No Silk Purse

Titiwangsa is a nice lyrical sort of name. The Titiwangsa Range itself conjures a sense of adventure and romance. So when dancer/choreographer Ramli Ibrahim and lighting/set designer Sivarajah Natarajan combined forces with avant-garde composer Valerie Ross to produce a dance spectacular dedicated to the spirit of Titiwangsa Lake, around which a bustling park has grown, the potential seemed enormous indeed.

It’s been years since I ventured into Taman Tasik Titiwangsa – not since I attended a friend’s wedding way back in the early 1980s, in fact. Even then the park seemed pleasant enough in a bland sort of way – but there wasn’t a lot to recommend it, since I’m no jogger and I’m not really into tai-ch’i, angling, boating, and other healthy urban-type activities. To me Taman Tasik Titiwangsa is essentially a welcome patch of green amidst the proliferating tumour of a city intoxicated with the concept of endless growth.

The lake itself was originally an abandoned mining pool, a relic of the days when Chinese tin miners flocked to Malaya in search of instant wealth and in the process established mining settlements that evolved into bustling towns like Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. It’s certainly not a mysterious spot like Avalon, birthplace of legends like the Lady of the Lake. But trust Ramli Ibrahim’s fertile imagination to find magic where none exists – and attempt to bring it to life on the big stage at Istana Budaya.

So did it all hang together? There were moments of epiphany, certainly, when a glimpse of something beyond the mundane shone through – and some of the choreography was engaging enough, and gave the young and enthusiastic dancers a pretty good workout. But I must confess that I found myself nodding off at least three times – at crucial moments in the plot (if any) and so was left none the wiser at the end of opening night.

True, the production was visually quite stunning – and the multimedia effects were highly evocative, to say the least. Nevertheless, much of it seemed overly contrived and I couldn’t quite see the point of watching a bunch of kids cavort on stage against a giant rear projection screen showing more cavorting kids. I know the idea was to conjure vignettes of what actually goes on every day at Taman Tasik Titiwangsa- people jogging, exercising, bands rehearsing, sweepers sweeping up the litter, snatch thieves terrorising little old ladies, fogging units waging chemical warfare against the insect kingdom… you know, the prosaic routines of urban existence.

And, of course, there was Puteri Titiwangsa, the spirit of the lake representing the pagan roots of the human psyche, who would emerge under cover of darkness to reclaim the park when all the humans were gone. The concept reads very nicely on paper – but translated into choreography and music, it didn’t carry much aesthetic charge for me. Maybe it was the music. Hard to put one’s finger on the problem – but it was neither here nor there, not so fantastic that one would sit up and take notice; yet not so terrible that one could actually find fault with it. Not a particularly inspired hotchpotch of sound modules from Valerie Ross, and certainly not something I’d look forward to hearing again, on account of its grating, mildly irritating undercurrent of dissonant subsonics.

Sasha Bashir, as Puteri Titiwangsa, was pretty enough to behold but has still some ways to go to acquire enough stage presence to anchor such a pivotal role. Given that he only had about one month to put Titiwangsa together, Ramli Ibrahim wisely did not undertake to choreograph it all himself. Instead, he roped in Guna as assistant artistic director and assigned him and Wong Kit Yaw to work on certain segments, so what we saw was the combined results of three very different choreographic approaches. It was quite apparent that the choreographers and dancers had a wonderful time on this collaboration, and that alone would have made the entire exercise a worthwhile one – regardless of its overall artistic accomplishments. There was a tangible spirit of exuberance and joy embodied by the dancers, and this lent the whole production an overall charm and warmth and gentle humour that more than compensated for any thematic shortcomings.

But in the end, good intentions alone are not enough to make a production truly come alive. Taman Tasik Titiwangsa is simply not the stuff of modern mythology. It will always reek of City Hall, wax fruit and plastic flowers, and try as anyone might – even if he happens to be the immortal Ramli Ibrahim – it’s never going to evoke anything beyond a few polite smiles and a couple of stifled yawns.


Antares lives and cavorts at Magick River, Kuala Kubu Baru

First Published: 19.07.2005 on Kakiseni

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