>THE NEXT WAVE 2000 by NUS Dance Ensemble

>reviewed by malcolm tay

>date: 18 aug 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: university cultural centre hall
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Founded in 1992, the NUS Dance Ensemble is the baby of geography teacher Zaini Mohd Tahir, choreographer by night and one-time cast member of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 'Cats'. Formed when Zaini himself was an undergraduate, members of this seventy-strong varsity dance group attend grueling training sessions three times a week, including technique classes with SDT veteran Mohd Noor Sarman. The Ensemble has since established an annual performance tradition entitled THE NEXT WAVE that, among other things, is aimed at encouraging "the development of fresh, innovative, original choreography which fuse modern techniques with ethnic spirit to evolve dance forms which are uniquely Singaporean."

This year marks the fifth anniversary of this series of dance concerts. Held in a 1,700-seater triple-layered hall that looked like an updated version of London's Royal Albert Hall, THE NEXT WAVE 2000 was the first in the series of Curtain Raisers for the new and sprawling University Cultural Centre (UCC). It was a far cry from the days of performing in the NUS Theatrette, more commonly known as Lecture Theatre 13. Not including a guest performance by NTU Modern Jazz, the line-up of six pieces by four choreographers (Zaini and three alumni members of the Ensemble) served as a platform for the fresh and dynamic work that the Ensemble is recognised for.

Combining a diversity of techniques from ballet, ethnic and modern to jazz and tap, each dance was a peculiar yet compelling hybrid of styles, watermarked with an upbeat pulse which is a trademark of the NUS Dance Ensemble. Kicking off the evening was 'Let's Get Loud' by Shahbirul Zaki Ahmad, an energetic and infectious piece that was performed to a medley of popular chart toppers, including a remix of that annoying Britney Spears song "Oops!… I Did It Again" and Madison Avenue's "Don't Call Me Baby". More than twenty dancers, dressed in white tops and pants of varying designs, made an immediate impact with their coordinated and vigorous moves, supposedly modelled after MTV dance sequences. Strength indeed existed in numbers, for there was a collective force that seemed to unite these dancers as a cohesive whole. This writer may not be a fan of the funk and hip-hop forms, but 'Let's Get Loud' was infinitely more entertaining and challenging than your usual junior college dance item on Teachers' Day.

>>'The line-up of six pieces by four choreographers served as a platform for the fresh and dynamic work that the Ensemble is recognised for'

Following this was 'Classroom Capers', a light-hearted creation by Andriana Ngaman that incorporated tap sequences into the choreography. As suggested by the title, the classroom provided the context for this almost nostalgic dig, revolving around playful students and their antics when the back of discipline is turned. Steps were enhanced by the clickety-click of the dancers' tap shoes and synchronised clapping, with segments involving a mischievous student's punishment by the teacher giving this piece an added touch of slapstick humour. Audiences were undoubtedly tickled by her reluctant execution of the traditional squat-and-stand-while-pulling-ears punishment of yore, and by her over-the-top wailing while given corporal punishment with a plastic toy. At times, 'Classroom Capers' veered dangerously towards becoming a fluffy secondary school skit, but there was little to dislike about it.

After the five-minute interval came Zaini's 'Hong Lim Park, 1953', an alluring piece that made full use of the resource that most dance groups have in common: women. Inspired by the images of getai performers from the 1950's, what seemed like a horde of cheongsam-clad women in heels were packed on stage. From the hip swivelling to the stereotypical China doll arm gestures, the key word was "attitude" and these female dancers certainly had lots of it. Accompanying this dance were crackly Mandarin songs about lost love and other things from about half a century ago - think Ge Lan, Pai Kwang and those from their generation of black-and-white media. Fits of anguish by four dancers halfway into the dance momentarily broke the façade of glitter and spectacle, like an insight into the human lives that lay hidden by the Hungry Ghost festivity. Perhaps this scene could have been less melodramatic, but it did prevent this dance from becoming a campy sideshow.

The second half of the programme appeared to be thematically less frivolous, but no less demanding than what had already been presented: Juraimy Abu Bakar's 'Sosei' (which means "rebirth" in Japanese) and Zaini's 'Pacem In Mortuos'. In spite of the baffling programme notes about identity and rebirth, 'Sosei' was a powerful presentation of disciplined movement and unison dancing that again displayed the spirit and verve that these dancers shared. Black strips ran over and across the dancers' otherwise bare torsos, seeming to suggest a kind of intimate bondage akin to "the angst-ridden passage of existence" and "the ongoing struggle to control one's destiny". After the fifteen-minute interval, curtains were raised to reveal the misty grave-like atmosphere of 'Pacem In Mortuos'. Dancers in tattered, translucent gray costumes fleshed out images of human mortality: limp bodies inching and struggling across the floor in vain, patterned sequences of controlled movement as if in a trance, or a flurry of pirouettes similarly driven by madness. Graceful yet emotionally raw, these two pieces packaged the most desolate moments of the human condition into something visually palatable.

The guest performance by NTU Modern Jazz, 'Gangsta-Hood', was simply a distraction held together by a weak plot. Audiences were introduced to the tattoo-ed Asian street gang, their leader making an offering of joss-sticks while bouncing to the abrasive sounds of Korean pop. Then, a gang of Ghetto hoodlums dressed in Stussy-like street clothing engaged in a short round of basketball, replete with the typical index-pinkie hand gestures; they were bopping instead to the familiar strains of black hip-hop. The two groups face off and by the end, "both gangs go through an understanding of truth and realise what they are in for", represented by both groups dancing as one. 'Gangsta-Hood' was somewhat akin to, but less polished than 'Let's Get Loud'. However, it was a commendable effort nonetheless, confidently performed with few glitches.

Finishing the evening was Zaini's whirling dervish-inspired 'Rumi', named after the man who founded the Mevlevi sect from which whirling dervishes originated. Traditionally, whirling dervishes are mystical dancers mediating between the physical and spiritual realms, their spinning dance representing the earth revolving on its own axis while orbiting the sun, opening their bodies to receive power from the heavens. Dancers were dressed in white leotards and voluminous skirts (perhaps an adaptation of the customary tennure that dervishes wear), performing leaps and chaînés in patterns that suggested the movement of waves. As the entire cast of more than twenty dancers turned independently from shoulder to shoulder, this not only created a soothing and hypnotic effect, but also transformed the dancers into lost souls searching for a higher purpose.

'Rumi' was thus a pleasing amalgam of styles that brought a satisfyingly enjoyable concert to a fitting close, leaving many to look forward to THE NEXT WAVE next year.