Island choreographies, Tasdance and APPAN  
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi    
e-mail: shanta.serbjeetsingh@gmail.com 

April 14, 2009 
 
Islands and their surrounding waters cover one-sixth of the world's surface, providing habitat for more than half of the Earth's diversity of marine plants and animals. In Asia-Pacific alone, from Nias Island off the coast of Indonesia to Samoa, from Japan's Okinawa, distinguished by the largest cultural and arts budget on the globe to Taiwan, from Torres Strait off New Zealand to India's Andamans and Nicobar Islands, islands are not just postcards for bikinied surfers in search of body tan on tropical paradises or holiday resort destinations but extraordinary storehouses of heritage of all kind. 

It was entirely appropriate, then, that APPAN, The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network, founded with the help of UNESCO in 1999, the only artistes' network of its kind, should celebrate its tenth anniversary by focusing its annual festival and symposium on the choreographies traditional and new, of islands in the A-P region. And that Tasmania, the vibrant island off Australia, at the farthest point of human habitation (well, New Zealand's Torres Strait are marginally further down) should host it, courtesy APPAN's treasurer, Annie Greig, the powerhouse who runs the TASDANCE company in Launceston, Tasmania. 
  
Many of the 100,000 islands around the globe, supporting 500 million inhabitants have an astonishingly high ratio of endemic species - plants and animals that find no place anywhere else on Earth. Their indigenous cultures are rare havens of humankind's sociological, environmental and cultural wealth. At the same time, with limited natural resources and often harsh environments, island cultures are very vulnerable and face problems such as finding food and water and creating an established market economy. The very attributes that make them havens of species diversity also make them extremely susceptible to species extinction. They contain more endangered, rare and threatened species than anywhere else in the world. Islands act as the "canaries in the coal mine" for many major global threats, demonstrating the impacts of climate change and invasive species much before they are seen on larger land masses. 

The APPAN-TASDANCE in Tasmania event was co-sponsored by the World Dance Alliance, Ten Days on the Island, a local organization, and Tasmania University. APPAN acquired significant experience of island cultures in 2005 when, responding to the initiative by the Regional Office of UNESCO, Bangkok, Paris approved of a pilot project that enabled APPAN to prove its well-researched premise that the arts are an invaluable and inexpensive tool for delivering healing to stress victims. We were asked to put our money where our mouth was in the context of the December 26, 2004 tsunami disaster in which over two million people died. APPAN set to work, organising special teams of artistes in four tsunami-struck Asian countries, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. Our main tools were music, dance, theatre, puppetry and other multi-disciplinary art forms. And voila! We were able to prove with that simple cache of invisible heritage that stress could be reduced substantially and a positive level of well-being and health delivered to both the audience and the artiste. 
  
This project was called: THE UNESCO-APPAN "POST-TSUNAMI STRESS THERAPY AND REHABILITATION THROUGH THE ARTS PROGRAM" and senior therapeutic artistes like Kathak dancer Sallauddin Pasha, puppeteer Anurupa Roy, Bharatanatyam dancer Sangeeta Ishwaran, folk baazigar-artiste Puran Bhatt, led teams which brought back amazing stories of how stress-battered victims of natural disaster felt empowered by experiencing and learning the use of music, dance, theatre, puppetry and other art forms. Could there be a better way to re-connect with each other and their inner selves! 
  
But here in Tasmania I was privileged to see another, and a happier, face of island cultures. Tasdance coordinated the Symposium which attracted interest from around Australia along with international delegates. It featured two keynote speakers, World Dance Alliance co-chair Stephanie Burridge and myself. Dr. Burridge has had an impressive career which has its roots in Tasmania, her birthplace. She trained at the Laban Center in the UK and was artistic director, dancer and choreographer at the Canberra Dance Theatre for 21 years. The Examiner wrote that the expressive energy of dance was the " creme de la creme of movement performance and the cherry on top was the Symposium," its highlight being a panel of participating choreographers including aborigine dancer Gail Mabo from Murray Island, guest choreographer, Bejart- trained Sthan Kabar-Louet from New Caledonia who choreographed the second of TASDANCE's presentation (Mabo did the other), Indian Odissi dancer Raka Maitra from Singapore, Daniel Yeung from Hong Kong and Peking Opera artiste Wu Hsingkuo from Taiwan. They commented on island dance in the new millennium and on choreographing within and without tradition.  

As for the performances, according to curator Elizabeth Walsh: 

"The idea was to look for work that drew its inspiration from a traditional cultural base but that was very much rooted in the contemporary practice of now." And this cultural representation was nothing short of the eclectic and the enthralling, engaging straight away with the audience and showing new facets of island cultures. 'King Lear,' the much talked about Taiwanese production was a coup de grace with excellent live musicians wherein the amazing Wu Hsingkuo, enacted multiple roles, from that of the tormented king, his servant, his three daughters as well as characters from the parallel story of the similar tragic fate that befell the Earl of Gloucester. While using the traditions of Peking Opera, its movement patterns, music, costume, design, song and stylization, Wu Hsinkuo reinterpreted the classic for a contemporary audience.  

'Tuila Postcards' was a biting dance theatre satire from Samoa. Its three dancers went through a demanding production with wit and humour, if a bit over-played, targeting the role of missionaries as well as the commodification of island cultures. 'Blessings of the Earth' turned out to be an impressive fusion of Japanese taiko drumming and movement. Ngai Tahu 32, by Maori contemporary dance theatre company, Atamira Dance Collective, combined contemporary Maori dance choreography with video projection, innovative set design and a powerful sound score. In 'Breakaway,' University of Hawaii dance students presented a thought-provoking evening of new theatre and dance. 
 

But special mention has to be reserved for the home productions, a double bill, by TASDANCE. Its talented dancers had been busy rehearsing the work of two indigenous choreographers who expectedly brought in rich cultural influences.  

'The Cradle of the Spirits' choreographed by Sthan Kabar-Louet from New Caledonia was a blending of French flair and Kanak rhythms. Here the movements stressed a sensual, physical and earthy body language. Torres Strait choreographer Gail Mabo created a piece called 'Kelp' that highlighted Australia's indigenous culture and also helped communicate the big political message of Australia these days acknowledgment of the "original owners of the land." It is another matter that too few of them have survived the white colonizers to make this anything but an exercise in tokenism! The work itself gave an insight into the power of the world beneath the waves.  For both works the dancers came out almost in the buff with only basics and body paint to convey the choreographer's intent. 
   
Then, Daniel Yeung from Hong Kong and Raka Maitra, now based in Singapore, performed as a double bill, showing their different approaches to using contemporary elements. Yeung's use of video projections was smart and tongue-in-cheek. Raka has a lot of intensity and intellect, a traceable style of her own but has yet to master a distinctive and compact body language that is not self-indulgent. 

All in all, a welcome focus on other spaces and other ways of seeing things. It brought together Australia, Asia and the Pacific and knocked the 'lizard holding up the roof' smugness of a lot of us in the mainland dance field.  
 

Shanta Serbjeet Singh is the Chairperson, APPAN International.