Antares finds enchantment at a supercharged evening of dance epiphanies
The storm had cleared, leaving the air moist, the ground damp. I could smell the incense even from the carpark as I approached Sutra House. Temu– a meeting of three choreographers from different paths – opened with Syed Mustapha Syed Yasin and Abdul Hamid Chan’s “Rasuk” (“Possessed”), an intense depiction of the trance state in dance.
Tandak Dance Theatre founder and artistic director Syed Mustapha was a study in total concentration – a performer approaching full maturity, his every move charged with energy, grace, and power. The other three – Hamid Chan, Zulfaqar Awaluddin, and Shahril Nizam Shahrun – were equally focused, each in the prime of well-favored manhood, agile, majestic, beautiful. “Rasuk” was a marvelous piece of dance theater, its subtle drama enhanced by Sivarajah Natarajan’s evocative lighting. The play of backlit water droplets cascading on Syed Mustapha’s bare body in the climactic mandi bunga (ritual cleansing) sequence was almost orgasmic in its aesthetic potency.
“Rasuk” signalled a return to the pagan roots of dance in shamanic trance states with what initially sounded like Native American chanting, in an atmospherically charged musical backdrop provided by Bakshish.
The next choreographic offering in Temu was Ramli Ibrahim’s “Zapin Ziarah” (literally “Pilgrim’s Dance”) – an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek exploration of the evolving Malay psyche, utilizing traditional Zapin moves in novel ways. The placement of Sri Mas Dewi – the only female dancer – in a central position was a powerful allusion to the reinstatement of the feminine into what has for centuries been an overtly patriarchal cosmocultural context. The dancers were all in magnificent form, displaying an enchanting degree of self-confidence, grace, and poise.
Ramli’s tasteful innovations injected fresh appeal, and restored the rustic innocence and “Dionysian” spirit of a dance tradition that was in grave danger of becoming “Apollonized” – that is, co-opted and politicized by a humorless ethnocentric agenda. For someone who has hitherto concentrated on classical Indian, European, and contemporary dance idioms to venture so confidently into the Zapin tradition is indeed a remarkable feat – and the unhesitant applause that greeted the conclusion of “Zapin Zariah” was ample testimony to the success of Ramli’s experiment. It was truly a Zapin performance with extraordinary vigor, zest, and passion.
What transpired next was an event a few dancers and dance aficionados had come specifically to witness – and for some, it was their third time at Temu. The audience’s anticipation was tangible as we rearranged ourselves near the front entrance of Sutra House, awaiting the start of Aida Redza’s “Tiga Naga” (“Three Dragons”).
Aida moved amongst us handing out advice on the timely opening of umbrellas at a specific conjunction of moon and sun with the tail and head of the dragon – or something along those lines. Was that part of the experience? Getting sprayed by dragon piss?
There was a loud banging at the front gate. Enter a dwarf…? midget…? gnome…? toyol (gremlin)…? Head wrapped in a shiny cloth, wearing a black raincoat, spookily kooky. Movements unpredictable, intent unknown. Fantastic “street” theater effect with everyone immediately intrigued, amused but not daring to giggle at the strange and sinister yet somewhat comical character. A great start to an action-packed, playful-serious experiment in pushing local dance theater frontiers.
I could describe “Tiga Naga” as an excitingly wacky, gutsy and physically demanding performance with Aida Redza, Syed Mustapha, and Hamid Chan as a trio of hyperactive subliminal subterraneans you wouldn’t want to find yourself sitting next to on the commuter. But words can do no justice to the total effect of watching three gifted dancers discharge their angin (vital force) in public. Nobody broke wind, as such, but they might well have done and it would have fit in perfectly with the raw, Rabelaisian tone of the performance.
The choreography involved scuttling about the garden like laboratory chimps on the loose, lapping up water from a large basin and spurting it at each other, smearing themselves with red dye, clambering over the front gate, and generally being completely uninhibited.
Soon it appeared that the two male characters represented the lower end of the social spectrum – menials, Indons, thugs, sewage workers, anarchists, terrorists, guys you don’t want your daughter to date – while the female was their shakti, their high priestess, oracle, and muse, the source of their vital powers, Kali.
Aida’s pythoness dance with an enormous length of industrial flexi-pipe was totally entrancing and almost erotic, conjuring images of kundalini arousal and ophidian ritual. A percussive pestle and mortar session ensued, producing what looked like belacan (dried shrimp paste pounded with red hot chillies). The troglodytic trio then proceeded to stuff their mouths with the belacan – going berserk when the chillies began to burn. Scrambling atop each other, they screamed for water – and at that point, our umbrellas saved us from getting drenched by the artificial rain issuing from a couple of concealed garden hoses.
Sheer madness? Or shamanic trance? Whatever it was, I loved it. Rarely does dance get your adrenaline going like this. It was absolutely exciting, if nothing else – and it looked dangerous, wild, sensuous, unprecedented. Above all, it was organic and physical. The dancers got wet, got dirty, turned themselves red, then hissed belacan breath at us with flaming tongues. You don’t need to know what it all meant. You simply applaud such sassiness, such courage, such explosive energy and physical agility. And the music by Mustakim (what’s that, the name of a group?) was supremely supportive. Somehow it felt right. The expulsion of angin is the source of all movement.
Dragons are universal symbols of primal energy. Dragons rule the elements – and elemental forces charge Aida Redza’s choreography with a magical enchantment, introducing some truly invigorating ideas into the Malaysian contemporary dance vocabulary – or, rather, restoring an earthy vitality we were in serious danger of sacrificing to the false gods of material progress and ersatz urbanity.
Temu was undoubtedly a major turning point, the harbinger of a dynamic new era in the healthy development of homegrown dance theater.
28 June 2003