6-8 March 2020
Experimental Theatre, ASWARA
Choreographed by Faillul Adam
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
Faillul Adam has a recognizable style. The recent mid-career retrospective of his dance works was full of slapstick humour and manic energy. Jerking heads and bopping hips collide with expansive movements like flexed-footed roundhouse kicks and sudden collapses to the floor. Large groups climax in synchronised forward-facing attacks of jigging, bouncing, kicking, and wacking. Crowds rush about and struggle against each other, now cooperating, now competing. Faces work overtime: grimacing, goggling, grinning and eye-rolling. The overall impression is one of jittery claustrophobic intimacy.
Faillul’s style is oft imitated by his students at ASWARA, perhaps because it meets them where they are. Many ASWARA students come from backgrounds with no dance training or artistic exposure, but they bring with them plenty of pluck, humour and enthusiasm. At ASWARA they learn to live in close quarters like a pile of puppies: sharing accommodation, meals, rehearsals and shows as well as classes. They play, work, fight, fall in love, seek comfort and pick fights, while simultaneously exploring the boundaries of their adult world. Because Faillul’s style doesn’t require the kind of technique that takes years to acquire, he welcomes the less experienced and less elegant of the students. In return, their lives become his raw material.
This is evident in most of the In Transit works, which are performed by, and made with, ASWARA students and graduates. The earliest work is ‘Under One Roof’, made in 2008, when Faillul was still a student at ASWARA. The original cast of Faillul and fellow faculty member Yunus Ismail is joined by Khairi Mokthar, one of their student cohort. They may all be teachers now, but they remember all too well the dynamics between housemates.
‘Nasi Ekonomi’, made in 2015 with Suhaili Micheline highlights both choreographers’ taste for quirk. To dramatise the rising cost of living, dancers mime scooping rice into their mouths off the floor and jogging in a dogged mob. In ‘Backbiting’, male dancers in pink t-shirts show how to deal with a fake friend, to the sound of a chirpy American self-help mantra. This rather feminine concern is depicted with characteristic savagery and literal stabs in the back.
2019’s ‘The Curtain Fall’ is a classic showcase for final-year students, with dancers attacking acrobatic tricks to a pounding orchestral score, but flecked with dark and intriguing notes of oppression. ‘Rewang’, from 2018, makes a fitting ending, amping up the atmosphere of a traditional gotong-royong event, with an enormous group of hyperactive dancers in chequered sarongs charging about. They might be preparing for a neighbourhood wedding, but it might as well be a glimpse backstage at an ASWARA performance.
The odd piece out is the new work ‘Nuansa’, created with dancers mostly drawn from the local Chinese contemporary dance community. The style here is more elongated, with pointed feet and high extensions, but otherwise familiar. Faillul throws in some more challenging moves, including a slide into split so fast that the dancers bounce when they reach the bottom, and a knee-killing twist and drop into sitting position.
But even with these comparatively accomplished dancers, Faillul can’t resist a gimmick: the whole piece is a long phrase of movement, performed twice, to the same music. The challenge to the audience was to spot the difference – the nuance of the title – between the first and second rendition. But I am bad at this sort of thing, so I roundly refused to play. Instead, I contented myself with thinking that it is not the dancers but the audience which is different the second time around – we cannot step in the same river twice, because we ourselves have changed. From this viewpoint, it was fun to see how much satisfaction I got from anticipating – and then receiving – those little points of pleasure that punctuated the work for me: Joelle Lee’s head thrown back to balance her outstretched leg on a whipping turn, Lim Hong Jie high-fiving another dancer as he enters for his solo, and JS Wong leading the charge into that murderous drop split.
The danger of Faillul’s democratising style, even in ‘Nuansa’, is that it suffocates individuals. Swallowed by the mob, the experienced and outstanding dancers are indistinguishable from those 10 years younger, with a third of the training and talent. [A few dancers remain notable in his works, namely the incorrigible Mohd Iqram Azhar, whose explosive aggression is whetted by his deadpan contempt, and Douglas Labadin, who has a winning earnestness underlying his raised-eyebrow campiness.]
Just as individuals are downplayed in Faillul’s work, so are encounters between them. Relationships hardly develop, and moments of tenderness are often conflicted. In the collective madness at the end of ‘Rewang’, Iqram starts whalloping Hidayat Abdul Rahman, the pale wide-eyed boy next to him, with his sarong. The attack is vicious and sustained. Then, as suddenly as it began, Iqram stops, drags Hidayat off the floor, kisses him firmly on the cheek and hugs him. Both times that I watched, the audience was horrified and transfixed, and Hidayat apparently as stunned by the hug and kiss as by the unmerited violence. We have so many questions – but then the dance whirls on.
One element from In Transit stands out: a single figure walking very slowly amid the hullabaloo, a Zen-like foil to the collective madness. In ‘Under One Roof’, Faillul enters behind his two feuding housemates, humping a chair like a patient sherpa. In ‘Nasi Ekonomi’, a slim figure bearing a plate advances ceremoniously. When the mob nicks his plate, the boy marches into the fray, snatches it back, and resumes his measured pace. In ‘Rewang’, ASWARA faculty member Seth Hamzah treads the periphery wielding a giant yam leaf like the scene-marking gunungan in wayang kulit. These figures appeared to me like a modest version of the German choreographer Pina Bausch’s famous processional lines: a reminder of calm and order, of steadfastness in the face of the howling storm.
Artists rarely change radically over time. Their predilections as young adults often remain until old age (which is another reason why Faillul’s impact upon his students today may turn out so substantial). The risk – or the appeal – of a restrospective is that it allows us to see the elements that recur in an artists’ works over time. You could view this as the performance of a one-trick pony, but I choose to see it as a signature style – a thought developing slowly across a career.
Faillul’s abiding concerns are domestic ones: how to buy enough food, deal with toxic friends, share a home, or prepare for a wedding. In the world of his works, people are not expected to achieve heights of heroism and grace. There are few grand gestures. Life is busy and messy, full of small movements and plenty of people. It’s not terribly articulate, and yet it has charm and warmth, a sometimes juvenile sense of a humour but a sense of humour nonetheless. With its moderate ambitions and general get-along spirit, even in very close quarters, it strikes me as very Malaysian. And perhaps, with its willingness to have the same argument over and over, and never to win, Faillul’s style is like the secret of a good marriage. It might be what we need right now.
All photos courtesy of LH Tang.
Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.