Sweet and Sour in Rasa Unmasked
Ramli Ibrahim, one of Malaysia’s dance pioneers as he continues to re-invent his creative production and Sutra Dance Theatre, now run by Sutra Foundation from its home, Sutra House at Persiaran Titiwangsa, not far from Malaysian National Theatre, Istana Budaya. Ramli has a long history of dance performance and dance making since his Australian days of dancing ballet to Indian classical training in India. The main bulk of his dance work is devoted to classical Indian dance work of Odissi and Bharatanatyam. However, he has also done a series of Malaysian-based contemporary dance theatre productions like “Titiwangsa”, “Pesta”, “Pandanglah Lihatlah”, “Silat Arrahim” and “Gerhana”. In fact “Gerhana” was his first contemporary Malaysian work after his Malaysian debut performance in 1982. “Gerhana” also led him to establish his dance platform, SUTRA Dance Theatre.
It is such a great joy to hear that a Malaysian dance theatre company got an opportunity to perform at the Sydney Opera House. In fact the collaboration with Anandavalli of Lingalayam Dance Company in Syndey has led to this excellent opportunity in Australia. This is not the first intercultural dance work for Ramli and Sutra. In 2003 Sutra and Teater Cahaya, have done a collaborative intercultural work based on Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, involving various forms of Asian performances like Mak Yong, Noh, Topeng, Bedoyo, Arje, Gamelan and Bharata Natyam, performed by the well-known dancers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan.
Rasa Unmasked production brought Ramli together with Anandavalli, a Sri Lankan Australian, founder of Lingalayam Dance Company, and Alex Dea, an American Chinese composer, leader of Teater Cahaya. Anandavalli comes out of her five year retirement to dance in this piece, while Alex Dea, who has moved to Central Java since 1992, continues to experiment Gamelan music with avant-garde sounds. With 35 years of performing in Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, Anandavalli brought her three strong dancers, Abirami, Navamani and Seran, trained in Australia and India together with two strong musicians, vocalist-Aruna and tabla percussionist-Bala Sankar. As the Malaysian collaborative partner and artistic director, Ramli Ibrahim brought with him three well trained dancers, Guna, January Low and Rathimalar who was formerly dancing with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company in London as well as Sivarajah Natarajan, Sutra’s in house set and lighting designer.
Rasa Unmasked is a re-interpretative work revolving around mapping out the various human emotions that underlie our very existence. The word Rasa has been bandied about in Indian classical dance since the days of the Natyashastra, a 2000-year-old treatise on the performing arts. Rasa Unmasked explores the nine rasa -Adbhutham (wonderment), Shringaram (love), Veeram (valour), Karuna (compassion), Hasyam (laughter), Bibhatsam (disgust), Bhayam (terror), Raudram (anger) and Shantam (serenity).
The Nine Rasa set the mood of the night with the echoes of traditional Javanese Gamelan music in the background with a bold and prominent symbol of bare bones hanging from the top of stage supplemented with a somber mood of lighting.
The show opens to one of the male dancers, Guna, barely covered with dhothi, emerged crawling from the entangled bone with a butoh-like movements but lack the deep emotion of butoh. The performance slowly unfolds the nine rasa show to various dance poses and mapping the dance floor in its lack of impressive moments. It was interesting to watch Ramli depicting the war and carnage scene in Balinese dance movements, switching from his usual Indian dance moods. It is also interesting to see Anandavalli’s ability to express subtle emotions and simplicity in her performance although her unsuitable costume was distracting the viewing at times. The younger dancers generally presented their best abilities in various dance forms. There were few moments when you felt that you were on the verge of getting uninterested with the dance performance, but grateful to the burst of differences by Rathimalar, Guna and January. However, there are plenty of sweet poses, pretty costuming, lots of smokes and gold confetti to feel blessed, if you like sorts of things in performance.
This kind of work, an intercultural collaboration, can be a bit demanding for audience who are not used to it. It is almost like a democratic collection of movements, dances and sounds blended together in a big pot. I must say that what draws my first attention to the show was the gold-colored headdresses, modern designed dresses and minimal accessories adorned by the female dancers, reminded me of the Asyik Princesses of Kelantan Palace and potential to be less-Indianised work by Sutra.
As Ramli Ibrahim was saying “I’ve one feet in tradition and another in contemporary times. A classical dancer must be subservient to tradition. But in modern dance you are responsible to tradition: you must be different, individualistic. Contemporary dancers make their own creative statements while classical dancers are loyal to time-honoured traditions”. Rasa Unmasked performance however, still has the stylised aspects of hand-gestures and movements, that strongly draws from the Indian classical dance genres of Bharathanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi. This so-called contemporary dance, developed from classical Indian styles, does unmasking a fascinating international and intercultural collaboration, but the whole make-up of the dance making still lead tradition based contemporary with traditional storytelling and traditional dancing to the musical beats.
Dr.Zulkifli Mohamad is currently attached to the National Arts, Cultural and Heritage Academy. He teaches Cultural Studies, Traditional Arts Theories, Improvisation Movements and Shakespeare Theatre. He is also active as a practicing dance theatre artist, playwright and arts curator.