A Truly Asian Siddharta

I’d got myself free tickets to Linkin Park’s concert and had the choice between that or attending the gala premiere of Siddharta, a dance-drama piece by Teater Cahaya, based upon a novel by the same name written by Nobel prize-winning (1946) German author Hermann Hesse. I chose the latter – even though I’m a big Linkin Park fan. It was not a difficult choice nevertheless, for I’ll never give up the chance to watch the most talked about dance-drama in town. A choice that I did not regret.

Though Hesse’s words are easy to read, I personally think they can take a lifetime to understand. With the help of an interwoven movement of dance, you can consider the piece performed by Teater Cahaya as an abridged version to the celebrated literary work. It is a remarkable achievement for Richard Emmert who co-directs Siddhartha with Koyano Tetsuro (they also worked together to create the text for this dance drama) to inject an imaginative direction capable of depicting the tribulations of Siddhartha, his search for the meaning of life, spiritual gains and feelings.

Teater Cahaya (Theatre of Light) was formed in February 2001 as a collective of people from various Asian theatre forms, and includes malaysian dancer and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim. Interestingly enough, three non-Asian theatre practitioners conceptualised Teater Cahaya. They were Manuel Lutgenhorst from Germany, an award-winning stage designer and director who spends much of his time in Indonesia, Alex Dea, a Chinese­American avant-garde composer, and fellow American Richard Emmert, who is a Noh performer and composer based in Tokyo.

Teater Cahaya’s imaginative vocabulary of movement for this vigorous, highly original performance is drawn from traditional art forms such as Arja, Topeng, Bedoya and Gamelan from Indonesia, Noh and Shomyo from Japan, Bharata Natyam from India, and Makyong from Malaysia. The eclectic selection of ethnic dance movements evolves seamlessly into and out of each other in a stunning flow of interactions.

Although Siddhartha was originally conceptualised by Lutgenhorst, performers of Siddhartha (all members of Teater Cahaya) should be given credit for collectively choreographing the entire dance piece through a free and open forum, with Dea and Emmert as facilitators. Thus a formidable adaptation of Siddhartha was finally formulated though a concerted efforts of these multi-cultural theatre practitioners.

The high production values carried across to the impressive set by Sivarajah Natajaran. It is deceptively simple, yet refined and effective. The creative use of lighting and silhouette (also by Sivarajah Natajaran) is highly commendable. The allegorical quality of the dance drama is further enhanced by the ingenious use of a hanging and moving printed fabric across the stage from time to time, which I find somewhat symbolic of ordinary events like the passage of time, or something extraordinary like the different paths of Siddhartha’s life (the idea of time and space is further reinforced by an actor striking a cymbal).

The dancers are all top professionals.

Ramli Ibrahim is a fine dancer, mature and wonderfully communicative with his poetic movements. He’s very good at transmitting the melancholy passion and despair of middle Siddhartha, all that while wearing a topeng (mask) and acting without speaking a single word.

Akira Matsui manages to display the histrionic melodramatic gestures of old Siddhartha effectively, even with his ‘topeng’ on and with his Noh style of vocalisations.

Young Siddhartha is played by Liangga Sindhu Bastian who is a Chinese-born Indonesian dancer. Of all the three Siddharthas, he is my favourite. I simply adore his dance movements, which is clearly well thought-out and he carries it naturally with a sense of nobility.

Richard Emmert played the part of Govinda, the narrator. Interestingly enough, he carries the narration in his forte; the Japanese Noh style. His peculiar style of narration works beautifully and impeccably in Siddhartha.

Vasudeva is the character I most revered in the book Siddhartha. Indonesian dancer I Nyoman Sumandi plays this character brilliantly in his Balinese topeng movements. In his novel, Hesse wrote that Vasudeva’s body literally turns into light (one could see how the very same conceptual scene was used in the movie Powder) as he vanishes into the forest and goes ‘into oneness’. I had hoped to see this scene executed on the stage, but I Nyoman Sumandi simply walks into the background. I waited for the setting of a radiant lighting effect, in vain.

One of the most striking aspect of this dance-drama is the fact that it is being told in Asian idioms of dance and music, both of which are inescapably… post-modern and lend themselves fabulously to this form of narrative. A critical and strict expectation of a traditional drama-dance might have meant an austere vocabulary in the dance movement. But in Siddhartha, the familiar classical dances dazzle and, under the hands, feet and bodies of these dancers, appear curiously avant-garde. And with the multicultural aspects of the dance, (together with a carefully planned campaign in different vernaculars) their work comes across as post-modern and is an interesting exploration in the local (and regional) performing arts scene.

Although the avant-garde treatment of traditional Asian dance can be structurally demanding, Siddhartha still manages to retain the graceful economies and elegance of each classical dance vocabulary.

Siddhartha is not an iconoclastic exercise to the classical dance narrative, far from that; Siddhartha, I believe, is an attempt to enrich the present state of our traditional dance discourse – one which we have consciously allowed to slip into semi-oblivion.

Siddhartha is a fine example of a ‘ Gesamtkunstwerk ‘ – a total artwork, where there is a synthesis of the arts, (music, literature, dance, drama and even therapeutic aromas) thus weaving them into a complex ornamental and expressive package on the stage.

Add the complex, introspective, spiritual, poignant, constantly surprising choreography from the dancers of Teater Cahaya, with especially designed ethnic-looking costumes to match, (costumes by Alex Dea, Didik Nini Thowok and Sivarajah Natarajah) and the fantastic music directed by Alex Dea; you will be guaranteed an evening of consummate pleasure.

Following the world premier in Malaysia, Siddhartha will tour several Asian countries starting with Indonesia and Japan. Siddhartha was conceived, developed and produced by Alex Dea and Richard Emmert in association with Sutra Dance Theatre.

First Published: 16.10.2003 on Kakiseni

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