Conversations: Odissi & Contemporary
Inner Space Dance Company
3-4 August 2017
Shantanand Auditorium, Temple of Fine Arts
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
Three different programs of dance over three weeks, starting with three hours straight in the inaugural show? No problem. Like a well-drilled regiment of warriors going rejoicing into battle, the dancers of Inner Space, Kuala Lumpur’s newest full-time dance company, rose to the challenge offered by their commander, artistic director Umesh Shetty. Last Thursday and Friday, they tackled repertoire from the classical Indian dance Odissi, and then dived with barely a pause into a collection of contemporary works. This week, their ambitious opening season continues with a program of kathak, and closes next week with an equally hefty dose of bharatanatyam.
The goal is to demonstrate how the accomplished cast of Inner Space — Dhanya Thurairajah, Ng Xinying, Mohd Khairi Mokthar, Hemavathi Sivanesan, Shonabushani Velusamy and Rohini Shetty — are masters across a multitude of forms. Their performance in the Odissi section last week laid firm foundations for this claim. Especially considering that Khairi and Xinying are only recent converts to the Odissi cause, the company’s skillful and rhythm-perfect precision was impressively uniform.
Unlike other proponents of the form who focus on Odissi’s sensual langour, the dancers of Inner Space opted to embrace its earthiness. What the performance lacked in fireworks or transcendence, it compensated with the force of its ensemble. Eschewing affectation, they launched themselves into the sweeping, scooping, spiralling arm gestures of the sthai with disciplined but full-bodied vigour. Rohini Shetty, the youngest of the group, distinguished herself with her expansive breaths and the luxuriating abandon of her head and shoulders. Nadina Krishnan, who performed only featured abhinayas in the Odissi section of the program, cut a charming unpretentious figure who easily controlled the stage and lent her Krishna a natural gravitas. But it was the intricately elaborate pallavi Yugmadwanda which really showed off the strength of the ensemble, reflecting the question-and-answer form of the music with witty patterns, especially in a sequence of dancers standing in separate spotlights, striking different poses in a complex and perfectly-timed canon.
In the contemporary dance segment, the differences between the dancers became more apparent. This was perhaps inevitable, given both the lateness of the hour and the breadth of the six works on offer. Although all the choreographers originally hailed from ASWARA, the national arts academy, they seem to have brought home different stylistic approaches from their postgraduate education overseas. For his work ‘Drawinger’, Khairi imported the Korean predilection for wearing suits, as well as the deep-weighted lunging stance, and macho posturing and stamping of the ensemble. For the solo ‘She II’, James Kan put Xinying in the skin-coloured socks favoured by the slippery athleticism of Hong Kong and Taiwan, all the better to show off her flexibility. Fairul Zahid’s influences from the USA were perhaps less evident in his work ‘Treachery’, except perhaps for a fondness for recycling movement phrases from previous works, as practiced by dancemakers like Paul Taylor and Ohad Naharin.
The most uncomplicated fun of the evening came in the form of Xinying and Khairi’s nifty duet ‘Bounce Back’, an all-too-short study of rebound, bouncing off the pair’s long foundation of intimacy and trust. In sneakers and denim shirts, they sparred like strutting frontmen at a rock concert, mirroring each other in head-down wide-legged stepping, or flinging their arms up with “Whatcha gonna do?” cockiness.
None of the other dancers could match Xinying and Khairi in their contemporary technique — to be fair, the two are, in my opinion, the finest contemporary dances ever to graduate from ASWARA. But Rohini Shetty made an acceptable third in Xinying’s work ‘Chain Reaction’; what she lacked in finesse she made up with energy and attack. To me, this was the most interesting work in the evening, and the one I would most like to see again. It opened intriguingly: in thick smoke, in front of a low light directed at the audience, three bodies unfolded, rippled and weaved. Then they broke apart and became shifting adversaries, movements having unpredictable knock-on effects, to an electronic score of blips and bops. Later the trio coalesced again, kneeling in line in a downstage spotlight, as the outside person took it in turns to stand up and dive into the middle of the other two, as if seeking the comfort of the centre.
Tightly rehearsed and with a latent psychological tension, ‘Chain Reaction’ also made the best use of Shantanand Auditorium’s state-of-the-art lighting system. In the ending sequence, the dancers launch themselves into light pools that yawn open to receive them; then they slide across the floor, the lights expanding as they move. There were some technical difficulties during a solo by Xinying, but I preferred it without its layered video projection; it was satisfying enough to see Xinying demonstrate how best to use her body’s enviable abilities.
‘Chain Reaction’ suffered a little from its multiplicity — it felt like everything including the kitchen sink had been thrown into the mix. The final work, James Kan’s ‘Dystopia’, fell prey to the same. As a sequel to his celebrated ‘Utopia’, a powerful elegaic ensemble work in ASWARA’s repertoire, ‘Dystopia’ proved too disjunctive to really gel — but if Umesh had commissioned a full-group attack to a pounding score as a grand finale, he got what he paid for. James even threw himself in as a dancer, injecting a dose of last-minute adrenaline. His decision to open the upstage curtain to display the columns and beams of the back wall introduced a gritty tone, and the work was jam-packed with crazy energy, wildly undulating torsos and flung limbs, but the moment that stayed with me was a quieter sustained image: Hemavathi balancing on precarious tiptoe in a square light downstage, as if afraid to tumble off a narrow crag into the abyss, while in the dimness upstage a huddle of dancers carried Xinying splayed like a sacrificial victim along the back wall.
For Temple of Fine Arts audiences, accustomed to marathon arangetrams and interminable dance dramas, three hours of dance on a Friday night might represent good value for money. To other theatregoers, it was a bit too much dance in one sitting. Nevertheless, the dancers of Inner Space showed a winning willingness to put their bodies on the line, to take risks but no prisoners. The company is an exciting addition to Malaysia’s dance scene; I wait to see what brave new lands this powerful ensemble conquers next.
All photos in this review by James Quah, dance photographer.
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.