Amy de Kanter, Chief Editor of ARTERI shares her thoughts on the National Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage (ASWARA)‘s Seru which took place at Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) last weekend. The program, comprising major short contemporary dance works inspired by true events in Malaysia, was produced by dance educator Joseph Gonzales and choreographed together with the company. All photos captured by Ashvin Varghese (@iemagotheos).
We’re ticket-holders but we’re standing outside in a public area. And there’s the matter of a motionless body, outlined in chalk. Are we public, audience or witnesses to a murder?
Three figures – live ones – come onto this outdoor stage. The first looks bored as he paces and stretches. So gradual as to be almost imperceptible, his indolent loitering becomes the movements of a dancer. The second dancer crawls onto the scene, hugging the ground, smiling with puckish mischief. She keeps her centre of gravity so low that to move she has to spread her limbs out like liquid tentacles. The third dancer’s movements are angular. Her elbows jut out then the wrist follows for the arm to extend. All three are dressed in black.
Surreality is pierced with reality as a young woman sashays onto the stage. She is light, fresh and pretty as a Disney princess who hasn’t yet learnt she’s a princess. You almost expect to see birds and squirrels help her roll out her mat as she sets down a picnic basket and presses ‘play’ on her iPod. The song is “Tea for Two”.
A cleaner sweeps the stage. Has he been there all along? He keeps his head bowed and eyes down as he sweeps. Like street and office cleaners everywhere, he keeps his movements so unobtrusive he makes himself invisible, as if he neither expects nor wants to be seen.
Again in contrast, a young couple pose for wedding photographs. Like the cleaner, their photographer is simply performing a task but the couple’s attention gives him status. They obey his instructions, looking at him but leaning towards each other.
A handsome man in a suit strides into the scene. The princess’ face lights up. This is her prince. There are now two couples on stage, everyone young, good looking and in love. They look happy, the music is happy, the audience is happy.
And then I’m not.
Because for reasons unknown my attention snaps back to the dead body in its rough chalk outline. It lies there while people dance, smile, sweep, snap photographs and enjoy the show as if it weren’t there. Not it. He. A person, albeit a dead one.
I’m unable to look anywhere else. The frolicking couples now feel grotesque, the cheery music cruel. I know the body is staged, of course, I’ve known since the start, but now it feels real. I’m strangled by grief for a dead, ignored stranger.
I sense something terrible, a shift in the mood. A chauffeured car has pulled up and the prince is leaving. The princess looks stricken, too naïve to understand. Two police officers approach her. She looks at them in disbelief then terror. They drag her away, struggling. There’s an explosion and rubble falls on and around the dead body. A Datin in big heels and huge hair takes over the audience’s attention, handing out ang pows in blood-red packets.
In the background, the cleaner mechanically sweeps up the debris, not looking at the body, not looking at anyone.
And that’s just the first piece of Seru.
My status on Facebook that evening read: “When you’re tired of ASWARA, you’re tired of life.” I attended my first ASWARA performance years ago with neutral expectations. They knocked my socks off. Every performance since then I’ve attended expecting something amazing. They still knock my socks off.
It’s more than the skill, grace and beauty of the dancers. It’s more than the excellent staging, lighting (in one number shadows of the dancers are cast against the wall and become part of the choreography) and perfectly matched music. It’s the awesome intelligence of each piece (did I mention that they make shadows part of the choreography?). ASWARA performances wake up a slumbering part of the brain, delighting it with questions and tiny details which must mean something.
“Why are they doing that?” the brain asks in ecstatic but desperate wonder. Who are those three dancers in black, who are unseen by their stage companions even when standing right in front of them, inviting, blocking or mocking. The three in black are the only ones aware of everything – the dancers, the dead body, even the audience. There awareness of us gives them a supernatural quality, the magic ability to move between the world of the stage and the world of the rest of us. They weave among us as we file into the theatre. They hand out candy stapled to a printed picture of a submarine. “Why are they doing that?”
When you’re in the audience, observing from the dark, there are no answers but there is something better: possibilities. Your intellect awakens, your underused imagination takes flight.
You think about the dead body again. Is ‘murder victim’ one of those terms like ‘expat’ that only applies to people of recognized commercial value? Is that why the figure is invisible? As disposable as foreign workers who die on the job because their lives are cheaper than safety equipment? You sympathize with the cleaner who is probably grateful that he has no one’s attention. It’s safer but must also be unbelievably lonely. That big-haired nameless Datin isn’t given a name, but doesn’t need one. The red ang pows are her power to distract us from the death, debris, and young woman – not a princess after all – being hauled off to a nightmare she was too innocent to imagine.
And that was just the first number. It got even better.
ASWARA Dance Company, and its founder, Joseph Gonzales should be loudly recognized as one of Malaysia’s national treasures. They certainly are an international one. They’ve toured internationally and will be performing in New York at the end of May. Lucky New York audiences.
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