Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Ancient dance, revived

Tale of love: The 'gopis' (cowherd girls) in Sutra Dance Theatre’s latest offering, 'Krishna, Love Re-Invented'.

Tale of love: The 'gopis' (cowherd girls) in Sutra Dance Theatre’s latest offering, 'Krishna, Love Re-Invented'.

Odissi maestro Ramli Ibrahim’s latest offering re-examines the concept of love.

OUTSIDE, the hot afternoon sun is beating down, Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Titiwangsa is shimmering, and heat is rising from the Tarmac. But within the gates of Sutra House, home to Ramli Ibrahim’s dance theatre, gallery and training academy, it is shady and serene – wind chimes tinkle and lush tropical plants sway in the breeze. It is easy to imagine Ramli Ibrahim perfecting some new piece of choreography at the small ampitheatre out here, under the pale afternoon sky.

There couldn’t be a more fitting setting in which to perform Odissi, an ancient spiritual dance form characterised by its graceful moves and expressions of inner harmony that is thought to have to have originated in Orissa, India, over 2,000 years ago.

It’s what Ramli and his dancers do best. Ever since he fell in love with the dance form having returned from over a decade of modern dance in Australia, Ramli started Sutra Dance Theatre here in his hometown of KL, back in 1983. Now 60, he’s put Malaysian Odissi dancers on the world map – training a new generation of Odissi performers who are regularly invited to showcase their works internationally. Just recently, they performed Ramli’s latest creation, Krishna, Love Re-Invented at several important venues in India, including the Krishna Gana Sabha and at the Tapas Festival in Chennai.

MUST USE: Ramli Ibrahim in Sutra Dance Theatre's latest offering: Krishna - Love Reinvented.
Ramli Ibrahim sees Odissi as one of the most exquisite dance forms in the world that is also challenging because of its use of metaphors and symbols. 

Which is why Malaysians will be in for a real treat. The India shows were fairly last minute, as Ramli hadn’t had time to fully develop his new story line – and yet, the performances received favourable reviews from critics in India. So considering Sutra’s track record and taking into account all the intervening extra rehearsal time, by the time the production hits the stage at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in March, we should be in for a real stunner.

The process to perfection

Ramli takes me on a tour of Sutra House. On the lower floor there is dance studio, with smooth wood flooring and a series of open, floor-to-ceiling doors letting in a natural breeze. The space is also home to Sutra Gallery, where Ramli’s long-time collaborator, the award winning visual artist Sivarajah Natarajan has his recent exhibition, Ahimsa, draped across the walls.

Sivarajah and Ramli go way back, with a working relationship that extends over the past 20 years. A lot of work goes into finding the perfect setting for each performance. Stage and lighting design is just as important as anything, because it creates the right mood and feel to go with the story. Ramli knows he can rely on Sivarajah to create the right kind of magic, and for Krishna, Love Re-Invented, that means creating the “sweetness” inherent in the celebration of love between the Hindu deity Krishna and his gopis. Gopis is the Sanskrit word for cowherd girl, explains Ramli. “The gopis are a metaphor for humanity, while Krishna represents the god-head. So for this dance, I wanted to create a pastoral feel – forests and round water bodies, representing wholeness and unity.”

MUST USE: Sivarajah Natarajan, set and lighting designer for Sutra Dance Theatre's latest offering: Krishna - Love Reinvented.
Sivarajah Natarajan, Ramli’s long-time collaborator and set and lighting designer for Krishna, Love Re-Invented, helps to create the pastoral feel that Ramli wants to convey on stage.

In Sutra’s library upstairs, Ramli gives me a glimpse into the company’s creative process.

He reaches for some sketches at the top of a shelf stacked with books on dance, theatre and anthropology, laying them on the table and flipping through. The series of drawings evolve from highly stylized florals to softer, rounder, more “pastoral” ones.

Attention to detail. It’s important, Ramli explains. To give a good show you need to be a perfectionist.

“It’s not just the dancers that makes the show, you know, it’s everything – from the set, the lights, to the choreography, especially the choreography,” he says.

So often an audience will be so captivated by the grace and agility of the dancers that they forget there is a mind that created the dance.

“They see the dancer as this supreme artist, but you know, but dancers are interpretive. The mind behind them is choreographer, who conceives how the work should look like.”

Light after dark

As artists go, Ramli has been prolific. Over the last three decades Ramli has created over 70 full length works, including contemporary and classical Indian pieces.

A few years ago his works were recognised by the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the highest national honour a performing artist, guru or scholar of the performing arts can get in India.

Ramli explains that when it comes to conceiving his shows, the ideas will usually have been germinating for a while. And then it will come to a particular point when it is ripe for things to happen, to turn those ideas into reality.

For Krishna, Love Re-invented, the drive was to create something light and joyful – a respite from the darkness.

His previous work, River Sutra, which premiered in April last year was done pre-election time. “Everyone was feeling slightly demoralised, so this time, I thought people would want something more positive.”

Like all his Odissi performances, the themes in Krishna, Love Re-Invented relate to a Hindu deity. In this instance, he chose Krishna, the erotic cowherd god and eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, because Krishna is the personification of unconditional love.

“That’s why Love Re-Invented refers to a kind of romantic love.

“In India, the idea of bhakti refers to the element of love being subsumed into the devotional aspect of it. So the love for and devotion to the god has been transferred, so it’s also human love.”

The performance also alludes to historical and mythological figures, such as that of Jayadeva, a Sanskrit poet most known for his composition of the poem Gita Govinda, which depicts a divine love of Krishna; and Jayadeva’s wife, Padmavathi.

“The whole thing is a love play, the element is very sweet,” enthuses Ramli. “One of its allusions is like the bee, fertilising and pollinating the flowers – in this work, everything about Krishna is sweet – the culmination of the performance is when Krishna dances with all the gopis, replicating himself.”

A rich experience

As Ramli waxes lyrical, I can’t help wishing I’d read up more on the background to Odissi. Indeed, the elements of philosophy and metaphysics within it are partly what made him fall in love with it, says Ramli.

“If you see Odissi, it is beautiful, one of the most exquisite dance forms in the world.

“The depth in the work is incredible, the literature (on which it is based) the use of metaphors, of symbols within the art form too, is extremely challenging,” he says.

But don’t worry, you don’t need to be an expert on Hindu mythology to appreciate the work, though a bit of background knowledge will only serve to create a richer experience. “But that also applies to all classical forms, whether it’s kabuki, noh, opera or ballet,” Ramli points out.

In Indian theatre there is a special importance placed on the interaction between a performer and the audience. There are special terms which refer to this: rasa refers to the emotional essence or mental state, or feeling, of the performer. “But you also need a rasika, an audience, a receptacle, that is able to receive the rasa,” says Ramli.

Perhaps, points out Ramli, newcomers to Odissi who experience this intensely emotional outpouring from the dancers might be inspired to go home and read about the myths referenced by the performance, and then come back, mentally enriched, for the next encounter.

Altogether, 13 of Sutra Dance Theatre’s top performers will be dancing in Krishna, Love Re-Invented. The show is important because it will also serve as the Sutra Foundation’s annual fund raiser. Ramli started the foundation in 2007 with the goal of creating more awareness of traditional and contemporary performing and visual arts in Malaysia. He upholds the philosophy of nurturing a society that appreciates art, while embracing the nation’s cultural diversity.

And, yes, funding for the arts, is as always a challenge, he says.

Once the KL performance is done, they will commence with an eight-city tour around Malaysia, covering Penang (March 15), Perak (March 16), Sabah (March 21), Sarawak (March 23), Kelantan (March 18), Terengganu (March 19), Malacca (March 26), and Negri Sembilan (date to be confirmed).

Intriguingly, state performances are always the most popular, Ramli reveals: “I have a very strong multi-racial audience. They read about it, and I think they are curious, because we always seem to end up performing to a full house.”

> The gala fund-raising night of Krishna, Love Re-Invented will take place at 8.30pm on March 5 at Pentas 1, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac); nightly performances will continue thereafter until March 9.

Tickets (for non-gala night performances) are priced at RM53 (and RM33 for students, the disabled and The Actors Studio card members), and can be booked through the KLPac box office at 03-4047 9000, Penang Performing Arts Centre@Straits Quay box office at 04-899 1722 / 2722, or online, at

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Entertainment , Krishna , Love Reinvented , Ramli Ibrahim , Sutra Dance Theatre , Sutra Foundation


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