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gading-01
Image from Esplanade’s website

6 – 7 March 2020
Esplanade Theatre Studio
Presented by SRIWANA
As part of Esplanade’s Pentas 

This past weekend SRIWANA presented Gading, a collaboration with the Esplanade as part of Pentas and in celebration of their 65th anniversary (Congratulations SRIWANA!). Gading (or ivory in English) was a ‘contemporary dance production that taps the currency of a global crisis as a jumping-off point … to shed light on the vulnerable state of the Malay cultural dance today” (adapted from programme synopsis). The production attempted to employ the endangered state of the elephants (often poached for its ivory and at risk of facing extinction) to act as a metaphor to discuss the state of traditional Malay dance practices today. 

When I was reading the programme booklet before the show started, I thought that it was interesting that the company was attempting to tap on a global crisis issue to raise awareness and discussion on an issue surrounding the Malay arts practice. As far as I am aware, this was SRIWANA’s first time employing this approach for its contemporary work and I had thought that it was admirable for them to input some research and try something different for their 65th year anniversary. The production however fell flat for me and I left the theatre feeling quite disappointed with the show. 

Gading tried to use the elephant poaching issue to draw parallels with the perceived endangerment of traditional Malay dance and culture; however the production was a poor amalgamation of both ideas and ended up being something that I thought failed to highlight or express either issue. There was too literal an adaptation of the elephant metaphor (from elephant costumes to safari setting and projection to the endangered animal storyline – complete with rangers – and even the elephant-inspired choreography) and too weak a reference to the state of traditional Malay dance and culture that they desired to discuss through the show. At some point I felt as if I was watching a didactic documentary on elephants performed by dancers in Malay-designed elephant costumes and with awkward interjections of a Malay folk dance and silat / female warrior performance. I wondered if they could have better achieved their objective if they had focused on the Malay dance issue and merely leveraged on the narrative of the five segments (Artefacts, Dominance, Poaching, Defence and Ivory Tower) to tell that story. 

Aside from the concept, the work felt segmented and lacking continuity from one segment to another. This could be perhaps due to each segment being led or created by a different choreographer, as well as the use of black out and empty stages at the end of each segment. There could perhaps be a more seamless easing into each segment to create a better flow for the production. I also thought the dancers were lacking in expression or engagement with the story or emotions of each scene. There were times when they seemed to be merely moving through the choreography rather than engaging with the work, and this may have added to the distance I felt with the production. Furthermore, the hip hop moves added (presumably to symbolise the challenging modernity) were cringey and did not do justice to the meaning of encroaching contemporary or modern challenges. I was sorely wishing the dancers had been more technically challenged. 

One redeeming segment that stood out to me was Music Director Anggara Satria’s short solo performance. Performed as a duet with a visual projection of himself, I thought the brief performance did well in expressing the sombreness of the situation (of animal poaching and I guess withered state of the ethnic art forms) and delivered more impact than the rest of the production. 

My thoughts about the production aside, what was more disturbing for me perhaps was the thinking or idea that tradition and culture was being threatened by change and modernisation, that it is facing endangerment or extinction and hence needs to be protected and/or preserved. Threat, endangerment and extinction are pretty strong words, and I couldn’t help wondering if this is a prevalent notion or opinion shared by other traditional Malay arts practitioners, and if yes, then exactly what kind of change or modernisation do they fear is threatening the traditional arts practice. Is it contemporary practices and ideologies? Is it different ways of performing the traditional or questioning of traditional practices? Or is it erosion of Malay identity and values? And what exactly do they fear will happen to the traditional art forms? I have always thought that a strong contemporary practice requires a strong understanding and research of the traditional, and that some change has to happen for something (in this case tradition) to be preserved. Is it possible to see contemporary practice as a parallel practice or an extension of the traditional practice, to encourage learning and thinking about the practice and another way of expanding the visibility of the traditional art form to the wider world, rather than as something that must be kept separate and distinct from tradition? If it must be the latter, then I find it ironic that Gading employs a contemporary presentation to address preservation of a traditional practice.

Notes: 

  • The author attended the production on 8pm 7 March 2020, Saturday.
  • Check out the programme booklet here for more information about the production.  
  • The review above is reflective only of the author’s personal opinions as an audience member. The author apologises for any unintentional hurt caused.