- review written by Ranjini Ganapathy September 19, 2020
Where do emotions go to die and how do they live over and over again? One of the most straightforward answers to this is in and through songs respectively, and in this instance, the timeless Malay jiwang songs from the eighties and nineties repackaged as an assortment of skilful and meaningful dance performances by four highly expressive bodies and presented as a playful and yet profound karaoke dance film.
Jiwang is a tribute to the deeply evocative lyrics present in the slow rock songs of the Malay music scene and grants viewers full permission to indulge and actually take pleasure in feeling it all unapologetically. It is an invitation by dance company, P7: 1SMA (pronounced as Prisma) to deep-dive into the realm of the soulful through the lyrical and the musical.
Personally, I am intrigued and inspired by the company’s guiding principle to frame “dance as a strategy and Malay as a concept”. It is both clever and highly necessary, especially if we want to move forward as a progressive nation of people. The diversity of the Malay community and its nuances seem to be very rarely explored in mainstream media.
I feel privileged to have been able to gain access into the contemporary Malay world to savour a sliver of a rich social landscape through this generous offering but I am left with wanting more lashings of it, just a tad more. I am woman enough to admit that I can’t get enough of a good thing. I also confess that within a safe and private space, I do have a propensity to berjiwang, be excessively emotional, perhaps less reservedly than others and so, in spite of being stirred, I wanted to be moved to somewhere, another plane of consciousness. I call it transcendence.
“Nostalgia for lost love is cowardice disguised as poetry,” wrote author, Jeanette Winterson in an opinion piece many years ago. I have come a long way from being some kind of a coward having learnt strategies to cope better when confronted by unsavoury parts of my emotional history. Time, too, is an ally of softening blows and healing. Sometimes, there is simply no way of avoiding it, especially if it creeps up on you. Emotions form the core of the human condition. Nobody is immune from maladies of the heart. This collection of jiwang songs is one of many antidotes, an accessible form of self-medication.
The word ‘Jiwang’ explodes gloriously onto the screen against a psychedelic background accompanied by a burst of peppy intro music. In the comfort of my home, I feel relaxed and ready to enjoy the show. I am greeted at once by a bare-boned set-up of what seems to be a large rectangle taped on to the floor of the black box. The dancers walk into the set, carrying their own chairs and personal belongings. The chairs are placed outside of this designated performance space and the dancers sink comfortably into their seats.
When the first dancer steps into the ring, slouching his shoulders and dragging his feet to the doleful rendition of Siapa Di Hatimu (Who Is in Your Heart) by Rahmat, I recognise at once that he is, to some degree, transformed into a receptacle of restrained anguish. Orange lights flood the scene. There is a heaviness about him and the way he tells a story with his body. The camera angles are all over the place and there are overlapping images of him superimposed onto the screen. Emotional regulation is a messy affair.
Assuming the stance of a man burdened by the weight of his loss, he hardly lets his feet take off from the ground. A subtle allusion is made to The Thinker, a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin, an image employed to represent the act of philosophising, when he places a hand on his head, tugging at his hair, while the other hand is stretched out to the back. His gnarled fingers resemble a claw. He then lifts one foot off the ground and pivots on the other making one round on the spot. In spite of the internal torment, his movements are controlled. He finishes his presentation by removing his sunglasses exactly when the words on the screen read “until I was removed” and gently places that and a handkerchief towards the front where a make-believe shrine is instantaneously erected to honour the demise of a love story which cannot go on. I take this to mean that he has wept enough to let it go.
Emoting more significantly than the first dancer, the second performer dances her heart out to Teringin (Longing) by Shima. She mouths the words of the song showing how emotionally invested she is in this lyrical narrative and I, too, feel like I want to belt out this number. Looking straight into the camera, I see her telling me her story of yearning. She has made an effort to connect with me eye to eye. I reciprocate, watching her with rapt attention. Her flailing arms work in unison with her twisting, contorting body. There is a push and a pull. A melange of movements both weighted and animalistic seize hold of her. The rawness of her turmoil is palpable. Her dance, too, does not escape the streaming of orange lights, which wash over her, and the superimposition of composite images of her captured at different angles. At some point, she is shown to be drenched in water. An outpouring of emotion is suggested. The floodgates have opened and she is kneeling, writhing in pain even. The emotional release exhausts her. Finally, she treads the ground, lightly, slowly, deliberately. I am relieved for her and myself.
The third dancer takes her spot and begins to move freely and joyfully to the tune of a familiar song. Perasaan breathed to life by the smooth and saccharine vocals of Anita Sarawak is the Malay version of Feelings by musical group, The Bee Gees. I welcome the change in mood. It is refreshing. I realise then that I did need this break from the overbearing tedium brought on by the heavier, contemplative songs from before. Clearly, I lack stamina in wallowing for too long. The scene unfolds in black and white. Disco fever vibes are in the air as the dancer lets go and lets loose. Her stylised movements are reminiscent of that era I mention above. She is flowing, and picking up pace in her storytelling. Images of the handkerchief and a pair of sunglasses come to the fore and the scene is now in colour. The dancer is smiling and squirming on the floor in pure ecstasy, it seems. Her way of experiencing an emotional release is a contrast to that of the second dancer’s. This dancer is spent but in a state of bliss.
The camera focuses on an ornate box with intricate carvings. In it there is a piece of cloth, some kind of a sarong, and some photographs. The fourth soloist is a compelling, nimble-footed storyteller whose movements are quick and light even though the soundscape to which he is dancing is dense with a sense of finality. I struggle to appreciate Salam Terakhir (Final Greetings) by Dato’ Sudirman as it unfolds aurally. I diagnose myself with a case of jiwang-fatigue. The dancer is charismatic and convincing and manages to successfully retain my attention. He lays out photographs on the floor. The sarong, too, gets the same treatment. He then spins around with the box as if the box were leading him in his movements. The special effects add a nice touch of magic when the piece of fabric starts flying and he is twirling. The dancer is smooth and slick in his execution of movements. He rolls and slides on the floor effortlessly. The photographs too fly off from the ground in a flurry of activity. Memories belong to a floating world of fleeting moments, sometimes at the mercy of a faulty faculty. The dancer packs the items back into the box only to take them out again. Sentimentality is a clingy little thing. The image of the sarong occupies the screen. This must be the metaphorical drawing of the final curtain. His dance down memory lane ends here.
I exercise autonomy in an ironic fashion by allowing the algorithms to pick the next couple of songs for me. The male duet is presented as a tug of war. Emotional regulation is a struggle of power. The male dancers dance in and out of sync with each other, never letting go of each other, but there is also rising tension. The video stalls, mimicking a technical glitch. One of the dancers breaks away from the other after this dramatic pause. The remaining dancer lies on the floor, seemingly withering away. The conflict has died a natural death.
“Please enjoy your waiting,” the words on the screen tell me cheekily. The four dancers take their place on stage, each one of them occupying a particular spot. One waits for her cup noodles to cook, the other folds clothes, another does his makeup while the other seems to be planking. Menghitung Hari (Counting the Days) by Krisdayanti plays in the background. Solitude is the theme as is represented by the four dancers engaged in solitary activities. Nobody can eat for you. The folding of clothes is an immersive act. Nobody can wear a face like you can or want to and most certainly, nobody can exercise for you either. This is choreographic genius I think to myself. The message is harsh but true and also strangely comforting, if you allow it to be.
When it comes to experiencing physical pain, nobody can feel it for you. It is a personal endeavour one has to ride out alone. However, experiencing emotional pain can be a shared experience. When someone in the group takes it the hardest, the other dancers come to tap him on the shoulder – a friendly gesture to encourage him to come out of it. They then return to their seats. I am moved and in awe at the profundity of this entire episode.
The dancers have successfully performed a two-pronged role as individual characters and conduits for us to collectively experience an emotional release in a myriad of ways. However, what was missing for me was a dance or two which could have had strong narrative arcs. These dances could have involved all four dancers to tell a story together. I am thinking moving, masterful music videos. I would have very much liked to have seen synergy amongst the dancers.
The words, “Biar tenang jiwaku…” or rather “Let my soul rest” come to mind. It did rest but I also wanted it to soar at the end of it all. Jiwang is soulful, cathartic fare with a dash of cheekiness, but not yet transcendental. It was close to being it though.
Ranjini Ganapathy is a trained secondary school teacher by profession. Based in Brisbane, she works as a creative arts educator integrating her passions of crafting and dance into her language lessons. She also spends her time as a volunteer tutor teaching adult migrants English and finds great fulfilment doing so.