Julian Chan speaks to me

April 30, 2014

Julian Chan is an eloquent, intelligent young man who loves gadgets and social media in perhaps equal measure, for the two are in this day and age increasingly interdependent, and so he seems to be always in the front line of both. He has found his voice on the net; he points out social injustices, polices rule-breakers on his facebook page, updates on his work, comments on funny memes and engages in friendly banter with his mates.

And when I speak to him, I find that he weighs his words carefully and his answers are never superficial. Often, they are focused and on point.

But it is onstage that he is clearest. Where he does not talk.



I first met Julian 8 years ago I thought he was naturally talented and technically sound, but he lacked the depth, range and consistency that would only come to musicians in their later years, and his improvisations suspect. Jazz is not easy – though he was already an accomplished musician – I worried for him, as I do for all young musicians, listening intently for avoid notes or errant pitches or solos they couldn’t get out of. Today when Julian’s saxophone speaks it portrays its wielder a man who is mature and confident in his craft, and when I listen I could only imagine the hard work and the experiences he went through to get to this point.

Jazz to me is a state of a high not unlike the effects of hard drugs. At its height, a wave of euphoria hits you, and at once engulfs you in an indescribable bliss, sometimes trance-induced paralysis, often gut wrenching, often almost unbearable.

When Julian speaks onstage he produces rich and assuring chords & scales that, as it builds up, you anticipate that aural moment akin to watching an injection getting closer to the arm. As he speaks, raw emotions swell up and just then, hell breaks loose.


Krishna: Love revisted

March 12, 2014

By contrast the Sutra dance company’s Krishna: Love Revisited was beautifully choreographed and a magnificent tour de force replete with stunning technicolor and surround sound, and its dancers enrapturing. The female lead was a very nubile and alluring Geethika Sree, dancing like Radha incarnate. I could not take my eyes off of her. Every move was purposeful, executed with perfection and it seemed with a little more grace than any of the others, if that was possible in an already very sensual art form. She arches a little more, her extensions a little more, and her eyes quickly darts and kills.

geethika sree ramli ibrahim

But sadly, the master must no longer dance.

As the voice-over describes each scene in the narrative, the iconic Ramli Ibrahim seemed surplus. 2 very competent male leads took turns at each half as Krishna, and the audience understands the inter-play between Krishna and Radha, and them with the other cowherd maidens, but what is the role of the other male, the Ramli role? There is no mention of him by the narrator throughout the performance. Why is there another male in the story of Krishna and Rahda?! Yet, Ibrahim’s “mystery male” takes center, dominating stage. Is it conceit that the aging superstar, who is also the choreographer & artistic director, would covet a role like this, whatever it is, for himself?

As Krishna and “mystery male” mirror each other in their movements, the difference is telling. Ibrahim is imprecise. His positioning and balance questionable. The energy levels inferior. Is it age that his eyes does not dance, and the range of his movements impeded by stiffness? I now wonder if he was ever good, that he achieved his status as a dancer* simply as novelty as a non-native in an Indian art form.

Because his eyes did not dance.

*Ramli Ibrahim is still without question a genius choreographer and artistic director

What is art?

March 5, 2014

I subscribe to the idea that art, when you care to stop for a second glance or a second listen, should provoke at the very least a reaction, regardless of whether the piece itself is good art or bad art. Of course art is highly subjective, open to interpretations and personal preferences. At its core it should not be nothing. It may be admired, or be entertaining, or be inspiring, or calming, or thought provoking, or frustration, or anger, or that it invokes a memory, but whatever feeling arises, it should not be nothing.

But because art is so personal, it should also be subjected to the fallen-tree-in-the-forest definition. What if it provokes nothing in all people? Then it is not significant, and therefore should not be art.

If a famous painter decides to paint on white canvas a red dot, like a Japanese flag, is it art? Or importantly is it significant? Does it advance the exploration and the experience of art in humanity? Assenters may argue that it takes certain skill to paint with a free hand a perfect, consistent red dot, but I feel it merely demonstrates technical competence.

I see myself getting angry, seeing this red dot painted by this imaginary famous artist. And anger is a reaction, and therefore by my own logic it is art. It may puzzle some other people, seeing this red dot. Again this is a reaction.

But I think it is just one of the definitions of bad art. When art lacks aesthetic value or merit, or too abstract for most to be affected, then it cannot be effective, and fails in its core value.


From their facebook site:
see/saw is the name of a dance piece that was created by the contemporary Japanese dance company Nibroll after the Tsunami earthquake of 2011. It uses an actual see saw on stage as a metaphor to explore different themes and the whole range of powerful emotions evoked in the aftermath of the earthquake. The dancers combine body movements and the up and down motions of the see saw to create moving images that represent the themes of life and death, hope and despair, happiness and sadness, youth and maturity. The combination of the word “see” (to view) in the present tense and “saw” as a past tense also gives rise to different scenes. All this is performed against a spectacular backdrop visual. The music is minimal but no less captivating.

The dance has been performed to sold-out shows and critical acclaim in Japan. This is the first time that Nibroll is performing in Malaysia, and the first time that see/saw is being presented outside of Japan. What is even more exciting is that the company will be auditioning for local dancers to be part of the show.

We start from where you imagine as you go down,
The scene you saw as you went up whilst sitting on the other end,
When the seesaw eventually tips over.
Recall the days to come, describe the days gone by,
Why something was chosen, why something was not,
You ponder, born on one day, dead on another,
Imagine a scene seen at a faraway place that’s not here,
And when asked, “Did you see?” you say “I saw”.

Catch this “physical scenery” of sound, imagery and dancers become one at Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac) at stage 2 on Saturday February 22 at 8:30 pm. The show then moves on to pentas 2 at The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre on Friday February 28 and Saturday March 1 at 8:30 pm and on Sunday March 2 at 3:00 pm

Last Sunday I sat through the pain that was Nibroll, a Japanese experimental dance troupe, through a performance called see/saw, which was inspired by and which commemorates the 2011 tsunami. Nibroll was partly sponsored by the Japan Foundation as well as the Japanese Embassy, and had already toured some cities. The 4 key creators(director/choreographer, projectionist, set designer and music director) travelled with the show, together with key actors/dancers. At each location, depending on the venue, the environment, the acoustics etc they would tweak on the formula, improvising on certain components of the piece. They’d hold local auditions for peripheral dancers, some of them amateurs.

I stayed in my seat till the end, holding on to a promise of a question & answer session with the creators. I wanted to get some justification as to why the piece was royally shit. The dances was grating and repetitive, and was too abstract to be contemplative, and the occasional yelps from the dancers highly annoying. The sound effects succeeded in inducing cold sweat and a splitting migraine. If it was all deliberate and meant to provoke and for the audience to run a gamut of raw emotion, I needed to know. Why did they play to sold out shows and critical acclaim in Japan? I was born 80km from the failed nuclear reactor, and I get first hand stories from my relatives who still live there. What did the Japanese public see that I can’t?

Does the perception of art help with retrospection?

After the show and tell, I feel now that it is mandatory to stay and listen, though nothing they said helped change my mind -the performance was still shit. Even with stuttering English, they were able to explain coherently the creative process and explained the reasons why they did what they did. As such, I understood their intent.

If the purpose of the performance is to be able to transfer the sheer agony and horror of those who experienced the tsunami and earthquake, and deliver it within 70 minutes, then this production succeeded beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But it is not good art.

Max Klinger

December 30, 2013


Came across a Max Klinger exhibition when I was still a teenager visiting Tokyo.  His etchings have fascinated me since then, possessing at once an ethereal and surrealistic quality, against the backdrop of everyday life.  The first photo insert is a perfect example: what is a scene at a early century skating rink Klinger frozed a moment where we are temporarily disconcerted by the absurdity of the movements of the people in the picture.  This “perfect imbalance” permeates through most of his other works.
15 years on, with the advent of internet technology, and emergence of sites like google, I tried again to revisit this great artist.  A comtemporary of Klimt, with whom he collaborated on some occasions, he was nonetheless driven back into undeserved obscurity.
Klinger made, at his peak a prolific graphic artist and able sculpter, subtle but provoking art.

Almost Italian

December 6, 2013

I have Italian neighbours who live on the same floor of the apartment where I live, and we have become friends. Pier says Malaysians don’t say hi in the elevator, and he was surprised I did but I guess i’m almost Italian that way.

I think I also almost understand the language. It helps that Italians are very expressive with their bodies and hands, and its visual clues fill in the blanks as well.

I almost went to Italy, a country I have never been.  When I was in school in the states, and summers I would spend in NYC where I would be at a youth hostel in Harlem, where if I chambermaid-ed twice a week I would live for free, I picked up odd jobs and would save enough to go on heavily discounted freelance courier flights somewhere.

It was a courier flight that I almost took to go to Italy, and I remember it clearly – taking the A or C train downtown to a courier broking house called Now Voyager, talking to a girl called Erin, a Columbia student who was part-timing in that office that summer, and asking for a flight to Rome. She said matter-of-factly that I had to wait a couple of days for Rome, though there’s a flight to Caracas the next day, do I want to go there? To which I also nonchalantly replied, “yes”.

(And so began my decade long love affair with Latin America, which is of course another story.)

And there is a topic of conversation I would always initiate about Italian food, that it shared the same principles as Japanese food.  To most people spaghetti and pizzas and sushi and tempura are representative and symbolic of these cuisines, which is of course true but you’d miss the essence if you think there’s all there is to it.   Italian and Japanese cuisine share a demand for the seasonal, the locally available, the very fresh, and a minimalist attitude – that simple, fresh ingredients should make uncomplicated dishes.

Now that I have Italian friends, I’d catch glimpses of the Italian community in KL, through their usual hangouts and their lunches and their coffee invites. They are a gregarious bunch, and whatever their stories are, they would try to live as dolce a vita as they can here.  I try to do that too wherever I am in the world as well, and I guess I’m almost Italian that way.

I like this

November 6, 2013

I like this

The mantisization of women

October 17, 2013

I had a thought recently, borne out of relatively recent events like the girl who was raped on a bus in India and left for dead, and the other girl in Pakistan who was shot by the talibhan for her wanting to get an education; despicable acts of men imposing their will on the women. For all the progress the human civilization made, there is always be religious bigots, racists, sophists, cheats, misanthropes, deviants et al in society, but worse are a larger and more general section of the public who will only stand on the side and do nothing, at best lacking courage, at worst apathetic.

It will always be.

So the thought is this – what if we genetically engineer women to be bigger than men. We go through the UN or whatever we need to get through, to make all new born girls larger than boys, and that they’ll grow up to be 7 feet tall, and weigh 250 pounds. In 4 or 5 generations all women on earth would be bigger and stronger, and in a few hundred years it would be business as usual, except men would no longer be able to force women to do anything.