>the next wave 2002: remembrance of a decade by nus dance ensemble

>reviewed by malcolm tay

>date: 1 sep 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the hall, university cultural centre
>rating: ***1/2

>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.


2002 marks the NUS Dance Ensemble's tenth year of existence, and for this year's 'Next Wave' season, entitled THE NEXT WAVE 2002: REMEMBRANCE OF A DECADE, which kicks off the Dance Reflections festivities, the group's founder and resident choreographer, Zaini Mohd. Tahir, brought back some of his creations from as early as 1992, in addition to the usual crop of new dances by him and several alumni members. Yet, despite the concert's title, I wouldn't call it a retrospective. None of the earlier works had been remounted to look exactly as they did back then; instead, Zaini had revisited and renewed them for the current generation.

(The programme's foreword by Edwin Thumboo, director of the NUS Centre for the Arts, credited Martha Stewart as "the famous choreographer" who once said "dance is the hidden language of the soul." Well. Stewart may be famous for a good number of things, but she's no choreographer. Whoever wrote it - I'm only guessing that Prof. Thumboo had no time to do it himself - must have meant Miss Graham but somehow screwed up in the process. It made for a good laugh. Especially when I realised that this foreword will appear in the programmes for ALL Dance Reflections events.)

The size of the Ensemble amazes me. Two years ago, it was said to be seventy-strong. Now it's reported to have more than a hundred members - with that number I imagine they could stage 'La Bayadère' if they wanted to, but Zaini would probably balk at the idea. In any case, members come in all shapes and sizes. Some join the group with no prior formal training, while others may have had several years of instruction under so-and-so. Whatever their backgrounds, the Ensemble dancers are a confident, energetic lot; their polished dancing reaches, plunges into the moment, and what a pleasure they are to watch.

>>'Whatever their backgrounds, the Ensemble dancers are a confident, energetic lot; their polished dancing reaches, plunges into the moment, and what a pleasure they are to watch.'

Zaini's older works dominated the first half of the evening, which revealed the basic characteristics of his eclectic, full-bodied style. The body is often planted in angular, fragmented shapes; the arms may bend away from the torso in the manner of Balinese or Javanese court dance, with the hands flexed or stiffly curled fingers. The footwork is relentless, eager to cover space. Pirouettes of the jazz variety are in abundance; sometimes you'll find a few classical steps - an arabesque here, a brisé there, some piqué turns - or even a whole sequence. And when you have that many people to mess around with, Zaini puts at least fifteen dancers on stage, working in unison as well as in circles and lines, splitting into subunits moving in canon with each other.

We see these designs quite clearly in all his pieces for THE NEXT WAVE 2002, especially in the opening all-female 'Matsuri' and in 'Spirit'. When Zaini plays the central character like he does in 'Shantum', he brings the individual's never-ending struggle against mass conformity upon his shoulders; as the huge, anonymous community advances slowly across the stage, he is left behind, crouching, gesturing in quiet defiance. In 'Being II', the women of the group share this very struggle, fleshing out inner battles in their own little solos together - some calmly carve space, reaching upwards to grasp the air; others collapse to the ground, writhing in pain. But sitting through four Zaini works back-to-back felt like overkill. The patterns and motifs grew familiar after a while, and that's when only the tireless dancing held my attention.

There's more variety, subject- and movement-wise, in the second half of the evening, which began with Shahbirul Zaki Ahmad's 'Love Suite'. Twenty women fall prey to love in three sections: first smitten, then disappointed, and finally forsaken. However, there are no men on stage to romance, hurt, and dump these poor girls; we're seeing emotional responses from the woman's perspective expressed collectively, rather than plot events. Red-hot heterosexual contact only comes in Andriana Ngaman's 'Urban Mating Rituals', allowing the dancers to play up their wild side and have some fun. Set in a club-like environment with two platforms and a pounding soundtrack, the risqué partnering and mass dancing came across as awfully spontaneous, more so than the Ensemble's funk-and-hip-hop routines of previous years.

Juraimy Abu Bakar's 'The State of Un-becoming Beauty' makes an interesting little mockery of decorum and formality. The dancers strut around nonchalantly in their black-and-white costumes, peopling the stage with an endless stream of small sub-groups. They attack the falls and floorwork with gusto; balletic steps and positions lose their usual posture, done with more energy and hip action. Somehow, the dance's overall demeanour reminded me of the Australian Dance Theatre's 'Birdbrain'. Last of all was Zaini's latest creation, 'Hidayah', which has more of the same and finishes with a long, descriptive solo for the choreographer himself.

Despite any complaints I might have about increasingly predictable choreography, a NEXT WAVE concert is a joyful experience that shouldn't be missed. It really typifies the truism that you don't need a degree from the Juilliard to enjoy the creative and expressive possibilities of movement. Yet, I can't help but wonder if the NUS Dance Ensemble would benefit from acquiring works by the modern masters for its repertory. I, for one, would love to see them in a large-scale choric piece by Doris Humphrey.