Contemporary charms the old



INDIAN classical dance comes to mind when you hear the name Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, but the world-renowned dance master is also highly trained in makyong, ballet and modern dance. For his debut performance at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, Ramli opted for something else completely.

Quintessence: Ramli Ibrahim And The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra fused Asian modern dance with the celebrated music of three great classical composers — Claude Debussy (Prelude To The Afternood Of A Faun), Maurice Ravel (Sheherazade) and Igor Stravinsky (The Firebird Suite), whose music was brought to life by Ramli’s elaborate dance moves.

Ramli acts as a faun.

Ramli, who was also the show’s artistic director, was accompanied by dancers from the Sutra Foundation which he leads.

Brazil-born conductor Fabio Mechetti took the MPO into a mystifying world indeed. But the show works better when the audience is familiar with the fables on which the dances are built.

For the first composition, Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun, the stage was bare, leaving your imagination to do the work of painting the scene and setting.

Ramli appeared on stage portraying the Greek mythological character of a faun (half-man, half-goat), playing around in an imaginary forest and enjoying his surroundings. The enchanting music went hand in hand with Ramli’s actions, creating a fantastical story when five female dancers joined him, portraying seductive nymphs gallivanting around the faun.

Debussy’s score was set to a famed ballet performance about a century ago in Paris. The faun was then played by celebrated Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky who inspired Ramli’s performance for Quintessence. Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun was a short presentation but Ramli managed to illustrate the faun’s innocence and playful trait.

The female dancers successfully illustrated the nymphs’ sultriness through their soft and elegant movements, further complemented by their long flowing skirts.

For Quintessence, Penang-born soprano YiLing Chaing narrated these stories.

Sheherazade was a bit more difficult to digest as there were three segments in the one song cycle but there was no indication where each one began and ended. Ravel was inspired by the tales of the Arabian Nights and three poems by French poet Tristan Klingsor, namely Asie (Asia), La flute enchantee (The Enchanted Flute), and L’in different (The Different One).

Asie began with a string of dancers walking slowly around the stage bearing props that seemed to have been inspired by Balinese culture.

La flute enchantee on the other hand, has a more solid characterisation and narrative, which was presented with a credible performance by the dancers. It is about a slave who wakes up hearing the romantic sounds of a flute being played by her lover. Sneaking around her master who is sleeping soundly in the house, the slave goes to the window to relish the lovely sound.

The Firebird Suite was the highlight of Quintessence.

The Firebird Suite was the highlight of Quintessence.

L’indifferent is about a young and handsome stranger who sings outside the lonely protagonist’s door. The latter wishes that he would stop by as she longs for a human connection but, sadly, sees him walk away.

All three segments for Sheherazade were presented rather cryptically and the storylines were not translated clearly. Scenes were bland and loose, and there weren’t many memorable parts. There were dramatic moments, of course, but since the story presentations were rather vague, the message wasn’t relayed as effectively.

Thankfully, Ramli saved the best for last. The Firebird Suite was the most delectable performance of the night, captivating audiences with a brilliant tale and mesmerising dance sequences.

Unlike the previous two performances, The Firebird Suite, performed in collaboration with Dua Space Dance Theatre, presented a story that is easily understood, depicted in a more structured fashion. Based on a Russian folklore, the tale tells of young Prince Ivan who captures the magical Firebird but sets her free on the condition that she helps him in his quest. Prince Ivan later falls in love with a princess but crosses paths with the evil sorcerer Kashchei The Immortal. It is the Firebird that helps Ivan in ending Kashchei’s life.

Presented with elaborate costumes and dance sequences, the performance pulled viewers in with engaging and dramatic sequences. Kashchei, especially, is a memorable character, portrayed with devilish charisma. His malevolence was further defined through his dark long robes that swished grandly as he moved.

Fashion designer Melinda Looi was responsible for the fetching costumes — from Kashchei’s to the princess’ flowing dress, the prince’s gossamer trousers and the firebird’s bright red-feathered attire.

The climactic part of The Firebird Suite was perhaps the highlight of Quintessence. The MPO’s delivery beautifully complemented the scene.

Overall, Quintessence is a beautiful effort by Ramli and his dance troupe. It saw Ramli exploring various Asian dance, traditions, with the Sutra dancers breathing new life into the works of the three classical composers to make it more contemporary.