Drama Centre Black Box
Choreographing a full length dance work is a complex task. Shahrin Johry, tried to do just that in Maya Dance Theatre's first production for 2016, Ka. But, being relatively new to choreographing full length works, the results were mixed.
As a performer, Shahrin's rhythms are clear, crisp and on the beat. Watching him attack the space as he constantly changed levels and directions was exhilarating. This was also evident in the group work and solos that he created. The performers rose to the occasion as they negotiated the space with speed and accuracy. It was nice to see the more established locally-based dancers such as Bernice Lee, Gianti Giadi and Star Guo continue to become more technically accurate with their craft. One of the highlights had to be watching Maya's artistic director, Kavitha Krishnan, finally taking to the stage. Since setting up Maya, she has had to sacrifice quite a bit of her dancing in order to devote time to building the company. She seemed a little nervous at first but when she finally had to display the more intricate steps of Bharatanatyam, she was right at home and a joy to watch.
But alas, movement design is not the only consideration when creating a long format dance work. After movement has been designed, how then does one use it to articulate one's ideas clearly and succinctly? Using the overarching theme of knowledge and its transmission, Shahrin created what seemed like a rather personal work about his encounter with dance. But Ka had too many ideas crammed into the work. Also, while there was a clear attempt to weave a sense of flow through the work, its pace was uneven.
Having received the bulk of his professional training in the form of Bharatanatyam from Krishnan, it was no surprise that Shahrin's choreography used highly symbolic gestures as a method to convey his messages. Gestural symbolism is integral to the classical Indian dance form. In Ka, a gleaming gold book propped up on an intricately carved wooden book stand served as an important representation of a repository of knowledge. It was ceremoniously written into, and ritualistically passed from one person to another at various points of the piece.
In other more dramatic moments, dancer Gianti Giadi started to gag after she violently stuffed pieces of paper with movement instructions written on them into her mouth, alluding to a dancer consuming choreography to the point of utter discomfort. Several mudras (coded hand gestures) from Bharatanatyam were also appropriated into the choreography. The problem was not the symbolic gestures themselves, but the fact that there were so many of these peppered throughout the work that their individual significance was diminished.
Another section that was problematic was when the performers acted out the learning process by pretending to learn dance steps from scratch on stage. From the way they performed, it was very clear that learning had already taken place during the rehearsal processs. In this age of possibility in contemporary performance, I wonder why Shahrin did not choose to just devise a task of actually learning new movements in real time on stage?
Perhaps choreography in dance is not so much about movement design as it is about designing a coherent experience in space and time. Movement design should be regarded as a means to creating this coherent experience. Shahrin has proven that he has the ability to design movement. The challenge for him now is to continue finding ways to create that coherent experience.