Apsaras Arts Dance Company presents their new work, Amara– Dancing Stories of Banteay Srei, as part of Esplanade’s Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts. Online from 20 to 29 November 2020.
In the quiet of the night, I sneak out of my room, where my toddler is sound asleep. This is my everyday reality, my world of conscious perception. At the click of a mouse, my entry into a virtual world is instantaneous. In place of programme notes for Amara – Dancing the Stories of Banteay Srei, words accompanied by a vibrant musical refrain appear on the screen, to set the premise for the film which is about to unfold.
An aerial three-dimensional view of a digitally reproduced temple complex of Banteay Srei, set against a lush aural melange of distinctive sounds from a veena (a South Indian stringed instrument) coupled with mellifluous, bell-like tones of the gamelan (genre of instrumental music with origins in Indonesia) swiftly greet me. I am unable to discern if these are the sounds from the Cambodian gong gamelan specifically – an instrument related to the more well-known gamelan instruments of Indonesia but rarely heard outside the Angkor Wat region. The animation moves to simulate as though I am being actively led through the entrance of the divine abode of Tribhuvanamaheshwara, (Great Lord of the Threefold World) an appellation of Shiva (one of the principal deities of the Hindu triumvirate).
I arrive at the open space before the south shrine to a scene of splendour. The sun shining in all its glory on the canvas of an azure sky, and under the canopy of leaves rustling gently in the breeze, the sanctum of pink sandstone standing in unassuming majesty. In the foreground, a formation of dancers dressed in costumes of varying tones in gold, rust orange, and white are poised to awaken from a liminal state of suspenseful stillness, their dynamism waiting to burst forth.
Their dancing bodies move with graceful athleticism and a joyful spiritedness as a compact ensemble. Executing fast-paced rhythmic sequences with nifty footwork, they represent demigods and cardinal deities who have come alive to affirm the exalted state of these sacred grounds. The grounds serve as a locus for stories from and worship of two major traditions within Hinduism – Shaivism (reverence for Shiva as the Supreme Being) and Vaishnavism (reverence for Vishnu as the Supreme Being). The dancers function as a tight unit, displaying equal strength and skill in their collective delivery of this high energy piece – an exposition on the qualities and attributes of the presiding deity, Chandrashekhara (an incarnation of Shiva).
The ability of the dancers to invest deeply in the act of seamless storytelling, sustain their commitment to emoting with sensitivity, and move with precision right from the get-go is evidence enough that the celebration of the consecration of the temple, as well as the digital production itself, is off to an auspicious and seriously promising start. The musical genius of composer Dr Rajkumar Bharathi shines through right from the beginning, too. The music not only stirs and soothes the soul. It enables viewers to sink deeply into the skin of the stories, with their shades and nuanced layering.
Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, who dons many hats as resident choreographer, principal dancer and costume designer, has employed choreographic devices such as canon and accumulation* to keep choreography visually stimulating. A pose assumed by the guards of the sanctum becomes a recurring motif in the ensemble sequences, adding a unique flavour to the conventional movement vocabulary of Bharatanatyam. In the midst of these action-filled narratives where theatricality reigns supreme, it is the dance of Shiva and Shakthi which has stolen and stills my heart whenever I think of it. It is a thing of sublime beauty, one which does not scream for attention but grows on you gently. The synergy between the dancers carries a kind of understated elegance. The wordless conversation exchanged by both Shiva and Shakthi is translated into a beautifully balanced complementarity of effortless vigour, and grace.
The rich complexities of Amara and its effective marriage of art and digital technology is far better experienced than explained. The confluence of various elements – from the seemingly static depictions of mythological characters set in stone, to the captivating dance scenes set in motion – makes for compelling viewing. Amara is digital storytelling at its dynamic best.
The creation of this visual spectacle in the digital landscape guided by the vision and artistic direction of Aravinth Kumarasamy is aesthetically beautiful, a balm for the senses. Yet, there is much pain and bloodshed in the complicated histories of Cambodian politics and performance traditions, which I personally cannot look past as a history enthusiast and former History teacher. An obscenely large number of practitioners of the Khmer classical art forms were executed during the reign of terror under the Pol Pot regime, leaving much to be desired and done in the revival, reconstruction and preservation of Khmer classical dance.
In fact, it was the late Queen Sisowath Kossomak Neary Roth Serey Vaddhana, who created the famed Apsara (celestial dancer) dance, which many foreign audiences associate Khmer classical dance with. She created this in 1962, inspired by temple engravings. It is my hope that future iterations of this repertory work by Apsaras Arts Dance Company will pave the way for deeper conversations with Khmer artists, since their art form is already such an invaluable part of this larger cross-cultural narrative. Amara will perhaps then truly be heaven on earth in the real world.
*canon – a group of dancers perform the same movement sequence, one after the other
*accumulation – where new movements are added to existing movements in a successive manner
Apsaras Arts presents Amara- Dancing Stories of Banteay Srei with Kalaa Utsavam, viewable online from 20-29 November. Tickets are on sale at SISTIC.
Ranjini Ganapathy is a trained secondary school teacher by profession. Upon leaving the service from the Ministry of Education in 2012, she continued to teach History, Social Studies, and English as a facilitator of enrichment programmes in schools. A former company dancer of Apsaras Arts, she is committed to critiquing and appreciating the popular and problematic narratives of Bharatanatyam in an attempt to better understand her relationship with the art form. As a Brisbane-based creative arts educator, she integrates her passions of crafting and dance into her language lessons. She is also a volunteer tutor teaching adult migrants English.