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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.

JS Wong, in 'Calling from the Mother of the Earth'
Photo by Aison Hoh, courtesy of Batu Dance Theatre

The transition from the rain was a little drastic. But on hindsight, local rain does stop drastically at times, then out came the worms and creatures of sorts from the earth. And earthworm, was the subject of inspiration for the solo performed by JS Wong a founding member of Batu Dance Theatre. His distinctly animalistic move created a complete contrast to the classical connotation from earlier scenes. The rain screen could have been lifted at the start of this scene if not earlier, for better transition and view of the well-performed solo. Unfortunately, the down to earth rawness of the solo was somewhat obscured by the rain screen, and the dancer blended right into the moss green projection. Act two ended with ‘The Song of the Rainforest’, a dynamic and dramatic scene of dried leaves covering the entire stage floor. A group of 16 dancers stomped the stage with ruffling leaves under their feet as if responding to the beat of the drums. The four drummers on stage, on an elevated platform, was much like Political Mother Unplugged by Hofesh Shechter premiered in 2010. The scene’s dynamism flattened as repetition was used to excess. A little variation of the same sequence could have elevated the dynamism to match the dramatic stage design.

Noah Yap in 'Hornbill in the Air'
Photo by Aison Hoh, courtesy of Batu Dance Theatre

Act Three, The Homeland, started with an aerial silk solo performed by Noah Yap to portray a hornbill in the air, the native bird of South East Asia. It acted as a nice additional drama to the performance as a whole. White was the chosen colour for this solo, which broke the stereotype of the hornbill’s colour which was heavy black with its signature yellow beak. The colour and perhaps the minimal use of the arms to represent fluttering wings rendered the dance more like a horse in the air than the hornbill originally intended. The solo was followed by a violinist sitting on stage right, bringing the audience from the sky back to the earth, from pure white and blue of the sky to the bright and lively red of the earth. Playing popular local children’s songs such as Chan Mali Chan, the violinist bravely donned on a pair of red pointe shoes and started her quick ballet footwork on stage. Both instruments, the violin and the ballet required extremely precise execution of technique. Although with much sincerity, this section was a let-down, with both music and dance, clearly challenging the performer’s limits. A duet started as a pair of bugs with a single hibiscus projection as the backdrop led off into the final ‘Hibiscus—The Homeland’ scene. It was a muhibah dance scene, typically used to convey the multiculturalism of Malaysia, with 24 dancers dressed in traditional kampung [village] style costumes in the 1960s. Although lacking in novelty, the ending was celebratory of the life and work of Batu Dance Theatre over the years.

Dancer in 'Hibiscus--The Homeland'
Photo by Hoh Sei Keong, courtesy of Batu Dance Theatre

Fly, the audience did, a flight through the years of Tan’s enthusiastic work with his dancers and students. Although lack in the clear ability to speak through strong body movements, and some technical flaws, it was a very sincere and honest work. And there were no qualms about Tan’s ability at storytelling through his choreography. There were no clear storyline or script in Fly, yet, you sense a story to be told or interpreted. His poetic approach to choreography was in a way, comforting. It must have not been an easy flight for Batu Dance Theatre to have made it till today. Registered full-time dance companies in Malaysia are few, and fewer still are the ones able to put up an artistic performance even once a year.

The struggle of dance artists to find a footing in this country is real, but the ones who persisted did so with fine results, of breeding fine artists and dance enthusiasts of today who are making contributions as leading figures in the dance industry, contributing to many younger generation of practitioners who will shoulder on, the values beyond words and sounds, that only dance can provide. Those people, include Tan and many others who are still leading dance troupes in Malaysia while juggling with another full-time job or jobs. Perhaps, this is the only way to fly, for dance practitioners locally, to keep hoping and do the best we could despite not the best of environment.

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