What A Virgin Needs

One might expect celebration galore to usher in the very first audience members to the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. But all is quiet, nay, peaceful. On this calm evening, cars ambled bumpily down a winding, mud-and-gravel road to come suddenly to a complex with the most contemporary architecture of steel, glass, raw concrete and exposed brickwork. This complex houses two new theatres – the proscenium Pentas 1, where Musical On Stage is presenting a Buddhist-themed concert, and the experimental black box Pentas 2, where I’ll soon be watching a dance performance from Japan. There was no colourful fanfare a la kompangs, bunga manggars, lion dances or some such culturally festive trimmings. Instead, two dance performances that I caught (on 25th May and 31st May, 2005) would imbue Pentas 2 with all the necessary vibes.

The first ‘inhabitants’ of Pentas 2 were the seven spirited dancers of Japanese company BATIK with their show, SHOKU – Full Version. Brought in by Japan Foundation, their unofficial ‘opening’ of Pentas 2 could not have been more appropriately blessed.

First, they blessed the performance space with explosive, dramatic energy in their furious dance and movements. Eruptions of synchronistic stomping, whirling, and collapsing have never been so poetic, so disturbing and so engaging.

Shoku also blessed PENTAS 2 with the all vital and uncompromising creative spirit of choreographer Ms. Ikuyo Kuroda, who has put together a multi-textured, emotionally-varied and visually stimulating show. From angry feet-stomping and private-parts-scratching scenes, Shoku dancers held our attention as they segued into sad and sullen moments, and later into little private scenes of comedy, and then back to full-on drama with a rock ‘n’ roll scene – complete with lead rocker and a chorus of vogue-ing dancers with the best use of microphones­ mutating-into-torchlights ever.

The explorative and experimental impulse that BATIK exhibited through the creative spirit of Shoku must be a core philosophy of the very young dance company. Although Ms Kuroda only set up BATIK in 2002, the company’s list of achievements in and out of the country is phenomenal.

Her choreography shows sound exploration of the relationship between the inner and outer realms of the body. Her experimentation with formal dance structures, combining ballet (totally deconstructed and irreverently used) with free form, to her theatrics and drama, to her use of performance art even, is testament of the will to push boundaries boldly. That wave of explorative and experimental impulse should permeate every single pore of the Pentas 2 entity so that it may be the breeding ground and birth place of boundary-pushing, edge-cutting music, dance, theatre and performance art.

Finally, all the creative experimentation and artistic exploration can only be derived from the force of skill, training and discipline. Ms. Kuroda’s training in ballet, modern dance and release techniques provided her with a strong foundation to spin her dance into her own expressive form. I am sure that it is only through the rigours of discipline and professionalism that this 28-year old (only!) Tokyo native has got to where she is today. Pentas 2 is fortunate to be bestowed with such professionalism, discipline, skill and training by its first performance; traits that are befitting of a world-class performance space.

For a complete contrast, local prima dancer Mew Chang Tsing of RiverGrass was the second performer to enliven the Pentas 2 stage – but the first local artist no less! Also a dance, Mew’s offering was a softer and mellower event. Might I add that her show also had quite an apt title: Mew & Her Muses. A new performing space must have its necessary muses for everyone who performs there.

More of a retrospective charting her journey in dance since the early 90s, Mew & Her Muses took on the familiar format of short snippets. Six of Mew’s milestones in her dance career, notched by memorable pieces which she had performed, were strung together to tell her story thus far. Her opening piece, ‘My Little Muse’ is by far the best in the whole compendium. The premise was the seemingly simple effort of gently coaxing her – and Teoh Ming Jin’s – two-year-old daughter Xinnie, to take to the stage.

Watching Mew with her daughter was indeed pure magic. The audience saw mummy ‘warming up’ little Xinnie by getting her to play with her soft toys and all sorts of imaginary games, subtly leading Xinnie into a dance. There was tension as the audience wondered if mummy would succeed or not. After all, Xinnie is only two years old and the wilful child with a mind of her own would not break into dance by a music cue.

So nothing happened on stage? Au contraire! As with any improvisation, the result is uncertain but the process is always fascinating and makes for gripping theatre. Mummy may be leading the improvisation but it is Xinnie who is the master, controlling the situation with her reluctance to move. She does, however, play along with mummy until she tires and retires. End of show.

So there was no dance in the conventional sense. But the audience saw an even warmer and more honest form of dance: the dance of a mother and child connecting on a basic level. The sense of child’s play brought the piece alive. And bravo to Mew for taking the risk. In the programme notes, Mew stated that she has found her new muse in Xinnie. In the truest sense of the word, a muse cannot be forced into inspiring its artist. It takes its time to weave its magic. Little Xinnie had brought the gift of sincere and honest inspiration – one that cannot be rushed – to Pentas 2. To more works-in-progress showings!

Mew & Her Muses continued to ‘bless’ Pentas 2 in a fashion that is totally opposite to Shoku. Mew’s show brought a warm glow that is much needed in a performing space, a glow that is comforting and safe, that allows for growth in creativity.

‘Rose’, a simple enough ensemble piece with dancers from RiverGrass and Akademi Seni Kebangsaan, may not be totally cutting edge. But there is a certain shared warmth that emanated from the dancers. This is the warmth that Pentas 2 benefited from and that would keep the spirit of sharing and collaboration strong and healthy in this performing space.

There you have it: Pentas 2 is now energised with two startlingly different dance performances. Shoku imbued the space with crackling energy that is edgy and electrifying while Mew & Her Muses showered it with more mellifluous vibrations, which are just as important. More importantly, because it is a black box, Pentas 2 took on the two shows with gusto. While Shoku did a magnificent job in filling the space with a violent yet sensuous performance, Mew’s calmer repertoire didn’t do badly at all. The intimacy of Mew’s solos and duets did not drown in what could have been the cavernous black. Therein lies the success of an experimental black box that can accommodate acts of any configuration and number of performers.

Sure, there are teething problems like the clang-clang of people walking up and down the adjacent steel staircase leading up to Pentas 1, but I am positive – call it blind faith – that such technical issues will be sorted out. All in all, it is a glorious unofficial debut of Pentas 2 and a quiet celebration of the KLPac’s opening. We wait in anticipation for when the whole complex is buzzing with activity. Am I being too gushy too early? There is still reason to be as I am dying to see the first theatre show there.


Lim How Ngean is the recent recipient of the Asian Public Intellectual (API) Fellowship given by the Nippon Foundation. He will carry out research in Tokyo in 2005 on Japanese contemporary and traditional theatre.

First Published: 02.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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