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JUNGLE FEVER IN JULY

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Bitori from Cape Verde (photo: Miriam Brenner)

Revisiting Sarawak’s famous Rainforest World Music Festival

ALMOST TWENTY YEARS have elapsed but the euphoria hasn’t evaporated. The euphoria of being transported to a different world for several days – a world of pulsating beats and funky ethnic fusion, mingling with superb musicians from every continent, and befriending some of the most hospitable folk you’ll ever meet.

I consider myself fortunate to have been in at the very start of the annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak. My musical collaborator Rafique Rashid and I were invited to accompany Minah Angong, a ceremonial singer from the indigenous Temuan tribe of Peninsular Malaysia, at the inaugural staging of what would soon grow into “the best party in Southeast Asia” – getting listed among the Top 25 international music festivals by Songlines magazine, UK.

That first Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) held over two days in August 1998 saw a total crowd of no more than 3,000. In three years the head count had risen to more than 10,000 and by 2005 an estimated 15,000 were flocking to the RWMF every July. For me, it was a love affair that lasted 10 years – interrupted only by a lovers’ spat with the organizers that made me miss the festival several years in a row.

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Local talent: At Adau from Sarawak

World Music as a genre has seen a phenomenal growth in popularity over the last few decades, thanks to the efforts of musician-entrepreneurs like Peter Gabriel, Ry Cooder, Paul Simon and Mickey Hart. Putting hitherto unknown tribal musicians on the big stage and giving traditional ethnic bands a global audience has created not only a refreshing new musical idiom, it has also kept alive a few endangered folk cultures.

Many talented musicians find it hard to make a good living in their home countries but with world music becoming fashionable, iconic performers like Ali Farka Toure, Youssou N’Dour, Omar Pene, Adama Yalomba, Nahawa Doumbia, Clement Kilema, Regis Gizavo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Angelique Kidjo have gained access to a rapidly expanding market, with a few becoming superstars. Others, like the Paris-based gypsy outfit Les Yeux Noirs and Scottish psychedelic-Celtic trance-dance bands Shooglenifty and the Peatbog Faeries, have acquired loyal cult followings.

Inspiring venue

With the mysterious Mount Santubong as backdrop and the South China Sea a short stroll away, the Sarawak Cultural Village (45 minutes from Kuching) makes a marvelous setting for the Rainforest World Music Festival. Artfully reconstructed native dwellings surrounding a lake create a wonderful atmosphere for the packed-out afternoon workshops. It’s an opportunity for music lovers to interact with the performers at close range – and to see and hear the spontaneous fusion of musical styles and traditions.

Food stalls serving a delightful variety of local and international meals at reasonable prices vie for business with souvenir stands selling CDs and DVDs, musical instruments, native handicrafts, T-shirts, pareos and party dresses. You may be able to enjoy a massage, some reflexology, or acquire a tattoo by one of Borneo’s famed tattooists. People-watching with a cold drink while soaking in the carnival atmosphere can also be rewarding.

The people of Sarawak, especially the Dayak tribes, love their annual longhouse parties called gawai, which also carry deep spiritual significance for them. In some ways the Rainforest World Music Festival is like an extension of the longhouse party where the homemade rice wine (tuak) flows freely and much merriment, dancing and singing fills the balmy air. Among the Dayak people fun is not regarded as sinful – and this is why Sarawak is perhaps the only place in Malaysia where such a relaxed and festive atmosphere occurs naturally.

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Abavuki from South Africa

Over the years the RWMF has evolved into a not-to-be-missed annual event for fun-loving folk who just love to dance to excellent live music under the stars. Sometimes the sky opens up and the dance area turns into a mosh pit where the more energetic can continue dancing barebodied and barefoot, happy as hippos in a mudbath). Others huddle cozily under plastic ponchos, shared umbrellas, or sensibly retire to sheltered areas where food and drink are available while they watch the performers on giant screens strategically placed all over the Cultural Village.

RWMF package deals

The most convenient (though not necessarily the cheapest) way to enjoy the Rainforest World Music Festival is to book one of many RWMF packages offered by local travel agencies. Those on a budget may choose to pack a sleeping bag and camp near the festival grounds, book accommodation within Sarawak Cultural Village, or check into a hotel in Kuching, making use of the festival shuttlebus service to get to the Cultural Village and back after the evening concerts.

The 20th edition of the Rainforest World Music Festival starts after lunch on July 14th and finishes after midnight on July 16th, 2017. Be warned: this is one highly addictive festival, folks – so be prepared to get hooked on this very unique high, as I did, faithfully returning year after year after year.

Visit the official website at http://rwmf.net/ for an up-to-date list of performers at RWMF 2017.

[Pics courtesy of Sarawak Tourism Board]
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An Angelic Drabness

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Antares on WHISPERS MY HEART – a short film by Eleanor Low and Linus Chung

Affordable digital videocameras and easily obtained editing software in the computer age have made it possible for anyone with an idea or two, huge reserves of stamina and determination, and a few thousand ringgit, to make their own movies. In recent years, young filmmakers like Osman Ali, James Lee, Amir Muhammad – and a host of graduates from the Multimedia University and other institutions – have realized a long-held dream of many a Malaysian youth – to make their own movies on their own terms for a whole new audience – local as well as international.

Evidence of this renaissance of energy and enthusiasm in do-it-yourself filmmaking can be found in the growing number of video festivals and public screenings since the new millennium began. As to be expected from this adventurous new genre, quality is bound to be uneven, yet most film aficionados are only too happy to see an aesthetic revolution like this happen in Malaysian cinema – which has long stagnated in the muddy backwaters of political intrigue and sheer gutlessness.

To watch a cripple begin to take his first faltering steps, unaided, is a miracle worthy of unmitigated applause and wholehearted support. But we may have reached a point when being merely able to produce a video feature isn’t going to warrant a warm and friendly reception. We’re going to have to make movies that others find worth watching, regardless of budgetary constraints – or else run the risk of being totally ignored, or ripped to shreds by reviewers experiencing bad-hair days.

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Linus Chung doing a spectacular split

Whispers my heart – a 55-minute feature by Eleanor Low and Linus Chung – happens to fall between two sets of review criteria. One can approach it on a supportive and sympathetic level, noting all its positive attributes and qualities. Or scrutinize the work with a cold unsentimental eye and find all sorts of fault with it. In this instance, I shall attempt to navigate a zigzag course between those extremes, and hope no one accuses me of being wishy-washy.

flatdwellerThe story revolves around four main characters: a mentally handicapped girl named Annie (Annie Hu), her adoptive brother Zac (Frederick Gan), his girlfriend Kim (Alicia Daniel), and Annie’s daytime babysitter Mien (Chin Ann). Zac is a bland but nice enough guy holding a humdrum job in a mercilessly mundane reality, his only apparent perk in life being a good-looking girlfriend who lives in a better neighbourhood than he does. Since his adoptive parents died in an accident, Zac has taken on the rôle of “ko-ko” (elder brother) to the handicapped Annie who appears to have the mental and emotional age of a 5-year-old in a body that’s biologically 14 or 15.

Kim views Annie as a serious impediment to Zac’s career and their future together, and would like to see Annie packed off to a nursing home. Annie’s babysitter Mien has grown fond of Zac and dreams of being more to him than just a paid caregiver. As for Annie, she lives in a world populated by light beings and angels, and yearns to go home to the realm of pure spirit.

playgroundShot on location at the Pekeliling Flats in KL, the opening sequence establishes from the outset that this is NOT going to be a glamorous movie. I can’t conceive any urban reality drabber than the low-cost Pekeliling Flats.

Frederick Gan’s muted, monotonous, and somewhat wooden performance makes him out to be a normal, hardworking, robotized human – but one with deep, pent-up feelings, capable of profound compassion and love. His girlfriend Kim as played by Alicia Daniel is perhaps the only bit of visual appeal in the entire movie (apart from Zachary Ong’s brief cameo appearance as an androgynous angelic apparition). She’s supposed to represent the self-centred callousness of young ambition that views handicapped people like Annie as merely a vast inconvenience. But, as none of the characters is developed beyond the most superficial level, the film doesn’t give much scope for juicier interactions that might have elicited more impressive performances from the cast.

Chin Ann’s portrayal of Mien, the faithful babysitter and Zac’s secret admirer, is restrained and fairly credible – but, again, her character isn’t given much opportunity to reveal itself, beyond a fleeting glimpse of her depth of feeling when she pauses midway through dusting the shelf to gaze with a touch of envy at a framed photograph of Zac and Kim.

As the mentally handicapped Annie, Annie Hu’s real-life experience working with handicapped children would have given her a sound grounding in her portrayal of acute autism. However, she lacked the inherent charisma to transform her performance into a truly memorable one. Her attraction to the light streaming in through grilled windows to illuminate a grim, depressing physical reality – and her fascination with heavenly symbols, e.g., a Madonna statue in the church grounds, or an angel in the street only she can see – can only be inferred from the storyline, not from some numinous quality within her own being.

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Anton Morgan

What elevates Low and Chung’s work beyond the student level is the tasteful pianistic soundtrack scored by Anton Morgan. The simple, haunting melody is reminiscent of classic soundtracks like that of The Beekeeper and contributes significantly to the artistic impact of the work. A bit further down the line, Low and Chung make good use of an original song by Douglas Lim which, though quite unremarkable in itself, lends a wry, lyrical twist to the cloying sentimentality that some scenes are in constant danger of descending into.

From the conceptual viewpoint, it is clear that Low and Chung have their hearts in the right place and have injected a great deal of love and devotion to their project. Their intuitive use of subtle symbolism to create a somewhat Manichaean moral context reveals a sensitivity to the semiotics of cinematic art. For example, scene changes effected by the camera panning to nearby trees, revealing bits of sky, while the muezzin’s call is sounded at dusk, or as the characters walk past a church, effectively evoke the human spirit’s yearning for freedom. Long, sustained shots of commuter trains passing each other graphically depict the mechanization of the human experience, of people’s lives running on fixed tracks. Annie’s angelic epiphanies are her only escape from an oppressive, meaningless existence.

Whispers my heart has the power to soften the hardened of heart, so that feelings of compassion and empathy can seep in through the cracks. The film’s touching moments, though lacking in technical finesse and dramatic depth, are palpably sincere – and therefore offer a potent antidote to the urban warrior’s hardcore cynicism and his soul-withering obsession with “getting ahead” in life.

There’s a Michael Franti lyric that goes: “You gotta be a rat/To win the rat race.” Low and Chung’s poignant and humble little movie reminds us: “The kingdom of heaven is within the heart, and the master key to heaven is a childlike innocence.”

5 January 2004

MEETING SLOVENIANS AT SILVERFISH

Silverfish Books recently moved to chic new premises in Bangsar (next to Devi’s Corner). I missed their official opening and didn’t get around to dropping by until last Wednesday (11 July 2001) when they hosted an informal powwow with Slovenian literary luminaries Evald Flisar and Maja Vidmar.

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The young Evald Flisar 

Author-playwright Flisar is president of the Slovene Writers’ Association and editor of a reputable literary magazine. Ms Vidmar is a well-known poet with three published collections (Distances of the Body, 1984; Ways of Binding, 1988; and At the Base, 1998). What brought them to Malaysia was a close encounter with Malaysian novelist Chuah Guat Eng at a writers’ symposium in Helsinki earlier this year. Since they were on a cultural mission to Australia, they figured a brief stopover to say hello to Chuah and meet Malaysian writers might prove a pleasant and productive digression. A third member of the touring Slovenian writers, Andrej Blatnik, had opted to sun himself on a Tioman beach instead of staying in hazy, humid Kuala Lumpur (so his works are unlikely ever to become bestsellers in Malaysia – big deal!)

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Chuah Guat Eng

Also at the session was Singapore-born writer Lau Siew Mei (currently based in Rimbun Dahan on an Asialink scholarship). Ms Lau, whose mother is from Penang, is a Brisbane resident whose first novel, Playing Madame Mao (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2000) was shortlisted in the inaugural Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for the best emerging Queensland author. She read a few evocative paragraphs from her novel, set in the brave new island-republic of Singapore, where intellectuals do their thinking in the everpresent shadow of Big Brother and his secret police. (Or else they migrate south to the Land of Oz, where they just might get a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.)

Apart from Chuah Guat Eng, others in attendance included playwright Ann Lee, a young poet-troubadour named Jerome Kugan, and the affable Japanese writer-translator Takashi Yoshida (who had also attended the Helsinki writers’ powwow).

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Maja Vidmar

Much interest was expressed in the Slovenian national mythos – which seems to be characterized by a pervading sense of existential angst, metaphysical restlessness, and the inevitable nostalgia of the cultural exile. Flisar himself has spent the larger part of his 56 years as a sort of Wandering Jew, working as an underground train driver in Sydney, editing a scientific encyclopedia in London, and nosing his way around at least 80 countries, mostly in the Third World. His semi-autobiographical cult novel, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ documents his quest for inner balance in the Mystic East, after a debilitating nervous breakdown in 1983.

We discussed the fierce individualism and intellectual independence the Slovenian intelligentsia have somehow always enjoyed, even amidst the terrible turmoil accompanying the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Flisar drily observed that the inter-ethnic conflict in the Balkans stems mainly from the Serbs’ dogmatic insistence on racial dominance… yes, that whole “ketuanan” nonsense which we in Malaysia are all too familiar with.

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A pensive Maja Vidmar

Maja Vidmar read a few of her own poems, first in English, then in the original Slovenian. Everyone was touched by the sensual lyricism and luxurious musicality of her sensitive imagery, which came through even more vividly in her native tongue.

There was an attempt to discuss the dearth of writers and the sorry state of intellectual life in Malaysia – but fatigue rapidly set in and the thread was soon abandoned.

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Evald Flisar, writer in his prime

Certainly the featured readings and dialogues hosted by Silverfish Books are a noble attempt to keep the love of literature alive. The setting is certainly convivial enough and one can always continue the heady discussions over a few drinks just down the road.

On July 22 at 4.30 pm, Kee Thuan Chye presents excerpts from A Sense of Home – his novel-in-progress. And beginning on August 1st, Chuah Guat Eng and Lorna Tee will offer creative writing classes for adults and students.  Those interested will find more information at http://www.silverfishbooks.com.

19 July 2001

Alena Murang soars to new heights with release of debut EP

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On my first visit to the Land of Hornbills in 1998 I was convinced that it was dangerous to stay more than a week. Many of the native Sarawakians I met, both men and women, were so friendly, fun-loving and enchanting, one could only too easily become enamored, ensnared… end up marrying a local and becoming a permanent resident.

Since James Brooke’s appointment as White Rajah of Sarawak in 1842, adventurers, explorers and fortune-hunters the world over have found themselves mesmerized by the exotic allure of Borneo. Unable to leave, they have fortuitously enriched its gene pool.

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Mathew Ngau with star student Alena  

Alena Murang is a wonderful example of this delicious blend of adventurous and indigenous DNA. Her father is a Kelabit of noble lineage, her mother Anglo-Italian. At 27 she is a fully accomplished visual artist as well as musician – having learnt from young to play virtuoso sape’ under the skillful tutelage of Mathew Ngau, Sarawak’s legendary sape’ master.

In August 2016 Alena released her debut EP, titled Flight, featuring fresh interpretations of five folksongs from two highland tribes, Kelabit and Kenyah. Arranged and produced by her cousin Josh Maran and Inna Dudukina of Pepper Jam Productions, Flight evocatively captures the lyrical, mystical essence of native traditions endangered by rapid, relentless modernization.

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Alena Murang performs at the Rainforest World Music Festival 2016 (photo courtesy of the Sarawak Tourism Board)

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Josh Maran, arranger/producer

Alena’s alluring, mellifluous voice lends an angelic purity and ethereal dimension to the earthy simplicity and soul-soothing quality of these enchanting longhouse ditties. Her consummate skill on the sape’ and other instruments like the pagang (tube zither) gives a polished sheen to the entire production. Growing up between two worlds – the indigenous and the cosmopolitan – she effortlessly bridges both. The result is a melodious (and slightly melancholy) compilation of Kelabit and Kenyah songs with a refreshing contemporary sound and spirit.

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Inna Dudukina, arranger/producer

Artistically as well as technically, Alena Murang’s Flight is an exquisite achievement and a monumental contribution to our efforts to preserve the cultural past. It creates new pathways into the hearts of ethnic music lovers everywhere with its enchanting lyricism and haunting atmosphere; and the inclusion of modern instruments like the clarinet, bass guitar, harp, and cello in the musical mix makes Flight pleasurably accessible to the modern ear, opening up boundless opportunities for the ancient sound of the Borneo rainforest to travel around the globe.

What sets Flight apart from many previous attempts to create an ethnic fusion sound is its impeccable taste and confident musicality. It never attempts to pander to popular taste, thereby destroying the innocence of these folksongs; nor does it lack in authentic passion and verve (which often happens when young people are trained to mechanically perform traditional music or dance at cultural events).

Sarawak has suffered a tragic loss of its natural beauty and biodiversity under the overlong misrule of robber barons. Yet it has produced an artist as gifted, dedicated and accomplished as Alena Murang. You do us all very proud, Alena.

Her debut EP can be downloaded on iTunes from http://www.alenamurang.com/ep

3 October 2016

 

 

SO… HOW DID THE CAST RATE?

Antares reviews The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

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Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002)

I have the greatest admiration for Kuo Pao Kun’s consummate skill and integrity as a playwright. In 1986 Five Arts Centre was refused a police permit for Kuo’s monodrama, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and had to stage it privately for a small audience -which only accentuated the power of his pungently satirical look at bureaucratic inanity and the ethos of conformity.

With The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – what an evocative title! – the eminent Singaporean playwright once again displays a scintillating ability to seize upon a crystalline metaphor and hold it up to the light of intelligent scrutiny so that it reflects on a myriad of complex issues – historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and ontological.  The themes Kuo touches upon in this text-driven drama are at once topical and timeless, culture-specific and universal.  The saga of the great eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) is undoubtedly a fascinating one, and I am grateful that Five Arts Centre has brought it to my attention by staging it. I’m not entirely pleased about the way it was presented, but that is secondary. More about that later.

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Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433)

Zheng He’s name at birth was Ma Sanpao. He belonged to a Central Asian tribe known as the Semur which converted to Islam before migrating to Yunnan Province.  When the Chinese army invaded Yunnan in 1382, the 11-year-old Ma Sanpao was taken captive, and given as a slave to Prince Zhu Di who would later seize the Ming throne as the Emperor Yong Le. The megalomaniacal Yong Le was determined to extend the glory of the Ming to the far ends of the earth.  Having rebuilt the Great Wall so that China’s rear end was covered, so to speak, he conferred on his brave and trusted eunuch warrior, Ma Sanpo, the new name of “Zheng He” and offered him the title, “Admiral of the Western Seas.”

Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He embarked on seven voyages that established Chinese naval and diplomatic supremacy in 36 countries and took him as far as the African continent.  Zheng He’s fleet was truly massive. One biographer writes: “No other nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them.” On certain voyages Zheng He’s Grand Fleet carried as many as 28,000 crew and the decks were lined with huge tubs of earth for planting vegetables and fruit trees.  According to some accounts Zheng He died at sea, and we shall never know if he was buried with his “missing parts” as was customary for imperial eunuchs.  The Chinese believed that the deceased could otherwise never reincarnate as a man.

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Indisputably the dominant global maritime power of the early 15th century

The next Ming Emperor was an isolationist and his scholar-ministers ordered that Zheng He’s maritime logs be destroyed.  Around this time the Portuguese seafarers began their exploratory voyages, soon to be followed by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the English.  If China had but maintained her mastery of the oceans, we would now be living under the emblem of the Dragon instead of the Eagle, the Tiger, or the Hyena.

Kuo does not dwell on the geopolitical theme in Eunuch Admiral. Instead he muses on the private thoughts and feelings of this great adventurer whose monumental exploits were largely forgotten until the 1930s – when a stone pillar inscribed with a detailed record of Zheng He’s seven voyages was found near a temple dedicated to the Celestial Spouse (a Taoist goddess) in Fujian Province.

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Jeff Chen’s restaging of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral  in 2015

Alone on deck upon a quiet evening at sea, did Zheng He dream of a world beyond power-seeking and oppressive hierarchies, a world where every man is a king in his own kingdom, free to pursue a life of ease and nobility?  A world where espionage, palace intrigue, and torture chambers are unheard of?  Kuo speculates on Zheng He’s possible rôle in the establishment of an Imperial lntelligence Agency during the eight-year hiatus in his seafaring.  Even though he had no testicles, Zheng He must have been an awesomely charismatic and inspiring leader of men to have successfully commanded – and with such heroic aplomb – the fabulous Imperial Fleet.  Ah, but the cruelty of being castrated at puberty so that he could serve his ambitious Prince without a thought for his own posterity…

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Cultural emasculation of Zheng He’s descendants (from the 2015 production)

The theme of castration, of course, is central to the play and the text capitalizes on the curious blend of horror, fascination and ticklish humor eunuchry provokes. A graphic account of emasculation through the ages is gleefully enacted, whereby we learn that Zheng He would surely have been buried intact, had he been born a few centuries later, when well-born eunuchs were painlessly rendered infertile through protracted scrotal massage by professional gonad crushers. (We could revive this practice as a voluntary form of male contraception. Why not? It sounds excruciatingly and promiscuously pleasurable, and so much more humane then simply hacking it off.)

nooseAs a metaphor, castration can be self-imposed on a cultural, social and political level whereby a minority race – paradoxically as a survival tactic – becomes subservient to the hubristic egocentricity of a would-be Master Race.  The irony isn’t lost on us, in view of the primal politics of ethnicity that continues to be used as a weapon against those seeking liberation from ideological injustice and fascism. And what about the self-serving, self-castrating corporate climbers who wear their severed genitals around their necks as a symbol of their unmanhood?

Admiral Zheng He is the ultimate enigma: warrior, seafarer, strategist, diplomat, trader, imperial emissary, chief of the Chinese secret service, and eunuch by circumstance. Muslim by birth, yet a worshiper of the Sea Goddess and the Celestial Spouse. What a rich resource for epic dramatization!

Chee Sek Thim’s directorial vision, unavoidably perhaps, bears the imprint of his youthful stint as a Marion D’Cruz dancer; and the overwhelming influence of theater luminaries like Krishen Jit and Leow Puay Tin (whose 1988 production of 3 Children remains a stylistic milestone in Asian theater).  Sek Thim is a gifted and intelligent theater practitioner who will hopefully develop his own dramaturgical perspective, given time.  For taking on such a complex work as his directorial debut and bringing to life such a thought-provoking play, I wholeheartedly applaud his courage and gumption.

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Ida Mariana

The enthusiastic and talented cast of three men and two women impressed me with their acrobatic stamina, discipline and total dedication to the performance. Yet I felt they were self-conscious and uncomfortable with the all-too-predictable, overly choreographed movements.

Both the women (Ida Mariana and Zoë Christian) seemed more in command of themselves, while the men (Mark Choo Hoong Leong, Lim How Ngean, and Mark Teh) generally came across as a bit too effeminate. But perhaps I’m being unreasonable in demanding more sinew and virility in a play about a Grand Imperial Eunuch.

11 November 2000

Why Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral matters

Ah, Sweet Nostalgia!

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The Horfield Theatre Company’s October 2015 staging of A Slice of Saturday Night

Antares relives his teen years at A SLICE OF SATURDAY NIGHT

Some things you never forget. Like learning to French-kiss and finding yourself on Cloud Nine with a sore tongue and simply adoring the sensation. At 15 I was in the habit of “borrowing” my dad’s car and going to parties where some of the couples danced joined at the loins through the night. Never mind the discomfort of heavy petting in bucket seats of small cars parked in dark nooks or the buzz of mosquitoes in the syrupy night air dripping with pheromones.

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Sharizan Borizan

I was pretty glad to have caught Music Theatre’s replay of A Slice of Saturday Night on a Saturday night, but disappointed to find the house only half full. Doing theater in the Klang Valley is no picnic, it would appear. Give them musical comedy, light’n’easy, do it with gumption and gusto… and still they stay away. Right after the show I found myself SMSing half the contacts in my phonecard, telling them to go see the last matinee performance on Sunday, and I’m glad at least a few heeded my advice and went. Like me, they loved the show!

Perhaps I’m really just a conservative when it comes to theater, because this 1989 rock’n’roll musical by the Heather Brothers (whoever they are) is about as middle-of-the-road and mainstream as you can get.  And retro 1960s to boot.  In the end it’s not WHAT you do but HOW you do it that matters. The genre is irrelevant – as long as there’s zest and zing in the effort.

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Liau Siau Suan

Zest and zing abounded in this repeat performance (with a slightly different cast from the 1998 version) directed by Andy Cranshaw.  It’s a rare treat to find a show with no weak links. Every member of the cast – including the live 4-piece band and the barman (admirably played by Liau Siau Suan who also managed front of house duties, don’t ask me how he did it) – was very good indeed, though a few were particularly outstanding (but more about individual performances later).

The set was simple but utterly right: I stepped into the the Actors Studio Theater in Bangsar and found myself sitting in the Club A-Go-Go, magically transported back to the mid-1960s as soon as the band struck the opening chord. Okay, so the plot was basically Jack and Jill went on the pill, and started a sexual revolution. The songs – all 28 of them! – were parodies of 1960s pop hits by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Dave Clark 5, Helen Shapiro, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and Cilla Black. But they were good parodies, slickly executed by a totally pro band led by Helen Yap on keyboards, Mohd Yusoff Ibrahim aka Chobib on lead guitar, David Yee on bass, and Soegito Buno on drums.

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Nell Ng

Nell Ng played the peroxide blonde bombshell Penny and the very pregnant Shirl, and choreographed all the slinky moves. I’ll say it again: this girl is simply too amazing! Llewellyn Marsh made a superb Eddie, all awkward and gangly but perfectly lovable all the same.  Radhi Khalid was the supreme cad as Gary and quite funny as Terry the prototype hippie.  It’s hard to picture anyone but Derrick T as Eric “Rubber Legs” Devine, former rocker and owner of Club A-Go-Go. In the original UK production, “Rubber Legs” had a different surname (DeVere) but that’s quite irrelevant. Devine was fine with me, even if his stagey guffaw was rather diabolical – Mr T tossed off his lines and rocked through his solo numbers with inimitable flair and style.

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Radhi Khalid

Sharizan Borhan (a recording artist by day) was a marvelous Rick and it was a sheer delight to hear him sing. It was especially wonderful to see the chemistry between him and Sharon, exquisitely played by Samantha Lee (who’s married to Sharizan in real life).

Mary George has always turned in a solid performance and, as Gary’s long-suffering girlfriend Sue, she was totally convincing.  Newcomer Jaime Gooi was only slightly stiff as Frigid Bridget the ice queen, but I suppose that was in keeping with her stage character. A large part of the plot involves Eddie’s reckless boast to the guys that by the end of the night he’d succeed in getting Bridget to touch his crotch – and going on looks alone, most of the men in the audience wouldn’t have objected too strenuously if Ms Gooi had done exactly that to them.

A Slice of Saturday Night may be no more than an excuse for a highly entertaining evening of song and dance, but song and dance are Music Theater’s forte after all. I’d gladly see it again, preferably in the company of a nubile 18-year-old, but even an old flame will do.

25 July 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Storming Destiny’ Gains Thunderous Applause

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Shantona Kumari Bag’s solo Bharata Natyam debut keeps Antares on the edge of his seat and restores his optimistic outlook

Whenever I get invited to a show in KL these days I experience a mild anxiety attack. You see, it’s a 3-hour drive to the city and back from my mountain hideaway; and since the price of petrol shot up and my van’s air-con system broke down, these excursions have become drastically more arduous. I usually manage to find a few good reasons to stay home – but on the evening of July 27th, as the musicians took their place on stage and the lights went up on the stunning set of Storming Destiny, I felt extremely privileged to be present.

Every aspect of the production restored my faith in the possibility of total excellence – from Sivarajah Natarajan’s brilliant lighting and set design to the impassioned and impeccably performed live music. And, certainly, the sheer poetry and precision of Shantona’s epic dance was no less than a divine revelation. It seemed to me she had fully internalized the choreography and was simply reveling in the ecstasy of pure expression. This became more obvious as the 24-year-old dancer warmed up during the second sequence, Jatiswaram, and from there on, surrendered her whole being to embodying the Dance of Life itself. By the time she launched herself into the climactic Thillana, Shantona had sections of the audience cheering and gasping at her virtuosity. She received a well-earned standing ovation.

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Though I am by no means an authority on or even knowledgeable about Bharata Natyam, I sensed that this was an entirely fortuitous and ground-breaking collaboration of remarkable talents. Storming Destiny successfully navigated the hazardous artistic seas where innovation collides with tradition. Shantona Kumari Bag injected a palpable intelligence and self-assured awareness into Jayanthi Subramaniam’s robust choreography and made it her own; she also broke with tradition by adding a contemporary feel to her arangetram (solo debut) with her self-penned poetic narration and the inclusion of dramatic devices – like bringing her younger sister Shobhna Devika on stage as her alter ego.

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Bharata Natyam performances are famously taxing on the dancer as well as the audience. Quite often in the past I have found myself closing my eyes and drifting away, usually towards the middle of the show. However, my attention did not falter for an instant throughout Storming Destiny. So riveting was Shantona’s stage presence, and so exhilarating her joy, that time seemed to accelerate and space expand, energizing me on a deep, cellular level.

shantona-dancer2We have in Shantona Kumari Bag a very determined and strong-spirited young dancer who will soon be affectionately referred to as “the dancing doctor.” Currently a fifth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, Australia, Shantona took a year off to reclaim her divine gift of dance – having decided against sacrificing her artistic nature to the rigorous demands of medical science. Instead, she would make a bold attempt to combine her true passion with her chosen vocation (she comes from a family of doctors). Storming Destiny proved conclusively that it can indeed be achieved – and with magnificent aplomb too.

shantonaFB2As a young student at Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Academy, Shantona displayed a fondness and flair for Odissi (an expressive, almost sensual dance form from Orissa, India) – excelling particularly in abhinaya, the esoteric art of portraying a whole spectrum of emotions through one’s physical form. Perhaps the mental discipline of her medical studies helped steel Shantona’s resolve to master the more formal technique of Bharata Natyam.

Ramli Ibrahim, who ranks among the world’s best male Odissi dancers (earning the highest praise from connoisseurs and critics during a recent tour in India), has an unerring nose for talent. Over the decades he has wet-nursed the birth of at least a dozen dancing stars in the Classical Indian Dance firmament – including the likes of Geetha Sankaran, Mavin Khoo, Guna, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, January Low, Revathi Tamilselvam, and Vidhya Puspanathan. Shantona Kumari Bag undoubtedly deserves a prominent place in Sutra’s permanent hall of fame.

shantonaFBAnother outstanding performance at Storming Destiny was delivered by the musicians comprising Gomathi Nayagam (vocals), Jaya Sekhar (veena and violin), Theban Arumugam (mridangam), A. Perampalam (flute), and Ashok Kumar (tanpura) – with Ramli Ibrahim doing an absolutely masterful job of timekeeping on the nattuvangam. Gomathi Nayagam (who currently teaches at the Singapore Fine Arts Society) blissed out the audience with the celestial beauty of his voice and his flawless pitch.

An unexpected bonus on the first night of Storming Destiny was the marvelously humorous and touching speech by guest of honor Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan. Everyone present shared the profound pleasure and pride that Shantona’s parents, Drs Arun Kumar Bag and Mridula Kumari, must surely have felt.

When the very air we breathe is befouled with pollutants – and the banal misrule of mediocrity seems oppressively unchangeable – an event as consummately produced and aesthetically gratifying as Storming Destiny becomes all the more therapeutic and laudable. I salute Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra for being such good medicine for the soul. And, of course, for nurturing such quintessential talents as Shantona Kumari Bag and for giving Malaysians a genuine cause for celebration.

14 August 2007

[First published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2007. Photographs courtesy of Shantona Kumari]

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