into the blood and muscle. And just as you find yourself wholly mesmerised, the piece ends. After the show, Chai shares that she intends on making the work longer, and hopefully Jabar will be willing to eat more watermelons.
The entire production does indeed have the feel of a Work-in-Progress viewing, with the open rehearsals scheduled a week before, discussions about the process in between and after the shows. And given that “In-Between-Us” was only created upon Grassli’s arrival in KL, this work still feels like a work-in-progress as well – structurally complete, but in need of refinement, and maybe some direction, or purpose. The dancers – Murni Omar, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, and Tan Bee Hung – all know why they’re onstage, but it sometimes feels that they’re not quite sure if they should go do what’s supposed to happen next.
Assuming that this tentativeness is intentional, I read it as the three dancers’ unsure-ness of being woman; that is, woman as society expects, and particularly in Malaysian society, which is fragmented to accommodate the different ethnicities living within. In this frame, none of the dancers seem to be what society expects from women: Murni is too boyish, Bee Hung is too strong, Rathimalar is too opinionated, and each also possess the others’ qualities in varying degrees. Dancing in heels in the beginning, each looked quite uncomfortable, and in some moments, scared, and perhaps this is what the piece is trying to evoke – conforming to womanhood is scary and uncomfortable! The dancers later remove their shoes and are released onto the stage, and the freedom in their movements and their bodies is almost palpable.
The work also looks like a sequel to “Can’t Look Through Your Eyes,” Grassli’s solo for Lau, which was created and performed in the Netherlands prior to Lau’s return to KL. It has the same atmosphere, thanks partly to the music, but also especially through the discomfort and tentativeness while Lau tries to keep her heels on. Though she seems to be transforming with every step, it feels more like she is resisting who she was before than the the who she is about to become, especially upon discovering extended fingernails inside her handbag, fingernails that are associated with a traditional Chinese dance celebrating/emulating Quan Yin, the goddess of mercy. She puts these fingernails on and is transformed totally into an entity that doesn’t at all look merciful, not least of all to herself. Again, there is that feeling of expectation hanging in the air, of who Lau’s character should be. Is Lau’s fear that of letting out the beast within, or of having to conform to the passive, prim and proper picture that she was when she stepped onto the stage?
I wonder then which fear does Grassli hold for herself, or if this duality is what she sees when she looks at Lau. I also wonder whether, when Lau performs this solo, do they see the same thing?
All photos provided courtesy of Lau Beh Chin. Photos by Brian Chong.