Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Maybe I will see a kite looking for its string...

I hadn't realised till last Friday how absolutely beautiful the Bengali language is.

Musical phrases spilled from the lips of a lovestruck youth, wandering in a forest of airy bamboo frames. As the stanzas repeated, four female dancers who had sat listening rose to take the centre of the stage. Their steps wove a decisive counterpoint around his words. His companion, another poet, reclined in the background, making a bed next to a rustic bench and...a yellow hard hat. A reminder that this dreamy poet longs not only for love, but for his home and family in Bangladesh, while he spends lonely days hammering in the hot shipyard.

"From Another Land" is choreographer Raka Maitra's collaboration with dancers she has trained at the Chowk Academy of Dance, poets Rajib Shil Jibon and Zakir Hossain Khokon, musician Bani Haykal, and set design by Kiran Kumar.

I've studied and worked with Raka on and off since 2010. Of the many works that I've danced and seen so far, this is by far her finest.

Over the years Raka has developed her distinctive contemporary dance idiom - a blend of classical Odissi, martial Chhau, and evocative tableaux of restrained movement and fragments of storytelling set to abstract soundscapes.  What struck me right away with this new production was the sophisticated layering and interweaving of the various elements. I am quite amazed that the work was so integrated when two of the performers - the poets - had been able to join rehearsals only on their one precious day off every week.

In terms of visual composition, each tableau had an impressive depth of foreground, background and texture, with the casual lives of the poet-workers backgrounding the vivid dancers, then surfacing again as the poets stepped forward to share their words with animation and sincerity, anchored by subtle chords and drums.  A series of contrasting lighting scenes by Josiah Yoong transformed the simple decor from town square to metropolis, to a technicolour vision of Bangladesh.

Choreographically, I had the sense that Raka had chosen to pare her building blocks even more carefully than previous works - from the simplest of Odissi steps, the dancers patterned from unison into rhythmic canons and counterpoints. They danced solos and movement-chatter as they discovered a new universe (migrants arriving to Singapore? Singaporeans discovering Dhaka?). Raka herself danced a couple of the impeccable solos that she has always done so well - expressive, precise, coloured with modulations of dynamic and gaze. But she also took moments to retreat into the layered background, leaving the stage open to the other dancers' fluid grace and the poets' tender narratives.  Karishma Nair stood out from the ensemble with a magnetic focus and clarity of movement. Poet Zakir seized my heart when he rushed forward, laughing, with a child's excitement, recounting his son's letter, to end in a bittersweet embrace from his proxy family - another migrant worker.

During the performance, it mattered little to me that I don't speak Bengali.  It reminded me of how many people say they love to hear French spoken even when they don't understand it - the words take on a musicality and rhythm. Before the show I was already astonished by the translated poems in the programme notes (excellent translations by Subir Nag), and I was able to transfer their poignancy when I heard the words spoken by the poets themselves.

At no point did I imagine this as a token charitable project to glorify the "underprivileged" stereotype of the Bangladeshi migrant worker. It was apparent that each performer was fully an artistic contributor in their own right. Both Rajib and Zakir are published writers in Bangladesh. The biographies and post-show dialogues were a potent reminder of the richness of the lives and talents of individuals who are often invisible to the more privileged here in Singapore.  I appreciate that private donors had made it possible for a significant number of Rajib and Zakir's Bangladeshi colleagues to attend the performance when they might not otherwise have had the means. I sat among a group of them, refreshed by their bafflement and absorption at what seemed to be an unfamiliar form to many of them. I realised that I am from another land, too.

*The title of this post is an excerpt from "Shades of Light and Dark", Rajib Shil Jibon.

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