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A Dance Theatre that Survived 20 Years, Did it Fly or Did it Flop? A Review on FLY

Time flies, time will also tell. Twenty years of survival in a country that has always tossed the management of arts and culture around to different ministerial administration, Batu Dance Theatre’s founder and artistic director, Vincent Tan Lian Ho crafted a dance narration through the people that have come and gone within the company. The end product was a culmination of his vision and passion for dance, that in his eyes, represents the nation. Fly was somewhat reflective of the state of Malaysia, impermanence, instability, and in many ways, frozen in time.

Tan successfully built a community of passion and enthusiasm for dance. A collective of 30 dancers performed in Fly, consisted of mostly Tan’s students since the founding of Batu Dance Theatre. While some students were today’s leading figures in the local dance industry as choreographers, teachers, dancers, and producers, some had returned on stage just for the occasion [of the 20th anniversary]. It was a beautiful collective of dancers from different generations, that came together for a single purpose of celebration. The evening was a display of the relationship between the past and present, the people and the land; like the body and its shadow, intertwined and inseparable. The clever use of props as a touch of dramatism that defined theatre was skilfully presented alongside cinematic projection design. Special mention to the lighting design by Tan Eng Heng and Timothy Lau, that provided easy to follow guide for the audience to focus from one scene to the other in the two-hour-long production.

Act One, The Horizon, started with Tan himself dressed in pure blanc, alone on stage, with the sound of pounding waves, in tune with a song from popular Chinese TV drama, The Sound of Snowfall [雪落下的声音]. The only colours that appeared in the solo besides the double blue of the sky and the ocean on the projected background, was the balloons he later used as his only dancing partner. It was a clear depiction of his yearning for expression through his body and soul that manifested as dance. Within the simplistic and monotonic serenity, the colours of the balloons stood out as colours of hope that he found accompanying him through his journey of ups and downs in founding and directing Batu Dance Theatre.

Dancers in 'Flow'
Photo by Hoh Sei Keong, courtesy of Batu Dance Theatre

The first act continued to transport the audience from the distant sea into the heart of the deep blue ocean. Tan proved himself to be a master of image creator through the use of body and large props. The stage-covering sized silk cloth, although not a new method of stage presentation, was poetically authentic to his intentions of showcasing nostalgia. The two dancers that were visible being within and without the silk cloth, slashed the stage in half diagonally. It was intriguing for the mind to ponder, “What comes in between them?” Perhaps it was the past and the present, the then and the now, and so then, what will happen in the future? As if responding to the image created in the silk scene, a group of dancers all dressed in sync with the founder himself in the opening scene, started moving in and out of the stage in a modern Chinese dance style, signifying the diverse possibilities that could be—the future. ‘The Horizon’ was a poetic expression through the medium of dance. The dancers’ technique became forgivable, as the poetry was being narrated.

Dancers in 'Flow'
Photo by Aison Hoh, courtesy of Batu Dance Theatre

Act Two, The Myth of the Rainforest began with a scene that practically anyone, who comes to call Malaysia, home, would be familiar with—the rain. The rain screen (projection on transparent screen) silhouetted four moving figures in identifiable classical Chinese dance configuration accompanied by the percussions of gamelan. The touch of culture was not uncommon to Malaysian performing artworks to portray the unique acculturation of the local ethnicities. The four bodies started curving and waving as if frozen in time, travelling upstage to downstage, through and across the stage as if floating on boats across the river running through the heart of a rainforest. The choreography took pride in using the essence of the classical Chinese dance’s yuan chang [圆场] (petit walking steps, typically in curved lines), rendering the dancers appearing to be gliding through the stage or the rain effortlessly. Although beautiful, the rain screen could have been lifted after the image of the rain had sunk in for the audience, so that the dancers can be seen more clearly, just like when the eyes naturally adjust themselves to see more clearly after some time of darkness.