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Dance Theatre

RASAS – A View from Backstage

Perspectives on showcasing traditional Asian dance-theatre, shared by producers past and present

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Published: 8 Oct 2020


Time taken : >15mins

Cover image: Bharatayuddha in Motion by Soerya Soemirat Mangkunegaran Royal Palace (Indonesia), from RASAS – da:ns Festival 2018

Flavour. Essence. Sentiment.

While there is no exact translation for the Sanskrit word rasa, the namesake series under Esplanade’s da:ns Festival precisely captures the word’s myriad meanings, having celebrated the rich traditions and aesthetic experiences of Asian performing art forms for over a decade. From the lesser-known Thai nora dance to the familiar rhythms of Indian kathak, RASAS has presented numerous public performances, talks, and workshops of traditional performing arts from Asia and Southeast Asia. Producers past and present take a look back at RASAS and share their perspective on traditional art forms, their experiences in programming the series, along with the unique challenges and rewards that come with it. 

Beginnings

There was no singular impetus for the creation of RASAS. There were multiple considerations, given that the centre was still in its early days and slowly figuring out its programming focus and direction. Rydwan Anwar, the current Assistant Head for Theatre in the programming department, shares more about the series’ early days:

“The main aim of [da:ns] Festival at that time was to feature a wide range of dance genres, to develop the dance audience and appreciation of dance. We knew we wanted to include Asian traditional dances because it’s important to reflect our geography and region. In a way, it was also as a complement to all the intercultural work that was popping up in Singapore during the late ’90s to early ’00s, by companies such as TheatreWorks, Theatre Training & Research Programme (now known as the Intercultural Theatre Institute), Singapore Arts Festival (now SIFA), and so on.”

“There was this wave of contemporary Asian work with artists who used their training in traditional forms to question, reimagine and subvert, to create a contemporary dance vocabulary. We wanted to show these traditional forms in their “original” state side by side with this new wave, on a scale that has not been done before. We wanted our audience to come away with new knowledge about Southeast Asia art forms, for example, knowing that Thai traditional dance is not monolithic and includes khon, nora, or lanna, etc.”

Beyond categories

While the series is described as a presentation of “traditional” performing arts, the term “traditional” is a contentious one, spurring debates about the notions of origin and authenticity. The term often conjures images of static, unchanging art forms catered to tourist audiences, but the reality is far different. Many of these traditional forms still thrive in their home countries, constantly evolving and changing with the times. Take wayang kulit for example, or Balinese theatre – both forms include commentary of contemporary society, incorporating pop culture references as well to stay relevant with audiences. 

Shridar Mani, a former programmer who worked on six editions of the series, also hesitates to label the series so simply: “I’d hate to put this label of traditional on something which makes it seem archaic or a relic.” He goes on to share that what the series really aims to do, within the context of da:ns Festival: “I think it ultimately shows how the relationship between the body, space and storytelling is a long-running legacy in South and Southeast Asia, where theatre and dance have never really been separated from each other.”

Rydwan: “There is a lot of discourse about the word ‘traditional’ and what it means. Entire conferences have been held around that discourse. I won’t go into that here, but I do think that traditional dance will continue to evolve in subtle ways and will be here to stay, as long as there are champions and audiences who are willing to see it.”

Hurdles, lessons and rewards

As with any festival or series, programming RASAS is not without its challenges. Rajeswari Ramachandran, a producer who has been with the centre for over a decade, had concerns about the attention the series would receive. “I’m not sure if there is a committed audience for RASAS, one that would be willing to come back year after year. The shows are of high quality, but in terms of ticketing them, we were not sure if there was an invested audience.” While that may be the case, the team is heartened to see the same audiences come back year after year specifically for RASAS, especially for performances at the Outdoor Theatre. 

Shridar shares similar thoughts about the accessibility of the content presented, acknowledging that for those unfamiliar with them, the forms can come across very stylised and esoteric. “I think from the very beginning, it was very important for us to get audiences to engage with the form as an important cultural moment, as opposed to an exotic moment for passive consumption”. The workshops and talks included in every edition also worked to counter this barrier between the audience and the art forms, allowing participants to dive deeper by learning simple movements, or hearing the performers speak about their work. 

Other challenges include managing logistics, such as clearing Customs with props such as spears and swords. Rajes and Shridar both highlight issues with presentation as well, of how to transpose the art forms to a different setting and staging without losing its beauty and essence. For Rydwan, there was a learning curve when choosing which groups to present, having to discern which groups gear their performance towards tourists and which groups demonstrate artistic integrity and respect for the form.

Of course, with these challenges comes rewards. “Programming the series provided me with the opportunity to experience the traditions and value systems of these different groups,” says Rajes, “We also get to see firsthand the similarities to the forms that we have in Singapore, and the different interpretations of the stories, especially those that share the same source, like the Hindu epics.” All the programmers agree that there is a certain sense of wonder in seeing these art forms unveiled for the first time, along with the fruitful relationships formed with these art groups. 

Singapore and the region

Beyond the tangible issues, there are considerations too in how Esplanade, and by extension Singapore, chooses to present these art forms. As Shridar mentioned, there is that risk of exoticisation and tokenisation, as these forms are still seen as foreign by some Singaporean audiences. Criticism has been lobbied towards Singapore and its institutions before as it endeavours to become a “cultural hub”, which some see as centering the country and its resources, rather than truly collaborating with its neighbours. Rajes believes that it is still Esplanade’s responsibility as a performing arts centre to present forms from Southeast Asia, more so because Singapore is part of the region – “There are a lot of shared history and geographical commonalities and we don’t have a similar platform where we see such showcases happening”. 

The other two programmers agree on this point, recognising that Singapore does have greater access to certain resources compared to their Southeast Asian counterparts, yet at the same time, there is a need to strike a balance. “I think we have to be careful so that we are not viewed as patronising these traditions for our own self-importance as a cultural hub in the region,” states Shridar, “This is quite a precarious balance and for that reason, contextualisation and framing the work from this region is extremely important, to assert ourselves as advocates for preservation and evolution, and not mere advocates.”

Rydwan understands both schools of thought and recognises their validity. “On one hand, we do have the responsibility to showcase and support arts and artists from the region, but on the other, we have to recognise that our neighbours have agency and are capable of presenting and preserving their art forms on their own terms. 

One foot forward

The traditional performing arts have been adapting and evolving in their own ways. As the world slowly adapts to a new reality where physical connections are necessarily substituted by digital connections, RASAS continues its commitment to region and its performing arts. “Asia is huge and we have barely touched the tip of the iceberg of the vast amount of performing arts,” says Rydwan. “Indonesia alone could fill up all of our programming. We will continue to present groups and forms we have not presented before.” This year, the series brings its focus to Singaporean artists and Singapore-based art communities. From well-established groups such as Sri Warisan and Eka Suwara Santhi, to new presentations by Indu Vijay and Kumudra Myanmar Arts and Cultural Association, the current edition of RASAS stays true to its vision and continues its commitment to showcase regional dance and theatre forms. 

Acknowledgement by:

Rajeswari Ramachandran

Rajeswari Ramachandran is a producer at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. 


Rydwan Anwar

Rydwan first joined Esplanade as a Programming Officer in 2005. He has helmed and produced Esplanade festivals such as Flipside, Pesta Raya & da:ns Festival, among others. From 2017 - 2019, he was a producer with Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). He is currently Assistant Head, Theatre at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. He leads the theatre and dance programming teams, which produce Esplanade's annual theatre season The Studios, as well as da:ns Festival


Shridar Mani

Shridar Mani has spent the past decade working as a programmer and producer at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and The Arts House Limited in music, dance, theatre and the literary arts. He has worked on festivals such as Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts, da:ns Festival and A Tapestry of Sacred Music at the Esplanade, and leads LumiNation at The Arts House. He is also the co-founder of local arts initiatives The Opera People and Other Tongues – A Festival of Minority Voices. He graduated from The University of Chicago with a Bachelors in Music (Hon.) where he was awarded the Leonard B. Meyer Prize for his undergraduate thesis and was a Jeff Metcalf Fellow with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2010-2011.  


Get up and move

da:ns festival 2020

A reimagined da:ns festival 2020 invites you to discover movement across diverging mediums – through your body and from your screen. Free your mind and explore dance in its varied forms and expressions with thought-provoking new works, illuminating conversations, introductory videos and more.

12 – 31 Oct 2020
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