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Dancers on the Run

  • May 5, 2005

By Selvi Gopal

During intermission, as people walk out for a toilet break or a hit of coffee, it is not uncommon to hear them whispering about the first half of whatever show they had just seen. There I was at the performance of Inside Out, squeezed between many ladies in their elaborate saris, and all I heard were comments about the tactless jokes of the Master of Ceremonies.

It seemed to me, most of the crowd didn’t know how to react to what they had just witnessed.

They were probably thinking, as I was, that for a dance performance, there sure was a lot of running involved onstage.

Led by dance maestro Umesh Shetty, Inner Space, a new offshoot of Temple of Fine Arts, hoped to give Malaysians a new take on classical and contemporary dance and music. They desired to fuse classical Bharatha Natyam with modern dance, and carnatic music with jazz and the sounds of Africa. This was indeed a daring venture and I was keen to see if they could rise to the challenge.

Inside Out, their debut performance, opened with an Overture showcasing the music talents of Jyotsna Prakash on piano, Kumar Karthigesu on sitar, Prakash Kandasamy on tabla, Jamie Wilson on guitar and oud, Syahrizan Sahamat on percussion, and on vocals Bhavani Logeswaran.

It started out with much enthusiasm. The Overture had my heart pounding as the musicians played with much confidence and gusto. It seemed promising. Maybe Inner Space would live up to its pledge to be the source of infinite creative possibilities.

I came to the show with some amount of trepidation. I wasn’t quite sure if I liked the idea of an ancient and rich dance form that is the Bharatha Natyam diluted by the vagueness of modern contemporary dance. In my heart I was a purist uncertain if I could appreciate the alterations made to a dance that has been perfected over the centuries.

But I took the chance and decided to leave my traditionalist views at home. I came hoping to see Bharatha Natyam and Contemporary Dance walk on stage, hand-in-hand like two friends comfortable in each other’s company.

And in ‘Alarippu’, I got to see a bit of that magical possibility. Alarippu is the opening dance in Bharatha Natyam and choreographer Umesh Shetty, whose Tandava I and Tandava II won three awards at the 3rd BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2004, gave us a brief glimpse of his unique talent. Umesh has had training from a young age in Bharatha Natyam, Odissi, Kathak, Kathakai and in recent years, contemporary dance. And his mother and late father were dance icon in their time as well as being dance teachers. Naturally, dance runs in his blood.

Umesh does an excellent job of maintaining the spirit behind Alarippu, which is to welcome and thank the audience, while jazzing it up with the elements of contemporary dance. The music complemented the piece. Inner Space had managed to whet my appetite for more, although there were moments when the dancers (there were five) didn’t end some of their contemporary-dance inspired movements with much grace. But I was willing to over look it knowing that switching from one type of dance step to another surely must be difficult.

Next on the programme was ‘Moorish Waves’. This musical piece left me stumped. I just wasn’t sure what to make of it. It tried to encapsulate various types of music but sadly it didn’t capture much and was nearly quite forgettable. I say nearly because toward the end of this piece Azizi Sulaiman appears on stage to perform the flamenco with pianist Jyotsna Prakash. I couldn’t help but smile. It looked to me as if two people decided they wanted to have a bit of fun and got on stage and did an impromptu flamenco just for the heck of it.

After that came ‘Swaram’, which is Jathiswaram with a twist. Traditionally, Jathiswaram is seen as a pure representation of dance. There is no story to be told. In Jathiswaram one sees the purity, the very essence of rhythmic dance. Inner Space makes use of piano and African beats and sounds to bridge cultural and dance barriers.

The outcome was an interesting piece of choreography. Umesh kept many of the traditional movements of Bharatha Natyam in this composition and added modern dance steps to portray the fluidity of art. However, I wished they had incorporated more African-type dance movements instead of music, so as to reflect the true transitions between cultures.

At the intermission, I left for some coffee hoping to see more daring interpretations on both the classical and contemporary dance forms.

Instead, what the audience got was ‘Madhura Manohara’, a dance piece about love and desire. It was too long and taxing. The solo performance didn’t portray the longings of a lonely heart as promised since the audience was often distracted by the leaps and twirls that was part of the dance. It was just too vigorous.

The two musical pieces that followed left me equally drained. Yes, the music was fun, and full of life. But it looked like the musicians were having more fun than the audience. They seemed like they were jamming, and therefore, some of their pieces tended to go on too long. The guy sitting in front of me kept looking at his wristwatch. Although Sitar-player Kumar Karthigesu showed incredible talent, not surprising considering his illustrious background, the compositions didn’t hold too many surprises and ended up being very predictable.

The last dance for the night was ‘Varsha’. This performance included well-known names such as Judimar Hernandez and Loke Soh Kim as well as the other dancers of Inner Space. This was purely a contemporary piece and I hoped it would salvage the latter half of the show, which up till then wasn’t very exciting.

‘Varsha’ promised the crash of thunder and the torrent of rain. It wanted to portray poetry in chaos and music in turmoil. I think it succeeded. It was very tumultuous. There was so much leaping, running, kicking and rolling on stage that I felt, for a brief moment I was at an acrobatic show. Technically, the performers were more well tuned than the last few pieces, but it seems to me that on the whole, Inner Space’s idea of what is contemporary has not been fully developed yet.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Inside Out – I did. However, it didn’t blow me away. I left feeling that, with regards to contemporary classical Indian dance, maybe the gulf between the old and the new is just too wide to be crossed anytime soon here in Malaysia. Then I wondered if I was expecting too much. If I were, then I believe it is time for some serious dance revolution this country.


Selvi Gopal started learning Bharatha Natyam at age four. At 17, she quit to pursue other things. Later she became a journalist and did her time with The Sun. Now she writes for various local publications and the Women’s Feature Service.

First Published: 05.05.2005 on Kakiseni