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.
Why 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]