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WEIRD ISN’T ALWAYS WONDERFUL

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Caecar Chong: butoh-flavored existential surrealism, anyone?

Antares very nearly nods off at Lee Swee Keong’s Nyoba Dance+ offering

Call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I’m one of those diehard conservatives who generally hopes to gain some pleasure, joy, insight, epiphany, revelation, or even simple amusement from an evening at the theater. All I gleaned from A Cherry Bludgeoned, A Spirit Crushed was that the Chinese avant-garde has hit the big time in KL – and that there’s a horde of young dancers, musicians, designers, and actors with enormous energy, ego-drive and talent – but with no sense of direction or purpose other than to get their efforts known beyond the confines of their own circles. These are post cari makan Chinese in search of greater makna (meaning) – or, perhaps, unmakna!

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Keeping a low profile

Well and good, you might say, but at what point does an artist’s need for attention become an impudent imposition on his or her audience? Again, the age-old question: where do you draw the line between the arty and the merely farty? The answer is really quite simple: when you leave the theater feeling robbed of your time, rather than privileged to have witnessed something beautiful and true. No doubt there were a few in the audience who derived a great deal more meaning from the performance than I did – if only because they could understand the metaphorical or mythical context of what struck me as a visually mesmerizing but utterly obscure bit of mummery – with only some Chinese subtitles to go by and a smattering of Cantonese and Mandarin verbiage thrown in. Not much help really. And the program was equally obscure. True, there was a repetitive poetic commentary in English very seductively read by Merissa Teh – but the words fully matched the choreography in terms of obscurity: “ah! fawn of youth!/dapper/stalwart/thick of thigh/well equipped/bandit advances/my dagger at the draw/just in case...”

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Lee Swee Keong, electric butoh monk

Okay, that takes us back to a recent production of Rashomon in which Lee Swee Keong played the monk, and very credibly too. Merissa Teh’s sultry voice reinforced the impression that Lee had found his basic inspiration from the famous Japanese saga of rape (after all, wasn’t it Merissa who played the ravaged wife?)

What about the projected kinetic text? Ah, that came right out of Hiroshi Koike’s Spring In Kuala Lumpur – another production in which Lee shone – as did the dangling cucumber in lieu of a dead sparrow (but why not a carrot? I guess cucumbers are much easier to disembowel).

Butoh in the digital era

What about the Ikea tealight-lit cooking sequence with gas stove, garlic and cooking oil? Aha! Lee must have really liked Aida Redza’s Tiga Naga, which had the dancers pounding sambal belacan in stone mortars and swallowing the spicy shrimp paste to produce dragon’s breath.

The performers comprised Ian Yang, Caecar Chong, Kiea Kuan Nam, Lee Swee Keong – and a chimeric horse on castors which was led round and round the stage for no less than 15 minutes (it was at that point I found myself nodding off) while techno-composer Goh Lee Kwang played DJ with a trance-inducing rhythmic loop on his laptop.

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Kiea Kuan Nam:
dancing in briefs

Initially emerging clad only in yellow briefs, the dancers wasted no time transforming themselves into Chinese court ladies in black, red, yellow and blue – thereby surpassing Joe Hasham’s Importance of Being Earnest by attempting the cross-dressing right on stage. Costume designer Khoon Hooi must have had fun dressing the horse.

In any case the “love horse” – the most evocative element in the entire production, with its otherworldly antlered head conjuring images of Cernunnos the ancient forest deity or mystic unicorns – came in handy as an excuse for audience participation. People were invited on stage to mount it and be photographed just before the finale.

Goh’s electronic music succeeded in generating a hypnotic ambience, though it lacked the subtlety, texture and lyricism attained by dancer-composer Weijun Loh’s recent audio experiments. It’s no great feat to create a nerve-racking cacophony that merely drains the audience’s energy. Fortunately there were enough funky bits to make up for the headache-inducing intro – but I must remark at this juncture that plagiarising from Ravel’s Bolero without due acknowledgment or credit may well constitute an artistic offence. But I suppose Maurice is long dead and can’t object too much.

Mac Chan’s lighting was, as usual, one of the more redeemingly competent elements of the production and contributed greatly to the arty atmosphere rather than the farty. The same cannot be said, alas, for Lau Mun Leng’s performance art or live installation, as the program describes it. While the “ladies” are busy preparing their “meal” on stage, Lau is busy scrawling cryptic numbers and energy lines around them and finishes up by wheeling onstage a blood red toilet bowl overflowing with foam and decorating the foam with fake bloodstains. Now what was that supposed to represent? That the moon was exerting her periodic influence on the court ladies? Or was it merely an idea borrowed from Paul Loosley’s madcap staging of Ubu Roi last year in which toilet bowls were the leitmotif? I hope the director wasn’t insinuating that his artistic vision was crap!

Visually mesmerizing

I have long been an admirer of Lee Swee Keong’s work as a dancer-performer. He has invariably impressed with his focus and technical skill – primarily as a butoh exponent with Lena Ang’s feisty dance company (which unfortunately vanished from sight when she got married and emigrated, though she left Lee her artistic legacy). Indeed, the butoh influence remains clearly visible in Lee’s overall approach to movement, hence the stately, lethargic, zombiesque choreography. Lee is undoubtedly of shamanic (or perhaps extraterrestrial) lineage and has the power to draw attention – even adulation and awe – upon himself like any true magician.

However, magic has the power to liberate or entrap. On the cover of the souvenir program, the production was ingenuously described as “a scintillating gem by Lee Swee Keong.” Was that tongue-in-cheek? I don’t think so. As I picked up my tickets for the show I glanced at the poster and read a glowing endorsement by someone named Wish Teo… or was it Wishful Teo? Can paying audiences in Malaysia sue for misleading advertising, I wonder?

A very fine line between shaman & showman

In the case of A Cherry Bludgeoned, A Spirit Crushed, what ended up bludgeoned was my patience; and what ended up crushed were my hopes for an inspiring, stimulating, and enjoyable evening. A copy-and-paste collage of vaguely artistic postures does not the cutting edge in dance theater make.

1 December 2003

[Color images courtesy of Kelvin Tan]

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Meeting of Three Masters

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Koji Motoki, quintessential butoh dancer

Antares is glad to have caught a quintessential one-night event featuring butoh dancer Koji Motoki, jazz blower Kazutoki Umezu, and percussionist Lewis Pragasam, that might well have been called “Zen and the Avant-Garde” 

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Kazutoki Umezu, leader of the well-known Kiki Band

Some of the most awesome phenomena occur in the blink of an eye. Look away for a moment and it’s gone. Like a shooting star or a supernova. Or like the October 24 (2002) butoh+jazz performance staged at MATIC’s mini-auditorium by master of movement Koji Motoki, master of breath Kazutoki Umezu, and Malaysian master of rhythm Lewis Pragasam.

If a friend hadn’t urged me to go – singing the praises of Umezu who records with the jazz-rock outfit, Kiki Band –  I wouldn’t even have known about it and would have missed one of the most inspiring performances I’ve seen in years.

The person responsible for bringing Motoki and Umezu to town was Mr Nishino – a Japanese businessman residing in KL who also happens to be a weekend jazz musician and a keen connoisseur of the performing arts. Nishino had arranged for the duo to perform at an opening in Singapore.  For some reason the deal fell through after Motoki and Umezu had arrived, and so we had the good fortune to have them perform in KL instead. The inclusion of Lewis Pragasam on percussion not only bought in some local color, it effectively added a whole new dimension to the largely spontaneous performance.

In the space of 75 minutes – with only a pumpkin, some carnations in a vase, a table, and a few costume accessories – Koji Motoki succeeded in telling the story of Evolution through the expressive but minimalist medium of butoh.

Illuminated only by flashlight…

The dancer made his entrance completely smeared with white clay and illuminated only by a handheld flashlight. Wearing only a pair of white bikini briefs (I’m sure he would have done it completely starkers in an environment more accepting of nudity) and clutching blobs of clay in his hands, he edged his way to center stage, where he confronts the mystery of life as represented by the carnations in a vase. Bits of dried clay tumble to the floor around him, as though his physical body is still in the process of forming itself.

His face a mask of agony from the pangs of his own birth, he begins to explore the novel sensation of being incarnate (is that why the carnations, as a symbol of the beauty of our own incarnate experience?) The transpersonality of the butoh discipline effaces the ego of the dancer, transforming him into Adam in the Garden, a universal archetype of humanoid being. As his explorations continue, he discovers and cavorts with a large golden pumpkin, symbolic of the feminine principle, or of the planet itself.

He lies on his back on the table, feet in the air, and his toes turn into a tribe of tiny beings. An animated dialogue ensues between both feet.  Duality arises as an illusion, as each foot represents a polarized perspective, such as male versus female, East versus West – only to resolve into a dynamic unity the moment the dancer gets back on his feet and springs catlike into another dramatic metamorphosis.

In butoh, one dances with every muscle of the body, which becomes an object of contemplation: strange, primordial, mysterious, and transcendentally beautiful. Stillness and silence express as much as, if not more than, movement and sound. Comedy and tragedy become inextricably one, and so do audience and performers.There were moments when it seemed as if I were having an out-of-the-body experience, that I was actually a disembodied intelligence observing myself on stage.

Kotoki’s supple body articulately told the 20-billion-year story of Spirit’s journey through time via the Book of Changes that we call the Genetic Code.

He slithered and crawled with reptilian ease, then sprouted wings and took flight. Floating out in a black dress like a burlesque butterfly, he impersonated every seductress known to man. Disappearing into the wings, he would reappear as a little girl or a dwarf, reduced in stature simply by donning a tiny white frock. Another quick change of costume and he would transform into a cosmic waveform or an amphibious, prehistoric creature. Standing on the table with head and hands poking out through an oversized costume, he became a convincing giant, a mighty warrior king.  Alternately limping and leaping and clambering up the wall like a spider, he played out the magnificent plethora of lifeforms that inhabit our collective psyche – including an amusing episode as “civilized” man, ashamed of his own reproductive potential.

All the while, Koji Motoki’s masterful butoh display was aided and abetted by an inventive live soundtrack provided by the amazing Kazutoki Umezu and the exuberant Lewis Pragasam. One a master of breath capable of producing the most unexpected sounds from a variety of wind instruments (including a length of garden hose and a foot pump); the other a master of rhythm, generating suspense, dynamic tension, and humor on a wide array of percussion instruments.

Umezu’s clarinet and saxophone improvisations were pure jazz expression in the mode of John Coltrane. Short, stocky, bald and bespectacled, Umezu exuded self-confidence and absolute mastery of each instrument, adlibbing with perfect intuition and always supportive of the dance.  There was a high-energy musical interlude in which Umezu – wearing an outrageously colorful jacket – played off Pragasam’s drums with avant-garde abandon. It was a zen encounter with two masters, each coming from a different tradition, embodying different influences and musical genres, yet converging ecstatically in the magical spirit of the eternal moment.

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Lewis Pragasam, master percussionist & jazz drummer

Pragasam proved his well-practiced percussive reflexes, synching right in with the unpredictable drama of the performance. Impressive, considering that this might have been his first experience of an extemporaneous butoh+jazz gig. The dead giveaway was the diabolical grin on his face: veteran performers of avant-garde dance and music never reveal their personal enjoyment of the proceedings.

The three masters wholly succeeded in spellbinding the small but appreciative and thoroughly enthralled audience. Their outstanding performance was cutting-edge art, raw and intoxicating. I drove home in an euphoric trance, drunk with delight.

All in all, a powerful, stimulating piece of work with a mind-blowing artistic integrity rarely seen in these parts. Too bad so many missed it because of limited publicity and the brevity of the event.  Perhaps the Japan Foundation will bring Kotoki and Umezu back again in the near future. Arigato.

4 November 2002

[Note: Koji Motoki passed away on 6 December 2009]

TAMING of the SARI

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Taming Sari, a 500-year-old keris reputedly belonging to Hang Tuah, the legendary Malay warrior (photo: Casey Ng)

Antares plays Red Devils’ Advocate at MANCHESTER UNITED AND THE MALAY WARRIOR

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Rani Moorthy, Malaysian-born Mancunian

Having been greatly entertained by Rani Moorthy’s one-woman play, Pooja, I was looking forward to the staging of her latest work, Manchester United and the Malay Warrior (which will see a one-week run in June at Cultureshock, the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival in Manchester). A collaboration between Five Arts Centre, Rasa (Ms Moorthy’s own company) and Contact (UK), the project was spawned from a Creative Industries Trade Mission from Malaysia to Manchester two years ago. As a Mancunian resident born in Malaysia, Rani Moorthy was ideally positioned to create this complex study of hero archetypes in a cross-cultural context. Ms Moorthy’s non-linear text was intelligent and lyrical, laden with historical and mythical references, and whimsically addressed the issue of cultural and ethnic identities in non-Euclidean spacetime. But how it was translated to the stage raised a few questions many have asked but no one can answer. For instance, what defines a play as “experimental” and what makes it plain boring? When does artsy turn into fartsy and vice versa? Not so long ago, a cross-cultural dramatic collaboration of colossal proportions was staged in KL. Called Pulau Antara – The Island In Between, it was directed by Jo Kukathas with a huge Japanese and Malaysian cast. Despite a few structural weaknesses in the script, it proved to be a spectacular production and broke through to new levels of artistic and technical achievement in its use of multimedia effects.

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Krishen Jit, Malaysian dramaturge & theater doyen

The same cannot be said of Manchester United and the Malay Warrior as dramatized by the indefatigable Krishen Jit. After nearly 40 years in theater, Krishen’s reputation as a dramaturge is probably too firmly entrenched to be shaken -or even dented – by mere criticism. But, much as I love the man and respect his dedication to the development of a “post-colonial” Malaysian theater style, I have to say he seems to have run out of ideas. That doesn’t mean I think he should stop. Theater is his life and soul, and even if his dramaturgical output is wearing thin, we’re happy to have him around forever. Indeed, we’re fortunate to have him around at all. A saucy rojak of Malay bangsawan and Chinese opera, tossed in with random elements of Brecht, Chekov, and Ionesco, may produce a universal salad with a distinctly local flavor, but it doesn’t constitute a dietary staple. And you can’t keep microwaving and serving up last week’s rojak without losing customers or turning it into gado-gado. The bottom line is, people are paying more and more for an evening at the theatre – and they want to be entertained, not merely provoked and left scratching their heads. High-brow art doesn’t necessarily hasten the receding of hairlines on eggheads, it can also be wonderfully down-to-earth, engaging, soul-satisfying, sexy and, above all, enjoyable. Art comes from the heart, not the head. True, a learned head can craft what the heart says into sheer eloquence, but too much left-brain processing only turns it into empty, institutionalized rhetoric. In his director’s notes, Krishen says:

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Hang Tuah vs Hang Jebat,
Apollonian vs Dionysian

“One of the most debatable issues was the character and persona of Hang Tuah and his brand of heroism. The revised version of the play tussles with the contested notions; the phenomenon of contestation and dispute continue to preoccupy our current rehearsals. An edginess continues to occupy the air of the rehearsals, producing tensions and conflicts that are one of the stimulating aspects of the present collaboration.” Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that there was a fair amount of artistic disagreement amongst the collaborators (at least one hopes there was); but judging from the performance, it would appear the director had the final say. Was there nothing I liked about Man U and the Malay Warrior? Well, the technical aspects were fine (nothing particularly brilliant) except for the incidental music which kept jamming, causing the dancers to pause in mid-step till the sound came back on (now, this jerky effect could have been deliberate, it’s hard to tell with a Five Arts production). Video footage of the Manchester United soccer club was inserted at strategic points but contributed little (apart from breaking the visual monotony) to Ms Moorthy’s musings on culture heroes.

Elaine Pedley, livewire performer

British actress-director Romy Baskerville turned in a stalwart performance as the nostalgic pensioner Alice; and the multi-talented Mohamad Arifwaran (who also choreographed) was fairly engaging as Kamal and Hang Jebat. Jerrica Lai as Tun Teja was her usual intense self (and did well as a dominatrix in one of the video sequences). Elaine Pedley and Mardiana Ismail (Hang Lekir and Hang Kasturi) were energetic, highly focused, and very cute. However, Adlin Aman Ramlie’s Hang Tuah looked but didn’t sound the part at all; while Chee Sek Thim was rather lame as Hang Lekiu, loverboy Tengku, and even as the ethereal back-projected Jinn (whose mask-like makeup was neither grotesque nor scary, it was simply unaesthetic and uninspired). The “Keystone Kop” prop movers (working at high speed to a silent film soundtrack) might have been intended to lend the proceedings a cartoonish dimension – but I didn’t laugh, nor was I amused by the frozen grimaces on the dancers’ faces. Some people are too serious to be funny and Krishen Jit is a prime example. Somehow, the boundaries between comical, farcical, and poignant moments became blurred, so much so that any inherent humor or wisdom in the script was obliterated by the stilted style of the performances. In the early 1980s Five Arts Centre dedicated itself to producing cutting-edge theater. Time (and sponsorship contraints) may have considerably blunted that edge, but in this arts-unfriendly climate, we have little choice but to keep supporting and cheering on the few institutions that have endured. Nonetheless, beyond subjective definitions of “excellent” or “mediocre” theater, paying audiences expect to at least enjoy themselves. No doubt there were a few “interesting” ideas thrown at us but, alas, there was far too little joy in the experience.

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Manchester’s Red Devils may encounter visa hassles in Islamic countries…

7 May 2002

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