Against the backdrop of an eerie abandoned house, Ask Dance Company (ASK) presents its debut dance film, titled The Distance Project: Hymns Of The Abandoned, which sets out to evoke multiple emotions that have arisen from this period of pandemic lockdowns.
According to ASK founder and artistic director Joseph Gonzales, the company, like other independent artists and organisations, lost all revenue from live performances, classes and venue rentals during the first movement control order (MCO) last year.
“Performing artists live for the thrill of live audience reactions and responses – to make our audiences feel, think, empathise. We have not had that for a year. We are not the only industry affected and millions of lives have been lost, which is tragic, but we must figure into the equation and we must be a part of the conversation. Since the pandemic has prevented travel, a dance film would be one way to have our work seen by an audience, ” he says.
Gonzales and principal dancer Imran Syafiq – who is also managing director for the production – had several brainstorming sessions for Hymns Of The Abandoned.
The original idea for this work was a production that curated by Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC), which was to be an evening of work showcasing ASK and Dua Space Dance Theatre, the country’s only two non-government full-time dance companies. This production was unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic.
“Thus we decided to work with the material that was being developed and the movement research that was already being done and translate it for the purposes of the film. The filming was done in August in an abandoned house in Subang Jaya, Selangor. We felt that the space also told its own story, as well as reflected the emotions that we hoped to portray, ” says Gonzales.
Hymns Of The Abandoned is choreographed by Mohd Zulkarnain. He led the artistic vision for this production, with feelings of alienation, abandonment and distance being its driving images.
“One of the hallmarks of the company is growth and development of talent – giving each person the opportunity to shine and direct their own projects, and creating more autonomy, ” says Gonzales.
As for the dance film’s director of photography Aaron Chieng, Gonzales recalls that they first crossed paths at the Asia Pacific International Dance Festival in Hawaii in 2019.
“He gave much insight and artistry into the visuals of the film, and helped to make the space and narrative come alive. In working on this production, we pondered on how closeness and distance are not simply geographical and psychological. The relationships between families, co-workers, lovers have been tried and tested to the limit in this period of time. We sing our own hymns – sometimes in unison, sometimes in isolation but ultimately we must sing and dance in hope if we are to survive, ” he says.
Gonzales, who splits his time between Malaysia and Hong Kong, notes that he is filled with awe, respect and gratitude to this group of dancers and filmmakers who have kept the fires of passion and art alive.
“For me, that is something we all can truly celebrate. This dance film project has definitely spurred me on to think about what more we can do with this genre of art. That is very exciting but it will take some time, ” he says.
During the pandemic, ASK has participated in two international virtual arts festivals: the Swan Festival of Lights in Perth, Australia, and the Jogjakarta International Festival of the Arts at the end of 2020.
They also participated in Roots Of Dance, a collaboration with Polish choreographer and dancer Jacek Luminski, as well as the Institute for Music and Dance in Poland.
“With Hymns Of The Abandoned, we are applying to the San Francisco Arts Festival, and Jumping Frames Festival in Hong Kong. We have also launched our online, virtual teaching of Malay dance via Forging Traditions and are in discussions with other interested parties constantly to further stretch our artistry and our profile. People need art to lift their spirits and to evoke a range of emotions. The arts have really helped to sustain well-being in these times, ” he concludes.
This Hymns Of The Abandoned project was supported by Penjana by Cendana Malaysia.