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‘Storming Destiny’ Gains Thunderous Applause


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.


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.


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]



Aida Redza’s solo at ‘Feast of Fools’ (2007)

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.


Syed Mustapha
Syed Yasin

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.


Aida Redza at a dance workshop

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

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