Women's trial by fire

Dancer Eva Tey represents fire in Pancha.
Dancer Eva Tey represents fire in Pancha.PHOTO: CHLOE CHOTRANI

The second of a five-part series exploring female archetypes highlights a mythological figure and a French heroine

REVIEW / DANCE

PANCHA – WHEN THE FLAMES BLAZE THE CAGED BODY, I SURRENDER MY SOUL, I AM…

Maya Dance Theatre

Emily Hill (Level 2)/Thursday

Fire, the energiser and destroyer, is a metaphor across cultures around the world and a signifier in philosophies that incorporate the elements of earth, air, fire, water and wind.

Maya Dance Theatre's five-part series, Pancha, explores female archetypes in parallel with these elements. Thursday's performance was the second in the series.

Co-choreographed by artistic director Kavitha Krishnan and visiting New York artist Esme Boyce, this site-specific, multidisciplinary production presents two iconic women who suffered trial by fire.

Sita, a mythological figure central to Hindu epic The Ramayana is forced to prove her fidelity to Prince Rama by surviving immolation, while French woman Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the British on charges of treason and heresy.

Fire symbolically connects the protagonists and opens a dialogue encompassing their contexts positing the notion of what would happen if they met.

Incorporating the company's signature mix of bharatanatyam and contemporary dance, the underlying themes are probed from an East/West perspective.

A significant point in Maya's interpretation is that Shahrin Johry, a male dancer, plays Sita. From the opening silhouette as the character emerges, one is immediately aware of the strong physical presence that exploits power rather than sexualised delicacy and grace.

A seasoned performer, Johry encapsulated the spirit of Sita with an authoritative portrayal accentuated by small hand gestures and the earthy cadenzas of composer/ musician Kailin Yong.

Bernice Lee is grounded and intense as Joan of Arc. Choreographic variations come through injecting forceful leaps and staccato gestures to break up the fluidity of the contemporary genre to indicate a state of mind fluctuating between anger and resolution.

As for the other dancers, Eva Tey's representation of fire is too soft and fragile to capture the essence of destructive possibilities in contrast to Peni Candra Rini's powerful, throaty voice that embodies Agni (fire) and challenges the dancers with an urgency and dramatic expression.

The layered themes of strong, warrior women pitted against religious discrimination and societal expectations emerge from historical references in the recorded text rather than visceral bodily articulation by the dancers.

Ultimately, the narrative overwhelms the production as the meeting of Joan and Sita becomes confused as they spiritually transcend the flames and are drawn towards enlightenment.

In this final scene, the duet between musicians Candra Rini and Yong is a high point of the production.

Maya is at its best when challenging intercultural themes through intertwining East and West dance vocabularies across artistic disciplines.

The production oozes honest intention and is a thorough process incorporating input from dramaturg Nirmala Seshadri.

Yet, Pancha falls short of achieving thematic clarity and movement expression that enables resonance and contemporary traction.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'Women's trial by fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe