Does the Earth Really Dance? — A Review of ‘Ketika Bumiku Menari’

Photo by James Quah.

Ketika Bumiku Menari

3 March 2018
Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre
Artistic direction by Rithaudin Abdul Kadir


Review by Bilqis Hijjas

I am skeptical about dances that try to advance environmental causes. I have tried to do it often enough myself in the past. I’ve made dances about birds and frogs, even about cockroaches and limestone caves! But when these works are read as dances, rather than as propaganda, they run the risk of being either too clear, or not clear enough.

First of all, I am not convinced that audiences actually can, or should, learn about environmental issues through dance. Dance is not didactic that way. If you want to convert people to environmentalism, you’d be better off painting a placard, or taking students to the beach to collect trash. Maybe dance can remind you of the beauty of the sunset, but it can’t teach you to recycle.

Second, from an aesthetic point of view, dancing about nature always runs the risk of being too literal, and consequently sophomoric. It can fall prey to the kind of superficial anthropomorphism associated with “interpretive dance”: dance like a tree in the wind! This might work for certain audiences who value literalness, but it can be difficult to pull off with maturity and style.

It doesn’t help that I also have a bunch of pet peeves related to how much dancers know about environmentalism and the natural world. For instance, should you be implying that earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis are caused by humans, when, except in very specific situations (fracking, groundwater depletion), they are not? If your dance is about saving the environment, should you be using obviously synthetic materials to imitate natural elements?  And what about the use of flowers? Just as fresh flowers have different connotations from plastic flowers, so native species say something different than your everyday commercially-grown specimens.

So I approached Ketika Bumiku Menari — a recent collection of dances, mostly solos, interspersed with poetic recitation, conceived and directed by Rithaudin Abdul Kadir — with some reservation. Its premise is that humankind is responsible for environmental degradation which causes natural disasters. Poetically, it depicts natural disasters as the earth dancing, by allocating specific disasters to different choreographers.

Rithaudin reached out to many corners of the local dance community to find participants. He invited Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid, who graduated from UM and mostly makes site-specific work, as well as Hemavathi Sivanesan, who rarely emerges from Temple of Fine Arts, and Foo Chiwei, trained in Odissi at Sutra Dance Theatre and now a BOH Cameronian Arts Awards dance judge, here choreographing his first group work. Other participants included Derek Kho, a b-boy from Soul Higher Crew, electronic noisemaker Goh Lee Kwang, pianist Jyotsna Prakash and spoken-word artist Azam Rais. Assembling such a marvellously diverse case was a real triumph, and reason enough to check out the one-night show (which I saw in preview), although I felt the overall impact was somewhat uneven.


Unsurprisingly, the items I preferred were the less literal ones. Tan Bee Hung starts her solo with her head and torso buried in a plastic tub covered in dry brown leaves, under a hot yellow light. For a long time, all we see are her legs sticking out at an angle, flexing and stretching. Then she squirms round and begins the slow exhausting process of lifting her head out. When the lights went out, she still hadn’t succeeded, but the entire process was interesting enough for me not to care about her theme, which, incidentally, was drought.

Particular movement traditions may also adapt better to this thematic structure. Butoh actually emerged from the trauma of environmental destruction — in the acute form of the atom bomb — and with its facial grotesqueness and glacial speeds it is perfectly suited to portraying non-human elements. It doesn’t seek to turn the earth into people, or people into the earth; it turns both earth and people into butoh creatures.

Yeow Lai Chee’s solo drew from her butoh background to generate some spine-tingling moments. Like most of the other solos in the show, it starts with her reclining in the midst of a rather laborious set piece — a pile of dry sand on a mat — and builds to the moment when the disaster occurs. At one point, having raised herself upright, she watches solemnly as the fingers of one hand walk across a bridge formed by her other arm. Later, she stomps along on bent knees but half-toe, like a zombified faun on the rampage. In the climactic moment, with rolling drums and a screech, her whole body trembling, she slowly raises her ghastly grimacing visage to the blood-red light, giving us a satisfying frisson of horror.

28423667_2022507857789904_7697873919609683527_oIt’s over the top, yes, but the rigour and deliberateness of butoh excuse it. Classical Indian dance is another genre that can comfortably incorporate such overblown majesty. When your dance form typically portrays gods laying waste to continents, or whole galaxies contained in your mouth, what’s a little natural disaster, by comparison? The escalated melodrama of abhinaya, and being able to switch instantly from one extreme emotion to another, can be put to good use.

In the final solo, choreographed by Rathimalar Govindarajoo, the dancer Hemavathi Sivanesan lounges amongst dry leaves. Full-bosomed and full-hipped, dressed simply in a brown-patterned sarong and orange blouse, she smiles to herself, stroking her neck, dreaming. She is the very vision of Mother Earth luxuriating in the sunshine. Naturally, her langour is interrupted by a sense of mounting horror. The other disastersdancers emerge to form a line across the front of the stage, advancing towards the back. Hema tries to stop the tide; she even picks the dancers up bodily and dumps them elsewhere, but always, inexorably, they return.

The scene darkens. A sea of golden fabric appears. The other dancers crawl beneath it, rippling it from beneath. Now that the apocalypse has occurred, Hema is calm. From the front of the stage, she turns away from the audience and wades slowly into the sea. As she moves away (the Mother abandoning us!) she gestures from side to side with delicate, enigmatic mudras.

I was reminded with a pang of that old argument for protecting species against extinction: that the loss of diversity is, in and of itself, morally wrong. This view, first forwarded by conservation biologist Michael Soulé in the 1980s, is that species have a value in themselves, independent of whether they are useful to humankind or necessary for maintaining the equilibrium of the ecosystem. I had always been sympathetic to this view, but also uncertain of its practical use. How could you ever convince someone who valued economic growth that the iridescent feathers of the passenger pigeon, or the slimy life of a tiny snail named Charopa lafargei, living on a limestone outcrop in Kelantan, should be protected, just because these species have a right to exist?

And yet, as Hema walked away from us, shedding mudras right and left, I felt, keenly, how bereft and impoverished we would be if that little flutter of the second and third finger, or that particular expanding kiss of fingertip against fingertip, vanished from the face of the earth. These gestures are as useful to us as exotic species, and just as ephemeral. Perhaps this is something that dance really can tell us about saving the environment.


All photos courtesy of James Quah.


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