Pallavi and Space by CHOWK

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On Friday, we stopped by the Gallery Theatre of the National Museum of Singapore for CHOWK’s latest production, Pallavi and Space. I am a huge fan of CHOWK, an Odissi dance company founded by Raka Maitra. Under Maitra’s artistic direction, Chowk has developed a movement vocabulary grounded in Odissi, and has always aimed to expand the genre of Indian dance beyond dichotomies of classical and contemporary. Pallavi and Space was no exception.

A pallavi is traditionally a short “pure dance” item within the traditional Odissi repertoire. Pallavi literally means “blossoming,” and the composition begins with slow, graceful, and lyrical movements of the eyes, neck, torso, and feet, and “blossoms” towards an up-tempo climax. In Pallavi and Space, Maitra, joined by dancers Karishma Nair, Meera Gurumurthy, Namaha Mazoomdar, and Sandhya Suresh, followed this structure, but extended it to the entire one-hour duration of the performance. Pallavi and Space had more movement than a traditional pallavi, and more exploration of the space in which the dance was performed. Pallavi and Space also made use of light and shadow, designed by Josiah Yoong CH, which served to highlight the dancers’ geometric bodies against the the space of the Gallery Theatre, to a brilliant abstract effect. Most striking, however, was the choice of accompanying music—not the traditional Odissi music that usually accompanies pallavi, but a single vocalist (Uma Katju, who was OMG sublime) and a percussionist (Saranjith N.K) playing a mizhavu, a big copper drum played as an accompanying percussion instrument in the several performing arts of Kerala.

We, including The Preschooler, loved it so much. Tickets are available for CHOWK’s 8PM performance TODAY (Saturday). Go!

International Lion Dance Competition

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On Sunday, my family and I went to Hong Lim Park to be awed and enchanted by the 9th annual International Lion Dance Competition. I love, love this acrobatic style of performing art and I really look forward to this time of year.  This weekend, we were wowed by the rhythmic beats of the drums and the jaw-dropping stunts performed by sixteen teams from Southeast and East Asia. Up close, it was such a joy and privilege to watch these magnificent “creatures” blink and bat eyelids, quiver in exaggerated fright, extended a coy paw.

(Illustrations via Singapore Hequan Institute of Wushu and Lion Dance 新加坡鹤權武术醒狮团.)

My Battambang with Allison Jane Smith

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Over the years, I’ve asked friends from around Asia, met through my online and offline adventures, to share their must-stop spots in South, East, and Southeast Asia’s great cities.

Today, welcome Allison Jane Smith, a writer and communications consultant. She was an editor at WhyDev, a thought leader in the international development community, and her writing has been featured in The Guardian, ONE, TakePart World, and Matador Network, among others. Like me, she has strong opinions about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

And now, over to Allison…

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Battambang is a provincial capital in northwestern Cambodia with more laid-back charm than Cambodia’s flashier cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Settle in for a relaxed visit with great food, incredible local art, and delightful surprises in the Cambodian countryside. I enjoyed my first visit to Battambang so much it turned into living there for a year, and I know many others who have similarly found their stays in Battambang lasted much longer than originally intended!

Must eats?

Chinese Noodle (Street 2) is a perennial favorite for its hand-pulled noodles and delicious dumplings. Its popularity means it can be slow at busy times, but the food is worth the wait.

Jaan Bai (corner of Street 2 and Street 1.5) offers sophisticated small plates inspired by the best of southeast Asian cuisine, from pad Thai to eggplant and shiitake dumplings. A particular highlight is the crab served with Kampot pepper, a Cambodian speciality, and the selection of cocktails and fresh juices mean you’ll have no trouble finding the perfect beverage to complement your meal.

Soline of Choco l’Art (Street 117) serves Battambang’s most decadent desserts. Her chocolate mousse, cheesecake and pastries will satisfy any sweet tooth, and the art hanging on the walls, much of it created by Choco l’Art co-owner and local artist Ke Prak, will please anyone interested in Cambodian art.

For coffee, there’s no better place to go than Kinyei (Street 1.5), whose baristas have won multiple barista championships in Cambodia. Order a street latte for a Cambodian take on a classic latte, or try an iced Cambodian coffee for a truly Cambodian experience. If it’s not too busy, strike up a conversation with the staff; while shy at first, they like the opportunity to practice their English.

Must dos?

Battambang is home of Phare Ponleu Selpak (National Highway 5), a circus troupe that travels internationally. Take the opportunity to see the circus in Battambang, in an intimate atmosphere unlike any other. Phare’s shows feature local artists, musicians and acrobats for a unique artistic experience people of all ages will enjoy.

Don’t miss the bamboo train, a seven-kilometre trip through the countryside on a wooden frame lined with slats of bamboo. When I go with friends, we time our trip for sunset and ask our conductor to stop at the bridge about halfway through the ride, for beautiful views of the sun setting over rice paddies.

Twelve kilometers southwest of the city on National Highway 57 is Phnom Sampov, which has a whole lot to explore – bring comfortable shoes! There’s a complex of temples, a deep cave, and the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampov, now a memorial for the people clubbed to death by the Khmer Rouge. Visit at dusk, when millions of bats pour out of the north side of the cliff, an impressive show that turns the sky black and lasts for a good half hour.

Soksabike offers half- and full-day cycling tours of the countryside, with stops along the way at family-run businesses to learn how they make rice paper, rice wine, and bamboo sticky rice. Stock up on the dried bananas offered on the tour, as they are sold in Thailand rather than at local markets. Book tours at Kinyei (Street 1.5).

Must shops?

Battambang is too small to have much shopping, but the few shops it has are unlike any others you’ll come across in Cambodia.

Bric-a-Brac (119 Street 2) is a one-of-a-kind boutique, serving as a workshop, showroom and gift shop for design textiles, antiques, and souvenirs. Ask shop co-owner Morrison for your turn on the handmade loom, to see what it’s like to weave on a loom that has created tassels and braids for royalty and heads of state.

The Lost Stick (76 Street 2.5) describes itself as an “emporium of strange items and underground comics” and is full of old photographs, novelty toys, and other kitsch. Always worth a browse.

Must art?

Battambang has a long and proud tradition of artistic excellence in Cambodia, and even today most of the country’s best artists come from Battambang. There’s no better place to learn about Cambodian art and meet Cambodian artists.

Across from The Lost Stick is Lotus Bar and Gallery (53 Street 2.5) in a beautifully renovated shophouse. On street-level is a bar, while upstairs is a gallery which specializes in showing the best of local arts. Lotus also hosts film screenings, live music and poetry events, so it’s worth asking at the bar what’s planned for while you’re visiting.

Sammaki (87 Street 2.5) is an artist-run community space offering workshops, exhibitions and other arts-related events.

Must go?

Except for the bamboo train, Phnom Sampov and the circus, everything is located in the city center and is easily walkable. Take a tuk tuk to get to everything farther away.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Allison Jane Smith; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)

da:ns 2015

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da:ns festival, we meet again*! My impressions of this year’s celebration, in no particular order:

– Say what you will about how the festival classifies “high art” (exorbitant ticket prices, held in the Theatre or Concert Hall, “Western”-centric) and “folk art” (free, held in the Concourse or Outdoor Theatre, “Eastern”-centric), but we really love the free “Rasa” performances, lecture-demonstrations showcasing Asia’s traditional dances! The Preschooler and I watched “Javanese Court Dances” by Soerya Soemirat Mangkunegaran Royal Palace (Indonesia), “Harao Seigonnabi: Divine Dances and Songs of Merrymaking” by Laihui Ensemble (India), “Nora Dance Explored” by Nora Thummanit Thaksin University Group (Thailand), and “Malay Court Dances” by ASWARA Dance Company (Malaysia).

And as hokey as it sounds, we go to these events because I want her to gain an appreciation of the performing arts in her neighborhood—performing arts she may not have the opportunity to see once we move back to the United States. She loved “Nora Dance Explored,” a complex dance drama performed mostly in Southern Thailand and Northern Malaysia, performed by one of the leading masters of the genre, Nora Thummanit Nikomrat. My favorite performance, by far, was “Harao Seigonnabi,” a selection of dances from the annual festival of Lai Haraobato, a festival of worship of traditional deities and ancestors of the Meitei community of Manipur.

– In years past, it has been The Preschooler AND I who have participated in Footwork workshops, introductory dance classes are conducted by professional instructors, as part of da:ns festival. This year, I attended “Bellydance” by Nawal Alhaddad on my own as well! Nawal, a brilliant and energetic teacher who conducts women-only and hijab-friendly dance and fitness classes regularly at Le Danz, Tampines-Changkat CC, SAFRA Yishun, and elsewhere, led a 90-minute “basics of bellydancing” class. I haven’t bellydanced in years, and Nawal’s workshop was super-fun.

– In 2013 and 2014, I opted to attend the festival’s “Shift” performances, rather than its “Centrestage” productions. Nearly all of the Centrestage productions have been European (aside from performances by Japan’s Sankai Juku in 2012 and Brazil’s Grupo Corpo in 2013) and they are always Singapore premiers, rather than original commissioned or site-specific works. (Sylvie Guillem performing Mats Ek’s “Bye”? Again on the same stage?)  This year, however, I couldn’t resist seeing British-Bengali Akram Khan and Seville-born Israel Galván in a Kathak- and Flamenco-inspired duet, “Torobaka,” which has its world premier in 2014.

While the artists’ displayed remarkable, seemingly superhuman athleticism and precision in executing the rapid footwork and whirling spins common to both dance forms, the performance was overall rather uneven: inspired and thrilling in parts, but repetitive and esoteric and eccentric (not in a good way) in others. And disappointingly, the Theatre was half full for the final performance of these icons of dance. Entire rows were empty, and even I jumped forward a few rows and snagged a better seat.

*Here are my impressions of the annual festival in 2011, 2013, 2014.

GIVEAWAY: Kabuki by Ebizo Ichikawa X [CLOSED]

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Ebizo Ichikawa XI, scion of Japan’s oldest kabuki family, returns to Singapore this October at Marina Bay Sands, and I have a pair of tickets (retail value: SG$290.00) to give away!

Japan’s “Prince of Kabuki” will be staging a limited three-performance run of two kabuki plays that have never been seen before: Uwanari and Mimasu Kuruwa no Kasauri. While the latter is a brand new piece created especially for Singapore’s Jubilee celebrations, the former has not been performed in over a hundred years, and its debut in Singapore marks a significant moment in kabuki history.

To win this pair of tickets, leave ONE comment below. (Entries without an email address will be disqualified. Multiple entires will be disqualified.)

This giveaway is open to my readers in Singapore only and will close on September 25, 2015 at 12:00AM UTC/GMT +8 hours. Three winners will be chosen by random.org and be announced on September 30, 2015. Good luck!

Many thanks to all who entered!

The lucky winner of this set of books is… dailydejavu (comment #2)!  Congratulations, dailydejavu! PR Communications will be emailing you shortly for your mailing address.

Smriti Padha (Memory Route)

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After a hiatus of several years, I finally returned to the Singapore International Festival of Arts, “which began as a showcase for highbrow, largely European performance pieces, but has brought in edgier acts from both Europe and Asia in recent years.” Last night’s performance, “Smriti Padha (Memory Route)” at Victoria Theatre, featured dancers from Kerala Kalamandalam in Thrissur, India, and was inspired by a performance that took place in Singapore in the 1950s. Then, Kerala Kalamandalam performed “Dussasana Vadham” (or “The Slaying Of Dussasana”) in the same theatre, in collaboration with the late K.P. Bhaskar, the founder of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

“The Slaying Of Dussasana” was the pièce de résistance of “Smriti Padha (Memory Route),” and was intense and sublime. The dancers who portrayed Duryodhana and Dussasana were just remarkable—utter masters of navarasam, or a highly-stylised invocation of bhava (expression). The relatively small size of Victoria Theatre also allowed for a certain intimacy with these incredibly gifted artists; even from my vantage point, I was able to appreciate the arts’ riotous costumes and makeup. (The theatre was only half-full, as is the case with many non-Western productions in Singapore in my experience.)

However, the English surtitles only provided a very brief outline of the events dramatized on stage, and omitted all explanations, many of which were key in understanding the unfolding narrative. For example, the audience is never informed, either in the surtitles or in the playbill, that Draupadi/Panchali is married to all five Pandavas, which is why Yudhistra “loses” her in a rigged game of dice, but Bheema avenges her humiliation. Another example: it was never revealed that her attempted disrobing took place during her menstrual period, and that she vowed that she would not tie her hair until she had washed it with the blood from Dussasana’s chest. I wonder how theatre-goers who had no previous knowledge of the Mahabharata received these scenes (without the requisite scaffolding); I know I was better able to appreciate the truly brilliant bodily nuances and emotional range of the performers because I have this vast and intricate knowledge.

“The Slaying Of Dussasana” was bookended by a prologue (kaleri movements and Kathakali techniques) and an epilogue (Mohiniyattam), but while the choreography, by Santha Bhaskar of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (K.P. Bhaskar’s wife and a star in her own right), was stellar, the young dancers lacked that je ne sais quoi of their more experienced colleagues. In time, in time.

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Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is usually conducted at night and ends in early morning, and an event last weekend, “Discover the World of Kathakali,” which included a pre-dawn training session and a make-up and costume demonstration by Kerala Kalamandalam and Bhaskar’s Arts Academy in Fort Canning Park, replicated much of the magic of viewing the art under the cover of darkness. It was really lovely to share with my daughter the marvelous aesthetics of a dance form that is of her direct cultural heritage.