Monday, 25 July 2016

Amorous Delight; Amarushataka (The Sutra Dance Company Performance)

I had tickets for the final night (of the four night spree) of Ramli Ibrahim’s dance presentation, Amorous Delight; Amarushataka, by his Sutra Dance Company, at Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPaC).

Ramli and I had first met a few weeks previously, at Sutra House, during a gathering of the Malaysian Art Institute alumni. I thought him charming. A vision in his South Asian clothing, and a good advert for an energetic life. I had long been an admirer of his performances, his zest for life and his unwavering dedication to dance, and all that that entails. I was delighted to finally meet him, though briefly, for a talk amidst the noise and furore of the art school’s celebration, which Ramli had hosted. Later, I was invited to attend his latest production and performance, Amorous Delight, hence the tickets. It had tried to rain, but nothing was going to spoil that enchanted evening.

Before the show, in the foyer, was a small exhibition of intriguing works by Odisha artist/designer Jyoti Ranjan Swain which were also centred around the spirit of love. Those mixed media images, in their delicate ink and gouache/colour on Mill-Waste sheets, were an unexpected, yet delicious, primer to the anticipated show. 

The Sutra Dance Theatre dance performance of Amorous Delight gave homage to five verses (1, 4, 8, 40 and 74) from a collection of 100 Indian Sanskrit quatrains titled Amarushataka, by the 7th c. Indian poet Amaru. Some of the later palm leaf manuscripts (podi) were illustrated by an anonymous Master of Sharanakula (19th Century, Orissa, India). Dr Dinanath Pathy, along with Eberhard Fischer, had recently written on that very subject, for ARTIBUS ASIAE, publishers at Museum Rietburg, Zurich. Dr Pathy, resplendently elegant, was present at that night’s performance. A selection of illustrations taken from that 19th Century manuscript were projected as a backdrop to that DPaC Amorous Delight performance of the Orissa (Indian) dance known as Odissi.

There are many classical Indian dances. The oldest text of Nāṭya Śāstra of Bharata Muni (sanskrit) represents a detailed stagecraft manual, elucidating and observing how various dance styles; Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, and Mohiniyattam etc should look and be performed. The Nāṭya Śāstra suggests that there is “no axiom, no concept in the universe that cannot be expressed by the body”, so spake Ramil Ibrahim in a recent ‘Ted Talk. The Nāṭya Śāstra introduced the theory of ‘bhava' and ‘rasa’, vital to Indian aesthetics. ‘Bhava' meaning an emotional state or mood portrayed by the dancer/actor, while ‘Rasa’ “taste” or “essence”, referring to the sentiment that ‘bhava' has manifested by the actor, and therefore evoked within the audience. In the Nāṭya Śāstra ‘Odhra Magadha’ is mentioned, and may be identified as the earliest precursor of the present day Odissi dance style so beloved of the the Sutra Dance Company.

In the theater we heard, but could not see, the players of music. Ordinarily an Odissi orchestra might consist of a ‘pakhawaj’ (drum) player, a singer, a flutist, a sitar or violin player and a manjira (hand cymbals) player. Dancers are adorned in Odiya silver jewellery and an especial coiffeur. along with voluminous Sambalpuri (Western Orissa style) or Bomkai saris (from the Odisha village of the same name). They are often vibrant in colour and unique to the dance style.

The Amarushataka collection of semi-erotic poems deal with “delights and deprivations” of love, and the “dark anguish of union-separation”, according to one reviewer for The Tribune (2006), and tell of "the young beloved of slender body and bewitching face" with "enchantingly dishevelled tresses, the vermilion on the forehead smudged", "tiny beads of sweat shining as the earrings swing in playful rhythm”. The poems are intimate, loving, with a touch of the poet Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi) echoing sweet forlornness in longing.

With the aid of superbly lyrical classical Indian music from Srinivas Satpathy, Guru Dhaneshwar Swain and Ramarao Patra, Sivarajah Natarajan’s evocative lighting triggered the imagination to set the scene for a powerfully memorable performance. Ramli and company were, of course, simply stunning in their performances. From the large bow-drawing gestures, to the minuscule kohl lined eye movements and quasi-erotic kinesics, the performers intrigued and delighted a most enthusiastic audience. We watched enthralled as one performer indicated that her glances and her smiles would adorn the doorway, waiting for her lover, her breasts glinting with anticipatory perspiration replacing water pots. It was bosom heaving, love lorn poetics, skilfully transposed into stunning dance far surpassing the wanton gyrations of Bollywood Hrithik Roshan/Aishwarya Rai or Tamil film Urmila Matondkar/Prabhu Deva couplings, or music maestro A.R.Rahman at his best.

The performances equalling those of Nijinsky and Nureyev dancing L'après-midi d'un faune (from Stéphane Mallarmé's poem) revealed éros and agápe, Greek expressions of love. Éros as passion, seeing and appreciating the beauty in another and aspiring to know a spiritual truth, perhaps a truth through that cosmic dancer Shiva, as the Nataraja, lord of dance revealing the cyclical nature of the universe. Agápe, Plato thought of as the highest form of love, the love of man for god, or God, also the love for a wife and children. In 1970, the Beatles had finally sung “In the end the love you take, is equal to the love you make”. A lot of love was make, figuratively, metaphorically that night, owing to the efforts of a wide range of people who brought Amorous Delight; Amarushataka to life.

After show the audience birds twittered, they chit chatted, taking group photos and selfies. Indian memories were still fragrant, chords still vibrant and the air of love still charged sweet and sour, even in the colder light of the foyer, where normally the suspension of disbelieve begins to unravel.
Be-costumed dancers mingled, smiled, posed for photo after photo in the still electric theatre foyer, the scent of Jasmine still sweet from the dance.

The Sutra Dance Company’s excellent performance of Amorous delight was a triumph of near erotica. Together, the skillful ensemble held the prancing reigns of sadness, exhilaration, romance in its grasp, leading the audience this way and that, but always steady. It was a full gamut of emotion, visual and audible, melding choreography, poetry, Odissi Sangita (music), lighting and poignant graphics. A sublime hour rushed past and in true theatrical tradition we were left, like Dickens’ Oliver Twist, wanting more.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Chao's Caprices

Chao Harn Kae’s ceramic and sculpture solo exhibition, at K.L’s Oriental & Cultural Association, along the Old Klang Road, displayed all the ingenuity of a modern revelatory whimsy. A former Malaysian Institute of Art painting graduate (1997), Chao lives mostly in Hong Kong these days creating bronzes, ceramics, painting in oils and making sculptures. He returned to Malaysia to hold his first solo exhibition. This was launched some days after a M.I.A. old boys and girls massive get-together at Datuk Ramil Ibrahim’s Sutra House.

Whimsies are capricious, fanciful, playful. Chao’s Human Beast Series whimsies had the quality of being drawn from memories of childhood, and/or the more capriciously metamorphic elements of Western mythology. Petite white and blue porcelain centaurs (perhaps children of those sons of Ixion), pranced from Thessaly and Ovid’s Metamorphoses onto aged Malaysian railway sleepers. A blue-faced mermaid, her body pale, her piscine tail brushed blue, rested on a rough crafted breeze block. In her broken limbed stance she was another Aphrodite, risen from the sea and echoing the other from Melos, by Alexandros of Antioch. By another block of distressed wood, a blue-armed, white figure lay with its torso and lower body coiled, like a snake. It was most reminiscent of Grendel’s mother, the Anglo-Saxon sea-witch, bane of beowulf, but this male perhaps more resembled the Greek Typhoeus (miniaturised).

Chao was conquering our hearts and minds with his tiny caprices, enchanting his visitors with their sad little faces, be-rouged and frequently coy. A lonely, lost couple sat in a small boat on a railway sleeper sea, one tiny blue rabbit-eared figurine looking this way, another black one that. It was as if they were observing we visitors, forever curious of our curiosity.

Elsewhere in that tantalising display was Chao's Portrait Series, with tall white plinths which enabled intricately manipulated ceramic busts (as the genealogy of those myriad creatures was uncertain perhaps austs is more appropriate) to look out. It all began, Chao intimated, with the one head and neck piece. It was a simple figure. You could imagine it to be the face of a clown, disguised with pale blue make-up, perhaps wearing a tight fitting earthen coloured coif head piece, or cowl. Is the face a mask? Where lies the real persona? Is it behind the mask, or is there no mask but a face, pinch-lipped and cautious-eyed as a character from some Moebius Bande Dessinee perhaps.

Chao developed the concept further. Other head and neck sculptures began appearing, but this time with cowls resembling those of medieval fools, jesters with ass ears like Shakespear’s Nick Bottom (1500s), or Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen's “Laughing Jester” (1515) and Hans Sebald Beham’s "A dancing fool” (1500s). Many of Chao’s series resembled busts of The Lost Boys’ in their Neverland animal costumes, hailing from Walt Disney’s cinematic “Peter Pan” animation (1953). They were cute, but with a distinctive otherness and each with a distinctive, often haunting, face. 

Seeing deer antlers reminded Chao of hands, with fingers. He developed the idea into the head and neck series, then replacing ears with out stretched hands, or placing a hand on the head between the ears. His craftsmanship allowed his visitors to accept his concepts. His deftness and design encouraged a wilful suspension of disbelief as we, the audience, were drawn into his endearing fantasies. 

Aside from the fascinating works of art displayed, and they were fascinating too, Chao admitted that the whole could not have been achieved without a little help from his friends. During the setting up, one friend would advise this, another that, until the display took the splendid shape it was in when I visited. The exhibition visitor was immediately struck by the uniqueness of the display, and of the display materials themselves. To present Chao’s captivating works to their fullest potential, plinths and exhibition blocks had been constructed of breeze-blocks, sections of railway sleepers, distressed and corroded metal troughs as well as the usual white stands, of varying sizes, this resulted in a meld of materials which was both eye-catching and mesmerising.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

For the Arno River, Gallarate

Ettore Favini

Captive silver river mirror 
illuminating presenting intellect
Dissipating in darkness 

Permission of luminosity
Permits memory of light 
Reveals delving imaginings
In dolce dialectic

Urban Mining
Mimics mines
Extracting elusive elements
Within Contemporary critiques

Timeless river stretches
Gaul to Gallarate
Echoing meadows
Bound by grassy debates

Intricacies of Modernity
Forgotten Futurismo
Dripping typewritten notes
Presenting word ephemera

Potential poesie
Fragile as life
Fades into lacuna
Please mind the gap

All that is mined
Has been minded
Considerations of context
Collected in collaboration 

Nascent and Renaissance 
Genesis of art
Yet strangely irrevocably present 

Ma*Ga quick silver envelopes
Trite tributaries of meaning
Landings of dogma
Jetties of jetsam 

Monday, 4 July 2016

Swift Bats as MIA Gathers

Swift Bats dodged in the humid Malaysian night. Two young red dressed Indian girls swayed and danced Odissi while fireflies flitted around the octgonal stage, at Sutra house. It was the begnning of a rare night's entertainment. 

MIA founder Chung Chen Sun shared his thoughts while performers waited and his audience clapped. Soft songs sought ready ears as one Chinese singer sang to acoustic guitar, speeches abounded, more songs, keyboard and welcome greeting by Malaysian dance maestro Ramli Ibrahim. 

The cream of MIA mingled, ate, ate some more and reminded each other of the need for creativity. The time expanse of the seating was overtaken only by the length of the food queue. Sivarajah Natarajan's The Crowning Glory exhibition hid its brilliance behind pots of masala and crispy, fresh, roti cannai. I threw Honey to the lions, figuratively, as she braved the food queue and left me writing under a tree fern, watched over by a statue of Ganesha.

Ex MIA students rued the loss of a city statue, others the pairing down of courses at the new Institute. You could feel the commitment to creativity and to each other. I was glad to, momentarily, feel part of the whole.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Under the Olive Bough

Honey Khor had always dreamed of castles. Ever since her formative years in her small northern Malaysia town, Honey had fantasised of visiting a European castle. Being born in South East Asia, she had little hope of those dreams becoming a reality. Still she yearned, even as a novice painter grappling with her desire to be an artist and the vagaries of growing, learning and finding her way amidst the nay sayers and those incredulous at her chosen career.

Some decades later, Honey has her dreams come true. Not only has she been an active artist for over twenty years, but now has the opportunity to have her forthcoming exhibition of sketches in a castle. The castle is the Monteruzzo Castle in Castiglione Olona, Lombardy, Italy. This is coupled with yet another exhibition of her recent artworks, called ‘Under the Olive Bough’, at Palazzo Branda in the same town. She has worked vigourously towards these two exhibitions, burning midnight oils and two-ended candles to complete the work in time to catch her flights.

These European exhibitions follow on from Honey’s other successes in China, the Philippines and Spain last year (2015). This demonstrates not only the artist’s love of life, but her very stringent work ethic. The vibrant new work melds her bubbling imagination, her keen observations and her artistic aptitude in a flurry of acrylic and oil paintings concerning her two favourite Mediterranean destinations – Lombardy (Italy) and Catalonia (Spain). Doused in local Mediterranean symbolisms, Honey’s undoubtedly poetic mind has re-created consensus reality, transforming it into a flamboyantly flagrant Mielism where nature and man coalesce, metamorphose under the influence of the artist’s own Joie de vivre.

Olives are known to be at least 6,000 years old, according to fossilised leaves found in Athens. Honey, using an olive tree in this set of paintings is emblematic of many of the Mediterranean countries including the Italian Republic. Olives are representative of strength and resilience. Honey’s use of olive symbolises not just Hebrew mythology as an icon of peace, but also of prosperity, resurrection and hope in her vibrant paintings. She has embraced a very nexus of myths from Greece, Italy and Spain. The Greek philosopher, Democritus, had associated myths of immortality with olives. The Greek poet Homer referred to olive oil as liquid gold and the first Olympic torch was a burning olive branch.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Luo Qi and my two essays

My two essays in this book, published in Korea