An­cient dance, re­vived

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

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ARTS - By NATALIE HENG en­ter­tain­ment@thes­tar.com.my > SEE NEXT PAGE

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.

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, floorto-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.”

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 con­tempo- rary 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 ReIn­vented 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,

Tale of love: The gopis (cowherd girls) in Su­tra dance Theatre’s lat­est of­fer­ing, Kr­ishna, Lo­vere-In­vented.

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.

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