Sunrise that tugs at the heartstrings

Dancers huddled in a small and symmetrical group in The Second Sunrise.
Dancers huddled in a small and symmetrical group in The Second Sunrise.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY




Esplanade Theatre Studio/ Last Saturday

Chowk, headed by Raka Maitra, presented The Second Sunrise, a work that aimed for the heart. A slow and gradual performance, it did not negate tragedy, even as it sought to restore a sense of hope after tumult.

The tumultuous event referred to here was the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981 in Sri Lanka during the country's civil war. Specifically, Chowk and its collaborators were responding to Tamil poet Rudramoorthy Cheran's poems about the library and the civil war.

There is a sense, after watching the work, that all the concepts of the collaborators - from dance to music to set design - gelled together well.

For a start, Maitra's choreography flowed beautifully while expressing tenderness, fragility and pensiveness through the four female dancers' well-trained bodies. Languorous arms, together with spines that tensed and wilted despondently, spoke of a yearning for better days as the dancers cast their gaze into the distance.

The lighting design, with glowing hues of amber and orange, alluded to sunset. The feeling of impending doom was accentuated with dead leaves falling from above.

Live music by local musicians Bani Haykal and Zai Kuning provided a solid soundscape that played up the urgency. As the four dancers performed long, continuous phrases of unison group work that spoke of solidarity, Bani's vocalisations shifted between gasps and screams while he continually banged on a cymbal. This brought the mood to fever pitch. It was the war played out in sound - a sonic onslaught that the stoic dancers braved with their unrelentingly calm and assured moves.

In addition, Bani's electronic interventions put already distressing sounds on constant loops, evoking a nightmarish sense of fracture. Zai provided a contrast with his hypnotic drumming and chanting, conjuring the sacred and spiritual. His was the representation of things larger than petty human distrust and hatred; the benevolent sunrises, sunsets and monsoons that continue unabated despite the war.

All this culminated in the collapse of a bookshelf that spilled all its dusty books with a loud and shocking crash on the stage. It was a well-timed gesture that dramatised the decimation of a people's recorded knowledge.

However, the work had pacing issues. It is admirable that Maitra has continued to develop her signature style of slow, contemplative build- up in the dramaturgy of her work. But while she succeeded in creating clear points of focus in her spatial and movement design, these points waned in energy after some time.

Perhaps varying the use of space a bit more might have provided her with more choreographic layers. In this work, the dancers were huddled in a small and symmetrical group that danced in close range most of the time. There was a lot of untapped potential in terms of space.

Nonetheless, Chowk has continued to push forward with an increasingly clear style. The company's young dancers continue to show more depth in the way they interpret and perform. The company is on its way to building a repertoire that will be known for its languidly emotive qualities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'Sunrise that tugs at the heartstrings'. Print Edition | Subscribe