[Dance Review] Cross-Cultural Epic

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Vinayaka

Bhaskar’s Art Academy

16 October 2016

SOTA Drama Theatre

Before the start of the show, an announcement informs the audience that we are about to watch the third iteration of Vinayaka by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA)—Vinayaka 3.0, so to speak.

The choice of the computing term raises an interesting question: With technology being able to create a very realistic Lord Ganesha on screen, why would anyone—especially someone who is not from the culture—want to watch a rendition of how Lord Ganesha got his elephant head told through Bharatanaytam and Javanese dance?

The physical presence of the body.

In fact, the more advanced technology becomes, the more treasured physical virtuosity is. And the physical control and expressiveness displayed by dancers from BAA and Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (SBAT) is absolutely exquisite.

Put together on stage, both dances play off each other really well. Bharatanatyam’s stamps of physical vigour or quiet strength are a counterpoint to the courtly elegance in the fluid tip-toeing or shuffling of the feet in Javanese dance. Choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar (BAA) and Santi Dwisaputri (SBAT) bring this to the fore through the interweaving formations as each troupe seems to frame the other at one point or another, especially as the attendants to Parvati (played by Dwisaputri herself).

While dance often suggests movement, stillness is the most difficult to achieve especially when you have to get the depiction of the gods just right. In that respect, the stage presences of Senthun Bhima Nugraha (Shiva) and Santi Dwisputri (Parvati) are unmistakeable.  The former has to keep his body upright to accommodate his costume—which includes two artificial hands that form a mudra—while adopting two soft gestures with his own hands. Yet, when he moves across the stage, he exudes a masculine and regal presence.

While Dwisputri’s gentle and graceful gestures suggest the pure and feminine Parvati, all it takes is for her to turn to the back for the world to be destroyed in sheer anger due to the death of her son, Ganesha.  Her versatility in expressing gracefulness, sorrow, and rage is a sight to behold.

Sarenniya Ramathas and Shruthilaya Ramachandran as Ganesha do not pale in comparison.

Ramathas, as Ganesha before he was beheaded, treats us with a dance of youthful vigour. When Ganesha battles Shiva’s Pancha Ganas to prevent his father from intruding on his mother, Ramathas departs slightly from the traditional Bharatanatyam movements. Her facial expressions and strong movement vocabulary makes the battle exciting to watch. This is complemented by the strong and well-coördinated performances by the dancers portraying the Pancha Ganas (Miroshini Kannathasan, Nishalini Lakchimanathas, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, Tanuja Seran, and Usha Anbalagan).

Ramachandran, as the resurrected Ganesha with the elephant head, is the answer to the question posed at the start of the review. With a gentle swaying of her hand and a very slight movement of  her body, she intimates a lively image of Ganesha and his swaying trunk, as the mind vividly fills in the rest of the details.

The visual intricacies will be hollow without the music from BAA’s own musicians and Singa Nglras Gamelan Ensemble. The contrast between the musical forms mirrors the dances as well.

The carnatic music spans from the meditative to the rhythmic, while the various metals from the gamelan instruments enhance the rhythms and provide a wholesome resonance. A sense of grandeur envelops the whole theatre at the start and end of the show, when both musical forms come together, as we see the gods take the central dais, and are surrounded by the various dancers to form an impressive iconography.

Given the skilfulness of the dancers and musicians, I wish they were more ambitious in their art-making. The sections with Javanese dance with gamelan music, and Bharatanatyam with carnatic music, are a little too clearly delineated. The moments when both art forms intertwine are too few and far between.

The main impetus of BAA’s Traditional Arts in the Region series is to showcase the shared heritage among the traditional dances of Southeast Asia. While the differences between the dances strongly highlight the main characteristics of the respective dances, it would be a wasted opportunity not to see what happens if a dance embodies certain techniques or movements from the other.

All the more reason to look forward to BAA’s next collaboration and, perhaps, Vinayaka 4.0.

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Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s Cross-Cultural Leanings

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) latest production, Vinayaka, sees the troupe collaborating with Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (Indonesia)  and Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble (Singapore) as part of their Traditional Arts in the Region series. To better understand BAA’s new direction towards cross-cultural collaboration, I arranged an email interview with Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA .

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Mrs Santha Bhaskar

What made BAA decide to launch the Traditional Arts in the Region series?

In 1990 I was awarded a scholarship to study Thai culture at Chulalongkorn University. I think my most profound experience was the collaboration among the delegates of that ASEAN Exchange programme. The sharing of cultures from the representatives  made me realise how old and how much of a treasure our traditions are.

At the end of the course, we were expected to create an item to signify the unity of ASEAN in dance. Singapore is in a very unique situation because of its cosmopolitan nature and its multi-cultural tradition. My representation, being an Indian dancer, was a question that I had to answer to many and to myself. I knew I had to make my contribution “Singapore” in nature. It was difficult initially but in the end I created the evolution of man (through the avathars of Vishnu), finishing with the struggle to attain ultimate intelligence and symbolised this with Buddha (the enlightened one).

Again and again I have choreographed ASEAN epics such as Ramayana, Manohra and Vinayaka. With each production, BAA’s connection to the ASEAN region became stronger and that led to the launch of the series.

Earlier this year, BAA performed in Bangkok for the ASEAN plus Ramayana Festival. Has BAA been very involved in cultural events organised by ASEAN? If so, how has such encounters influenced the artistic practice of BAA?
In addition to my early encounter in 1990, many more ASEAN Ramayana performances have been staged in this region. BAA has been involved in several of them starting with the Ramayana Festival in Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 1994. Subsequently there were several others in Myanmar, India and Thailand. My daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, also spent more than a year touring the region with Realizing Rama — a production that brought together artistes from all around the region. These events did influence BAA to create an awareness of ASEAN traditional arts and culture, and foster collaborations with our neighbouring countries.

I noticed that the Southeast Asian Studies department at the National University of Singapore is listed as one of your collaborators. What is their role in this production?

Department of South east Asian Studies’ Gamelan ensemble is collaborating with BAA’S musicians to play joint compositions of Carnatic and Javanese music. It is a definitely a happy marriage of two happy partners.

Stay tuned for an upcoming interview conducted with the choreographers and musical directors of Vinayaka about the rehearsal process. 

Vinayaka

16 October 2016 (Sunday)

7:30pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

$25 & $30

Tickets: BAA website or enquires@bhaskarsarts.com

[Listing] Vinayaka by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

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A newly metamorphosed Vinayaka is set to make its one-night only world premier here. The simple and familiar tale of how the Hindu God Ganesha came to have an elephant’s head will be  presented in a cross-cultural collaboration by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (Indonesia),  and Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble (Singapore).

Vinayaka was first staged as a Bharatanatyam piece in 2003 and then again in 2005 by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA). In 2010, BAA reworked the piece with  Balinese elements and it premiered in Bali. In this iteration, Vinayaka has taken a new form that is expressed through Bharatanatyam and Javanese movements under the artistic direction of Santha Bhaskar, as well as choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar and Santi Dwisaputri. The piece will be performed to a new and exciting score under the music direction of Ghanavenothan Retnam and Sambowo Agus Herianto.

“I have choreographed this work several times now but each time it feels so new. I connect with it differently each time and it is as if I transform along with the work” says Meenakshy Bhaskar, who is based in the US.

Because of the distance, collaborating with her Jakarta-based counterpart Santi Dwisaputri was not without challenges acoording to Meenaskshy, but they “clicked from the moment the conversation started” and at some points they “were completing one another’s sentences.”

Vinayaka is the first of a three-part series by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy that will present works under the umbrella theme of “Traditional Arts in the Region.” Exciting collaboration with other performing arts troupes from different ASEAN countries can be expected in the coming years.

Vinayaka

16 October 2016 (Sunday)

7:30pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

$25 & $30

Tickets: BAA website or enquires@bhaskarsarts.com