Indian fest's Angkor: In step with Asian Art

Review Dance/theatre


Apsaras Arts featuring Priyadarsini Govind

Esplanade Theatre/Last Friday

Angkor: An Untold Story melds multiple Asian art forms in a lavish visual feast that opened the Esplanade's annual festival of Indian arts with a bang.

In the unforgettable first sequence, dancers showed off their martial prowess in steps partly based on Indian tribal movements, reminiscent of Malay silat and choreographed for Chinese drums.

Such seamless tapestries of different artistic traditions were created by a variety of choreographers including artists from Singapore-based Apsaras Arts and Malay cultural troupe Era Dance Theatre's founder Osman Abdul Hamid. Their work in the 140-minute production proved a powerful visual reminder of the historical truth that cross-cultural exchange has shaped Asia and Asian art for centuries.

Like last December's Ramayana, produced by the Temple Of Fine Arts, Angkor: An Untold Story highlighted how artists and art forms moved between India and South-east Asia, creating fantastic art and architecture such as the 2 sq km temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.

Exquisitely garbed dancers and musicians from Singapore, India, Cambodia and Sri Lanka followed an almost historical narrative: Cambodian queen Suryavana (played by Sabanitha Shanmugasundram of Apsaras Arts) invites Indian artist Vyjayanthi (Indian dancer Priyadarsini Govind) to enrich her court but soon begins to fear the foreign talent as a rival.

The story was a pretext for some delightful dance showcases. Lithe and elegant Khmer court dances flowed into graceful, earthy bharatanatyam from India, for example, with music, lyrics and narration in Tamil, Khmer and Sanskrit provided live by a team of 14 musicians and singers.

Major artists Shanmugasundram and Govind did not take centrestage in the dance part of the production, though their expressive black-lined eyes spoke clearer than words as they emoted joy, sorrow and fear.

Pride of place for physical effort went to the Apsara dancers brought in by Cambodia's Ministry of Culture, whose graceful hand and foot movements arrested the eye and provided gentle contrast to the powerful stamps of the bharatanatyam exponents.

Chief among the latter was Apsaras Arts' Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, whose energetic leaps emulating the cosmic dance of the Hindu god Shiva turned in an instant to statuesque stillness in one of the more physically demanding sequences.

Though many dances were inspired by classic stories from Hindu mythology, as expected, an interesting twist here was that such sequences were based on actual statues or friezes from Cambodian temples. A particularly powerful scene set on Mount Kulen, where the riverbed is inset with thousands of phallic lingam sacred to Shiva, had dancers act the part of the water-washed stones, then flow into another image representing the deity Vishnu on his snake throne - also a statue found in the area.

Such sequences and the rivalry between the two lead actors also highlighted the history and futility of clashes between worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu in India, a fact sometimes glossed over by dance-dramas based on the period. Kudos to artistic director Aravinth Kumarasamy for not doing the same.

Angkor: An Untold Story has been much touted as a home-grown production, as it is helmed by Singapore's Apsaras Arts and co-presented by the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

It was easily on a par with similar big-name dance dramas brought in by the Esplanade, such as Indonesian historical dance-theatre Matah Ati (2010), and equally deserving of an Asian tour.

Followers of local dance troupes already know of their top-level artistry and this production was just polished with the extra technical slickness that comes with the backing of a big venue.

I would love to see more such collaborations with Singapore groups headline other arts festivals at the Esplanade. There is no doubt that local troupes are ready and able to shine.

Only one suggestion - next time, have a few more surtitles in English to fill in the gaps for those in the audience who might not have grown up with the songs and stories enacted on stage.

There were a few instances when translation lagged behind the action and several non-Indians in the seats behind me could not keep up when, for example, Govind enacted the gory and fascinating story of the lion-headed Narasimha and the prince Prahlada.

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Singapore Press Holdings is supporting sponsor of Indian Festival of Arts under its Gift of Music series.