Experiment in Bronze

On opening night of Monkey Business, director Krishen Jit wasn’t sitting like a stone deity in the foyer with an inscrutable look on his face, as is his wont. He was recuperating from another cardiac arrest in the National Heart Institute. However, those involved with Five Arts Centre seemed quite cheerful as they went about their business as usual. Perhaps they know that as long as the show goes on, Krishen will be motivated to get back on his feet. I’m inclined to think the man has the tenacity to soldier on till his hundredth birthday, heart condition be damned. On the other hand, I was acutely aware that this might well be the last time the venerable doyen of alternative Malaysian theatre, whose career spans nearly half a century, would be allowed (by his doctors if not his detractors) to put his unmistakable stamp on a theatrical event.

Knowing this rather sets a constraint on any reviewer who might otherwise be tempted to sink his or her teeth into the production and savage it a little. So I’m not going to carp too much about the few moments that made me want to slap my forehead and groan or quietly leave during the intermission, as a handful of people did.

Instead, I’ll focus on the few truly sublime bits which made me glad I stayed till the very end. I’ve always been fond of Sunetra Fernando and impressed by her work, specifically with Rhythm In Bronze, the gamelan ensemble she leads alongside Jillian Ooi. Fernando and Ooi’s accomplishments, as artistic and music directors of this expressionistic fusion of music, dance and theatre, were genuinely commendable. But several times during the performance I found myself closing my eyes so I could relish the music as pure music. Monkey Business was certainly a quirky experiment in pushing the frontiers of gamelan music – and, thankfully, a highly successful one in that the ‘avant-garde’ use of gamelan instruments proved refreshing and stimulating. RIB really ought to record their performances and release the best takes as a CD or DVD. Their first album, a studio production, was somewhat lacking in the verve, vigour and classy ambience that characterise their live performances. The only way to capture the vibrant excitement of RIB is via a live recording.

It’s been less than a week since I caught Monkey Business and, alas, I’ve already forgotten what most of the segments were all about. I remember thinking the contrived cacophony and chaos of transitions between pieces was a tad too cutesy for my taste and way overdone. Krishen has consistently used variations of this scene-­changing device for well over a decade, just as he has inserted the random factor of the lucky draw into the order of sequences in countless productions. True, these dramaturgic strategies still work, to a certain extent, but the ‘cutting edge’ effect has long been blunted.

Two or three pieces, however, were so impeccably executed that the memory of aesthetic pleasure remains vivid. For me, the high point of the entire production was Melvin Ho’s contribution, ‘There Was This Dream’, in which three ‘monks’ on gamelan begin a contemplative piece and are soon set upon by demons and gremlins of distraction and discord. The trio valiantly stick to their meditative course and successfully complete their musical pilgrimage to the transcendent heights of serenity and ethereal beauty. It was reminiscent of that scene in Little Buddha when Prince Siddhartha (played by Keanu Reeves) defeats Mara – archetypal tempter and Demon-King of Samsara – simply by ignoring every malicious attempt to disrupt his concentration.

The only thing that stuck in my mind about Susan Sarah John’s offering, ‘Carbon’, was her uncredited opening quote from Amadeus (the Miloš Forman movie), in which Antonio Salieri attempts to negotiate a deal with God, sacrificing his libido in exchange for musical immortality (“Dear God make me immortal. After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen”). It was unwittingly appropriate an allusion, since much of the thematic content of Monkey Business seemed to be the product of repressed eroticism – or arrested adolescence masquerading as childlike playfulness. But, then again, that may simply be the way most Malaysians are brought up. What else do you expect, after all, in a culture where men and women are encouraged to stay fully clothed on the beach?

As a performer, Mohd Sobri Anuar Mohd Tarmizi shows great promise and stage presence. I was reminded of Khalid Salleh’s ability to mesmerise, acquired from real life experience as a streetwise medicine seller. Sobri’s energy carried a pronounced shamanic quality, which more than compensated for any lack of technical or linguistic finesse. Unfortunately, his strong personality tended to obscure all other considerations, and I can’t for the life of me remember what he was getting at in each of his solo routines.

Venezuelan dancer-choreographer, Judimar Hernandez de Monfils, was an enchanting powerhouse of mercurial elegance – and always a pleasure to watch, even if her presence occasionally seemed gratuitous and purely ornamental, the way it did in an earlier collaboration with Rhythm In Bronze, in Sutra’s Festival of Contemporary Dance Theatre & Music staged in 2003. To my mind, Ms Monfils is so exquisite a dancer, one simply wants her to fill the entire stage with her lithe and statuesque form – instead of watching her compete with actors and musicians for the audience’s attention.

As a closing piece, Bernard Goh’s ‘Borderless’ was absolutely dynamic and fiercely inspiring. Goh, founder­ director of Hands Percussion, led two other members of the team – Chew Soon Heng and Jimmy Ch’ng – in a rousing display of precision drumming and Chinese-style acrobatics. It was a sure-fire way to dispel the stagey neuroticism of some of the preceding works and end the show on a high. The audience left feeling benignly charged up and optimistic about life in general, and dance-music-theatre experiments in particular.


Antares is an artist, actor, dancer, musician and writer; he is a living, walking dance-music-theatre experiment.

First Published: 07.04.2005 on Kakiseni

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