Taking It To The Next Level

My career as a theatre critic started in university when I chanced upon Kent Ridge Common, an online student-run publication, which offered ample opportunities to review shows.

Two years later, I signed up for a module on theatre criticism offered by the theatre studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Being equipped with certain theoretical frameworks, challenged to write reviews for different media, and having to read them aloud to approximately thirty people really forced me to consider my voice as a critic, who my reader was, and what my functions are.

The course led me to convert this website to solely focus on the arts and to sign up as a citizen reviewer for Centre 42 from 2014 till today.

In the past five years, I have gained more confidence and am increasingly aware of my artistic tastes and the sort of critic that I want to be. Having practised this craft for half a decade, it is time to take it further—it is time to be a professional independent theatre critic.

What Does This Mean?

The fundamental change would be to strive to turn this craft into a source of revenue amongst other artistic pursuits. Your support will enable me to broaden my coverage to include more long-form interviews and profiles, dance reviews, and even book reviews.

My reviews will always be public and free for all to read. Your support will determine the breadth and depth of my coverage, and supporters will receive bonus content.

Editorially, I will be stricter on developing a house style. I will take my cue from Mr Hart by referring to New Hart’s Rules. I will depart from a few of his recommendations purely out of personal preference.

In terms of work flow, I will try to publish my review within a week of watching the show. I have no intention of being the first, for there are many others who are adept at that. Rather, I shall follow the footsteps of Mr Kenneth Tynan and “write for posterity” as much as it is meant for the present.

Why Does It Matter?

Arts criticism is part of the arts ecology. Artists aim to inspire, provoke, comfort, or entertain their audience. Criticism is thus an articulated response to the work. It is the opening salvo; the first hand in the air.

With arts funding in Singapore still largely reliant on state funding, the perennial question is, What do the people want or need? Artists and authorities have been justifying their aims in response to this question without answering a more fundamental one: Who constitutes “the people?”

Hence, my reviews seek to be a platform from which theatre-goers can respond to and articulate their opinions. After all, in an incredibly realistic country such as Singapore, for someone to invest time and money into something counts a lot.

I also seek to document these debates as one indicator of what the people want.

How Can I Support You?

Regardless of who you are, there are several ways that you can support me. All the details can be found on this page.

Apart from doing this as a regular gig, the ultimate goal is to be able to commission other writers on a regular basis and pay them at market rates. While much have been said about the need for arts criticism, proper opportunities are very few and far between.

But beyond financial or in-kind support, an equally important contribution is to really respond to my reviews. Tell me your opinions about the show. Even if it is a response to a particular point I made, it is very helpful for all involved.

I look forward to having you on this new journey with me.

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Nancy Yuen Celebrates Her Career As An Opera Singer

In the lead-up to the Singapore Lyric Opera’s (SLO) Gala Concert which celebrates Nancy Yuen’s operatic career, I spoke to the soprano about her career and plans for SLO as artistic director. 

What was your first encounter of opera, and is there a specific event
that made you decide to become a professional opera singer?

I have always enjoyed singing on stage since the age of 7. As for opera performance, my first encounter was when I was around 20 years old—I was invited to sing one of the principal roles in a short opera called Le Cinesi by Gluck to orchestral accompaniment, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I decided to pursue my interest in the most serious form  by enrolling as a student at the Royal Academy of Music.

What are the challenges of being an opera singer today as compared to
when you first started out?

YouTube and the internet did not exist when I first started. We were all trained to attend as many performances as possible to watch the top artists at work,  observe the intricacies of stage craft, and absorb the whole ambiance inside the theatre during the performance.

Nowadays, a lot of singers watch opera performances on the internet and listen to the electronic sound coming out of the computers and mobile phones. They end up paying more attention to the facial expressions of the singers rather than the artistry. Unfortunately, as technology progresses, development of live performing arts somehow suffers as people have a difference preference to watching theatrical performances.

If you can only pick three highlights of your 30-year career, what
would it be?

My debut performance  which marked my transition from a student to being the prima donna in Madama Butterfly in 1988 with the Welsh National Opera. That was my biggest breakthrough.

Second, the standing ovation at the 4500-seater Royal Albert Hall in 2000, also as Madama Butterfly.

Another highlight was singing my first Wagnerian role as Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer in Singapore in 2016, which was tremendously thrilling. 

Under your leadership, SLO has been an advocate of bringing opera to
the masses. Why do you think it is important for more people to
experience opera?

Opera is the most complete art form of theatrical experience, with music, drama, sets, costumes, and lighting. They all come together to bring the audience into intricate worlds created by the composers and librettists with the help of directors, conductors, and singers.

We all need a little escape to the imaginary world from time to time. What’s more rewarding than to live through the experience of someone else on stage, shown through music and drama,  and sharing their passion while watching the tragedies or comedies unfold?

How did you go about planning the repertoire for this concert? Any
highlights that the audience should look out for?

All the music chosen in the concert are  from operas I have performed over the years. Many of them are iconic pieces that have been performed many times all over the world. They include highlights from Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, Carmen and La Boheme. The audience are guaranteed for a real treat as they will know most of the tunes and stories.

Any big plans for SLO in the coming years?

SLO will continue the work to promote operas, mounting large-scale opera productions, and doing more and more outreach programmes.

Our SLO Leow Siak Fah Artists’ Training Programme is going from strength to strength. We currently have nine participants working regularly to bring opera to the public, and helping more people appreciate the art of opera.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.

Jason Lai on Conducting Singapore Lyric Opera’s Gala Concert 2018

The main theme for this year’s Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) Gala Concert is to celebrate the 30th anniversary of  Nancy Yuen, SLO’s artistic director, being in the opera scene.

I spoke to the concert maestro, Jason Lai, to find out more about the concert and his thoughts on our local opera scene. 

From a conductor’s point of view, what qualities should an opera singer ideally have?

I love working with singers and the best ones are able to conduct the conductor. They have the ability to lead and be led, while being absolutely strong in their musical convictions. In the opera house, a singer also needs to able to act well and project their voice to the back of the hall without the need for amplification. It’s very difficult—try running across a stage, grabbing a sword, running at someone, while singing as if you life depended on it. And all this is done on a stage that is raked (sloped downwards toward the audience). This is not easy!

With several smaller opera companies arriving on the local scene, how would you describe Singapore’s opera scene? What do you think is lacking?

It’s quite an exciting time on the local opera scene, and I’m glad that opera is beginning to take off in Singapore. I think it’s largely a question of funding; opera is an expensive business and all those sets, costumes, and orchestras don’t come cheap. But when it all comes together, it’s thrilling.

The question is how do you get an audience to come along with you as you explore the world of opera? What would it take to build that audience? I’ve always been a huge proponent of musical education, and I often talk about music in concerts before I conduct it.  So  it’s also a question of how could we guide the audiences more, and help them grasp what they are seeing and hearing? There’s a culture of Chinese opera here in Singapore that has a strong following. The challenge is to find a way to do the same for Western opera. How do we make it more accessible and attractive? This takes a lot of effort and outreach.

Are there any artistic challenges when it comes to conducting this concert? Is there a particular piece in the concert’s repertoire that excites you?

There are always going to be artistic challenges in any concert. When you put on an opera gala, you’ll have singers, orchestra, and chorus, and that can be tricky to get all of these forces working together. Galas are also tricky in terms of performing music from many composers and that means being sensitive to different styles. There are many chunks of Verdi and Puccini that I will be looking forward to conducting for the first time.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.

[Theatre Review] Well-Pitched Souvenir

Souvenir brings out the tender friendship between Florence Foster Jenkins and Cosmé McMoon.

Souvenir
Sing’theatre
25 September 2018
KC Arts Centre—Home of the SRT
19–29 September 2018

Leigh McDonald’s singing is a torturous mixture of a rusty kettle whistling; frogs being forced to croak as they are placed on a hot pan; and a screeching banshee on speed.

But no one is complaining because she is playing self-styled opera star, Florence Foster Jenkins in Sing’theatre’s latest production, Souvenir.

In this two-hander written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, there is less focus on Jenkins’s infamous croaking, but more on the friendship between Jenkins and her piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Hossan Leong).

McMoon recounts his time with her—from the first meeting all the way till her death shortly after her concert at the Carnegie Hall, which was packed to the rafters.  He also struggles with how best to deal with her; does he tell her the truth or prevent her blissful bubble from bursting?

What starts out as an expedient relationship—McMoon falling behind on his rent—soon develops into a bosom friendship.

Appearances can certainly be deceiving. Despite the simple set and staging (piano, chair, tables, three layers of satin curtains, light change to differentiate the scene and McMoon’s internal monologue), the whole show can easily crumble if the friendship between the two characters are not established gradually but surely.

I am happy to report that by the end of the show, we are cheering for Jenkins and McMoon. This is not out of derisive amusement, but of genuine affection.

McDonald, while clearly having fun on stage, is careful not to portray Jenkins as some crazy old bat. She has a balance of child-like innocence with a sort of confidence that is not merely delusional, but it also comes from her wealth and status.

This proves to be an irresistible mix as we see her swaying to her own recording with her palms facing outwards at shoulder level at one moment, while at another, she assures McMoon that she is going to secure his future.

But where McDonald really shows her acting chops is when Jenkins is hurt on two occasions—when McMoon flares up at her, and when she realises the audience is laughing at her. It is interesting to see how she and Leong navigate the gamut of emotions and negotiates a reconciliation for both characters.

Speaking of Leong, despite struggling to maintain his accent, he is a joy to watch. His constant reactions to Jenkins are pitched perfectly. From the widening of the eyes to gasping for air, or his legs buckling a little on encountering her delusions of grandeur, Leong is a brilliant counterpoint to McDonald. Apart from sending the audience roaring with laughter, the subtle changes of his reactions over time also allows one to see the blossoming of an endearing relationship.

That said, it must be noted that McDonald gets too carried away with being out of tune, especially during the scene of the Carnegie Hall concert. Based on the actual recordings, those unfamiliar with the song can roughly make out the original tune. However, McDonald’s renditions comprise a cacophony of sounds.

Yet, Sing’theatre has undeniably given us a souvenir that is not only entertaining and comforting, but it also sends us out with our hearts singing.

Other Reviews

“Souvenir by Sing’theatre: Play about off-key singer hits right notes” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Souvenir by Sing’theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Easy, Tiger!

Tiger of Malaya is a self-reflexive look at historical framings, identities, and representations.

Tiger of Malaya
Teater Ekamatra
19 September 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
12–23 September 2018

Meta-theatricality has often been used as a device to show the contingency of representation, or a particular issue being explored. But very few productions actually look at the significance of the particular actor involved in the process of representation, much less use theatre to critique a film.

This is where Alfian Sa’at’s latest play is ambitious in its complexity. Yet, director Mohd Fared Jainal, with guidance from Shawn Chua (dramaturg and translator), manages to pull all the strands together in an expansive tapestry, while being unafraid to show the stitching required to do so.

Through critiquing the 1943 Japanese propaganda film, Marai No Tora (Tiger of Malaya), Alfian Sa’at not only teases out how one should look at history, but the significance of the people—taking into account various aspects of their background—involved in the actual historical moment, as well as the retelling of it.

The play revolves around a group of actors (three local and two Japanese) trying to recreate the film which is a glorification of Tani Yutaka—a Japanese who has lived in Malaya before the invasion, but eventually becomes a spy for Japan. His suffering under the British-led system and eventual sacrifice for the Japanese cause is portrayed as a glorification of Japan’s purpose in WWII.

Through this re-creation, the actors balance between a faithful re-creation versus adding one’s commentary, an inevitability when one departs from the original. Such negotiations bring various issues of identity, historical framing, and stereotypes come to the fore.

When the characters suggest a change or simply react to the original, one is made aware of their background and identity, and we get to see how the changes play out. Even things such as how a local character relate to the Japanese character would hit a nerve despite one being aware of the context of the original film. On a couple of occasions, when a character suggested a switch in casting, I found myself eagerly anticipating that switch just to see how different the scene would feel.

Theatre being a safe space to rehearse identities and social dynamics is a terrible cliché that has been intoned to death. However, this is the first time that I truly experienced it in action.

Additionally, I became increasingly sensitive to the reactions of my fellow audience members as their reactions are part of the exploration of relooking at history. For example, the audience was more impressed by the Japanese actors (Yuya Tanaka and Rei Kitagawa) delivering lines in Malay with a believable intonation as opposed to the local actors (Farez Najid, Siti Khalijah Zainal, and Rei Poh) saying their lines in Japanese.

This sparked several questions: what pre-conceived notions about the Japanese did the audience have? Is this a matter of being more familiar with the capabilities of our local actors, hence the disparity in reaction? Or could it be that Japanese culture and its products have a wider circulation, making a non-Japanese speaking the language decently less surprising than a Japanese speaking Malay?  

To top it all off, the production avoids being too caught up with its own devices, as it plays with varying levels of self-reflexivity. Just as the audience gets comfortable with the play-within-a-play set-up, the fourth wall is broken as if to remind them that they are complicit in the re-creation.

This is best exemplified when Farez Najid as Adnan declaims various academic treatises on reverse racism being impossible due to extant power dynamics or about the colonial gaze, he points his Japanese compatriots to the Japanese surtitles on the screen.

Alfian also jibes at the local theatre industry by raising stereotypes of Malay theatre and Chinese theatre, as well as a reference to Ong Keng Sen’s brand of intercultural theatre, where characters speak in different languages to each other, but they somehow understand each other. This is not merely a cheap trick to elicit laughter from industry insiders, but a subtle reminder that the representations we are watching are also tied to theatrical genres and conventions. This rebukes the idea of every play or actor starting from a blank canvas and is slowly crafted to tell a story.

Paired with a stellar cast which is versatile, and has a keen sense of comic timing, one not only leaves the show being thoroughly entertained, but also buzzing with a healthy dose of scepticism about how things are represented to us.

Despite how several productions market themselves, it is very rare to find one that truly pushes the envelope. I believe a case can be made for this one.  

Other Reviews

“Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger Of Malaya presents perils of oversimplifying history” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“’Tiger of Malaya’: The Body Remembers What the Archive Cannot” by Corrie Tan, ArtsEquator

“Theatre review: Tiger of Malaya’s revisionist view of a WWII film balances comedic satire with historical heft” by Aravin Sandran, Buro 24/7 Singapore

“Review: Tiger of Malaya by Teater Ekamatra” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Dance Review] Bharatanatyam and Thai Classical Dance Take Flight

Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance truly intertwine in this production laden with significance. 

Photo: Vilvam Ramu

Manohra
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and independent Thai artistes
9 September 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
8–9 September 2018

Manohra, a mythical Kinnari (bird-human creature), who was chanced upon by a hunter; captured and sold to a prince; became a princess; was asked by the king to sacrifice herself while the prince was at war, but escaped; and wooed back to the palace by the prince is certainly an epic tale.

But not many would know that the transmission of the tale matches the grandeur of the plot.

The tale is one of many Jakata tales, which form part of the Buddhist literature that is native to India. It travelled to Thailand and soon became an iconic dance-drama. A chance encounter of the tale in 1990 inspired Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA, to interpret it through bharatanatyam and make it a mainstay of BAA’s repertoire, thus returning it to Indian culture through dance.

It is in this context that Manohra has truly come full circle in this third iteration, as we see bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance coming together to tell the story.

It is a partnership in all senses of the word as Mrs Bhaskar’s choreography intertwines both art forms, rather than allowing it to merely co-exist.

This is clearly seen in the first half of Kinnari dance with certain hand gestures, the signature cocked leg, and shuffling of feet before transiting into the second half, which sees more rigorous movements and footwork. While the dancers (Chayanee Sunthonmalai, Davinya Ramathas, Malini Bhaskar, Montakarn Roikaew, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, and Sarenniya Ramathas) are clearly more comfortable in their respective art forms, all of them dance beautifully and regally among plumes of smoke. 

The Mythical Kinnaris. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

Another thing that stands out about this interpretation is the space given to Manohra’s thoughts and feelings. This augurs well with the expressiveness of Bharatanatyam in terms of movements and facial expressions. Shruthilaya Ramachandran, as Manohra, steps up to the plate admirably as she is able to convey the depth of emotion needed without making it a sob story. Set against Prince Sudhana’s (Puwapon Pinyolapkasam) subtler movements, it is clear that Manohra drives the plot.

Pinyolapkasam is defined by stillness with an active presence. And in it lies an excruciating exactitude in the execution of his movements. His fingers are constantly arched backwards, and every step is slowly placed on the ground, activating every bit of muscle in his feet.

Despite the movements being gentler in nature, his virtuosity shines through in quicker sequences such as when the prince is being put to the test of identifying Manohra among her Kinnari sisters in order to bring her back to the palace. He has to pulse his body and execute small steps to a rather quick tempo, while maintaining the stillness in the carriage of his upper body, and exuding an overall sense of grace and style. Like a thrilling illusion, one cannot stop wondering about the technique behind what one sees.   

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

The other principal characters do not pale in comparison. Sarinprapa Bhutrachinda, is serpentine and flexible as Spirit of Doom; Nishalini Lakchimanathas indulges in moustache-twirling villainy as the cunning minister who advises the king to get rid of Manohra; and the energetic Bala Saravanan Loganathan who plays the hunter and King Adityavamasa to equal aplomb.

As if there aren’t enough to take in, contemporary choreography, possibly by Malini Bhaskar and Pallavi Sharma (as they are cited as having provided additional choreography), is performed by an ensemble of younger dancers who represent the obstacles that the prince has to overcome. On the surface, bodies on the floor shooting up at different times into a sort of a crunch may seem like an aberration when it is set against classical Asian music. But for some reason, it works and it is a testament to the innovative streak of BAA.

Speaking of music, the composition by Ghanavenothan Retnam, in close collaboration with Dr Anant Narkkong, mirrors the dance. Both classical Indian and Thai music have their solo moments, but it is when they come together that something exciting happens.

The percussion of the tabla (played by Hem Kumar) and mridangam (played by S Harikrishnan) provide the heartbeat while the ranat (Thai wooden xylophone played by Tossaporn Tassana) provides a snappy and cheery lilt, which harmonises with the veena (played by TK Arun), violin (played by TV Sajith), flute (played by Ghanavenothan Retnam), and vocals (Ampili Pillai and Arasakumari Nagaradjane). Other featured instruments include the Saw Duang and Klong Tuk (played by Dr Anant Narkkong).

This culminates in a ritualistic but jovial music as Prince Sudhana dances with the Kinnaris in order to identify who amongst them is Manohra.

Another highlight sees the inclusion of lyrics and vocalisation that almost sounds like a rap in Tamil and Thai to introduce the cunning minister.     

While there is a wonderful balance in the movement and musical vocabularies, the same cannot be said of the story-telling. Certain key dramatic moments are not given enough emphasis. It is tough to tell when Manohra actually falls in love with the prince as she goes from being hesitant and unwilling to suddenly smiling and striking a pose with him.

Additionally, the scene of the court dance and the subsequent escape is so bare—only the king, his minister, and Manohra are present—that it feels as if Manohra is playing a prank, rather than escaping from her impending doom. It is also unclear that she is asked to sacrifice herself in order to avert disaster befalling on the kingdom.

In contrast, the scene with hunter hunting for food before falling asleep, while wonderfully performed, goes on a little too long.

That said, one cannot underestimate how this iteration of Manohra is laden with so much significance due to the origins and transmission of the tale. One hopes that it can travel to Thailand to see how the locals take to it.

While Manohra chooses to return to the palace, Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance have certainly taken flight in this production.

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

In the final interview of this series, Isaac Tan speaks to Dr Anant Narkkong, an ethnomusicologist from Thailand, on the significance of Manohra, and the collaborative process with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. 

Dr Anant Narkkong (standing row: second from right) and composer Ghanavenothan Retnam (standing row: second from left), with musicians involved in Manohra. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

What is the significance of the tale of Manohra as well as the dance drama to Thai culture?

The Jataka tale, Manohra, holds a very important place in Thai culture for both royal and folk arts. In the royal court, there was a position of royal playwright for a genre of theatre called Lakhon Nok  between the 16th-18th century (known as the Ayutthaya period). There were many forms of visual arts created around the story of Kinnaree/Manohra too, as seen by the sculptures and paintings of Kinnaree that decorate many famous temples and royal palaces.

The story of Manohra is a firm favourite within the Lakhon Nok canon. The theatrical elements of music and dance always win the hearts of audiences. The role of the female heroine, Manohra, in Thai Lakhon Nok is very important, and comparable to other male lead roles in other Lakhon stories.

In folk arts, especially in the Southern part of Thailand, Manohra, or in short “Nora”, has ritualistic significance such as a shaman in trance, dressed in human-bird (kinnaree) costume, singing and dancing to music and a particular rhythm. Southern Thai people also believe in the magical powers of Manohra. Somehow the male Nora/Kinnaree has a higher status than the female one, and has gained much respect from their society. I should also mention that there are  versions of Manohra in the Northeast Isaan and North Lanna regions. The performance elements differ from one place to another.

In modern Thai  or urban culture, we can still find Manohra depicted in many PR materials, advertisements, tourist spots, hotels, shopping plazas, fashion, and so on.

As an ethnomusicologist, do you see any similarities between music for Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance? Did you work closely with composer Ghanavenothan Retnam on the music?

So much of the dance and musical relationship between India and Thailand can be seen through this process of collaboration. We share many similarities between our dance vocabularies: gestures, movements, rhythm, melody, emotions, and aesthetics. This also proves the long history of Indian culture that has existed in Southeast Asia, and how Thai artists in the past have adapted Indian  elements, as well as from other cultures, into our unique set of art forms.

I worked closely with Ghanavenothan Retnam in the process of music making, and with our dear Mrs Bhaskar in the choreography. I have learnt a lot from them and from their wonderful artists. It is a new experience to be able to  understand the beauty of Bharatanatyam and Raga-Tala, It was a real pleasure to share my knowledge and the ideas from my Thai artists with the Singapore team.

Has this collaboration made you look at the tale in a new way? 

It is a wonderful experience from an artistic and humanistic points of view. The arts always have a special impact on our hearts. In my earlier works I have reinterpreted the story and the destiny of Manohra by incorporating socio-political views such as human rights, feminism, and sex abuse. I have even made my own version of Manohra which did not follow the original storyline and it did not have a happy ending!

However, when we relearn the significance of Manohra through this particular production, it is a big inspiration and it motivates us to continue developing.

We—be it Singaporean, Thai, Kinnaree, or human—are born with differences in terms of ethnicity, politics, economics, language, religion, beliefs, environment, etc. But we can share and can live together. I wish the audiences of Singapore can find their inspiration from the love between Prince Sudhana and Princess Manohra in this regard.

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Having interviewed Mrs Santha Bhaskar to find out more about Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) production of Manohra, I approached Shruthilaya Ramachandran to find out about her thoughts on playing the titular role.

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra  and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

How do you feel playing such an iconic role in Thai classical dance as well as BAA’s repertoire?

It is indeed an iconic role. I have to admit that I was a little daunted at first because I have watched BAA’s previous generation of dancers portray it so sincerely. Also, the level of sanctity and spirituality that the role holds in Thai culture does not make it any easier. I am honoured and happy to be selected for this role, and am grateful to my gurus who entrusted the role to me!

What are the similarities and differences in movement vocabulary between bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance?

It’s impossible to master the nuances of any art form  within such a short span of time. But based on what I managed to glean from the techniques taught by our fellow Thai dancers, I can safely say that both bharatanatyam and Thai dance seem to converge on laasya (grace), even though they are actualised in different ways.

In bharatanatyam, we tend to use movements that are more rounded, and they flow from one to the next by bending our body, hands, and legs. However, Thai dancers seem to keep their body, back, and shoulders upright, while still achieving the grace in their movements.

Both art forms also rely on mudras (hand gestures) to convey meaning. Some common ones between the two art forms include ‘suchi’, ‘pataaka’, ‘ardhachandra’, and ‘hamsaasya’. However, those are done with minimal or no facial expressions in Thai dance.

Another characteristic difference is the aramandi (bent knee) position. This is fully opened up in bharatanatyam, but executed in different degrees of openness in Thai dance. There is also an accompanying bounce or pulsating jerky accent that adds to the beauty of their movements.

Has this collaboration given you a renewed appreciation of your own art form?

This collaboration has certainly heightened my appreciation for bharatanatyam. I was already aware that both art forms could have drawn on common influences, and hence, share some similar movements. However, getting to directly interact with the art form by learning it from a Thai professional helps us see the nuances and unique differences that give it its identity.

Personally, a big takeaway from this collaboration is that, as dancers, we not only have to be physically agile and flexible, but mentally so as well. For example, it is very interesting to know that Thai dancers follow the rhythm being played, and they just seem to know when to strike a step or a movement without the use of a rigid eight-count system. It did take us a while to get accustomed to their musical style.

What was truly heartwarming was that the Thai dancers modified their teaching technique, and started counting in beats of eight to helps us learn the steps during training sessions. I am thankful for such amicable exchanges, which not only exposes me to new art forms, but it also enhances my understanding of my own art form, bharatanatyam!

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series:

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

[Theatre Review] A Patchwork of Surprise and Abhorrence

Isaac Tan reviews two shows featured in M1 Patch! A Theatre Festival of Artful Play. One is deceptively simple, while the other is literally what the title says it is. 

Immortalx
The Theatre Practice
8 August 2018, 2 p.m.
Practice Space
1–12 August 2018

The Ordinary and the Unspectacular
The Theatre Practice
16 August 2018
Practice Space
16–19 August 2018

In collaboration with M1, The Theatre Practice (TTP) launched M1 Patch! A Theatre Festival of Artful Play which took place during the whole of August at TTP’s facilities. It promises to be a festival of theatrical experimentation in the spirit of play.

Every time when anything is touted as experimental, I get two extreme reactions. The first is apprehension. The show might be self-indulgent—a private game played amongst the creative team. To them, if the audience did not get it, they are simply not working hard enough, or they are not open enough to cast their prejudice aside.

The other reaction is excitement. Could this be something new, powerful, or at least surprising? While I will stop short of saying that I have seen something revolutionary, I will admit to being surprised a few times in my reviewing career.

Immortalx and The Ordinary and the Unspectacular evoke both reactions in me simply because they did not deliver what they promised in the programme notes.

With its 60-minute duration, colourful aesthetics, and students being its target demographic, one expects Immortalx to be a fun romp of what-ifs featuring figures from Chinese mythology.  However, I was surprised that it provokes questions about secularisation, playing god, and what becomes of myths and legends once we appropriate it.

In this imagined world, the gods have lost their powers, some of them have been scattered all over and forced to live mortal lives, while others have vanished. The Jade Emperor (Hao Wei Kai) seems content as he focuses his attention on pursuing his 10th PhD. Ne Zha (Ng Mun Poh), on the other hand, is intent on reclaiming the glory days as he painstakingly teaches the descendants of the immortals various supernatural skills.

The immortal descendants include Mysterious Aw (Windson Liong), son of Dragon King; Ray Girl (Ang Xiao Teng), granddaughter of Thunder God; and Poppy Chang (Frances Lee), granddaughter of Lady of Forgetfulness. 

Things come to a head when Ne Zha invents a machine that could restore the powers of the immortals. This disrupts the balance of nature, thus wreaking havoc on the world. The descendants thus have to curb their teacher before things further spiral out of control. But could they do it?

The central conflict ostensibly seems to be between Ne Zha, who takes his personal convictions to the extreme, and the descendants who doubt about their abilities. While these issues are flashed out quite clearly, I am more interested in various other issues that seem to be suggested by the show.

 The immortals lost most of their powers because of the increasingly secularisation of society. What roles do these figures have in our society today? What does that make us? Have we succeeded the immortals with our technological progress?

The last point could not be more ironically apparent with Ne Zha’s machine that created an imbalance in the natural order as all sorts of disasters, including the Orchard Road floods, occur.

Furthermore, the reference to the Monkey King being captured and placed in the zoo for the entertainment of mortals raises questions of how we appropriate these myths and legends. The Monkey King is very much with us through all sorts of media. But our experience of him is very different from that of our ancestors, who believe that his spirit truly exists. Are these mythological figures merely meant for our entertainment, and are merely kept alive because they vaguely belong to something called culture?

With these thoughts percolating in my mind throughout the show, imagine my surprise when the programme notes only mentioned human self-doubt and the need for balance.

Throw in a riotous performance from an excellent cast and the action taking place at various corners in the theatre-in-the-round set-up, it is a fun ride.

If an earlier review of the original staging is anything to go by, kudos should go to the creative team, headed by director Kuo Jian Hong, for revamping the show quite thoroughly.

Contrary to my colleague’s opinion that there are [n]o divine epiphanies,” I did not expect to get so much out of an hour’s performance.

In contrast, the gobbledygook that is the English programme notes for The Ordinary and the Unspectacular promises a profundity in the quotidian—a meditation on old age and the need for slowness in a chaotic age.

But all we get is a self-indulgent show that is more of a physical theatre exercise that should have never left the rehearsal room. The supposed exploration of facial expression, energy, physical vocabulary, gesture, posture, alignment, proxemics, tempo, and weight is superficial.

Even in slowness, there are so many possibilities for physical dynamics. However, the cast (CHIA, Julius Foo, Goh Lay Kuan, Jalyn Han, Lim Chiong Ngian, Lok Meng Chue, Wong May Lam), save for one of them who changes the set, all look like spectres hovering a few feet from their graves.  

To make things worse, the constant motif of walking into the light in the first 30 minutes of the show threatens to send this reviewer into a coma. It is no wonder four audience members walked out.

Is there anything interesting in the show at all? Well, there are a couple of scenes—Julius Foo clutching his red flip flops, and four women jostling for space with kitchen utensils. A friend, occasional critic, and namesake postulated that the former is about life and death, while the latter is about women’s struggle.

His interpretation is valid, but the two scenes do not redeem the show as a whole. More importantly, while they are intriguing, they do not add anything new intellectually or experientially.

The only novel thing about this purgatorial torture is the reverent silence from the audience. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the cast consists of well-respected veterans in the industry, and one hopes that something more could be gleaned from the performance.

This makes it all the more reprehensible as we are strung along with no end in sight.

That said, The Theatre Practice should be faulted to the extent that their two offerings do keep to the theme of play. It is just that one is playfully clever, while the other merely plays the audience.

Other Reviews of Immortalx

“Theatre Review: In Immortalx, gods losing their powers make for lively entertainment” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! 

“Immortalx: Full of Artful Play and Adventure” by Victoria Chen, Popspoken

“M1 Patch! 2018: Immortalx by The Theatre Practice (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Other Reviews of The Ordinary and the Unspectacular

“Slowing down and taking too long” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“M1 Patch! 2018: The Ordinary and The Unspectacular《平淡无奇》 (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

Over the past few years, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA) has been collaborating with various classical dance troupes in Southeast Asia, to create intercultural works based on stories from Asian myths and legends. 

For the third and final project, BAA is working with Thai classical dancers and musicians to stage Manohra, an iconic work in Thai dance drama. Artistic director of BAA, Mrs Santha Bhaskar first encountered it in 1990 and was inspired to reinterpret it using bharatanatyam. With this being the third iteration of the work, Manohra has become a key work in BAA’s repertoire. 

I interviewed Mrs Bhaskar to find out more about this iteration of the work. 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar

Manohra is part of a trilogy of works that sees BAA collaborating with other classical dance troupes from Southeast Asia. How did you go about choosing the works to be performed?

I enjoy reading the epics, myths and folktales and learning about the characters which are popular in Southeast Asia. It serves me well for experimenting and choreographing in the language I am comfortable with. Collaborating with our neighbouring artistes, understanding their culture, and sharing the knowledge with the audience has always been important to me and for BAA. 

The birth of “Vinayaka” was chosen when we collaborated with our Indonesian counterparts as the elephant-faced one is popular in that region. We actually collaborated twice—once with artistes from Bali with performance in Bali (2010) and the second time with artistes from Java with performance in Singapore (2016). It was very interesting for me and for my dancers and musicians to work with these two very different collaborators, and understand the similarities and differences in each style.

For the second work of the trilogy, we collaborated with Cambodian artistes. I chose to tell the story of Brihannala because it is not known to many people. It is about an interesting transgender character from the epic, Mahabharatha, who Arjuna transforms into. That helps him pose as a dance instructor in Virata’s kingdom for the final year of the Pandavas’ exile where they were to remain incognito.

You were first introduced to the tale of Manohra in 1990. What is it about the tale or the performance you saw that made you want to stage it over and over again?

The tale of Manohra touched my heart when I was in Bangkok. My mother used to tell me stories about the Ghandarvas (heavenly musicians) who enchant musicians and beautiful ladies on earth especially on a full moon night. She also told me stories about Kinnaris (heavenly birds) coming to earth to take a bath in a pond named Manasassaras.

In Bangkok I discovered the story of Manohra and was surprised that this story is not known to India. This is the reason I want to repeat this work—it is in the hope of passing the story on to the next generation of dancers and audience.

What makes this iteration of Manohra unique from the previous stagings by BAA?

The story itself is unique. With each staging of the work, more life courses through its veins, and more ideas sprout in how we can communicate the work to the audience. Some of the first and second generations of dancers are here to witness the tale’s transformations. For the third generation of dancers, their aspirations to learn the dance of the Kinnaris and to be a part of Manohra is coming true through this collaboration.

Manohra is one of BAA’s landmark works with original music composition and choreography. And now with our Thai partners, with the blending in of Thai music and Thai dance movements, the life and energy of the work transcends to a different level.

 

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra