2015: Dance Brightening a Dark, Hazy Year in Malaysia

'Becoming King', in its second incarnation, by Joseph Gonzales, performed by ASWARA Dance Company. Photo: Timi Banzon
‘Becoming King’, in its second incarnation, by Joseph Gonzales, performed by ASWARA Dance Company. Photo: Timi Banzon

Review by Joelle Jacinto

The works I remember the most from 2015 were works that I saw more than once, having been developed over time, and staged again within the year. Rathimalar Govindarajoo and January Low’s ‘rehab’, Lee Ren Xin’s B.E.D., JS Wong’s ‘After Dark,’ and Raziman Sarbini’s ‘Dikir’ are all top of my mind, as well as Jack Kek’s A Wanderer in Berlin, obviously because I performed in it, and Joseph Gonzales’ do-over of Becoming King, not only because it was one of the last dance shows I saw in 2015, but because it became the show it should have been from the beginning. These works struck me aesthetically, intellectually, and even emotionally, more than most of the work I saw this year.

What is striking about this shortlist, and dance in Kuala Lumpur in general, is that not one work is like the other and this reflects how I see Malaysia as a country – diverse, ever-evolving, majestic, real. Any of these works could be handed to someone asking, ‘What is contemporary dance in Malaysia like?’ and still have the asker wanting more.

For choreographers to have a chance to rework their pieces and present them again has always made sense to me, even when this does not work out for the better. I have qualms about the development of Raziman’s ‘Dikir,’ rejoicing in some changes, but disappointed in others. That said, I would not tell audiences to skip it: despite my minor issues with Raziman’s decision-making, I recommend ‘Dikir’ as a must-see. This reminds me of Mohd Fauzi Amirudin’s ‘Stalemate,’ which is always different whenever I see it, and though he may remove and replace elements that I previously loved, it does not make me love the work less. How the choreographer chooses to evolve his work is just as interesting to me as closure, perhaps more interesting sometimes. Fauzi’s newer works, ‘Shadow’ and ‘Face It,’ presented with ‘Stalemate’ at the ASWARA Blackbox in April, were not as impressive and well-designed, which only makes me wonder if these new works will also mature over time and restaging.

There is also merit to restaging a work. I actually liked ‘rehab’ so much the first time I saw it that I recommended Rathimalar to choreograph for University Malaya’s UMa Dance showcase in May 2015, from which she produced ‘Sync’ for four contemporary dancers with some background in classical Indian dance. For Tepak Tari, the MyDance Alliance showcase held in September 2015, she presented ‘reborn,’ which felt like a prequel to ‘rehab,’ because in the end, she and January Low remove their short black dresses and change into the white tunics they wear in ‘rehab’. Between the three, I still like ‘rehab’ the best. It is slow moving, but one never tires of it.

Lee Ren Xin's work 'Asing-Asing', in her mattress series, at Dancing in Place 2015, Rimbun Dahan. Photo: Huneid Tyeb
Lee Ren Xin’s work ‘Asing-Asing’, from her mattress series, at Dancing in Place 2015, Rimbun Dahan. Photo: Huneid Tyeb

And there is merit to changing work completely. I call Ren Xin’s mattress works, including B.E.D., a ‘series,’ because I do not think of them as one piece that is evolving, but rather separate works that all have in common a bunch of mattresses adapting to the site. The ideas never seem to stop flowing, nor repeating themselves, and if Ren Xin wished to make another mattress piece, I would still go see it.

And I would see the next version of JS Wong’s ‘After Dark’, which I feel best displays his choreographic gifts and skill, while coaxing him out of his comfort zone of relying on dancers’ technique over other choreographic elements. JS surprised by manipulating props within his choreography, but also going darker than he has ever been, both literally and metaphorically. Already sinister from the clever use of a handheld oil lamp as the main source of lighting, the manipulation of straw mats to hide and reveal those things that go bump in the night, as well as swallow you alive, raised more than goosebumps from its unwitting audience. JS is currently working on a full-length version for staging in 2016.

Speaking of stepping outside comfort zones, despite being known for his sentimental and sweet duets, Jack Kek produced A Wanderer in Berlin, a dark full-length work that begins with the breaking down of the Berlin wall and reeks of the loneliness of six strangers trying to find a connection in an unfamiliar city. The ennui is further heightened by the drone-like music of German composer Christoph Waltz, who actually provided a place to stay for Jack when he was in Berlin, and was key to the choreographer’s understanding of the city and its history. These elements of place and displacement added a new dimension to Jack’s usually quirkily complicated duets.. Happier was his ‘Safety in Numbers’ for UMa Dance Company, premiered in May, which was also about finding courage by being with other people, and also not typically Jack-like as it was not about romantic love.

In a way, 2015 was definitely about choreographers spreading their wings, with young choreographers being braver about producing work. Gelombang Baru is ASWARA’s student choreographic platform and, aside from ‘Dikir’, showed promising work from Imran Syafiq, Maria Devonne Escobia, and Syed Haziq Aziq. Aside from the Short & Sweet Festival, the newly launched InspiRaasi Space put up a platform for the Young Choreographers Project, encouraging work from fresh minds like Rozilah Abdul Rahman, Andrew Igai Jamu, Bryan Omega David and Sharm Noh. Although not a very ideal stage for performance, InspiRaasi at least provides an alternative venue for emerging choreographers, with a mixed-bill for Nadhirah Razid and Syaffiq Hambali last December.

Many choreographers opted to disturb rather than please this 2015, as in Lau Beh Chin’s ‘Speaking To…’ which, despite uncomfortable scenes of struggle and abuse, still touchingly dealt with memory and family. Maria Devonne Escobia’s ‘Knowing,’ from Gelombang Baru, was not the best new work from that evening, but it was the one you remembered. The choreographer-dancer devoted herself to her craft, going so far as to burn her hands with hot candle wax during the performance. In Toccata Studio’s ‘2020,’ Steve Goh and Ng Chor Guan presented alternate universes folding into each other with the aid of Chor Guan’s theremin and astounding lighting effects by PC Sei.

'A Wrinkle in Time' by Amy Len, performed by Kwang Tung Dance Company, in Tepak Tari. Photo: Huneid Tyeb
‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Amy Len, performed by Kwang Tung Dance Company, in Tepak Tari. Photo: Huneid Tyeb

A lot of 2015’s disturbing work was political in nature, reflecting how Malaysia has been increasingly vexed and frustrated by political earthquakes. Suhaili Micheline and Faillul Adam’s ‘Nasi Ekonomi’ at Tepak Tari was so absurd that you start chuckling when you realise what it is parodying, with an energy crackling in the air, like a challenge. Also at Tepak Tari, Amy Len’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ for her Kwang Tung Dance Company featured dozens of balloons to extend the message of justice and democracy from Bersih a few weeks earlier; perhaps further inspired by Tepak Tari’s curator Bilqis Hijjas, the now infamous balloon girl. Amy’s later collaboration with Naoto Katori from Japan for DPAC’s D’Motion Festival was also quite dark and aggressive, despite being about a ‘Game.’ While Bersih was happening in KL, TerryandTheCuz and Ashley Dyer presented Sk!n at the Georgetown Festival in Penang, offering the full refugee experience of being smuggled to groups of unsuspecting audiences, who were quite shaken up by either being measured and weighed, then interviewed and segregated, blindfolded and led pointlessly around the streets of Penang, or closed up into a shipping container and driven around in the dark. The dancing by JS Wong and Suhaili Micheline added to the full disturbing effect.

ASWARA’s Jamu was also teeming with social context, particularly Joseph Gonzales’ ‘Tanah Pusaka,’ Wong Kit Yaw’s ‘Time Asking,’ and Murni Omar’s ‘Salam’, but perhaps none yet as impactful as James Kan’s ‘Utopia,’ a staple in ASWARA’s repertoire, restaged this year at the Kluang Festival in Johor in April, and in Three Faces in Singapore and KL in September and October, respectively.

But almost as much as there was dark, disturbing work in 2015, there were also several colorful, beautiful, bright celebrations of Malaysian culture: Mamad Samsuddin’s Intersection of old and new works that showed various curious aspects of Malaysian life, ASWARA’s Hang Li Po and Aduh! Seroja, Temple of Fine Arts’ Reflections and the particularly outstanding NeoMargam by Shankar Kandasamy, Mythical Oriental Dance Company’s The Mythical Journey, UPSI’s Gema Silapin by Hamid Chan, Dua Space’s The Tree, and UMa Dance Company’s The Journey by Bai Jin. The Journey relates the Chinese exchange student’s journey to Malaysia from her hometown Yunnan, China. The work is about coming to a new country and having her world open up by leaps and bounds, represented by the contrast between the traditional Chinese dance drills that open the work and the contemporary explorations that tell the rest of the story. It is a love letter, if you will, a thank you for the last seven years that she has called Malaysia home, and while the audience would need context to fully understand it, once they do, understanding quickly turns into appreciation.

I count Bai Jin’s work as Malaysian, though local choreographers did not lack opportunities to work on international collaborations. There was the NY-KUL Building Bridges workshop week that was brilliantly organised by visiting Tisch-NYU scholar Fairul Zahid, as well as UMa Dance Company’s week in Bacolod to attend the CMAP Choreographers Festival in the Philippines, Un Yamada’s workshop with ASWARA (which inspired the inclusion of 5 Malaysian dancers in a double-bill this year), and the very touching open rehearsal of the reunion show of Yuri Ng’s ‘Boy’s Story,’ featuring five Malaysian dancers who once danced this work in Hong Kong and Taiwan in their youth, namely Ong Yong Lock, Jay Jen Loo, Aman Yap, Wong Thien Pau, and Lim Chee Keat. Although the choreographer teased Aman Yap for breathing too hard after the rehearsal, it was clear that these were dancers who excelled in their craft, whether in their youth or their prime, and are inspirations to new generations of Malaysian dancers who should follow their lead.

There are many gorgeous dancers in Malaysia today, and I am quite honoured to see them dance this year – January and Rathimalar in ‘rehab’ and ‘return,’ JS Wong in Amy Len’s ‘The Game’, JS and Suhaili Micheline in Sk!n, Suhaili in Dua Space Dance Theatre’s Men and Women. Well, actually all the Dua Space dancers in Suhaili’s section of Men and Women and in the full length The Tree, but especially Lim Hong Jie and Kenny Leow. The duet that Jack Kek made for Matt Tan and Leo Yap in A Wanderer in Berlin always had me running to the wings to watch; I like it better than even my own duet with Jack, and feel that both boys surpassed themselves in this performance.

Hanaa Tan was given a sensitive solo in Kyson Teo’s ‘Traces’; and Lee Ren Xin impressed me in the first iteration of JS Wong’s ‘After Dark.’ Leng Poh Gee seems to know how exactly to show off his former students in‘We Have Auditioned,’ featuring talented girls who should be dancing more: Lim Hooi Meng, Adeline Chew, Lim Shin Hui, Tan Shioa Por, Joyce Chan and Sha Yina. Someone else who should be dancing more is Chan Kean Yew, whose gifts were displayed in Rathimalar’s ‘Sync’. Of course, as their instructor I try to give the UMa Dance Company dancers more opportunities to dance, and I’m gleeful when they prove me right.

Chan Kean Yew in Rathimalar Govindarajoo's 'Sync', performed at C-MAP Festival in Philippines. Photo courtesy of C-MAP.
Chan Kean Yew in Rathimalar Govindarajoo’s ‘Sync’, performed at C-MAP Choreographers Festival in Bacolod, Philippines. Photo courtesy of C-MAP.

But I have favourites in other groups too. I have been entranced by UPSI’s Hidayah Hayon since I saw her in Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid’s ‘She Simply Disappears…’ and she just shines from her line in the large UPSI ensemble. My favouritism of Ruby Wahid is now well-known, even before my campaigning for her in ‘Becoming King,’ but I’ve come to appreciate other ASWARA dancers as well: Kimberly Yap Choy Hoong and Imran Syafiq outstanding in their bharatanatyam PeTa performance and in 3 Faces; Naim Syaharazad Zin in Fauzi Amirudin’s ‘Face It,’ Murni Omar in Naim’s ‘Reborn,’ and Maria Devonne Escobia in Yunus Ismail’s ‘When Eve Ate The Apple’. Pengiran Khairul Qayyum was a particular standout in everything I saw him in, especially ‘Hang Li Po’, Imran Syafiq’s ‘Cradle,’ Raziman’s pre-Dikir work, and in Mamad Samsuddin’s ‘Gojet’ and ‘Polis Entri’. No surprise he got chosen for the Asian Dance Company project in Seoul and for Un Yamada’s ‘one◆piece’.

That’s a lot of dancers, you may be saying, but yes, there are a lot of dancers in KL, and a lot of good dancing too. 2015 may have been a turbulent year for Malaysia, but the dancing will continue. I already look forward to 2016.

Nor Hidayah Binti Hayon (Yaya) in the foreground, in Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid's 'She Simply Disappears...' at Dancing in Place 2015, Rimbun Dahan. Photo: James Quah
Nor Hidayah Binti Hayon (Yaya) from UPSI in the foreground, in Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid’s ‘She Simply Disappears…’ at Dancing in Place 2015, Rimbun Dahan. Photo: James Quah


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