It would not be an exaggeration to say that with the Temple of Fine Arts Inner Space Dance Mavin Khoo has created one of his finest choreographic works. This Bharata Natyam based retelling of three pivotal scenes from the epic Ramayana hits several highs. The all male group of eight Bharata Natyam dancers flow in unison to deliver a sensational impact. The story of Rama has a powerful hold in India and South East Asia. As can be seen in Indian literature and different versions of it in South East Asia, there are several perspectives, most of which eulogise Rama but some eulogise Ravana and Indrajit. Mavin Khoo and his dancers do a remarkable depiction of Ravana as the Shiva worshipping ascetic and Rudra Veena player. It is also fitting to the grandeur and far reaching cultural and historical influence of the epic that the Malaysian dancers bring to life using an Indian classical dance form.
The dancers’ mastery of technique and their perfect expressions lend a cosmic energy to the piece. The audience is held in a trance where mind connects with the spirit. The dancers project an ineffable mystical vibe. Immaculate lines, carved sculptural postures and intense footwork with ankle bells strongly uphold the aesthetics of classical Bharatnatyam, yet it departs from the widely seen conventional presentations, in a beautifully creative way. It opens new realms in the presentation of classical Bharatnatyam. There are multiple layers in the movements corresponding with the elements of war, rage, revenge and destruction in the storyline, drawn from the three episodes of abduction, sea crossing and eventual slaying of the demon God-Ravana. With a strong essence of martial masculinity in the movements Khoo has succeeded in creating his own style of positioning Bharatnatyam in response to the male caste and theme. Light design is dramatic and contemporary, and the dancers are clad in less elaborate costumes. One is dazzled by pure dance and the accompanying live music more than anything else.
Abduction of Sita, the building of the bridge by Rama’s monkey army and the killing of Ravana form the base of the choreographic theme. It is a unique rendition of the alternate perspective of Ravana who is worshipped as a lord in certain parts of South East Asia. It implants a sense of awe for this otherwise commonly believed negative character in the traditional epic. Sections in the choreography leave a deep impression. Ravana known as a maestro of the Veena is seen strumming the chords through a series of movements. His musical notes are heard and felt, such is the power of Mavin’s choreography and the strength of the performers. He is a Yogi immersed in his calm Yagna with eyes closed while the monkey army build the bridge to bring Rama across the ocean to Lanka. This is a commendable section where the calm of the yogi is in a fierce contrast to the frantic and restless army of monkeys. The monkey portrayal could not have been more convincing- at one point you could forget that they are human dancers on stage. Achieving this through a group choreography of classical Bharata Natyam, without one bit being over the top is a feat on its own. Ravana believed as a devotee of Lord Shiva is felt reflecting Shiva’s energy when he is in his frenzied wrath fighting Rama and his army and is finally slain.
Mostly dancing in unison, the dancers immerge as one being, the strong and imposing Ravana, the demon lord of Lanka with 10 heads in a spellbinding end. They become one soul and one body with those pairs of eyes glaring with rage at the audience-it completely takes you in. Their arms flicking out of that one body of the demon lord with palms painted in red. Clad in fiery red dhotis the chiselled body of the dancers show every sinew of their muscles in fierce action. Their clenched teeth, raised brows, sometimes opened jaws and a war call portray Ravana’s wrath when encountered by Rama.
Special mention to the synchronicity of the choreography with the live music ensemble-vocals and instruments. The accompanying score, the choreography and the dancers went from strength to strength to make a triumphant impact.
The performance was a spiritually uplifting experience vividly appealing to the senses. Appreciation is extended to Darbar Festival for providing access to classical Indian dance and music in its varied and unique forms from around the world.
Review: Protima Chatterjee
Photo credit: Rehmat Rayatt