‘Tepak Tari’ Has Just Dazzled, Charmed And Inspired Us Into Becoming Fans of Contemporised Traditional Dance
Here at The Daily Seni, we’ve had all sorts of writers who specialise in a whole range of fields, but we never had someone who walked into our doors with knowledge or desire to advocate dance.
Until one day, Bilqis Hijjas arrived at our doorstep and sat down with us.
She spoke of the possibilities of sharing her thoughts on our platform – bear in mind that then, us youths from various fields of the arts had no idea who Bilqis was nor did we understand dance. Long story short, in the end we decided that we couldn’t afford someone of her qualifications and experience (you could actually consider us a startup) and we had to make do with an intern instead.
That intern turned out to be Nazreen Abraham, a semi-permanent lurker at Minut Init Art Space who wrote some very interesting pieces for us. He had to go eventually (they all do) and that space on the editorial team has since been some sort of revolving door. We still wonder to this day what we could have achieved with someone of Bilqis’s stature on board the DS train.
But we digress.
Last night, we went to Menara DBKL to catch MyDance Alliance‘s Tepak Tari. As the opener of the KL International Dance Festival, Tepak Tari is a compilation of short works by notable choreographers and dance companies in the local performing arts scene.
Like the traditional welcoming betelnut box, or tepak sirih, Tepak Tari is a box of dancing variety, brought together into a single intoxicating experience.
Upon arriving at the venue, we discovered that we were in for Program A of the performance – there are two programs in Tepak Tari, namely A and B, and each boasts different itineraries.
While waiting for the show to begin, we bumped into social artist Janet Pillai (who we absolutely loved at Borak Arts Series 2015) as well as leading figure in Malaysian performing arts, Marion D’Cruz. Surrounded by paintings which form part of the RESTU – Guardian Spirits exhibition, it was surreal witnessing Marion out in the open like this; the national talent is known to rarely ever leave home for a performance these days.
We’ve never actually witnessed a full-fledged dance production before, so we used the opportunity to ask Marion if we made the right choice by coming to Tepak Tari.
“Perfect! This is a great show to start with,” Marion informed us, “the standard [of performance] is going to be high.”
Eventually, we found ourselves in the auditorium, seated and waiting. Several moments pass until we finally see Bilqis, who we realize serves as president of MyDance Alliance and producer of Tepak Tari. There was some sort of issue with seating arrangements and she had to relocate several members of the audience – among them an elderly couple – to other blocks.
Somebody in the audience laughingly piped up, “That’s so Bilqis, making her own parents move!” which prompted friendly laughter from a group of attendees. After a minute or two, Bilqis managed to get everyone settled and soon enough, house lights dimmed. We found out the names of the first three pieces of the night and were left to bask in the performances.
Opening Tepak Tari was Memories, a piece by award-winning choreographer Wong Kit Yaw. Performed by Yu Hua Secondary School Cultural Club Dance Group, Memories was a visual spectacle boasting exceptional art direction. Every costume was a work of art by Kit Yaw himself, a full-time lecturer at the National Academy of Arts, Culture & Heritage (ASWARA).
In Memories, a group of females in slender, traditional Chinese dresses dance in unison while a lone performer lies on the floor, as if in pain. She crawls ever so slightly towards the right of the stage, where she slowly gets up, and roles are reversed. The juxtaposition of the lone dancer’s suffering against a bevy of elegant, fluid dancers created a very delightful image; we couldn’t stop smiling during the performance.
It was a graceful, very visual experience that was held together by a continuous loop of Chen Yan‘s “The Osmanthus Alley”, as sung by Michelle Pan.
Next up was Ketuk Tilu, choreographed by Dutch national Gerard Mosterd. In this examination of a blacklisted Indonesian dance form rooted in the 60s, we have dance stars Raziman Sarbini and January Low in a duet set on a bare stage, with nothing but three PARCANs illuminating them from the front in three angles.
The form they were attempting is known as jaipongan. According to the program book, it’s an “underground genre rebelling against president Soekarno’s decree prohibiting the copying of Western rock’n’roll”. Based on ronggeng and silat movements, jaipongan even has a reputation for being “too sensual”.
The results were dazzling. Ketuk Tilu was a mindblowingly sexy piece; its two dancers twist, turn and occasionally intertwine, undulating constantly. You can tell both Raziman and January are having a lot of fun moving; they grin, inviting us and perhaps proving that dance could very well be the best thing we’ve never tried.
Behind both dancers were three blown up shadows (courtesy of the PARCANs and a bare wall), all moving slightly differently from the action on stage thanks to a manipulation of lighting angles. It was a very satisfying piece of work, and audiences reacted strongly.
Third on show was DPAC Dance Company‘s After Dark. The bizarre, unnerving and highly dramatic piece was put together by Wong Jyh Shyong, known to many simply as JS. Performed by just five dancers, After Dark showcases some extremely clever ideas, especially with the utilisation of props.
In this piece, straw mats and a pelita are used to tell a story about dreaming and imagining what lurks within the dark. It’s laden with rich layers of ambiance, and through it all we watch as the dancers escape from things that appear and disappear before getting swallowed by shadows. After Dark also makes use of straw mats in various fashion. It’s the performance with the strongest narrative structure within Tepak Tari, and perhaps the one that we found easiest to follow.
Performed by The Temple of Fine Arts, this was “a reworking of set phrases from the Indian classical form of kathak“. Sum to SUM was choreographed by Umesh Shetty and the performance came complete with a live band which used a mix of traditional and modern instruments.
Sum to SUM is meant to reflect on Umesh’s cultural inheritance, transformed through exposure, cultural association, integration and assimilation. To this writer’s untrained yet rapt eyes, there was something remarkably liberating about Umesh’s choreography that gives it an extremely accessible edge.
The dancers entered the performance area in traditionally inspired costumes, kept simple to allow free movement. It starts off silent, with only simple movements on the stage, but several minutes later comes alive and simply explodes in a wave of colours and kinetic energy.
It’s fair to say that everyone involved in Sum to SUM absolutely nailed it. Everything felt so complete; the audiovisual side of things were lifted to stratospheric heights thanks to the cultural aspect of the piece. This was by far our favourite performance of the night and we just didn’t want it to end! The crowd too went wild, sustaining their applause, whoops and whistles for at least 20 consecutive seconds.
Kwang Tung Dance Company‘s A Wrinkle In Time followed, but we were still quite hungover from Sum to SUM‘s intoxicating blend of sound and motion.
From what we remember of Amy Len‘s work, there were a lot of balloons and sinister ice-cream truck music. It was well-executed and filled with many interesting ideas, though we felt it was less gripping than the rest of the works we witnessed.
Most importantly, it was at this point of the night that we began to appreciate the influence of culture and heritage in the performing arts. Based on our sole experience with Tepak Tari, performances based on – or influenced by – culture and heritage had an extra dimension that drew us in and held us captive.
This was evident too in closing performance Dikir, choreographed by Raziman Sarbini for ASWARA’s Faculty of Dance. Inspired by dikir barat, the performance utilised the largest ensemble of the night, all clad in plain white t-shirts and kain pelikats.
Once again, juxtaposition is a key element in the visual aspect of the performance – a lone male figure stands on a chair, static, while the rest seem to impatiently sit on the floor. Every so often, the person on the chair changes and we never notice when this happens. Meanwhile, the seated dancers wait, bopping to the beat by Rag Bagno and Justin Lim. From time to time, they move in quick bursts of energy.
It’s another piece that develops over time. Movements are short but rapid, but the entire affair escalates as the piece nears its end, until its dancers have become increasingly more vocal. Audience reaction was highly positive, and we suspect Raziman has some sort of following in the dance community.
Post-performance, we were extremely compelled to get tickets for Program B of Tepak Tari, which is set to feature performances from Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, Sukania Venugopal, Suhaili Micheline and many other notable practitioners. What we’ve just witnessed at Menara DBKL was special, and given all the discussions on contemporarising traditional art back during Borak Arts, this seemed rather timely.
If Tepak Tari has done one more thing for us at The Daily Seni, it’s that it has reinforced our trust in Malaysian talent and opened our eyes to the abundance of hardworking, intelligent people who make art for a living. These are world-class goods on the stage; these people really seem to know what they’re doing and they’re doing it quite well if we may say so.
All this however won’t be sustainable for long without support from Malaysians.
Bilqis Hijjas states in her Tepak Tari welcome message, “Dancing bodies cannot live on dreams alone”. The thing is, talent cannot survive without funding or contribution from society. Aiding the situation however are the people of MyDance Alliance – volunteers who helped put things together for their love of the arts.
In any case, we hope our readers check out Tepak Tari at Menara DBKL this weekend, as this is a good chance for the masses to get into the rich and vibrant world of Malaysian contemporary dance. Trust us, fans of the arts, it’s a whole new world waiting to be discovered.
Tepak Tari runs until Saturday, 5 September! Program A will be on again 8:30pm this Saturday, while Program B runs at 8:30pm Friday and 3pm Saturday. Hurry, get your tickets from Tixipro via +603 7610 0682 or at the door! For more information, hit up email@example.com or check out KLiDance and DiverseCity.
All photos courtesy of James Quah!