Asian Music and Dance

Rising & Through the Eyes of My City

Celebrated artists Aakash Odedra and Kalpana Raghuraman recently presented their works Rising and Through the Eyes of My City respectively in Singapore at Samarpana 2015. The three-day festival was held at the Esplanade Theatre.

 Odedra’s work had been promoted as the festival’s highlight and audience anticipation was palpable. The opening silence of Nritta, the sound of the tanpura, the intense triangular shaft of light that shone on a svelte body dressed in a simple white kurta and trousers – all commanded nothing less than the viewer’s complete attention. With a strong upper body that led him horizontally through space, Odedra’s light-footedness supported his vertical movements beautifully. I asked myself if Odedra’s leaps and jumps might be a tad forced. As if in response, he suddenly leaped and sank to the ground with the greatest ease, grace and agility, ending up seated in a cross-legged position.

In the Shadow of Man, choreographed by Akram Khan, was primal by comparison. The audience was riveted by the dancer’s transformations across the thin line between the animal and the human. In Cut, choreographed by Russell Maliphant, the focus shifted to Odedra’s lissom arms that drew circles of light that appeared as they disappeared. Forms and images were created by the body and magnificent lighting, although by this time I was starting to find Odedra’s face too expressionless for someone whose origins are in classical Indian dance. The final piece required an elaborate set-up of light bulbs that was visible to the audience. This sadly killed the surprise of moving from darkness to the gradual build-up of light. Constellation had a meditative and emotional quality, with subtle use of facial expressions and hand gestures. As I watched Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography performed, I was reminded of the Sanskrit verse ‘Angikam Bhuvanam Yasya…’ in praise of the cosmic Shiva. 

Raghuraman’s work was a tribute to 50 years of Singapore’s independence. Her choreography featured ten Singapore-based dancers from different ethnic and dance backgrounds who sought to express what it means to exist in this city. Five dancers of Indian ethnicity had trained mainly in bharatanatyam, while the rest were Chinese Singaporeans whose backgrounds included contemporary dance and ballet.

The performance was a conversation at various levels with the dancers, also depicting the city’s gaze on the interactions, struggles, tensions and excitement of its inhabitants. What was impressive was the way in which Raghuraman gave her dancers space for exploration and expression at the individual as well as collective levels. Since bharatanatyam was central to the work, it was unfortunate that its practitioners were relative novices when compared to their contemporary dance counterparts. One was left to imagine where the work could have gone had it been performed by a stronger set of classical dancers.

To begin, seven dancers performed contemporary dance movements at the centre of the stage. Occasionally we saw a hand gesture from the Indian classical dance idiom. Another group of three sat behind, witnessing the goings-on. Then, one by one, the three dancers stepped onto centre stage with bharatanatyam steps, the earlier seven now watching from the sides. What followed was incredible – the bharatanatyam dancers with their relatively weak technique inspiring the others to gradually adopt their classical form. With the facial expressions of the dancers rarely moving beyond conventional smiles in general, the short and intense abhinaya (facial expression) segment by Smita Ashok was a welcome shift. It became apparent that in order to harness and reveal the strength of South Asian aesthetics one needs to tap into both its nritta (non-narrative dance) and abhinaya. It struck me that especially in a work such as this, even a technically proficient bharatanatyam dancer may not be able to compete in the use of space and physicality that are inherent in forms such as contemporary dance and ballet. 

The dancers seemed most at ease and were delightful during the catchy and spirited Bollywood dance segment. With the entire cast on the floor, Jereh Leong – the lone male dancer in the show ‒ seemed in his element as the Shah Rukh Khan of the day! Right through the performance, Leong was compelling to watch as he crossed cultures and genres with tremendous ease and élan.

In the final part, the dancers slowly moved backwards to merge into a backdrop reflecting a dark and stark set of tall buildings with many windows and lights. Lighting designer Alberta Wileo deserves mention for this dramatic visual.

In the dance forms represented, the marginalisation of bharatanatyam’s abhinaya, and the music by Italian composer Simone Giacomini that seemed to equate ‘modern’ with ‘western’ or at best Bollywood, the work appeared situated along an East-West axis, reinforcing the western paradigm within which contemporary dance in Singapore has existed for some time now. In recent years, questions on ‘contemporary Asian’ and ‘Singaporean’ expression have begun to emerge. Factoring in these concepts might have lent the work greater nuance and relevance in the Singapore context.



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