Antares is uplifted and downright unmoved by two Sutrarasa dance events
Anita Ratnam’s Utpala: The Awakening, which world-premiered on 30 May 2003 at Sutra House as part of the 6th Sutra Festival of Contemporary Dance Theatre & Music, was a passionately performed dance concept worthy of an A+.
Fantastic fountains of perspiration moistened the Amphi-Sutra stage as the young and accomplished dancers of Arangham Dance Theatre gave their all in service to the sublime choreography – and the exquisitely assembled music (culled from various sources with live performances by Jaya Sekhar on veena and vocal; and L. Subhasri on nattuvangam). “This is like air-con to us,” Anita told the audience afterwards. “We practised in 45-degree heat!”
Talk about dedication, devotion and focus. Anita Ratnam did her Bharata Natyam arangetram (graduation performance) at the age of 10 under Guru Rajee, then augmented her dance studies with the Kerala traditions of Kathakali and Mohiniattam. She met Ramli Ibrahim when both were under the tutelage of celebrated choreographer Adyar K. Lakshman. After acquiring a Master’s degree in Theater and Television from the University of New Orleans, Anita Ratnam became a New York television producer, talk show host and cultural commentator, winning Emmy award nominations for popular series like Festival of India, Emerging Powers, and Indigo: The Colours of India. She returned to Chennai (Madras) and established the Arangham Trust in 1992 – a foundation to promote dance and its interaction with visual and performing arts. With over 1,000 performances in 15 countries in a dance career spanning more than 30 years, Anita Ratnam has earned recognition as “one of India’s most luminous and articulate personalities,” a veritable cultural icon.
In Utpala: The Awakening, Anita used the lotus as a symbol of transcendence and transformation. “Utpala” refers to the slender stem connecting the sacred flower to the muddy marsh from which it grows. Drawing on the rich imagery of Hindu cosmology and blending it with cosmopolitan perspectives, she intelligently integrated and reconciled classical and contemporary dance vocabularies, the sacred and the secular, making high art accessible to a broader spectrum of audiences. Anita took on the many aspects of Shakti – the Female Principle – manifesting as various goddesses. Her intensity of concentration, the economy and grace of each mudra, each movement, was an epiphany to behold. Her two fresh-faced female dancers, Aarti Bodani and R. Gayathri, were perfectly matched in beauty, discipline, and precision by two energetic male dancers, L. Narendran Kumar and M. Palani.
Taking us on a metamorphic journey from earthly incarnation and tribal consciousness to emergence into individuality – and its concomitant joys and sorrows, its confusion and pain – Utpala encompassed expressions of angelic beauty, reverence and tenderness as well as demonic brutality, cynicism and cruelty, indeed the entire gamut of human experience. Anita’s masterful use of symbols – through costumes, lighting, music and props – elevated her choreography to the level of sacred ritual. I felt greatly uplifted by this consummately conceived and performed masterpiece.
The following week I caught the final performance of Wong Kit Yaw’s ambitious dance epic, Passing. It began with two arduously introspective adagio movements, accompanied by the minimalist sounds of a guitar, piano, and an evocative female voice reciting a poem in Hokkien. Then a bedazzling bevy of adolescent beauties descended on us with elaborate head extensions and a butoh-like absence of facial expression, performing rituals reminiscent of Balinese temple dancers or something we might have witnessed a thousand years ago at Angkor Wat. It was like a Busby Berkeley musical set in the Forbidden City, and directed by the flamboyant Ken Russell. Or something one might encounter at an extravagant product launch in some posh hotel ballroom – minus the pervasive aroma of kemenyan (incense) which reinforced the concept of dance as sacred ritual, an approach shared by both Utpala: The Awakening and Passing.
Visually, Passing was nothing short of spectacular, though the choreography seemed to revolve around a series of photogenic and posy tableaux. The solemnity of Kit Yaw’s work was reinforced by the almost complete immobility of the dancers’ faces and their inner-directed focus – a practice central to the butoh school of dance. I found the overt asexuality of the movements an interesting contrast with the nymphal appeal of his nubile dancers (average age 16) and mostly students recruited from the Shin An and Fui Chiu Associations; Yu Hwa National-Type Secondary School, Kajang; and the Serdang Baru Association of Old Schoolmates.
Kit Yaw’s musings on the evolution of a migrant culture through time were the connecting thread holding the four episodes together, separated by a brief interval. The dancers were for the most part immensely earnest and disciplined, but the choreography made them look like androids, aloof and emotionally detached from their actions – so much so they sometimes looked unconvincing when wiggling their hips or executing a few feral movements. I found all four episodes somewhat soporific and repetitive: we kept waiting and waiting for something significant to happen, and it never did. The climactic depiction of being caught in a cultural identity bind – with the dancers getting entangled in a web of plastic construction-site tape, echoing a preceding tableau in which they are ensnared by the fronds of the floor-length tassels dangling from their courtly headpieces – impacted merely on a conceptual level, and did not actually touch us on a visceral level.
As an artist committed to working within his own community, Wong Kit Yaw has spent a good 12 years teaching dance to primary and secondary students from Chinese schools. His obvious sincerity and lofty ideals are indeed laudable and deserving of wholehearted applause, as are his impressive accomplishments as a cultural activist and dance motivator. However, as a dance theater experience, I found more style than substance in Passing and can only award it… well… a passing grade.
10 June 2003