Aware that viewers are often anxious to understand what they see, a dance group aims to help them relate.
WHAT do you get when you cross a filmmaker with a choreographer? It sounds almost like a riddle and the funny thing is, they don’t seem too sure of the answer themselves.
But why should words matter when there is a stage to dance your worries away? Or is it a stage to act on?
They call it dance theatre. But does this mean it is a play with a whole lot of dance, or a dance with dramatic flair?
Filmmaker and theatre director James Lee (The Beautiful Washing Machine; Before We Fall in Love Again, and Histeria) and dance choreographer Amy Len say the collaboration, their first ever for a dance theatre production (Len has acted in Lee’s films), is a combination of both aspects.
“Dance theatre is something that is very difficult to label. There are no rules and you never know what to expect. I would describe it as being experimental in nature,” says Lee, 37, who takes on the role of director for the Kwang Tung Dance Company dance theatre production, On Anxiety.“
I’ve always wanted to work with a group of dancers and do a movement-based performance. This is something I have never done before. So when Amy invited me to participate in this production, I grabbed the chance,” he says.
Referencing the later works (1960s and 1970s) of playwright and poet Samuel Beckett as inspiration for this piece, he borrows from the absurd but not the minimalist tendencies of these works.
“I seldom work with messages but if you dissect this production, it is clear that the characters are going through a never-ending cycle. They work the entire day and you see them talking on the phone and placing orders. But you don’t really know what they are doing and it looks like they do this every day.”
An abstract contemporary performing arts piece is often thought of as being inaccessible to the public but Lee says people shouldn't lose sleep over trying to make sense of things.
“I think the need to understand (a dance piece, film, theatre play) is overrated. Conventional stuff is so popular is because people want to understand things. So we (people in the film and performing arts industry) keep giving them things they can understand,” he says, explaining that it is often more relevant for the audience to “relate” rather than “understand”.
“You relate to something on an emotional level. With On Anxiety, we play around with the theme of repetition. Everyone should be able to relate to this; most of us try hard to forget about old age and death and we fall into a repetitive routine to keep ourselves busy and to distract ourselves from that thought. But it has to stop somewhere. And, one day, death will creep up on you.”
The 60-minute production is set in the workplace – to be exact, a stylised office setting. It comprises eight parts presented in chronological sequence. It presents one day in the life of an office worker, including a lunch break and working overtime. Eleven dancers (nine women and two men) are involved. The props are simple: nine light grey desks, keyboards, computer cables, stationery and phone lines; everyone is dressed in black.
But this modest set-up is more than what Len, 35, is used to working with.
“When I choreograph a (conventional) dance, I usually start with empty space. I don’t have to work with plots, dialogue and stage directions. With dance theatre, I have to take all that into consideration and work with dance as a supporting element of the performance. There is also more emphasis on acting and facial expression in dance theatre,” she says.
Rehearsals started in January and the dancers were given the freedom to present dance pieces (mostly solo, but sometimes in pairs) to the accompaniment of music of their choice.
“I observed how the dancers performed with minimal instructions and tried to identify their personal styles. It was useful for me to see what exactly I have to work with and what they are capable of. We noted the aspects we wanted to use for the performance and eventually, fixed some parameters and introduced some structure for the final version,” Lee says.
One would expect a director and a choreographer to have very different approaches to staging a production, and Len agrees that this is so. However, this is what makes it interesting to work together, she says.
“We knew from the start that we were going to do something experimental. With something of this nature, you sometimes have to sit back and just let things happen. You can’t predict what is going to happen, so you are more open to ideas,” she says, adding that she and Lee can both look at the same thing and see totally different things.
But far from it being an obstacle, they end up learning a lot from each other.
“James is more involved with the big picture while I spend a lot of time with the fine-tuning of dance movements. My (signature) style is very simple and it can be quite challenging for me to figure out how exactly to use the body and movements to tell the story in a scene, particularly one with dialogue and acting.”
Lee says that, just like in film and theatre, a dance theatre performance is all about making choices, coming up with ideas and guiding the performers. But that is as far as the similarities go.
“I draw on a lot more material from the dancers in a dance theatre production than from actors in a film or theatre play. I also find it less troublesome to direct dancers because they don’t ask as many questions as actors. Maybe it is because dancers express themselves physically – it is perhaps a more direct form of self-expression,” he says.
Two dancers involved in the production, Kathyn Tan and Tan Bee Hung, say they don’t swamp Lee with questions because they don’t really know what to ask.
“James seldom makes comments and his instructions are not very precise compared to what we are used to from a choreographer. He can watch us dance for weeks on end and have nothing to say. We sometimes get a bit confused as to what we are supposed to do,” says Kathyn, 32.
But Lee explains that he refrains from making comments on-the-spot because he believes it will restrict the dancers.
“The idea of improvisation, to me at least, is to let them show what they are capable of doing in true form, rather than trying to do what I want.”
Bee Hung, 29, agrees it was all a bit crazy, but she considers the first few weeks the most exciting part of the process.
She plays “an ordinary office lady who has a crush on someone”, but is keeping mum about the details.
Kathyn, in contrast, portrays an introverted individual who doesn't know how to communicate with her colleagues.
“She doesn't talk much to the other people in the office and is always in her own little world. I think it is easy for the audience to relate to her because there are many such people around.”
‘On Anxiety’ is on at Pentas 2, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Ipoh, Sentul Park) from July 2-4, at 8.30pm nightly. There is a student show on July 3 at 3pm. Tickets by donations, at RM43 and RM33 (students/senior citizens/disabled). For reservations, call 012-676 8272 (Foong Ming); 012-628 0045 (Samantha Chong); 012-359 1443 (Choy Wan), or 03-4047 9000/9010 (KLPac). ts.