Naked Dancers Fight Back

The Hong Kong Arts Festival, a spectacular international showcase since 1973, was on in March. And so I crossed the South China Sea last month to fill my soul night after night with nothing but hardcore touchy-feely stuff.

The multiple award-winning Irish play, Stones In His Pockets, written by Marie Jones and directed by Ian McElhinney, that I caught on the first day is now counted among the most moving theatrical experiences I ever had. The two endearing performers, Sean Sloan and Louis Dempsey, admirably portrayed a whole Irish town getting swayed by Hollywood delusions when a mega production being shot there uses the townfolks as extras. The play shows us how the studio attempts to exploit the authenticity of the rural landscape and people for a cheesy love story, but misses out on the real stuff, the unheard, tragic stories behind the small timers with big dreams. This comedy about disillusionment resonates with mascara-ruining pathos. It even helped me empathise with those Malaysian actors who had to be disguised as authentic Siamese extras.

Stones has tremendous charm because of the author’s love for unglamorous people. I wish for more of that sort of stuff here. Apart from the superstitious family in Rani Moorthy’s Pooja, the generic characters in Uda & Dara and perhaps the dreamy nurse in Jit Murad’s Visits, I can’t say I have seen many representations of humble local folks in the Malaysian theatre recently.

I also caught the highly anticipated ballet version of Raise The Red Lantern, presented by the National Ballet of China and directed by Zhang Yimou (who directed the film}. The ballet does away with the fourth wife, the observer role that Gong Li played in the movie, and focuses on the adulterous third wife. The passable choreography (by Xin Peng Wang} with its haunting accompanying score (by Qigang Chen} is now less about the faceless terror of tyranny than it is about what a big official sponsorship and a magnificent set can do for a much less subversive plot.

The play the following night, Between Life And Death, written by Chinese Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian and directed by Tang Shu-wing, also suffers from incredible production values with misplaced aesthetics. The whiny Cantonese monologue recounts a woman’s darkest fears and has the actor (Louisa So} refer to herself in third person throughout. Quite a feat of rhetorics. But what could have been an interesting study of internalisation with detachment was instead a chest-beating performance worthy of Hollywood actress Winona Ryder. The strong macabre turns by the two silent supporting actors (Lindzay Chang and Hoi-chiu} came closer to representing Gao’s metaphysical whims.

It must be said though that both Red Lantern and Between were breathtaking on a visual level. But the same old question applies: are special effects enough? It is easy enough for us to envy their luxurious government­ subsidised budget. According to the Hong Kong Arts Policy, “annual recurrent subventions of $102.8 million (about RM50 million} and $180.5 million (about RM90 million} have been earmarked by the Government for the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts respectively in 2001- 2002 in support of their activities.” It’s enough to make you weep. Though we receive a fraction of a fraction of that, I am proud to say that I have seen Malaysian practitioners do more with less.

Returning to the hotel that night after Gao’s play, I checked my emails and received news that Instant Cafe Theatre’s production of The Baltimore Waltz had been denied a performance permit in Kuala Lumpur because it seemed the play “promoted Western values.” We know now that DBKL eventually let the play go on, but demanded for the removal of scenes with those Western values. Of course, this comes hot from the recent trouble with The Vagina Monologues. Here I am in Hong Kong, enjoying their thriving International Arts Festival that is 30 years ahead of us, and I am depressed knowing that we are that far behind simply because we are unable to recognise values that are universal.

I didn’t stay depressed long. I was determined to enjoy the things I know I won’t be able to in Malaysia, like the contemporary dance performance the next day. Titled Play Boys, it is choreographed by Daniel Yeung and claims to contain – gasp! – nudity. But don’t think I was thrilled. Two of my friends were performing. It was going to be that much more awkward to have to see their, you know, Eastern values.

Though the dance is mostly witty provocation, and even clothed, there was an instance in which the nudity was poignantly relevant to us fighting the burka mentality back home. A dancer had emerged in t-shirt and shorts. He struck a pose. Immediately other dancers emerged, circled him and forced him into different poses. They eventually stripped him, then flung him about. Then they grabbed another dancer and did the same. By the time the third dancer got stripped, the darkly orgiastic choreography had begun to resemble synchronised torture.

Suddenly, the birthday-suited boys started turning onto the dancer in military attire. As the scene ended, the soldier, outnumbered, cowered at the feet of those he had earlier stripped, who now stood over him proudly in all their natural God-given glory. What a brilliant conceit. And certainly a persuasive argument for “Less is More.” And perhaps, also this: artists, if nothing else, put up signposts for the inexorable progress of humanity. Those who set up roadblocks do so at their own peril.

“If somebody’s trying to shut you up, sing louder, and – if possible – sing better.” – Salman Rushdie in an interview after the fatwa.

Pang Khee Teik’s trip was sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

First Published: 09.04.2002 on Kakiseni

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