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Sacred Ritual As Art

Ricardo Chavez Tovar ~ Mexican Malaysian

Altar to the Muse (December 2009)
The Muse Is Not Available (December 2009)

The Elusive Art of Sacred Ritual

“Commercialism and industrialism now threaten, alas, to turn art into just another economic activity – and the artist’s ceremonial and magical role into a purely ornamental one. No doubt a certain superstitious awe still attends the artist’s endeavors; but in this consumerist age, the artist-shaman’s contribution to the success of the hunt has been reduced to churning out effective advertising and public relations for the vulgar new gods of materialism – or fashionable new trends for the children of the privileged.” ~ Antares Maitreya (Inner Technology of Art: Making Public the Private, 2001)

It’s not often that I get the chance to quote myself, so I decided to grab this opportunity. I feel the above statement is particularly relevant to what Ricardo Chavez Tovar is all about. He is one among a handful of artists with whom I’m personally acquainted who has consciously reclaimed his magical lineage as a brujo – a practising shaman. Technically, he is as conscientious and competent as any professional artist you will find anywhere in the world. It’s just that Ricardo doesn’t give two hoots about public relations and the glossy hype that permeates the art milieu.

Rare photo of the artist with some of his students
Rare photo of the artist with some of his students

I don’t claim to know the man at all, but he apparently knows something about me, since he keeps inviting me to officiate at his openings. And now he is twisting my arm to write a foreword for his catalog, even though he must suspect I no longer feel fired up enough about art to wish to pontificate about it. In any case, Ricardo says I should view it as an honor and not a chore, and so I will.

Ricardo Chavez Tovar will always be an enigma – perhaps even to himself. I won’t attempt to expound upon his equally enigmatic and intriguing art. Indeed, to approach his work on the cerebral level seems sacrilegious. It would be as uncouth and ungracious as furtively extracting dead skin cells from the fingers of the Muse for laboratory analysis, instead of ecstatically surrendering to her tender caresses

One thing is certain: Ricardo Chavez Tovar is not bothered by the games people tend to play and the elaborate pretenses that surround the rarefied precincts of fashionable and marketable art. Would he otherwise spend months and years working on exhibits that can’t be sold and proudly displayed in the finest suburban homes?

Altar to the Muse (December 2009)
Altar to the Muse (December 2009)

Nonetheless, having said that, I can picture Ricardo’s evocative installations occupying pride of place in some prestigious contemporary art museum anywhere in the civilized world – so I hope he maintains an open mind about the prospect of sudden, unexpected global acclaim.

What drives the man, then, to such unimaginable intensities of feeling and artistic arousal? If the word “religious” didn’t carry such a heavy burden of negative connotations, I would apply it to Ricardo’s art. After all, he was born Mexican: a tempestuous genetic and cultural mix of Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Aztec and Conquistador. His blood is infused with the otherworldly song of stars; and with the colors, flavors and textures that inspire vivid murals. His cellular memories encompass galaxies and constellations. The mystery of death fascinates and obsesses him as powerfully as the secret of life. His imagination is fired equally by the divine and the diabolical. You could call him a regenerate pagan, a renegade human

What inspired him to embark on the current series? In a recent email Ricardo discloses that he “got struck by a shining light of creative madness” while listening to The Residents, one of his favorite avant-garde bands, whose allusions to an imaginary guru named N. Senada and his Theory of Obscurity were probably based on the mutant musings of Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart – a 1970’s Dada rock icon who retired from the music scene in 1982 to focus on painting.

Morning Stretching Of A Golden Fool On The Awakening Balcony

Ricardo’s series of installations dedicated to the Muse – conspicuously absent, yet ubiquitously present – now exist only in photographic form lovingly documented by Ung Chirt Min – having been exhibited to no more than a tiny number of hardcore aficionados. In effect, Ricardo Chavez Tovar is one of those rare artists who can operate quite happily without an audience, since his art is his personal form of worship, his own sacred ceremony.

Ricardo spent three years in China learning the language and absorbing the culture. Then he relocated to Penang where he has taught for nearly twenty years. His best buddy and artistic accomplice in Penang is Askandar Unglehrt (a German married to a Kelantanese princess) who shares Ricardo’s eye and taste for the surreal, the epiphanic and the ephemeral – and also the luminous, numinous, humorous, ludicrous and (conceptually) intoxicating.

I mention Askandar because his contribution to Ricardo’s evolution as an artist-magician cannot be discounted. Every artist, shaman, sorcerer or wizard derives inspiration, nourishment and nurturing from those who recognize, acknowledge and believe in him.

Well, Ricardo, let me state here for the record that I, too, recognize, acknowledge and believe in you. Live long, prosper (if at all possible), and influence the course of human destiny (if you so desire).

October’s Full Moon Party at the Tropical Gardens of Lady Luna (2012)

Antares Maitreya
Magick River
6 August 2009

A Note of Apology from Antares

Ricardo emailed me in January 2007, asking if I would say “a few words” at the opening of his installation, The Muse Is Not Available.

I agreed, of course, since everybody says it’s an honor to be invited to officiate at such events.

My dear friend Askandar Unglehrt, in his program notes to this event, describes Ricardo’s work as “a visual poem about presence and absence – or, more precisely, about the presence of the absence.”

I know Ricardo as an artist who lives his art. And we know that life imitates art as often as art imitates life. I was looking forward to being present at his opening in Kuala Lumpur. And yet my absence is proclaimed by this note. I was compelled by unavoidable circumstances to deliver this message by proxy.

One of my daughters celebrates her 10th wedding anniversary today on Langkawi Island and she insisted that her Daddy be present. Without consulting the calendar I immediately agreed. Knowing her, she would not be amused if I didn’t show up for her grand party.

Ricardo, I know, has already forgiven me. Indeed, he wants me to officiate at his next opening. I promise I will make myself available on that happy occasion. For now, I can only trust that my absence will add to, rather than detract from, the magical presence of Ricardo’s uniquely imaginative and evocative work.

Thank you, dear friends. May you enjoy and be enriched by the work of this extremely talented and passionate artist.

Antares
1 June 2007

HOT HEAVENLY HORNBILLS

 

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MInah Angong became an overnight sensation after performing in Sarawak (photo courtesy of Rafique Rashid)

Antares reports from the 1998 ‘Rainforest World Music Festival’ in Sarawak

MAK MINAH strolled along the white sands, her hunter-gatherer eyes scanning the beach for little sea crabs and edible molluscs. She glanced up at the luminous clouds clinging to the evocative peak of Mount Santubong. So this was the Land of Hornbills. Beautiful, postcard views – but not a single hornbill in sight.

A few hours earlier, the 68-year-old Temuan ceremonial singer had boarded a Boeing 737 jet at the cyclopean KLIA for the brief, bumpy flight to Kuching. Her first ever airborne experience. As usual, Mak Minah was amazingly cool about it: “No big deal,” was her verdict. However, she had prepared herself for the big gig “overseas” – at Sarawak’s First Annual Rainforest World Music Festival – by getting her hair permed a whole fortnight before the event.

When Dr Wan Zawawi (songwriter-anthropologist who’s now Dean of the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts at UNIMAS) invited Akar Umbi to join his Anak Dayung group for this two-day “World Music” festival (August 29-30, 1998), I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Back me up on a couple of numbers and you get to perform one of Mak Minah’s songs,” the affable academician had said. Well, I’d never been to Sarawak, and this promised to be an idyllic musical junket. Now, we only needed to check if Rafique was game for this gig. Miraculously, he was, even though the monetary stipend was modest. As it turned out, we were rewarded with four memorable nights in a musician’s heaven.

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Joey Ayala with ‘hegalong’ (Rafique Rashid)

I didn’t know who else was on the festival bill until we received our souvenir programmes. The only name familiar to me was Joey Ayala, whom I’d met 13 years ago at the first Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival. It was a blast to see Joey Ayala again, accompanied by his immensely lovable and vivacious band. When I finally saw them in action, Joey and his dazzling group simply blew me away.

“O mighty eagle, my true king, I want to fly in the sky like you,” Joey Ayala intoned, lamenting the plight of latter-day eagles who – not finding any more tall trees to build their nests – were in captivity, or in hiding, wings folded and flightless. “May there always be tall trees in the forest for us to build our nests, so that like the mighty eagle, we too can fly.” Eagles, hornbills, emblems of freedom and nobility.

For an instant a small frown furrowed Joey’s brow. Then he called out to the sound booth: “NO SOUND! I want to play my guitar!” (Yes, there were LOTS of problems with the sound, mainly due to the understandable confusion of a technical crew who had never experienced a concert of this scale and variety.)

And there was sound. What a monstrously beautiful, powerful, towering, ecstatically transcendental sound – earthy as a Filipino folk tune, funky and spunky as celestial angel come. No one embodied the spirit of the Rainforest World Music Festival more musically, more poetically, more sincerely than Joey Ayala. And when his band let rip, everyone just soared like an eagle – or a hornbill – riding the joyful musical airstreams.

Joey’s line-up? Cynthia Alexander (Joey’s “baby sister”) on electrifying bass guitar, an impish, science-fiction elf-princess, flying sorceress, and a highly gifted award-winning musician to boot. Malou Matute, wholesome piano teacher turned diabolical percussionist (she played gamelan-like tuned gongs called kulintang). Renato Tengasantos, dynamic powerhouse on a runaway drum kit (it took two stagehands to hold down his bass drum!); Alex De Paz Tupaz on exotic “marimba tree” (for want of an actual name); Francis Reyes on highly effective “effects” guitar; and Joey Ayala himself, switching from rhythm to lead guitar, to a lizard-like two-stringed beast called a hegalong that spewed forth smouldering, soul-satisfying riffs.

Take the down-to-earth, folksy approachability of Country Joe and the Fish… throw in the mesmerizing, messianic charisma of Bob Marley… add a dash of Frank Zappa’s wizardly wit and musical competence… serve with a generous dollop of Pink Floydian rock concert theatricality… and you have the Joey Ayala group! We found ourselves swept away by the typhoon of pure musical excitement they unleashed. Rafique shared my view that this was the absolute high point of the festival. And, judging by the eager mob that swarmed around Joey and his group after their performance, almost everyone else thought so too.

True, the Celtic jazz quartet, Lammas (flown in by the British Council) served up a stimulatingly virtuoso performance – salvaging the first night from being generally lacklustre – but it was Joey Ayala on the second night who captured the heart of Puteri Santubong (legendary princess of the mountain, whose story no one would relate to me, because it was too complicated or too tragic). I’m sure Joey’s inspiring performance made the Spirit of the Sacred Mountain smile and weep for joy.

Lammas delivers a heady fusion of intelligent, progressive jazz, flavoured with Irish, Scottish, and Portuguese folk melodies. Co-founded by Don Paterson (on guitar and bodhrán) and Tim Garland (on concert flute and saxophones), the Lammas sound was exquisitely augmented by Karen Street on accordion, whose sensitive coloring turned her instrument into a synthesizer, fiddle, bagpipes – in a performance that was both an epiphany and a revelation. The husky allure of vocalist Christine Tobin’s pitch-perfect and soulful voice was at once earthy and heavenly (everyone fell instantly in love with her, or at least, I did). Garland and Paterson write (or arrange) much of the Lammas material: intricate pieces of invigorating originality and verve, performable only by master-class musicians. As a guitarist, Don Paterson is a worthy successor to fellow Scotsman John McLaughlin; while Tim Garland is technically on par with Jan Garbarek, the great Norwegian blower he so admires.

B’tutta – a Sydney-based, conservatorium-trained, highly cerebral percussion combo consisting of Graham Hilgendorf, David Hewitt, Cameron Gregory and Leigh Giles – put on a pyrotechnic display of precision teamwork on an impressive array of tuned and untuned instruments (e.g., marimba, xylophone, handsaw, open plastic canister in a tub of water, and so on).

The boys’ energy and enthusiasm were infectious, but as the set wore on – and the music stayed strictly above the waist, never venturing into the visceral and scrotal zones, even when they were impersonating a Caribbean steel-drum band – their cleverness began to irk a little. At times B’tutta (meaning “to strike” in Italian) came across as a somewhat Beatle-ish bunch of factory workers, banging about on idle machinery just to amuse themselves in the absence of the supervisor. There might have been some serious dancing in the aisles or on the lawn under that hot, sultry, starry night sky – if only B’tutta had loosened up and let fly.

The first night’s program also featured Safar Ghaffar, a singing, dancing, pop shaman from Kuching (with the fashion designer’s flair for style over substance); the fresh-faced, chirpy-toned and utterly innocuous BM Boys (a best-selling Chinese vocal group presumably from Bukit Mertajam, near Penang, who struck a resonant chord with the Mandarin-speaking section of the crowd); Andrewson Ngalai (a big-time Iban pop crooner with “fourteen albums to his credit” who really captivated Mak Minah’s romantic, rustic soul); Electro-Acoustic Group UNIMAS (comprising students and lecturers from the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts); a Bidayuh Group, Sape Ulu, and Voice of the Usun Apau (representing Sarawak’s Bidayuh, Kenyah, and Penan tribes).

Much as I would have liked to sample the tribal offerings slotted early in the evening’s schedule, they were over and done with by the time we arrived at the Sarawak Cultural Village, venue of the Rainforest World Music Festival – whose patron, the Sarawak Tourism Board, organizing committee, and consultant Randy Raine-Reusch, deserve a huge round of applause for a job very well done.

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No mike fright for Minah (W. Tarman)

Excitement fairly crackled on the second night – from my perspective, not least  because Akar Umbi was scheduled to perform with Dr Wan Zawawi’s Anak Dayung group. But around noon that same day, Rafique and I had been roped into backing Zuriani – with approximately 44 minutes to learn and rehearse two of her songs, Alhamdulillah and Candle Dance. And we’d only just met, at dinner two evenings ago!

Well, we had two other last-minute recruits: Anak Dayung’s trusty gambus and tabla player, Yahya Ibrahim (on loan from the Army Band, Orkes Tentera Darat), and Johari Morshidi, a spirited gendang player with Tuku ‘Kame’ (the Sarawak Cultural Village’s resident “ethnic fusion” orchestra led by flautist Narawi Hj Rashidi; Tuku Kame’s star asset, however, appears to be Jerry Kamit, Jeff Beck of the electrified sape and a thoroughly urbane young Iban).

Wait, make that THREE daredevil recruits: adorable Ainal, Johari’s nine-year-old true-blue trooper son, was game enough to back us up on auxiliary percussion. And what a natural-born show-stopper young Ainal turned out to be!

Now, you may ask: who is Zuriani Khalid? And rightly so, for this enchanting and talented singer, songwriter, record producer, and multi-instrumentalist has been living and working in the U.S. for the last 16 years. Within months of her return to Malaysia, Zuriani was busy producing big-name local artists like Siti Nurhaliza, Ella, Ziana Zain, Fauziah Latiff, Farra and KOOL.

“It’s been two years since my last public performance,” Zuriani confessed. “And I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself.” The symphonic orchestral backing she had earlier envisaged for her songs wasn’t working out. Zuriani felt that a smaller, tighter back-up group might just about pull through, if she did only two numbers instead of six.
I guess we all need anecdotes that can be passed on to our grandchildren. The night of dangerous living. We got on stage, checked out the mikes… Zuriani glided confidently to stage centre as the emcee introduced her. And it went down like ice cream on a hot day. The audience loved Zuriani. We all loved Zuriani, the Queen of Malaysia’s nascent World Music Scene!

minah_diva

Minah Angong belting it out (Wayne Tarman)

[This little incident precipitated a two-day sulk from another Queen: Mak Minah was somewhat miffed that her two musical Knights Errant were publicly championing another diva, and refused to talk with Rafique and me until we were airborne on the flight home.]

As it turned out, Mak Minah stole the show as soon as she began belting out Hutan Manao (a big hit when she first performed it four years ago at the Shah Alam Stadium). And when she did the joget with Wan Zawawi during the instrumental breaks, the crowd went wild. Young men rushed the stage showering her with flowers plucked from nearby shrubbery. Cameras flashed and whirred furiously throughout the Akar Umbi number.

Antaresflute

Antares on Balinese flute (Wayne Tarman)

Fortunately, Wan Zawawi’s two songs from his debut Dayung album were very warmly received – including the spontaneous “hologram video clip” I inserted in the middle of Mencari Amerika when, after prancing sweatily around for a couple of minutes, I was inspired to sniff my armpits and announce the “New World Odor.”

The Nuradee Brothers’ Kuching fan club let out a roar of appreciation when Wan gave over the stage to these phenomenal singing siblings from Singapore. Their hit Diam (“Silence”) met with noisy applause. After the set everyone was grinning broadly, especially Ken Linang – a soulful blues guitarist unearthed in Kuching by our anthropologist friend and concert facilitator, good old Dr Wan.

Earlier I had been absolutely enthralled by Badan Budaya Melanau and the powerful, ritual trance dance performed by their shaman. I was told by some locals that this was indeed a rare treat, to be witnessing an authentic Melanau ritual on a concert stage. As the ancient-sounding “court orchestra” played, I was transported back a thousand years to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bali in Indonesia, Pagan in Burma, and Palenque in Central America… then the shaman entered deeper into his trance and began stomping on bits of broken ceramic. The musicians seemed really charged by the ritual. The Badan Budaya Melanau troupe even had “special helpers” on standby, just in case the shaman failed to emerge from his trance in the time allotted!

The MIA Traditional Orchestra (in this instance, MIA stands for “Malaysian Institute of Art” – NOT “Missing In Action”) performed a scientific synthesis of Asian and European chamber music arranged by ace flautist Yii Kah Hoe. Adventurously combining the sounds of the Sarawakian sape with the Malay rebana and serunai; and the Chinese pipa and dize with the more familiar cello, saxophone, violin and piano, the hardworking ensemble impressed with their meticulous discipline. Even a 3-minute blackout in the middle of their set failed to deter them from completing their performance with a flourish. The MIA contingent was extremely diligent in recording audio samples and making detailed notes all throughout the afternoon workshops held in conjunction with the festival. So the outing for them was also a field research expedition.

While waiting to go on, I was able to catch only snatches of various other performances like the UNIMAS Gamelan Group and the Kumpulan Gendang Melayu Asli. The Sarawak Cultural Village seems to have become the unnatural habitat of traditional groups who now earn their keep playing to tourist audiences. While their musicianship remains at a high level, one cannot help but sense that for many of these players, music is now essentially just a job.

qiuxha

Qiu Xia He – pipa virtuoso (Wayne Tarman)

ASZA, a crafty and inventive Vancouver-based acoustic quartet, was the last featured act on the festival bill. With Qiu Xia He (pronounced “Chu-sha”), a Chinese pipa virtuoso lending her Oriental charm and grace and consummate skill; Uruguayan percussionist extraordinaire, Joseph “Pepe” Danza, contributing his wild Latin exuberance and wonderful rhythm; Quebecois flamenco-jazz ace guitarist Andre Thibault adding a stylish dash of Gallic flair, passion and humor; and master musician and multi-instrumentalist, Randy Raine-Reusch (who claims aristocratic Flemish descent) providing the musical navigation and networking – ASZA is the quintessential, multi-ethnic embodiment of World Music, which Randy defines as “the music of, or resulting from traditional or indigenous cultures.”

“Which means that World Music is not a new musical genre,” Randy points out in his program notes as Festival Consultant, “but one as old as humanity itself. Yet World Music CDs have been outselling Rock, Classical and Jazz CDs in the West for a number of years, and this trend is now starting to appear in Asia.”

Randy is an old hand in the music business with heavy-duty connections to a wide selection of top players around the world. As a musician he has “been there, done that” – and now delights in his precious collection of weird musical instruments. “Between Pepe and me, we have over 700 instruments in our warehouse,” Randy says matter-of-factly. (His collection of personal anecdotes is equally impressive: “John Cage cooked lunch for me two days before he died.”)

pepe

Pepe Danza – ace percussionist (Rafique Rashid)

What about ASZA’s music? Well, I thought they were a perfect music festival item. The group offers a very palatable mix of musical innovation with occasional displays of superb musicianship, a mature theatrical sense, an easygoing, humorous rapport with their audience, and the ASZA sound is guaranteed to stimulate the most stultified musical imagination. It was great to hear the Canadian group “ASZA-fy” a well-known Dayak ditty. During the intro, Randy bowed his sape like a viola to delightful effect, inspiring fresh options for contemporary as well as traditional musicians.

When it came time for the Grand Finale, all the performers were invited on stage for an impromptu jam session conducted by “Pepe” Danza. Usually, these are somewhat cacophonous affairs, but so high and happy was the entire ensemble that, for over twenty minutes, everyone played and sang in perfect, magical harmony. Even the solemn-faced Melanau drummers were grinning, and the shaman flashed me a small, knowing smile when our eyes fleetingly connected.

And, midway through the finale, we all did a countdown for Merdeka. Never has the word “freedom” rung truer than on that unforgettable night, when performers and audience joined their spirits in uninhibited, euphoric celebration, under the ancient and benign gaze of Mount Santubong.

[An abridged version of this article was published in the November 1998 issue of Men’s Review]

The Salieri Syndrome (revisited)

murrayabraham_salieri

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri

I saw Miloš Forman’s film of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus five times at the same cinema. And I’ve watched the VCD at home at least three times. What impressed me most was F. Murray Abraham’s oscar-winning portrayal of Antonio Salieri, court composer to the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II.

Today everybody agrees that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a divinely inspired genius. A few of us know he died a pauper at 35 and was buried in a mass grave – and that his monumental musical legacy lay largely forgotten for more than 70 years – until Ludwig von Köchel published a descriptive catalogue of the 626 works Mozart composed in his short but intense career.

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Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

In Shaffer’s fictionalization of Mozart’s story, Salieri’s professional envy of the gifted upstart becomes the central motif of the drama. Salieri is one of a small handful of academic musicians with sufficient savvy to appreciate the full extent of the man’s extraordinary talent; but he chooses to thwart Mozart’s destiny in every way possible. Nevertheless, Mozart succeeds in seizing a brief burst of popularity with his vibrant operas.

The pious Salieri eventually loses his faith in God, and murders Mozart by posing as an anonymous Count and commissioning a Requiem, with an impossible deadline and a monetary reward Mozart couldn’t possibly refuse (being in heavy debt, owing to his hedonistic habits). Salieri thereby pushes the already frail genius beyond the edge of exhaustion to an untimely demise.

For his efforts, Salieri ends his days in an insane asylum, where he pontificates about the rectitude of mediocrity and blesses his fellow inmates for their lacklustre and wasted lives. Two centuries down the line, nobody remembers a single melody written by Antonio Salieri; while Amadeus triggered a worldwide Mozart revival which would have made Wolfie posthumously richer than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Paul McCartney, and Sir Elton John combined.

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“God bless the mediocre!”

The theme of genius unrecognized and unrewarded, I must confess, has obsessed me for the greater part of my early life. In my schooldays only three teachers noticed I was a precocious kid – and one of them happened to be a Peace Corps Volunteer from Baltimore. This may have encouraged me to spend a year in the U.S. as an exchange student, and it was then that I finally received the ego nourishment my soul craved. Ironic that the glitzy culture that spawned Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and “pre-emptive” war has also provided me with the greatest amount of positive feedback. Perhaps the land of superlatives got that way by giving its kids the hearty encouragement all kids require, to grow up brimming over with initiative and innovative chutzpah. My own initiation into adulthood in Malaysia taught me not to bother applying for a government grant unless I snip off my foreskin.

Which brings us to the Malaysian Dilemma: here we are, a feudal society abruptly thrust into the Digital Age by “market forces” that emphasize competition over cooperation. No matter how often we yell “Malaysia Boleh!” – and no matter how much official sponsorship is invested in some guy who sails solo around the world to claim his Datukship, or that well-heeled lady who solo-trekked across the Antarctic, only to have her victory inundated by the most spectacular tsunami within memory – we’ve shot ourselves in the foot so many times, one could remark that our national ego has clay pigeon feet. At least we can brag about our fantastic marksmanship: it’s no mean feat, you know, to shoot your own foot when you have to crane your neck just to see where your feet are. Well… burp… there are no starving hordes in evidence in Potbellyland – and that’s something we can be proud of without even trying!

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Lord Farquaard in Shrek

So… are we really doomed to remain a mediocracy forever? Is there no cure for the Salieri Syndrome? Indeed there is. You only have to take a stiff swig of this ancient Chinese prescription: “One does not grow taller by chopping off other people’s heads.” That’s right, folks. Ego insecurity breeds jealousy. Which is (I keep reminding people, especially my wife) the root of all evil.

For that matter, one does not grow taller by wearing platform shoes either. But that’s an entirely different disease called TLFC – The Lord Farquaard Complex – which can be easily treated with a little bit of dragon magic.

[Originally published in the April 2005 issue of VIDA!]

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

FancyPoultry

Fancy Poultry still chirpy after 15 years!

Antares takes a tentative nibble at Fancy Poultry’s first gig

Fancy Poultry is what they call themselves – four very yummy chicks and a couple of not-too-macho guys with delicious voices and a burning desire to entertain. Their debut at the Actors Studio was a one-night stand with a cutesy rhyming name: Strings and Tones from Multiple Zones. The evening’s fare: a couple of evergreens, a dash of bossa nova, a touch of gospel, a bit of song and dance, some recycled pop tunes done a capella, even a tribal chant and the 007 theme. A pretty eclectic mix – but that’s what they promised, and that’s exactly what they delivered.

They opened with a tongue-in-cheek a capella arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Thriller – complete with slinky choreography – which nicely established the tone of the program. We knew we could lean back in our seats, relax, and be amused and amazed by some truly promising up-and-coming musical talents in our midst.

No need to get overly critical or nitpick – after all, a good proportion of the audience happened to be friends and relatives of the performers, so the atmosphere was friendly and receptive – but the whole show had the ambience of a very polished college glee club production. Perhaps the Actors Studio proved too formal and formidable a venue for Fancy Poultry’s first outing. The performers were understandably experiencing their share of opening-night anxiety, and the casual setting of a club – or a more intimate theatre space – would have better supported the mood.

Everything went without a hitch (apart from a falling guitar) and everyone worked through their paces with impeccable precision. The only elements missing were the extra sparkle, the supreme confidence, and the sheer verve we would remark as “star quality.” But it would be unreasonable to expect such from an amateur group taking their first bold steps towards “professional” showbiz. And, indeed, they have the potential to really shine in what they do. Playing a round of corporate dinner shows would be a great way for Fancy Poultry to up their voltage and learn to relax before a paying audience without worrying about making mistakes.

nicole ann thomas

Nicole-Ann Thomas

In the Fancy Poultry lineup were Nicole-Ann Thomas (mezzo soprano), Vivian Lessler (alto), Lilian Boo (soprano), Ha Wei Na (soprano), Azneal Azam (baritone/bass), and Ho Soon Yoon (tenor/baritone). Backing them up were Zalila Lee on guitars and percussion, and Gerral Khor on bongos and djembe.

This was part two of Viva Voce – a vocal series presented by SoundWorks whose trademark has been a high level of musicianship. Technically, the show was impressive: the arrangements were complex and elegant, requiring hours of practice to do right, and the back-up musicians totally disciplined and inspired.

Voice quality was generally superb and familiar numbers like The Boy From Ipanema, Summertime, Mr Bojangles, and Scarborough Fair sounded sweet and fresh. The balance between solo and ensemble items worked well, and it was obvious that a great deal of effort and thought had gone into the repertoire.

Gerral Khor’s percussive backing was tight and restrained to the point of reticence, while Zalila Lee’s sensitive guitarwork provided solid support to the vocalists. All they needed was to turn the exuberance level up a couple of notches and not appear so apologetic or demure on stage. After all, theirs is the sort of glee club act that works best in an atmosphere of freedom and fun – and being down-home Malaysian kids, I guess they’ll just have to reinstall the spontaneity factor systematically programmed out of our youth by an initiative-thwarting, killjoy political culture. One reason why an Aussie a capella ensemble like the Song Company is so watchable is that they successfully convey a nonchalant playfulness coupled with astonishing technique and self-discipline. Fancy Poultry already has the technical chops. Now they only need to do a few more gigs until they overcome their inherently Malaysian self-consciousness and learn to totally let themselves go as performers.

FP-logoWe also look forward to the prospect of their expanding their repertoire beyond middle-of-the-road fare to include some original works, especially some home-grown stuff. But as a debut outing, Strings and Tones from Multiple Zones was undoubtedly a triumph. One of these days, we’ll be seeing these well-dressed chickens and ducks turn into majestic eagles and swans. Let’s have another couple of encores, please!

17 November 2003

Dreaming the Body Beautiful at the Royal Durian Academy of Ballet

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Performance pics courtesy of Wong Horng Yih

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Goddess-trainer Nell Ng

As a hardcore and unrepentant goddess-lover, I am bound to be biased about any project involving Nell Ng. In any case I’ve never subscribed to the belief that objectivity serves better than subjectivity, especially when it comes to expressing an opinion or viewpoint. After all, how we experience an event is largely determined by the general state of mind we happen to be in – even what we had for breakfast.

Well, on the 5th of October, 2016, my digestion could only handle a breakfast of cream crackers soaked in condensed “milk” – no thanks to the “fresh” pineapple juice I had consumed a couple of days earlier at the local Mamak. My late lunch of refried spaghetti didn’t help either. I had to use the loo at least twice before leaving home, to expel the ominous rumblings in my gut. I was sorely tempted to message Nell and apologize for canceling out on The Royal Durian Academy of Ballet’s stepping-out performance. But it was on for only one night, and I really did want to be present at this momentous event, so I braved the perils of a fragile belly to witness the birth of “adult ballet” in Malaysia.

durian5Why momentous? Well, for one thing it was to showcase the results of a whole year of sweat and tears (perhaps even a few drops of blood) endured by Nell Ng’s guinea-pig class of adult ballet students – which began with an enrolment of 20 and ended up with only 11 who managed to stay the grueling course. Among them were some of the most scintillating divas and goddesses in local showbiz… like Carmen Soo, Nikki Palikat, Ida Mariana, Janet Lee, Elvira Raul, Bihzhu… and here I’ll include Alia Kearney (because she’s getting there in quite a hurry).

A few of them probably attended ballet classes as youngsters, but they had all gone on to become actresses, models, singers, mothers, entrepreneurs, accountants, lawyers, housewives. As Principal of the Royal Durian Academy, Nell Ng was formally trained in classical ballet early in her life but has since carved a prominent niche for herself as actress, director, choreographer, scriptwriter, radio host, emcee, producer, and co-founder and artistic director of Pan Productions.

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Why Royal Durian? Well, Nell is passionate about this thorny, pungent “king of fruits” – and I suppose the durian aptly symbolizes what this project is about. The outer skin is tough and prickly, like beginner’s ballet classes; but once the breakthrough is achieved, the rewards are orgasmically sweet. In between performance pieces, each dancer was given the stage to share a bit of personal experience – and everyone testified that surviving a whole year of beginner’s ballet under Nell Ng in dominatrix mode had totally changed their lives – for the better.

For a start, getting to Monday morning classes on time week after week had made them all far more disciplined. Nell Ng, reportedly, has an extremely low tolerance for any student who says, “Sorry, I’m late!” This inspired a frenetic and fast-moving number titled “I’m Late” (set to a staccato con prestissimo jazz piano piece by Eliane Elias) which yielded some extremely funny moments.

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As to be expected, there was a generous dose of kinetic humor added to the choreography. Nell Ng has the uncanny knack of infusing even the most serious moments with inspired wit – and this quality was most evident in Aaron Teoh’s engaging performance, wherein he utilized his diminutive form to hilarious comedic effect. Aaron brought the house down with his description of some of Nell’s extreme training methods. The students would be made to lie flat on their backs with their legs raised perpendicular to their torsos while Nell would go around leaning hard against their feet, reminding everyone to point their toes: “Point point point,” she would yell, “till you can feel my tits!” That marked the moment Aaron Teoh understood the real meaning of “adult” ballet!

Interior designer and budding actor Adrien Ritzal joined the Royal Durian Academy only a few months ago as a “junior member.” His natural charm and aptitude for dance swiftly won the crowd over as he confessed to a growing fondness for prancing around in sexy tights.

Cassie Frankenstein Wong (that’s her facebook name) quit the corporate matrix to pursue her passions and has blossomed into a superb artist, experimenting with painting and pottery, photography, and now, ballet. She helped with costume design on this production and also managed to sell 10 miniature watercolors of ballerinas to members of the audience supportive of her bold leap into authentic creativity and resourcefulness. Her poise as a dancer was clear evidence that the spirit, once freed of drudgery and mechanical routine, is capable of achieving just about anything.

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The hall lights came on as ushers dressed as durians on legs, assisted by members of the troupe, went up and down the aisles, collecting cash donations to help Bella Rahim continue her performing arts studies in France. Her colleagues in theater are determined to fill the enormous vacuum in funding for deserving artists painfully evident in corruption-rife and politically-retarded Malaysia.

Bella Rahim and seasoned torch singer Elvira Arul (also known as Elfie Raul) offered poignant testimony of their personal struggles with body image and self-esteem growing up XL in a culture that idealizes sizes S and M. Joining the Royal Durian Academy of Ballet was an act of courage and defiance that helped them reclaim their pride in being themselves, fashion magazine norms be damned. Glad to say, both performed every bit as beautifully and gracefully as the rest.

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Ida Mariana

Reclaiming self-confidence, self-esteem, and realizing the body beautiful are integral to Nell’s adult ballet curriculum. Actress and singer Ida Mariana confessed that, despite her powerful passion for dance, she opted to concentrate on singing instead because she believed, for most of her life, that she didn’t have the “perfect” dancer’s body. Attending the Royal Durian Academy had effectively dispelled her anxieties, allowing her to wholeheartedly embrace the beauty and truth of her cosmic-dancer soul. Towards the end of the show, certificates were presented to each dancer, including the results of a mock exam they had taken days earlier. Ida Mariana was one of two who earned full marks; the other being Cassie Wong.

Another inspiring case study in fearlessly pursuing one’s passion was Janet Lee, fast becoming a well-known diva in town and now working on her second album of jazz-flavored songs. When I first met Janet many years ago, she was working in computer sales. I recall that every time I rode in her car she would put on an opera cassette and uninhibitedly burst into song. I told her she had it in her to go pro and, true enough, she actually did, after many years of dedicated effort and perseverance. It was uplifting to see Janet apply the same determination and focus to her desire to conquer the domain of dance. Her energy and vivacity are indeed infectious. Perhaps a positive spin-off of having worked and played for years alongside a natural-born goddess-trainer like Nell Ng.

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Indeed, there was no member of the Royal Durian Academy troupe who wasn’t radiant with confidence, exuberance, joy, and laughter. Nell’s ability to instill discipline and bring out the best in her performers echoes the work of classical Indian dance master Ramli Ibrahim (who has nurtured several generations of outstanding dancers). As a consummate director with an eye for detail and a nose for perfection, Nell Ng strikes me as Malaysia’s answer to mad genius Tim Burton, in her penchant for creative quirkiness and a preference for working with a trusted and reliable ensemble of performers.

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Nikki Palikat

The celestially talented Nikki Palikat and Ida Mariana – along with Peter Ong and Alizakri Alias, Nell’s partners in Pan Productions – are among her regular stars whenever she stages one of her typically ambitious but always artistically and commercially successful musicals. I have witnessed over the years how everyone in Goddess Nell’s orbit seems to shine brighter and more joyfully, as they claim their place in the firmament of showbiz luminaries. I suspect Nell Ng is really an alchemist who has mastered the art of transmuting lead to gold, lumps of charcoal into sparkling diamonds.

At the maiden performance of the Royal Durian Academy of Ballet, the entire theater seemed aglitter with stars – on stage as well as in the audience. Even the durian-impersonating ushers and a handsome half-naked young hunk who came on stage to help with the lucky draws looked like celebrities – and as it turned out, the handsome lad was none other than Joseph Lee (actor, model, martial artist, athlete, and 21st century version of the legendary Bruce).

I don’t listen to radio or watch TV, so I didn’t recognize the dazzlingly elegant emcee, who turned out to be Ashley Chan, a popular young personality on the airwaves (whose career as a dancer was cut short by a meniscus injury sustained during intense rehearsals). She was totally impressive, stunning in fact, just like the rest of the show. Which is why I unhesitatingly rose to my feet and applauded as the performers took a bow – and I was elated to see the full house follow suit.

7 October 2016

[First published in Eksentrika, 7 October 2016]

 

 

TRIBAL TOTEMS & TABOOS – AND HOW TO BREAK FREE OF THEM!

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Antares catches Kee Thuan Chye’s epic Swordfish + Concubine

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Writer/producer/director  Kee Thuan Chye

As long as I’ve known journalist turned actor-playwright-author-director Kee Thuan Chye – and our friendship dates back more than three decades (including almost a decade when he “unfriended” me for bashing his 1992 staging of that infamous Scottish play) – he has struck me as a clear-headed, straight-talking sharpshooter who enjoys taking aim at all that’s mediocre, unjust and tyrannical. Whether through the written, spoken or dramatized word, Kee rarely beats about the bush. This makes his voice as a public intellectual good medicine for the national soul, even if subtlety is often sacrificed for accessibility.

This was once again evident in his latest theatrical production, Swordfish + Concubine, which marks Kee’s dramatic comeback after a long hiatus. Swordfish is an energetic, eclectic and electric take on an instructive tale recorded in Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), wherein a precocious and perspicacious lad is deemed a potential threat to the mediocre powers-that-be and summarily executed. When I first came upon this fascinating folktale a long time ago, I saw it as a perfect metaphor for the intellectual and moral stagnation characteristic of feudal despotisms wherein tribal totems and taboos conveniently serve to dumb down the populace and keep them docile, servile, and blindly loyal to debauched and decadent overlords.

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Kee in his producer’s notes states that he has been shaping and reshaping this punchy parable for a good twenty years. Its first theatrical expression was in 2008 when Ivan Heng of  Wild Rice  staged it at the OCBC Singapore Theater Festival; three years later a revised version directed by Jonathan Lim was staged at Singapore’s Drama Center Black Box; and less than a year ago Swordfish was staged in Mandarin by Loh Kok Man at Pentas 2, KLPAC. So much effort has been channeled into molding this work because it’s a play that lends itself Lego-like to a variety of dramaturgic interpretations.

A bit of Brecht, a dash of Shakespeare, a whiff of Ionesco, throw in some Bangsawan and Wayang Kulit elements, insert some hip-hop  – and the result is an engaging mix of pungent satire, socio-political commentary, polemical theater and tragicomedy with a distinctly Malaysian flavor (even if the setting happens to be Singapura, an island off the Malayan peninsula once known as Temasek).

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With a dynamic, cohesive, ensemble cast of 12, a strong blend of experience and youth, and no prima donna roles, the action is a liquid, continuous flow – with dead bodies resurrecting themselves to reappear moments later in a different scene and costume changes occurring as if by magic. It wasn’t easy to keep track of the parade of personalities, as each performer played two or more characters. They had to act, sing, dance, fight and move props around as each scene merged into the next. But it was undoubtedly an enthusiastic, disciplined, focused and poignant ensemble performance – veering from commedia dell’arte style hijinks provided by Ris Kaw and Logod (the clownish “Greek” chorus, adroitly played by Iefiz Alaudin and Bella Rahim) to dark, dire and distressing theater noir (the public impalement of the Sultan’s concubine Nurhalisa, gut-wrenchingly portrayed by Hana Nadira).

As Hang Nadim, the young genius who suggested building a palisade of banana stems against the swarms of killer swordfish, Joel Timothy Low won the audience over from the outset, so that his cruel and unjust murder elicited vicarious outrage. Veteran actors Sandra Sodhy, Na’a Murad and Lam Ghooi Ket lent professional gravitas to each character they played, while the younger ones (Alfred Loh, Arief Hamizan, Amanda Ang, Qahar Adilah and Gregory Sze) gave vigor and vitality to the proceedings. As Sultan Iskandar Syah, Gregory Sze was marvelously narcissistic, vulnerable and schizoid, sentencing the woman he loved to death by impalement just so he wouldn’t be seen as a weak ruler. Alfred Loh’s portrayal of the inquisitorial trial judge was blood-curdlingly convincing; and Amanda Ang’s Tun Dara, Sultan Iskandar’s love-deprived official consort, was sensitive and poignant.

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Rhythm In Bronze (Jillian Ooi in the middle) Pic courtesy of Bella Rahim

A crucial dramatic element was the mesmerizing live “soundtrack” provided by the celebrated contemporary gamelan ensemble Rhythm In Bronze, under the masterful musical direction of Jillian Ooi and Teuku Umar Ilany (featuring guest percussionist Thong Yoong How). Indeed, almost everyone will agree that just listening to Rhythm In Bronze in action alone was worth the price of admission, they are that captivating. Choreographer Faillul Adam, costume designer Dominique Devorsine, and lighting/set designer Loh Kok Man deserve mention and a hearty round of applause for their excellent work on Swordfish + Concubine.

The political dimensions of Kee’s play are, of course, worthy of an academic treatise and everyone in the audience was electrified by the cogency and relevancy of his numerous allusions to the rotten state of affairs (at least in old Singapura, where the action takes place). All-too-familiar to us were the complacent, self-serving, sycophantic palace officials and ministers and their cunning machinations just to maintain their privileged positions and the corrupt status quo. The deification of royalty and the sanctification of “The Covenant” – a mythical Social Contract handed down from generations long gone – serve as tools of mass mind control, leading to cultural stagnation, abuse of the law, political paralysis, allowing criminals in public office unchallengeable impunity.

Setting up a “sovereign fund” and milking it for all its worth to support lavish lifestyles… the usual shenanigans that go unreported and unremarked in the muzzled media… arresting citizens for gathering without a permit in public places, charging them with sedition in the spurious name of stability and security… a secret police network payrolled by authoritarian paranoia… the very ingredients of a failed state once known as Temasek, now fallen into the hands of invaders.

But Swordfish + Concubine closes on an upbeat, optimistic note (“It’s time to rock, yo! And move to your own beat”) as the citizens begin to awake and embrace the possibility of – nay, the necessity for – radical, liberating change, a complete break from stultifying, toxic tradition.

4 November 2017

[First published in Eksentrika 4 November 2017. Production images courtesy of Pam Lim]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Metaphors Be With You!

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Matt Crosby as Cyber & Zahim Albakri as Putra in a scene from Know No Cure

The moment you start focusing your attention on them, metaphors wriggle right out of the woodwork, spring from the ground beneath your feet like mushrooms. Back in Y2K – that pivotal year in which the Earth’s Axis was realigned by the crowning of Neocon Emperor George “Caligula” Bush – I almost gave up on romance, succumbed to forwarding bulk emails, and stopped calling myself “a man of letters.” At that low point in my life I was visited by the Alphabet. More precisely, like a scene out of Sesame Street, the letters A and Z showed up at my door cleverly disguised as Adam Broinowski and Zahim Albakri.

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Adam Broinowski

They were on a mission to gather facts and impressions about the Orang Asli amongst whom I live. We spoke to some villagers, trekked to a spectacular waterfall, and discussed environmental issues. Zahim explained that Adam was doing research for a play he was incubating, and that he was in Malaysia for three months on a cross-cultural project sponsored by Asialink. Adam was sufficiently charming for me to put him on my permanent email list; and he would occasionally zap me a few lines from Japan where he had joined an avant-garde theater company called Gekidan Kaitaisha (Theater of Deconstruction).

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Zahim Albakri

On April 28th, 2007, I bumped into A and Z again, this time at the home of Marion D’Cruz where a lovely feast was in progress, celebrating the memory of theater icon Krishen Jit. They had an affable actor named Matt Crosby in tow, and I was told that Adam’s play, Know No Cure, was opening mid-May, starring Zahim and Matt. This was to be the world premiere of a play written in 2001 and which has since been further developed and refined, with Adam and Zahim co-directing. In the seven years since we first met, Adam Broinowski has grown a Mephistophelean Van Dyke and acquired an enigmatic aura: he appears more confident, more focused, more masterful, and there’s a wizardly twinkle in his eyes that tells me he’s onto something mysterious and powerful.

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Adam Bronoiwski in Vivisection Vision: Animal Reflections (a performance piece)

I google Adam Broinowski and am amazed by all the things he’s done: produced a documentary on Japanese subcultures called Hell Bento (aired on SBS in 1995); written a bunch of plays (The Great Gameshow of Pernicious Influences and Hotel Obsino in 1996 and 1999); studied Noh and a bit of butoh in Japan at Shizuoka University as a Japan Foundation fellow (which means he speaks fluent Japanese); performed in seven countries as acrobat, clown, dancer, multimedia artist; acted in a TV series while working on his PhD at the University of Melbourne; and, at 36, he’s several months younger than both my second daughter and my second wife. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of vicarious paternal pride talking to this multi-talented young man who has dedicated himself totally to all the artistic pursuits I’d wish upon my own son.

“Tell me a little about Know No Cure,” I say to Adam. “What elements do you think will entice Malaysians to watch the show?”

“Well, Matt plays a very sick Mat Salleh named Cyber and Zahim plays a Malay surgeon named Putra who’s forgotten his own roots. The action is set in the near future in a fictitious and utterly sterile place called Jaya.”

“Sounds like an exquisitely inspired extended metaphor,” I smile, “exactly the sort of theme I’d pick if asked to write a play.” Adam’s eyes are intense and earnest. He embodies the idealism of all Sagittarians, and his love affair with Japan has given his mind a distinctly Zen edge. He assures me the visual elements will be exciting and provocative. Most importantly, the chemistry between Matt and Zahim is working out fine.

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Matt Crosby

Matt Crosby’s professional accomplishments are no less reassuring than Adam’s. Equally versatile, he’s done radio, TV, film; acted, directed, scripted, designed, and managed; studied and toured in Japan with Shinjuku Ryozanpaku (a leading contemporary theater company). Matt graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in 1981 and was artistic director of the Actor’s Furniture Group from 1996 to 2000. He has explored a variety of performance techniques – Suzuki, Grotowski, Kristen Linklater, and neuro-kinetic expression (whatever that is).

In his role as Cyber, he represents Faustian man’s industrial-corporate-scientific mindset, the metaphoric terminus of western civilization. Cyber is hospitalized while visiting Jaya and is to be operated on by Dr Putra – played by Zahim Albakri, one of Malaysia’s most highly acclaimed actors and a Cammy award-winning director many times over.

Cyber’s diseased condition is reflected in the unhealthy state of the natural environment. Will Putra cure Cyber – or will he himself end up contaminated? The audience is advised that Al Gore will NOT be making a cameo appearance in this production. This is beyond politics, this is hybrid theater from the thinking heart, and it focuses on extinction – of ancient wisdom as well as of species (and that includes Homo supposedly sapiens) – an urgent issue we ignore at our own peril.

The world premiere (16 May 2007) of Adam Broinowski’s Know No Cure marks fifty years of nationhood and cross-cultural ties between two former British colonies. You wouldn’t want to miss out on this exciting artistic collaboration.

9 May 2007

FOUR LEGS GOOD: WILD RICE CELEBRATES AN ORWELLIAN CENTENNIAL

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Ivan Heng’s 2003 restaging of George Orwell’s classic is wonderfully thought-provoking

IT’S BEEN AGES since I last read Animal Farm, undoubtedly one of George Orwell’s best-known works. So it was a pleasure indeed to be reacquainted with this timeless allegory – “A Fairy Story,” Orwell called it – through Wild Rice’s production of Ian Wooldridge’s faithful stage adaptation, for an appreciative Singapore audience in September 2003.

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Singaporean theater prodigy Ivan Heng

Directed by the immensely gifted Ivan Heng, Animal Farm impressed with the caliber of the performers, the quirkiness of the set, the artful make-up, and Philip Tan’s animated live music (a performance in itself). Heng opted for an unexpectedly sober and only slightly zany dramatization of the plot.  

Relying largely on stylized movements and a very disciplined cast, Heng’s directorial vision was reminiscent of the “3D effect” of computer-generated animation (e.g., the Dreamworks production of A Bug’s Life in which the characterizations blur all boundaries between cartoon and realism). With well-defined physical mannerisms, the actors effectively created vivid animal personas that somehow made them human without anthropomorphizing them.

AF3Lim Yu-Beng and Selena Tan were convincingly horsey as Boxer and Mollie, steadfast but a bit slow on the uptake. Ivan Heng, Gene Sha Rudyn, and Pam Oei were pricelessly piggish as Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer. As the ruthlessly ousted deputy, Sha Rudyn’s Anwarish goatee harked back to Leon Trotsky – and he was equally brilliant as Benjamin the literate but phlegmatic donkey, and cockily comical as the resident rooster. Michael Ian Corbidge’s Farmer Jones was a John Bullish political cartoon down to his Union Jack underpants, and he also doubled as Pilkington – a cross between Uncle Sam and a redneck evangelist entrepreneur. The casting of ruddy-faced angmoh Corbidge as Jones was an oblique allusion to our colonial past – a political subtext that wasn’t lost on the audience. When Napoleon harangues the animals and asks querulously if they want Farmer Jones to return and reclaim Manor Farm, it sounds like the sort of dire warning against the dangers of globalization you might hear at any Umno General Assembly.

Ivan Heng’s Napoleon was a masterful study of a charismatic leader’s steady metamorphosis into demiurgic despotism. The political scapegoating of his erstwhile deputy into Public Enemy No. 1, leading to inquisitorial witch-hunts and party purges to divert attention from gross mismanagement, were chillingly, goosebumpily real – as Heng pigged out completely on his juicy rôle without ever succumbing to the temptation to “ham” it up.

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As agitprop chief Squealer, Pam Oei’s high-pitched stridency evoked eerie memories of China’s cultural revolution when party cadres in Mao suits brandished copies of the little Red book at all potential dissidents and heretics. But hysterical Squealers are found in every ministry of “information.”

animal-farm-wild-riceAudience participation consisted of our being invited to recite the post-colonial doctrine of “Four legs good, two legs baaaaaaaaaaaad!” in appropriately sheeplike tones. Indeed, since the only farm animals not represented on stage were the sheep, it fell to the audience to take on that rôle like good law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. For our valiant efforts we were paid off in sponsored pre-election apples.

But with changing realities – and lucrative joint ventures signed between the porcine farm management and Pilkington the American corporate representative – leaflets had to be dropped from the rafters in four languages (English, Tamil, Malay and Chinese) proclaiming the new-era ideology of four-legs-good-two-legs-better. Another “Farm Development Project” to serve the needs of progressive animals, brought to us by Napoleon, the fine upstanding porker in a well-cut dark suit and red tie – standard uniform of the nefarious Illuminati World Management Team sported by NWO executives and their political proxies on all important occasions.

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What Ivan Heng has achieved through this hip and savvy re-staging of Animal Farm with a distinctly ASEAN flavor is a revitalization of Orwell’s classic study of the neo-feudal mechanics of political power, giving it a fresh, contemporary sheen, rich in local color.

AF4The somber theme of bad times getting worse is dynamically offset by very physical performances, and the insertion of a garish, carnivalesque grand finale – abetted throughout by the vigorous live music – mostly percussive – provided by an enormously exuberant and talented Philip Tan: he performs offstage for the most part, though visibly, but occasionally leaps onstage and contributes to the surrealistic mayhem. Air-conditioning ducts feature prominently as multi-purpose stage props, representing the pseudo-mystical fascination of newfangled technology – as well as the animal butcher’s van in which Boxer is carted off for slaughter when he outlives his usefulness to the System.

In short, Wild Rice’s Animal Farm was a totally credible – and more than creditable – tribute to George Orwell’s acute insight into the ploys and pitfalls of political power, and his dystopian view of the human condition. The production has been invited to tour New Zealand in early 2004 – and, hopefully, Malaysian audiences will get to see it soon after that.  [Note: Ivan Heng’s Animal Farm was successfully staged in New Zealand, Tasmania, Hong Kong, and restaged in Singapore – but it still hasn’t happened in Malaysia, although in August 2017 a Malay version titled Kandang, directed by Omar Ali, is to be staged at KLPAC]. 

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Ivan Heng’s first staging of Animal Farm in 2002 earned him the DBS-Life Theatre Award for Best Director. In his director’s notes for the souped-up 2003 version, Heng states: “This production was a gut reaction to the ‘War against Terror’ in Iraq. I remember sitting in front of the television on March 20th, feeling sick to the core as I watched the first bombs on Iraq fall. If there is one thing I’m learning, it is how Governments can become so separate from the very people who vote them into power. Watching the news made me think about how the media has the power to distort and manipulate the truth. It made me think about my responsibility as an artist. If only to understand my personal response to the events of the world, I was searching for a way of expressing my confusion and disappointment.”

“In the world of Animal Farm, most speechifying and public palaver is bullshit and instigated lying, and though many characters are good-hearted and mean well, they can be frightened into closing their eyes to what’s really going on.” – Margaret Atwood

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George Orwell @ Eric Blair

BORN ERIC ARTHUR BLAIR on June 25, 1903 in Bengal, George Orwell’s centennial in 2003 stirred up some controversy about the validity of his status as a literary icon, with leftwing critics bristling over the fact that Animal Farm had been co-opted as an antisocialist tract by rightwing interests.

His detractors have remarked on Orwell-Blair’s long history of hobnobbing with the secret police – as a police officer in Burma, BBC propagandist for India and Southeast Asia, and British Intelligence consultant on anti-communist strategies during the early days of the Cold War. Whose side was he on? Was he in truth the maverick Winston Smith or master manipulator O’Brien (two key characters in 1984) – or was he perhaps both?

Some of the sharpest minds are recruited for psyops (psychological warfare) and Eric Blair just happened to have an acute literary flair – and a profound loathing for the cynical mass-control mechanisms installed by the ruling elite to perpetuate its feudalistic stranglehold on the human imagination. Upon leaving Burma he embraced anarchism with a vengeance, and then swung to the extreme left, fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Then he got disenchanted by the communist movement and chose the life of a penniless vagabond for several years – an experience that spawned his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and later The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

tony-blairThe soul’s yearning for freedom is doomed to futility in Orwell’s universe, and one gets the sense that he finally gives up fighting the Status Quo because he can see no way out: it’s a task he finds morally repugnant, but he will serve the Dark Lords of the Matrix by inserting himself into 10 Downing Street as a future prime minister – not as an Orwell, of course, but as a Blair – in any case, as someone supremely fluent in Doublethink and Newspeak.

Therein lies the poignant irony of Orwell’s dark, visionary novels – especially 1984 (written in 1948) which is a perfect prescription for a Big Brother power elite ruling through sloganeering, disinformation and public relations – and when all that fails, ruthless police brutality. Precisely the sort of world we find ourselves living in today, where war is peace and might is right, and history an infinitely rewritable cut-and-paste business.

Winston Smith, the chief protagonist of 1984, is turned around by the mind control experts in Room 101 where, confronted by his deepest, darkest fears, his rebellious individualism is broken – and the novel concludes bleakly with the socially rehabilitated citizen Smith drinking Victory gin at the local and watching Big Brother on the boob tube along with all the other faceless plebes – while the chorus of a popular ditty echoes in his brain: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me.”

But Orwell’s intellectual integrity and his extraordinary skill as a writer more than redeem his own internal conflicts – and his readers are left with the onus to seek, and ultimately find, a non-polarized resolution beyond the dire straits of divide-and-rule dualism.

25 November 2003

Burrrp… Simply Sedap!

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Antares pigs out over Jit Murad’s SPILT GRAVY ON RICE

Good home cooking imparts a marvelous sense of well-being. Who was it who defined patriotism as a fond memory of all the wonderful things we tasted in our childhood?Well, that makes Jit Murad a true patriot and an even truer playwright. Simply because he has a knack of serving up some timely home truths without ever sounding pedantic or preachy, and his brilliant agility with words makes a long story seem short and sweet. Through the rich and spicy stew of human melodrama generated by just one genetic hodgepodge of a family, Jit brings the story of modern Malaysia up to date with sagely wit and deep compassion.

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Dato’ Rahim Razali as Bapak

His unapologetically polygamous Bapak – impressively portrayed by the highly durable Dato’ Rahim Razali – redeems the image of the patriarch as progenitor, our father on earth. Which is no easy feat considering the boorish, bullying shadow side of the Bapak figure that dominates our political history. In the gentlest possible voice, the playwright derides a wawasan without otak – a national vision with little intelligence or soul.  His allusion to the abysmal events of May 13, 1969 – which have for decades marred the national psyche and perpetrated the unhappy ethos of aggressive denial (and the compulsive dishonesty it breeds) – was handled with incredible grace and tenderness. At a time when the nation is confronted with the imminent departure of an overbearing and all-powerful Bapak, the play resonates on more levels than can be grasped with one viewing. And yet, Jit’s astute observations transcend the pettiness of politics and attain the sublime heights of a humane social philosophy that heals old wounds and reconciles apparent contradictions.

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Sean Ghazi as Husni

Bapak’s five children (actually six, all from different mothers) represent a cross-section of the educated class: Zakaria is a rake (“You mean he’s the black sheep of the family?” “No, more like the black goat!”) whose rebellion against his father’s value system makes him a cynical opportunist (which he blames on his piratic ancestry); Kalsom is a controversial (read attention-craving) dramaturge and poet totally engrossed with her own artistic ambitions; Darwis, a frustrated academic turned literary critic and family biographer; Husni, a successful architect and closet gay; and Zaiton, a typical aspiring Toh Puan ensnared in the comfortable complacency of the haute bourgeoisie.  Bapak has a few more tricks up his sleeve, but it’s not for me to reveal them here.

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Bernice Chauly as Kalsom

While the casting was astute, the performances were slightly uneven. Reza Zainal Abidin and Sean Ghazi were absolutely spot on as Darwis and Husni. Elaine Pedley was an utter delight as the winsome Willow Gomez (“an over-enthusiastic interpretative dancer”) who also stood in as the memory of all the women in Bapak’s life. Benjy and Eijat were excellent as Azri and Michelle (Husni’s gay lover and Zakaria’s transvestite friend), and Ahmad Ramzani Ramli wholly credible as Kalsom’s faithful assistant (and worshiper).

Soefira Jaafar’s affected interpretation of Zaiton was not altogether convincing, but we may attribute that to her relative inexperience as an actor. Bernie Chan, making her acting debut, was elegantly entertaining as Hortense Chia, Zaiton’s confidante and childhood friend. Bernice Chauly looked really smashing as Kalsom and so did Charon Mokhzani as Zakaria – but their long absence from the boards made them a wee bit self-conscious in the early scenes, although both evidently possess thespian skills aplenty. One hopes their return to the limelight will stir up the adrenaline sufficiently for them to get hooked all over again.

raja-maliq

Raja Maliq, set designer

It’s an exciting venture indeed to be part of the creation of an original play and the entire cast and crew deserve a mighty round of applause for the wonderful energy they invested in bringing Jit Murad’s fourth (and most mature) full-length play to life. Mac Chan’s lighting was precise and efficient; and Raja Maliq’s set design, which resembled a giant closet, rather ingenious, though the thin plywood construction seemed somewhat wobbly. The well crafted sound by Wong Pek Fui was, on the night I caught the performance, miscued a couple of times by an inexperienced operator – but that was perhaps the only amateurish touch in an otherwise commendable first staging of a complex dramatic work. The material is so engagingly textured that it can be interpreted in endless ways, and it’s almost certain that Spilt Gravy On Rice will see many more incarnations in years to come and in places yet undreamed of.

Director Zahim Albakri has molded, with loving attention and intuitive aplomb, Jit Murad’s delectable text into a nourishing, soul-satisfying theatrical experience.  Rise, Sir Jit and Sir Zahim, and receive your well-earned accolades and hugs.

Oh, by the way, look out for a couple of unnamed characters (Men In White) whose surprise cameo appearance alone is worth risking an evening out in the permanent haze of KL.

2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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