A Real Live Performance at the Nick of COVID-19 Time: A review on In Transit

National Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage (ASWARA)’s faculty of dance, presented In Transit, a mixed bill of choreography by Faillul Adam, also a faculty member at ASWARA. In the nick of time as well, just before all of the local performances along with major and minor events in Malaysia were forced to cancel or postpone in a nationwide effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Let’s take a walk together, through life before COVID-19, to a performance we could still go to in person. Remember that live performance?

The program started with a restaged work which won the “Best Choreographer in a Mix Bill” at the 13th Boh Cameronian Arts Awards in 2016. ‘Nasi Ekonomi’ opened with a row of dancers cannoning away seamlessly, and right before predictions can be made through the smooth transitions, the group split into half, leaving half of the dancers squatting down with the gesture of eating with their hands while the rest walked on. The concept of economy rice, a staple for most Malaysians showcased in this piece reflected on where the ultimate power of our culture lies, on the plate—food.

A spotlight on one plate, only one person could get it. The person who took it stood up deliberately into a sort of a walking Glico Man of Osaka, colossal in strength with a hint of formidability. While the dancers are running (quite literally) and moving across the stage in jerky staccato movements in arranged moments of synchrony. The Glico man of this piece continued to walk with zero interaction with the rest of the group, eyes only on the plate. Eventually, the dancers caught up with the plate or the person, as if it was the end of the world, ending the piece abruptly. This piece was a yummy combination of Faillul’s street dance background and his collaborator, Suhaili Micheline’s strong gestural elements. The cast of dancers was well-rehearsed to meet the demands of the choreography.

‘Backbiting’ began with a speech, “How to deal with two-faced people” by Marie Dubuque, subtitled by two dancers at the centre of the stage. Here, Faillul used a method called interpretative dance promulgated by Isadora Duncan, basically to express emotions through dance. The interpretation of the text by Dubuque was well performed in a comical way that delighted the audience. The message of the how-to was accentuated through the bodies of the dancers. The team of dancers with their heavy machoism contrasted by a touch of the pink t-shirt with a reputable cartoon graphic printed on the chest, brought to light, the imagination of a team of unconventional football players backbiting one another. On stage, they were at times friendly to one another, at other times ganging up in duos and trios. Faillul’s street dance background came through strongly in this piece with clear breakdance influence of technique and tricks. Dancers seemed well-versed in the unique choreographic language of their lecturer, rendering a rather engaging piece. Especially when the dancers arranged themselves in an arrow-like formation on centre stage with all the dancers making a tipping point to the audience, moving in a thrilling electric contemporary style.

'Backbiting', Photo by LH Tang

‘Under One Roof’ was performed by alumni and faculty of the dance department at ASWARA—Mohd Yunus Ismail, Mohammad Khairi Mohktar, and Faillul himself. It began with a duet of Yunus and Khairi which was based on conflict, perhaps living under one roof, that was danced in harmony. An oxymoronic scene that makes you enjoy watching them like a TV drama. Maybe dance does neutralise all conflicts? Faillul entered across upstage sluggishly on a four-legged wooden chair heavily as if reluctantly. He took his time to settle in the chair, while the other two danced on, downstage. As he settled in, the two joined him, and all three appeared to be uncomfortable with each others’ presence. Their efforts to fight for the chair or finding space living under that one roof were witty. The ending showed an attempt at reflecting our digital era, with a camera and tripod on stage that silently screamed “it’s selfie time” for the three dancers to get in under one screen as if living under one roof.

In hindsight, today with the pandemic spreading like wildfires across the world, the dance industry is living under one roof—the internet. The only dance performances happening, are online, staying disciplined on the rules for social distancing. What is the future of dance going to be like, living under one roof?

‘Nuansa’ was a piece highly anticipated as it was performed by guest dancers of diverse backgrounds and a wealth of experience on stage. Dancers hailing from Kwang Tung Dance Company, Dua Space Dance Theatre, along with JS Wong and Ng Xinying two notable dynamite on stage created much satisfaction and contentment to the hyped anticipation. Faillul’s capability at transforming “spot the difference” that’s usually a 2D game into a 3D “spot the difference” made the dance work highly interactive for the audience without trying too hard to be. The engagement was instantaneous as you really need to pay attention to what the dancers were doing differently between the first and the second version. By now, Faillul had established his favourite arrangement of the dancers on stage—in a row facing the audience, confronting and powerful; though it was becoming predictable. This time one can’t help but compared the students to the pros as they stood in a similar arrangement as the students of ASWARA dance department did in previous works. Performing on the same program as the pros must have been such a rich experience for the students, to absorb the energies and discipline oozing out of their very being.

‘The Curtain Fall’ was originally choreographed for the dance department students’ final year assessment at ASWARA in 2019. It was technically challenging, and each dancer performing at In Transit seemed well-prepared and presented a sense of security in their contemporary technique. In clean black and grey costume, 12 dancers showed much strength and camaraderie as a group. The choreography for this piece was clearly intentioned to showcase the students’ physicality, technicality, musicality, and artistry; hence, conventional in its ideas compared to the other works in the program. The group of dancers were able to not only work together but also to work as individuals. When they break into Faillul’s unique electric contemporary style, they seemed confident and proud on stage as the next generation of artists-in-the-making. Perhaps, the relationship between the choreographer and the dancers as lecturer and students played a major role in the clean and sleek performance they gave.

'The Curtain Fall', Photo by LH Tang

‘Rewang’ closed the program fittingly as the choreography was a recognisable ASWARA dance department tradition. Dancers were clad in a bit of batik on top of casual t-shirts and long pants. This work seemed like an attempt by the choreographer to call for unity through commonality, with the use of edited soundtrack, I love All of Me by Yoko Ono, calling for love for oneself and for others. He placed the dancers working together, literally wearing a piece of [batik] where they come from, and showcased where they could go, together. ASWARA, is one of the few institutions that nurture the next generation of dancers in Malaysia, providing them with a sense of roots in their training through courses in multiple traditional dance styles. It was pleasant to have a touch of tradition in a contemporary work to remind us of a shared culture in the past, a shared culture in the now, and a possible shared culture in the future. Here, the dancers showed some carelessness in technique, perhaps some of whom were junior students in the program. Their energy and enthusiasm, however, is not to be missed. If they keep up the spirits, who knows what they could develop into in the next few years? In the midst of the piece, a batik-clad “Totoro” [not a mascot] came onto the stage holding a big leave. It was uncanny, but a comedic addition to the serious topic of unity and camaraderie in Malaysia. ‘Rewang’ ended with dancers hugging and just noticing each others’ presence.

'Rewang', Photo by LH Tang

Faillul’s choreographic style was very distinct. His preference for dancers standing in a row, the electric style in contemporary movement, and his impressive way of conceptualising dance work from complex ideas. It was an exciting program, of physicality, sometimes more than dance, that makes Faillul’s work leaning slightly towards physical theatre. The huge stage space at the Experimental Theatre was unfortunately under-utilised. It would be nice to see how his work would pan out with the full use of the available space. Dancers in the training were strong, and dependable, though it would take them more years of experience in developing the maturity in the transference of emotions to movement and vice versa.

Movements are often limited, but the quality of movements that evoke emotions and action can only be developed over time through discipline, patience, and determination with sincerity and honesty from the depth of one’s being. The feeling of being in the same room at the same time at a live performance, to be provoked emotionally, that’s one of the many treasures of dance performance that each dance practitioner should always remember and emphasized during class, rehearsal or performance.

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