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Sumatra-born theatre director Yusril Katil crafts a dance that uses everyday objects and traditional Minangkabau movements to convey the devastation and rehabilitation following the devastating forces of Nature.

Pichet Klunchun (right) dedicates Dancing with Death to spirituality, commemorating ancestors and sacrifices.

The double bill features Helix by founder dancers Zhuo Zihao and Yarra Ileto (above) and a solo work called Against by third founder of T.H.E Dance Company, Kuik Swee Boon.

The double bill features Helix by founder dancers Zhuo Zihao and Yarra Ileto and a solo work called Against by third founder of T.H.E Dance Company, Kuik Swee Boon (above).

With Sleeping Beauty (2012, above), star choreographer Matthew Bourne completes the trio of Tchaikovsky's masterworks, after Nutcracker (1992) and Swan Lake (1995).

With Sleeping Beauty (2012), star choreographer Matthew Bourne completes the trio of Tchaikovsky's masterworks, after Nutcracker (1992) and Swan Lake (1995).

Narratives in motion

Telling stories on stage and narrating personal or important events are no longer the preserve of theatre directors or playwrights. Today, contemporary choreographers do the same with their kinetic creations. BT Lifestyle previews four dance productions that show how the art form has progressed beyond just rhythmic movement set to music. There is drama and theatre and dancers telling stories not just with words, but movement.
Apr 22, 2016 5:50 AM

Cataclysm inspires dance

Under the Volcano
Bumi Purnati Indonesia, Jakarta

GROWING up in the shadow - and the occasional bone-chilling tremors - of a volcano, Sumatra-born theatre director Yusril Katil felt an affinity with a 19th-century poem that he came across which was about the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883.

Lampung Karam, by a religious scholar, is a first-hand account of the horror and destruction that could well describe current and continual earthquakes that have happened in Yusril's lifetime in his hometown in West Sumatra.

"It's a natural phenomenon and can't be avoided," he says, referring to the fact that Sumatra lies in the Pacific Ocean's "Ring of Fire" where the majority of earthquakes occur.

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Using sections of the old syair (Malay for poetry) and new verses which he wrote himself, Yusril then crafted a dance that uses everyday objects and traditional Minangkabau movements to convey the devastation and rehabilitation following natural disasters.

"The strength of the show is not only the account of the earthquake, but also the use of visuals to tell the story and provide the meaning," says Yusril in an email interview. He lectures on theatre direction at the Theatre Art Study Program ISI Padangpanjang and is also a director for HITAM-PUTIH art community.

For Under the Volcano, he chose dance theatre, and found traditional Minangkabau cultural elements so egalitarian and "democratic" that it was easy to use them in contemporary dance.

"Of course, there will be many surprises when turning the traditional into something contemporary. But it also means we will create new forms of aesthetics which incorporate traditional philosophy and value," he says.

Almost all of the traditional artforms are translatable - silat (martial art), randai (where the stage is surrounded by the audience on all sides), ulu ambek (a slow type of martial art), kaba (oral stories) and others. "Minangkabau cultural practices are quite flexible by nature as the philosophy behind them is hinged on how they can be re-used or adapted," he notes.

Yusril was also interested in the social system of the culture which takes a top-down approach - the way society is governed. In contrast to how a theatre piece might develop out of the story or text, Yusril decided to create the dance by using everyday objects for their symbolism, and then he connected text to the objects. A ladder, for instance, could symbolise the power structure of the society which has a top-down approach.

Music and multimedia are then used to move the rest of the narrative. "Objects take on different symbols and communication can be established through various media like the voice and body," he explains.

The dramaturgy is by Rhoda Grauer, multimedia by Elizar Koto and photography by Gembong Hardian. The piece had previously been performed at the Beijing Theatre Olympics in 2014.

Yusril concludes: "The message of Under The Volcano is a common thread for all the natural disasters around the world - that to survive, one must depend on the help of others."

Under the Volcano, April 21-23, 8pm nightly at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. To book tickets from S$20, email or call 6737-7213

Feting spirit of Thai ghost festival

Dancing with Death
Pichet Klunchun Dance Company, Thailand

WHILE Dancing with Death does not have a fixed narrative, it will convey the very essence of folk dance to the audience - the freedom of movement, feeling, emotion, thinking and creativity.

The audience will sit on stage together with the dancers, and through their energy be transported into the heart of the famous Phi Ta Khon festival in North-eastern Thailand. The idea being that sharing the space with the performers puts the audience in a "limbo space" where the dead and living share space and time together.

"I learnt about the festival in school, but didn't pay attention to it at that time," relates Pichet Klunchun, who studied classical Khon dance - a Thai masked dance drama - from the age of 16, before he branched into contemporary dance in the early 2000s.

In the Phi Ta Kon folk festival held in Loei province, Isan, locals dress up in colourful costumes and masks to celebrate death and fertility. It's alternatively known as the ghost festival. Pichet visited the festival about two years back, and it's now well attended by foreigners besides locals.

He doesn't follow the actual dance, Pichet explains, but the intent: the spirituality, commemorating ancestors and sacrifices.

"All my previous works were based on classical movement, but Dancing with Death's choreography is based on folk dance. It is the combination of the body movements of dancers with his or her own creativities in order to create his or her own dance movements," he says.

The costumes are designed by Thai fashion designer Piyaporn Bhongse Tong, while Japanese collaborators Asako Miura and Hiroshi Iguchi provide light and sound design, which includes recordings from the Phi Ta Khon festival.

This is the first time The Esplanade has commissioned an Asian dancemaker for its da:ns series with co-producers from Japan and Australia. Pichet has previously performed here in the Singapore Arts Festival and also The Esplanade's da:ns Festival.

Dancing with Death, May 6 & 7, 8pm, Esplanade Theatre. Tickets from S$40 can be bought from and

Bonding with the audience beyond limits of language

T.H.E. Dance Company, Singapore

T.H.E. Dance Company's founder Kuik Swee Boon and founder dancers Zhuo Zihao and Yarra Ileto spent eight years of hard work, commitment and sacrifice honing their craft. Their latest work captures their journey and evolution which they hope will be an inspiration to the newer dancers in the company.

"It's a way of sharing the spirit of the company with our newer members," says Kuik, who adds that he was spurred on by an Esplanade commission last year which featured dancers above 40.

Kuik's solo section is choreographed to an old Hakka folk song, which is also reminiscent of his first few works, where he incorporated dialect and music into his work. As a man who wears multiple hats - leader, mentor, dancemaker, father - Kuik asks the inevitable question: how does one nurture a young artist to be loyal to the collective purpose, without compromising personal beliefs?

The other half of the double bill is the work of associate artist Zhou Zi Hao and his wife Yarra Ileto, a former founding member who's also an independent artist. Drawn by ideas of interdependence and duality, Zhuo and Ileto examine the threads that bind: conflict and tension, replication and renewal.

They will each present their choreography side by side on the same stage, but the two were separately developed and not a collaboration as we understand it.

It's a reflection of two individuals starting at the same point yet pursuing different creative and career arcs, explains Ileto. "We've worked together for eight years, and just got married nine months ago - we wanted to develop separate narratives."

For Ileto, her choreography emphasises teamwork. "You don't choose who you work with; but relationships will develop over time as we cope," explains Ileto. The description of her choreography is that it's light but at the same time, layered with heavy emotions.

The "helix" gives her the image of a support system that spirals upwards, and it was like a sculpture for her to reflect on the early days when the dance company started off with nothing. "At the same time, it's not a show about us for ourselves only, but to share with the rest of the dancers," says Ileto.

Zhuo has entitled his work Against - which is an idea he had from the start of the company but didn't have the chance to perform. "Against is the idea of challenging the status quo and being a bit more rebellious," explains Zhuo, who studied dance in Hong Kong. "Even a contrary viewpoint can be a supportive mechanism for growth and that's where it links to Helix. I've decided to revive the original idea to reflect on how I've developed since then," he shares.

He returned to Singapore as he saw more room to explore contemporary dance here. It's also quite a new practice in Singapore. "I thought there's a role for me to cultivate a certain sense of artistry unlike in Hong Kong where the contemporary dance scene is more mature and the audience has a strong expectation for it to be entertainment."

As for how much dance can portray narratives, Kuik says that there is a part of the audience that likes dance because it provides different experiences from theatre. "They like the nature of dance which communicates beyond language," he concludes.

Helix, May 20-21, 8pm, at the School of the Arts (SOTA) Drama Theatre. Tickets from S$28 available from

The art of spinning a yarn - without words

Sleeping Beauty
New Adventures/ Matthew Bourne, UK

BRITISH star choreographer Matthew Bourne, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II this year for creating dances loved by the UK audience, takes a populist approach in his choreography.

He thinks of his audience first and foremost when choreographing a show. "Some people have never been to the ballet before and I'm trying to make it as simple and as accessible as possible. I don't mean dumbing down. I mean capturing the storyline and making the audience feel something."

He puts theatre first when making a piece. "I see myself as a man of the theatre and non-verbal storytelling is what my form of theatre is," says the 56-year-old whose revised Nutcracker! in 1992 was an instant hit with audiences and critics. His re-imagination of Swan Lake in 1995 sealed his genius as it became the longest-running ballet in the West End and on Broadway.

Now with his 2012 Sleeping Beauty, the non-ballet trained choreographer completes the trio of Tchaikovsky's masterworks. This time, Bourne sets the story of Aurora in 1890, in the year of the ballet's first performance; which is also the height of the time when vampires and fairies fed the gothic imagination.

In the story, Aurora is awakened from her 100-year sleep by an immortal vampire prince, and finds herself in the modern-day world. Bourne turns the traditional tale of good versus evil upside down, to create a supernatural love story.

Bourne shares how he didn't like the original story (in French choreographer's Marius Petipa's 19th-century version) so he tried to make it more exciting. In his version, he makes the gardener Aurora's childhood sweetheart, who, as a vampire, could still be around 100 years later.

Despite the gothic setting and make-up though, Bourne quips that his approach is nowhere near as dark as the original fairy tale. In that version, the Prince leaves Sleeping Beauty and his mother had wanted to eat their two children.

With that kind of an ending, what's a few vampires and dark fairies dancing around in dramatic fashion?

Sleeping Beauty, Aug 4-7, 8pm and 3pm, at The Esplanade Theatre. Tickets from