Organised by the Selangor & KL Kwang Tung Association Youth Section
27-29 April 2018
klpac Pentas 1
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
According to the old Roman adage, the people only want two things: bread and circuses. Or durian and circuses, as the recent theatrical production Bisikan Monsoon would have it. So much crowd-pleasing frolicking is packed into the show’s 90 minutes – directed by Taiwan-based Chang Wei Loy, and produced, coordinated and choreographed by Kwang Tung Dance Company artistic director Amy Len – that it’s possible to watch the entire show while ignoring the work’s serious intent: to trace the pasts and futures of the Chinese migration to Nanyang, the lands of promise in Southeast Asia. But those with the inclination can detect the surges of horror, loss, forgetfulness and apprehension that flow beneath the show’s fun, like the ocean roiling beneath pleasure boats on a sunny day.
It’s impossible not to be seduced by Bisikan Monsoon’s giddy multiplicity, as it swings from nursery rhyme to rock concert, taking in bad puns, fake moustaches and slo-mo fist fights along the way. There are tales of princesses and palm trees, told with shadow play. There’s an adorable, almost animatronic, tapir, made out of dancers’ bodies. There’s a passel of audience participation, amidst the singing, dancing and storytelling. And finally there’s the circus, complete with a ringleader, confetti and magic tricks.
It all still works as a single show, which is testament to the director and the creative team. The lighting, by talented designer Low Shee Hoe – featuring spinning pinwheels and disco lights for the concert scenes, and a patchwork of muted colours to offset the nostalgic closing moments – is so sympathetic to the action that its technical bravura is easily overlooked. Live and recorded video projection by Fairuz Sulaiman mingles handmade aesthetics with slick animation, with the results tastefully embedded in the narrative. The biggest surprise is the impact of the musicians Orang-Orang Drum Theatre and Gideon Alubakhan Chen. Far from just playing backup, they grab centre stage. Boyz plays a charming uncle telling walked-ten-miles-to-school-every-morning stories to a group of rambunctious but disbelieving dancers. Alubakhan, with his soulful rendition of “My Teacher Gave Me a Pen”, transforms into a teen idol for a hall full of fans waving their cellphones.
The dancers from Kwang Tung Dance Company form the centre of the work, but less as movers than as corporeal vessels of memory. One by one, they tell us about their own families’ experiences of finding footholds in Malaysia, backed by a projection of family photographs. The charm of their personal narratives transforms an abstract mass of migrants into relatable units of people. These stories might not reflect the reality of all Chinese who came to Malaysia, but I felt it resonated with my own, non-Chinese, family history, as well as that of many migrants: the flight from persecution or destitution, the strange, often traumatic, middle passage, the disorientation of arrival, and then the long toil towards stability and plenty. (Mentioned repeatedly but in passing is the frequent fate of children, traded like chattel in these unstable times.)
‘Blow Wind Blow’ is a characteristic scene, its fun and games bait for more bittersweet reflections. The dancers leap shrieking about the stage, as the director calls out the categories of play. “Blow, wind, blow, those who have a Malay friend!” The players who fulfill the category must abandon their bases of paper and seek another base; the loser is obliged to hula-hoop good-humouredly in the centre. “Blow, wind, blow, those who speak Tamil!” Unsurprisingly, nobody moves.
The action reminds me of the 100% City performance series by German art group Rimini Protokoll, in which the demographics of a city are embodied by 100 citizens on stage, moving about in response to particular questions. But Bisikan Monsoon’s questions, although apparently in jest, reveal more heartfelt, and perhaps more dangerous, truths. “Blow, wind, blow, those who have considered emigrating!”
At “Blow, wind, blow, those who love our nation!”, most of the performers abandon their bases and mingle into a screeching melee. Then the wind actually seems to rise, and they are all blown back, desperately clutching at the air, as the back curtain hitches upwards and the helpless mass is swallowed by the emptiness beyond. Blow, wind, all our corrupt leaders, blow them away for good?
Bisikan Monsoon happened right before the Malaysian general election. This was not intentional; the performance has been in production for over a year. But the oppressive sense of political frustration and collective helplessness that led up to the election was baked into the foundations of the work. In the few short weeks since the election, the atmosphere of pre-May 9th Malaysia seems already far away, as intangible as nightmare. Wide-eyed, we look around now and wonder, were we ever so downtrodded, our resistance reduced to whispers, our artists expressing themselves obliquely through schoolyard games? But while the politics which engendered Bisikan Monsoon may now seem quaintly old-fashioned, the basic quandary of the Malaysian Chinese remains: when can they be more than second-class citizens in the place that they call home?
Another scene digs into this question. On a red-washed stage, dancer Lee Choy Wan stands alone in a white spot. The spot’s margins are an even deeper red; she seems to stand within a blood-rimmed lesion upon the earth. Within this tiny space, she slides, reaches, and rolls, gentle as tumbleweed, as the screen behind her drips with dark calligraphy. It shows the text of director Chang Wei Loy’s grandmother’s coolie contract, the terms of near-slavery under which thousands of people first came to Malaya. Choy Wan works her body deeper into the ground. A red shawl coalesces into a baby in her arms, then, heartbreakingly, dissolves. “Was it always a foreign land to her?” the narrator wonders. Finally Choy Wan breaks off from her labours, and turns an unwavering gaze towards the audience. How much sweat needs to be spent, her look demands, how much blood lost, how many children buried, before you can call this land your own?
To me, these quiet moments sandwiched between the show’s jolly romps were the most affecting. They evoked archetypes from a collective consciousness, communicating more powerfully but less obviously than words. In an early scene, when the migrants are about to set sail in a crowded sampan for Malaya, a group of women dancers are patiently flapping their arms when Kyson Teo, the only male dancer, explodes into their midst, like a cat among the seagulls. Later, during the boat scene, the dancers re-enter the stage beneath a shifting aqueous light, doing slow cartwheels on their elbows, their entire worlds turned upside down. And later still, in a scene in which ambitious young Malaysian Chinese once again prepare to leave home to seek better futures elsewhere, dancer Tan Bee Hung parts from a friend, and, with a poignant gesture, carefully puts her heart back inside her chest.
These moments seem characteristically ‘Kwang Tung-like’: thoughtful, sensitive, impressionistic, dark. But Malaysian audiences often shy away from such serious contemporary dance, which is why artistic director Amy Len, sensibly wanting a more accessible approach for this large-scale production, roped in the services of director Chang Wei Loy. So when some audience members asked me, “What’s the point of the circus at the end? What’s the connection with the Malaysian Chinese experience?” I wondered if perhaps the circus was a sly comment on Kwang Tung Dance Company’s own experience of presenting this show: scrambling to keep all the spinning plates in the air, the illusion of magic intact, and the grins on the faces of the audience.
Perhaps there’s a better metaphor, more fitting to the theme, which encapsulates their creative journey. The biggest leap of faith – the moment when the creative team themselves piled into a rickety boat and set off for destinations unknown – was when Amy Len committed her entire company, its limited time and meagre resources, into the hands of Chang, the director. But as with her ancestors’ move to Malaysia, her hope was well founded and her risk rewarded. He steered their ship true. Avoiding the hidden rocks and sucking whirlpools which can all too frequently scuttle a large-scale multidisciplinary theatrical endeavour like this, he brought the performers and the audience on a wondrous journey, and finally home to ourselves.
All photographs by Dev, courtesy of Kwang Tung Dance Company.
Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes that the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.