Dancing with democracy

Published Date:

April 16, 2015


Transfigurations
Performed by Sutra Dance Theatre

Choreography by Rathimalar Govindarajoo and Kalpana Raghuraman
KLPac Pentas 2, August 2012
As our nation experiences rumblings that may herald a major political quake, one of our major cultural institutions is quietly facing its own seismic shift.
Sutra Dance Theatre was founded by the indomitable Ramli Ibrahim in 1983. After years of artistic merit celebrated both here and abroad, a tax-deductible foundation was set up in 2007 to preserve Sutra’s legacy. But, for a dance company, financial stability alone is not enough. As the iconic first generation of modernist choreographers passes on the baton, the dance companies they founded can’t keep serving up the same old artistic repertoire preserved in aspic. Overseas, institutions such as the Martha Graham Dance Company and Merce Cunningham Dance Company have found likewise.
But how to embrace artistic change while remaining true to tradition? Ramli Ibrahim has some experience of this: his own artistic practice has centred around updating traditional dance to the modern era, but from an Asian perspective, rather than adopting material from what he calls ‘the garbage cans of America and Europe’. With its emphasis on strongly emotional, often narrative, themes, Ramli’s brand of modernism recalls the psychological intensity of works by the American moderns, Martha Graham especially, but with a physical vocabulary and cosmology drawn from Indian classical dance.
Ramli’s project has brought Malaysian dance in line with the modern age, with Malaysia’s nationalist rhetoric of Asian identity and our belief in the linear narrative of progress. The mission now is how to catapult Sutra into the post-modern universe, a land of few, if any, certainties.
The strength of a leader lies in how he nurtures future leaders. With the recent production of Transfigurations, the first instalment of the 2012 Sutra Festival,Tarikan!, Ramli has taken a remarkable leap of faith into the wings, yielding the stage to two younger choreographers. In a double-bill of new work, the Sutra dancers took on Panjara, created by Rathimalar Govindarajoo, a star dancer from Sutra now rising in the ranks as a choreographer, and She-Ra, a commission for Dutch-born and based choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman.
Rathimalar’s work bears the unmistakable stamp of Sutra. The rich fabrics of the costumes, the gilded set, and the super-saturated lighting colours by resident lighting designer, Sivaraja Natarajan, recreate the lush visual effect for which Sutra is renowned.
panjara_hand
Thematically, too, Panjara covers familiar ground, merging Ramli’s fondness for gods and archetypes with Rathimalar’s feminism. In the first scene, a voluptuous gold-painted figure with a resplendent headdress, representing the feminine principle, wakes and stretches to the sound of a sarong-clad man playing the gamelan on stage. Women in simpler dress enter and dance in her footsteps. As the music changes (the musician now wears baju melayu and songkok, and plays a kompang drum) the golden idol retires, and the women must learn to dance by themselves within the boundaries of their social cage, represented by a gold-painted metal frame.
Fast-forward to the modern era, with the musician in jeans and hoody playing an electric guitar, and female dancers in Madonna-esque body suits struggling with their inherited restraints. In the end, the feminine principle returns to the fray to lead womankind to liberty.
This kind of literal interpretation – the use of symbolism, ‘this equals that’ – is the hallmark of modern dance. Audiences often find modern dance satisfying and easy to watch, as they recognise familiar figures and narrative formats. The creative process is similarly understandable. In service to its strong central theme, modern dance is often created by strong central choreographers with a single unitary vision – in this case, Rathimalar, under Ramli’s guidance. The choreographer usually creates and directs the movements, which is learned and reproduced by the dancers, and the emphasis lies in product over process.
But what a product it is! Panjara is crowned with carefully-assembled tableaux, dancers standing on other dancers or on the metal bars, combining to create glittering symmetrical poses. The effect is of moving from photograph to photograph, which is stylistically appropriate: photography, with its aspiration to reproduce scientifically an empirical reality, is perhaps the most modern of art forms.
Panjara also repeatedly uses the simple canon device – dancers one after the other lifting an arm or extending a leg – which gives the work a stylistic classicism (while also, perhaps, symbolising how women tend to follow each other in social convention). Otherwise, the work depends upon the display of virtuosity: ranked mirror images of perfect body positions, and a dizzying display of all the gymnastic stunts that can be performed with a climbing frame.
But the crux of Panjara – in performance as in creation, like other modern dance works – rests on the cult of a single individual. In Panjara this is the essentialised feminine principle, given a pitch-perfect performance by dancer Nalina Nair. Because of her body size, Nalina has been often marginalised in Sutra performances, but in this role she puts her natural attributes to good use. Her statuesque profile, deep cleavage displayed in a brazen gold bodice, and substantial presence, all dusted with gold, elevate her from mere human to graven idol. The other dancers can literally ride on her coattails – at several points, they harness themselves to the long train of her costume and get pulled along for the ride.
The feminine principle is familiar from previous Sutra works, notably the recentKamala which runs the gamut between the Christian Madonna and the figure of Kali Durga. (One gets the feeling that the abstract ideal of the female is being preferred to its human manifestation.)
Also familiar is the deliberate usage of the classical Indian dance idiom. Although divorced from its traditional devotional context, Panjara retains the clarity of the body positions and hand gestures of Indian dance, an approach which is mirrored by She Ra in the second-half of the show.
* * * * *
She Ra is a deliberately provocative title, all cartoon gusto and girl power. It’s tempting to laugh at it, and you should: the work’s departure from modern dance (which is notably lacking in humour) and its entry into the postmodern, is signalled by its irony, immediately evident in the irreverent costumes. The work’s six female dancers and single he-man are dressed in a colourful dress-up box collection, very much from the underpants-on-the-outside school of superheroes. Pierrot collars meet Star Trek jumpsuits. Rigid Pippi Longstocking braids clash with slick Matrix-like black overcoats. In She Ra‘s motley, costume designer Guna’s natural campiness finally finds its full and appropriate expression.
There’s also a strong dose of wit stirred into the choreographic mix. In one section, two pairs of dancers manipulate each other by their elbows in cute, clever little patterns, with a few spicy body rolls thrown in. Elbows are by nature humorous objects. Is it, perhaps, their proximity to the funny bone?
But most refreshing in She Ra is its interpretative multiplicity, where one thing can stand for many mutual conflicting things, or perhaps nothing at all. Take for example the beginning of dancer Harenthiran’s solo. As he stands in a stock hero posture, the women approach him as if curious. Then they circle him like adversaries, their gaze flinty and penetrating. Two of them move to his sides, and grasp him by the hands and elbows. Is this an arrest? But they escort him forwards very gently, as if guiding a blind man. Then, with deliberate use of force, they press his head downwards until he is bent double on his knees like a straitjacketed torture victim. Are the women his foes or allies? Nothing is made clear.

As She Ra diverges into multiple meanings, so it derives from multiple sources. Kalpana Raghuraman’s method, popular amongst contemporary choreographers, is a collaborative creative procedure in which much of the movement material is derived from the dancers. The choreographer sets tasks for the dancers, which the dancers ‘answer’ with movement; it requires quite a high degree of maturity, creativity and self-awareness from everyone involved.
While this method isn’t the ‘conventional’ understanding of choreography, it should never be dismissed as an easier or minor alternative. The choreographer is as responsible for sorting, choosing, arranging and adjusting the material, as well as providing some of her own, as ever. In addition, she must create a mood in which the dancers feel comfortable creating and sharing. Kalpana does this by encouraging discussion, and downplaying the inherent hierarchy of the choreographer-dancer relationship. She also tries to be sensitive to the emotional needs of the dancers, sometimes acting as therapist, at other times deftly balancing competing egos and creative input.
The choreographer shapes the work as a whole, but because the performers make greater contributions, the result is often more ‘honest’ than the conventional method; movements look like natural outpourings of the dancers’ bodies rather than reproductions. But old habits die hard. Kalpana sometimes had to ask the dancers to forget how they had learned to deport themselves on stage: to dial down the drama, for instance, and allow the movements to speak for themselves.
She Ra has some very personal performances too. I imagine that Kalpana might have asked, ‘As a dancer, what is your superpower?’ Some of the answers were physical: a flexible back, a sinuous torso, enormous hands, or an extraordinary ability to balance on one leg. Or the answers were deeper, autobiographical, spiritual: a passion for politics, perhaps. From these roots, Kalpana developed a solo for each dancer that teases out his or her character, at once specific and universal, but without a single purposeful point; more like an exploration, rotating a crystal to examine its facets.
Dancers are not used to being asked what they think. They are like Malaysian students in this way, trained in obedience and rote learning, who gasp and struggle when lecturers ask them to come up with their own ideas. But seeing how swiftly the Sutra dancers adapted to this new regime gives me hope; surely Malaysiansare ready for democracy!
Some of the dancers took this opportunity and really ran with it. Senior dancer Tan Mei Mei, for instance, is a stalwart figure in most Sutra productions; functional but not flashy, a solid member of the chorus. But in She Ra she draws the eye like a superstar. She seems really in the moment, her face alive, responding to the movement at the same instant as she is performing it, and creating the narrative for herself as she goes along. After the show, she mentioned that she actually felt more comfortable dancing in Panjara than She Ra; tellingly, when she feels less comfortable is when she really shines.
Watching She Ra can be uncomfortable for the audience too. When people say they don’t ‘get’ contemporary dance, they often mean the heuristic challenge of postmodern dance, which has neither narrative nor protagonist. But just as there is an element of play in the creation of works like She Ra, there can also be play in their consumption. Recently, play has become a buzzword; everyone is talking about how it can enhance creativity and build relationships in the workplace. But even in the 1930s, sociologists like Huizinga supposed that art (and in fact all of civilisation) is rooted in the primaeval soil of play. So the free use of the imagination must always be a necessary component of viewing art as well as making it.
For works like She Ra, spectators must be players. If they are alert to cultural references (the Matrix costume) or ready to detect patterns (like those in the Elbow Dance), and if they observe how danced images conjure up matching images in their own minds and then immediately upset those narratives, they can have much more fun watching postmodern dance than if they wait to be told a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Which is not to say that She Ra is a dog’s dinner or without any focus. It too has careful formal elements, reflecting the devotion to the classical Indian dance idiom which appears in Panjara. Two sections performed by all the dancers moving in-sync bookend the work. In the beginning section, the dancers move as a mass through familiar sequences from classical dance, stamping out increasingly complex rhythms without using their upper bodies, like Irish step dancers. In the ending section, the dancers sit on the floor and move only their upper bodies, again in classical positions. Since the dancers are also facing the back and moving in slow motion, the audience sees the familiar positions from a doubly unfamiliar viewpoint. The result is a focus on the classical purity of the movement: the practised formation of delicate mudras (of the hands), or the crystalline articulation of the lines of the body.
These sections of She Ra underscore the real strength of Sutra Dance Theatre: the discipline of their classical dance technique. If they were Voltron or the Avengers, this would be their superpower.
And their nemesis? It can only be these changing times. The transition from the traditional to the modern, and now from the modern to the postmodern, is difficult, if not impossible, to get completely right. There can only be constant trials, the repetition of the attempt, which in turn yields its own tradition. But Sutra Dance Theatre has shown that they are more than willing to take on this mission

You May Also Like…

The sutra of harmony

SUNIL KOTHARI Ramli Ibrahim before his performance in New Delhi. Photo Sushil Kumar Verma. From ballet to Bharatanatyam, Ramli Ibrahim presents multiple dance forms with grace and poise. As his latest Odissi production “Ganjam” makes waves, the celebrated Malaysian...

Quintessential Sutra book launch | Delhi, India, 2016

The launch of Quintessential Sutra (photograph by A. Prathap) took place in a lovely atmosphere of camaraderie with many luminaries of New Delhi dance world and also from the diplomatic and Malaysia-India business communities, in attendance. The new complex of the...