Let’s Dance — The 4th Selangor & KL Schools Dance Exchange
27-28 July 2019
Damansara Performing Arts Centre
Co-organised by the Selangor & KL Kwang Tung Association & Damansara Performing Arts Centre
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
As a critic, sometimes it’s a relief to watch a show where the stakes aren’t so high, when you don’t worry if you’re watching Art, and you don’t need to dissect a dance work to see how it fits into the grand scheme of things. Sometimes it’s nice just to watch young dancers working hard, to identify a new face worth watching, and to relax into the conjunction of music and movement.
In this spirit, I went to watch the most recent edition of the youth dance showcase Let’s Dance, featuring 15 short works, mostly performed by students of local Chinese junior and high schools. Most of these schools also participate in the annual National Chinese Cultural Dance Competition, the kind of cutthroat contest which spawns Hollywood movies, in which the tiniest onstage error means floods of backstage tears, and where you suspect that dancers sabotage each others’ props. Let’s Dance, with no winners or losers, is an opportunity for the students to let their hair down a little. The dancers are still admirably disciplined and well-drilled, but on the whole they seem to be enjoying themselves, despite the occasional (and understandable) moment of stage fright.
The choreographers are all members of Kwang Tung Dance Company, many earning their daily bread teaching dance as a co-curricular activity in Chinese schools. While Let’s Dance is hard work for them, I get the feeling that they also use the opportunity to reconnect with what they love about dance, as they shepherd their students towards the stage.
Every year the organisers invite a few other groups from the community to participate, to give the Chinese school students a glimpse of how dance exists beyond their realms. This year, the interns at Nusantara Performing Arts Centre diligently performed a new work of Dayak-Iban traditional dance movements composed by Andrew Igai Jamu, and students from Sultan Idris Education University trotted cheerfully through a showcase of traditional Malay dance. The gender diversity that these two groups brought was as valuable as the ethnic diversity — of the regular Chinese dance groups participating in Let’s Dance, most had no male dancers, a few had one, and only one group (Kwang Tung Dance Company itself, whose participants are relatively older) had more than one.
Choreographer Fione Chia won the workhorse award for this year’s Let’s Dance, with four dance works to her name, most of them performed by junior school children. Fione’s work is always very entertaining; she has a knack for uncomplicated themes incorporating crowd-pleasing elements. In ‘A Clown’s Mask’, made for Tsun Jin High School, the dancers with bushy fright hair, extravagant makeup and circus-striped overalls did split jumps and blew up balloons in the first half, before revealing their sensitive contemporary dance side in the second half.
I appreciate the entertainment value, but sometimes I wonder if Fione expects too little from her audiences, especially with the use of what I call cheerleading competition music — schizophrenic mixes full of big beats, sudden switches and constant climaxes — which assume a 2-second attention span. But in the midst of the frenetic energy of ‘A Clown’s Mask’, I caught glimpses of some lovely moments which I wished I could enjoy longer. At one point, the single male dancer is crouched in the middle of the floor, head down and arms around his knees, while all the other female dancers, bent over backwards into bridge pose, crabwalk nonchalantly away from him. Never did anyone ever look so inconsolable, being shunned by all those contorted striped pants.
My favourite of the little kids’ works was Lim Shin Hui’s ‘Big Ogre’, a comic spectacle by a horde of tiny girls from SJK(C) Tai Thung, in bouffy ladybird-red pantaloons, their hair tied up in knobs, prancing and hopping about with knees held high. The role of Big Ogre is hilariously played by the very smallest of the girls, distinguished by her enormous blow-up plastic club (with spikes!) almost as big as she is. In the final moment, the pixies are in a clump with their bottoms over their heads and knees around their ears (one of those poses that very small children can do with startling ease), like red toadstools. To the audience’s delight and satisfaction, Big Ogre enters and then — bop bop BOP! — pops them all on the bottom with her club, one by one. The End.
Among the high school works, Amy Len’s ‘Shirts’ for Chung Hua Independent High School, Klang, struck me as the most composed and mature. Two women wearing baggy button-down shirts thrust their arms into each other’s sleeves, sharing and exchanging their clothing, round and round, as the other dancers file in softly behind them. Most of the movements are simple but effective. Rather than show off with virtuosic explosions, the ensemble simply repeats its phrase — but faster. Sensitive lighting by Eagle Lee creates a thoughtful atmosphere, highlighting the theme of teenagers trying on different identities, without trying too hard to be emo. There are moments of visual surprise, as when the dancers began to fling their shirts into the air like a fountain of jewel shades, but mostly the work succeeds through its restraint, and some lovely quiet performances, especially by Teh Yuan Ying, possessed of preternatural gravitas.
The danger of making work for teenagers, especially when the choreographer is an adult, is of projecting a uniform navel-gazing sulkiness upon the psychological state of the young. Yes, teenagers spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, comparing their Instagram feeds, and being consumed by anxiety, but that’s not all they do. Yes, if you let them, all teenage dancers want to do overwrought solos in which they clutch themselves in puddles of light — but that doesn’t mean you should encourage them.
Teenagers have thoughts, interests and opinions — they are people too! I remember as a teenager writing page after page of letters to my best friend sequestered at a boarding school in Perlis, and waiting to receive a sheaf of handwritten pages back. Between the gossip and the hand-wringing, there was some genuinely interesting content in there. So I felt vindicated by Mak Foong Ming’s dance work ‘Hey, Here’s a Note!’, made for the girls of Kuen Cheng High School. Here are real individuals, albeit in school uniform, totally committed to their performance but still having lots of fun. The dance begins with them playing the fool, before they intone the dreaded end-of-recess bell melody and the never-ending, “Good mooorrnniiiiing, teeeee–cherrrr…” They sit in squares, like the grids of desks with space in the middle for the teacher to walk. Then the music starts, and they are liberated by the act of passing notes into a dream world of dance: scooting across the floor, doing a kind of demented tango, passing a sequence of silly movements from girl to girl, like the telephone game. But what looks like chaos is in fact carefully choreographed and well-performed. I’d pay good money to see this dance again.
Reserved for the distinguished final slot of the program was Kwang Tung Dance Company in a work commissioned from Lim Pei Ern, who has recently been teaching their company class. I have seen Pei Ern dance a lot, and also watched a number of her choreographic works, including Nyanyian Bumi last year, a collaboration with artists from Japan and Indonesia for a group of dancers of diverse backgrounds. I also heard of her work at George Town Festival last week: a structured improvisation performed outdoors, in collaboration with a photographer. But this work, ‘Hands On’, is the first time I’ve seen what you might call a ‘straight’ work from her — a large group ensemble piece, created on dancers with similar stylistic backgrounds (although varying degrees of ability), set to music, and fully staged in a traditional theatre context — and it didn’t disappoint.
The work opens with smoky gold light revealing a tight group of the ensemble, clad in street clothes in a range of neutral shades (what seems to be a recent costuming trend). Vaguely Indian music plays, and the dancers gesticulate, not with classical Indian mudras but with more pedestrian moves: fist to contracted diaphragm, or open hand extended. As the music builds up, from steel drum melodies to Carnatic rhythm chants (“Thakita-thakita-THAK!”), the energy of the ensemble builds too, into weighted swings and expansive torsos, often with backs to the audience.
Contrary to what the title suggests, this is a dance not just for hands but for the whole body. It looks fun to perform, and the Kwang Tung Dancers surge through it. I particularly enjoyed watching Joelle Lee Qiao Leng, recently returned from a dance training program in Brisbane, whose angelic face complements her fluid momentum and luscious dives into the floor. The dancers eventually come to rest where they began, in a central clump but facing forward, heads working from side to side, as the lights pulse in sympathy.
I suspect that one of the reasons I find Let’s Dance so effortlessly enjoyable is because I trust the taste and capacity of the team. Amy Len and the dancers from Kwang Tung Dance Company have an exceptional ability to create works appropriate for small children or for young people, never ethically questionable nor tedious nor horrifying. The show never runs too long, it’s affordable, and every work included has merit. The performance has a focused intention, but also diversity. While it’s certainly a worthy effort, it’s not didactic, and it affords many moments of pure kinaesthetic joy and some real choreographic gems. If only, I think to myself, all student showcases were like this!
All images by Core Minimal, courtesy of Selangor & KL Kwang Tung Association & Damansara Performing Arts Centre.
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.