Flourishing Diversity: A Review of Chinese Dance at FESENI University Malaya 2017

SP_by Goh ShuRui02Chinese Traditional Dance Category
FESENI Universiti Malaya 2017

Produced by the Department of Students Affairs & Alumni
KPS Auditorium, University of Malaya
20 March 2017


Review by LengPG

Since 1975, students of University of Malaya’s twelve residential colleges have competed in the annual Festival Seni Universiti Malaya (FESENI), in a variety of categories of music, dance and poetry. There are four dance categories: National Traditional Dance, Creative Dance, Indian Dance and Chinese Dance. As lighting designer-operator and audience member, I have observed the festival for many years, and built strong connections with the choreographers. In this review, I would like to examine works by three choreographers working in the Chinese Dance category, whose unique dance identities contribute to the flourishing diversity of Chinese dance in Malaysia.

Tan Shioa Por, who holds a Bachelor of Performing Arts (Dance) from University of Malaya [full disclosure: she is also my wife!], this year choreographed ‘Mulan’ for the 12th College. The piece narrated the story of the legendary heroine, a feminine figure of intelligence, bravery and filial affection, who replaced her old father on the battlefield disguised as a male soldier.

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The dance began with a taichi training session between Mulan and her father. He showed her how to breathe and altered her stance, and also taught her archery. Meanwhile, the recruitment of soldiers was in progress on the other side of the stage. Regardless of her father’s prohibition, Mulan was determined to charge into military training with the other soldiers. On the battlefield, she scouted, fought, and motivated her brothers in arms in the heat of warfare. After they won, she returned to her homeland, to meet her father, wearing her appropriate dress. They repeated the beginning duet, which ended with her father placing a flower on her head.

This may have been the first attempt to present a dance drama in this festival. The dancers wore armor, and manipulated long sticks for fighting, spying, and supporting each other. They waved flags, and moved as riders in various formations. As the dance troupe lacked men, female dancers played the characters of soldiers, which made the theme all the more prominent. While wushu-like gestures and postures were displayed throughout the piece, it was apparent that contemporary dance technique had been used more heavily than Chinese dance technique, a quality characteristic of Tan’s past FESENI works: ‘Dreams of Butterfly Lover’ (2015) and ‘Shed of Umbrella’ (2016). Her works also emphasized extended body alignment, and simple but symbolic movement design.

Her three pieces also shared a common theme: praising the delicacy and prettiness of woman. ‘Dreams of Butterfly Lover’, inspired by the legendary tragic love story Liang Zhu, praised the courage of Zhu Ying Tai, a woman who fought for love and freedom. ‘Shed of Umbrella’ used the Taiwanese popular song ‘Lu Bing Hua’, always associated with unconditional maternal love, and manipulated blue umbrellas as a symbol of protection. From pursuing the freedom of love, to honoring the affection of motherhood, and glorifying sacrifice and loyalty to family, Tan has embraced a growing feminine maturity throughout the trilogy.

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‘In the Forest’ (2017), choreographed by Kyo Hong Xi Fan for the 5th College, depicted the serenity of the woods, and the growth of flora with great vigor, intensity and lyrical beauty. Each of the 17 dancers manipulated a pair of flat palm-leaf hand fans. Fans were held in two ways: open, with the hand grasping the handle, and the top end of the fan pointing outwards, and the Joget Gamelan way, with the handle clipped between the index and middle finger, and the leaf of the fan close to the palm. The fans created various images: leaves that flow with the wind, scoops that hold water to pass to someone else or to water plants (also symbolized by the fans), temporary shelters when it rains, freshly transplanted seedlings, plants growing vigorously, and many more. They made layer after layer of formations; for the first half of the dance, the green spread around the stage. In the second half, the fans gradually became colorful, transformed into petals and flowers, creating a lively forest atmosphere. At the end of the piece, a big flower with different coloured petals bloomed, before the petals finally separated, each to be acknowledged on its own.

In this unique work, we can easily recognize multifaceted contemporary and traditional dance elements. As in Joget Gamelan, the dancers knelt on the floor, and their torsos swayed until their backs touched the floor. From the Saman dance of Aceh, a single line of dancers made continuous waves. We can also identify typical contemporary dance moves: the downward dog position with penché (one leg raised high in the air), and sliding to the side from a kneeling position, supported by the arms. All these movements not from Chinese dance were smoothly incorporated, and broadened the characteristics of local Chinese dance dramatically.

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Kyo has been experimenting with such integration in all the years he has worked with 5th College. All his pieces contain both aggressiveness and gentleness, with pleasant colorful outfits, and celebratory themes. ‘The Color Pickers’ (2016) manipulated colourful folded fans, ‘The Forcefully Red’ (2015) extended the kinesphere of the dancer by using red long cloth, and ‘The Auspicious Day’ (2014) tried to incorporate dikir barat into dance. Such mix-and-match compositions are rarely seen in local Chinese dance competitions, which generally emphasize the codified Chinese folk or classical dance motifs.

Kyo, who currently teaches dance in primary and secondary schools in Johor Bharu, always feel thankful for his training at the National Academy of Cultural, Arts and Heritage (ASWARA) as it enabled him to realize and to appreciate the richness of multicultural Malaysia. Thus, ASWARA catalyzed his maturity, and allowed him to create Chinese dance based on local sentiments.

Leo Yap Chee Yee, a former full time performer in Asia Musical Production, is the choreographer for 1st College. He is highly practical and made pragmatic solutions within his given budget. Over three consecutive years, he intentionally made a trilogy based on the manipulation of the costumes, enhancing the theatrical impression of his work through the unexpected use of accessories, using changes of outfit to cover the dancers’ lack of technique.

‘A Glimpse of Cactus Flower’ (2015) transformed hand-held flowers into attractive floral head embellishments; the colorful outer skirts of ‘Fairies of the Rainbow’ (2016) eventually became elegant long folded fans. ‘Songs of the Countryside’ (2017) depicted the joy of teasing between rural boys and girls. The country girls transformed their headscarves into handkerchiefs, to cover their shy faces when meeting the boys, to connect to the boys without their bodies touching, and to hit the boys and to make fun of them.

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The conversion of various ornaments to another kind of use in Leo’s trilogy requires not only the understanding of prop manipulation, but also a sensitivity to changes of atmosphere. Leo very carefully selects the ideal time for the physical and conceptual transformation of the dance atmosphere. In this piece, for example, the change from scarf to handkerchief signifies a shift from a formal working situation to a leisure activity.

This year, the Chinese and Indian Traditional Dance categories in the festival performed on the same night at the university’s KPS Auditorium, with dances from the two categories performed alternately. The auditorium was so crowded that it endangered the audience, especially pregnant ladies, the elderly and children. Staircases and corridors were clogged with audience members. The alternating sequence also meant switching between Chinese dances and Indian dances that displayed totally different subtleties and aesthetics, which was disorienting.

However, I think I was privileged to observe the pieces I have mentioned, that exhibit the ideas and intentions of Chinese choreographers born in the 80s. Their approach is quite different from the previous generation’s: they are more individualistic and positive in terms of theme and dance motif selections. Many choreographers of FESENI are moving in this direction, taking time to develop their artistic expression over the years, with worrying too much about winning the competition, which is more of a concern to the colleges which employ them. Within FESENI, consciously or unconsciously, the choreographers are working on a nebulous but emerging concept of what Malaysian Chinese dance is: that it should contain connotations and signifiers of Malaysian Chineseness. This, it seems, includes a culture of expecting payment for their choreographic labours to be extremely delayed. Even as I write this essay, they still have not been paid!

All photos courtesy of Goh Shu Rui.

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