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Arts & Culture

Beyond the Dancer: Marabu – The First Ripple

What goes on behind-the-scenes of a dance production?

Words by
b-side staff
Location
Singapore

Moments before the show, the dancers perform a ritual known as Namaskaram. Hands held in prayer, they acknowledge each other and bow to Mother Earth, establishing respect and connection to the ground. Outside, the stage is dark and unlit, an atmosphere of solitude and intimacy.

Dancers rehearsing their choreography with different lighting effects

The stage light comes on, cueing the seated musicians. Silence transforms into an upbeat melody: the sounds of the veena, flute and violin coming alive. As the rhythm picks up, dancers clad in Bharatanatyam (classical Indian dance that originated from Tamil Nadu) costumes enter. 

In classical Indian dance, the gestures and facial expressions form the vocabulary of every story. Hands form mudras (signs formed with the hands and fingers) signifying different meanings while the feet stamp to percussive rhythms. With their eyes lined to deepen the intensity of their gaze, the dancers’ movements are accentuated through their vibrant, glistening gold-stitched costumes.

A dance production is made up of more than just the dancers and dancing. B-Side looks at three creative aspects: the music, lights and costumes of Marabu – The First Ripple to learn more about how they contribute to a classical Indian dance production, and why they are essential elements to any performing arts production.

Musicians playing their instruments while following the dancers’ visual cues

Music 

The music in classical Indian dance underscores the choreography and plays an important role in the atmosphere of the theatre. Multiple revisions are made to the choreography and music during the creative process until they come together to tell a story. In Marabu – The First Ripple, this harmony was demonstrated as the pace of the music increased, taking on a jarring yet melodic turn. The vocalists sang with more urgency, underscoring the frantic choreography. The entire scene conveyed grief and anxiety in a post-battle zone.

Dr Rajkumar Bharati conducting the musicians

Music composer Dr Rajkumar Bharathi shares about the composition of the musical ensemble, which featured traditional Indian Karnatic music instruments. 

“The voices are the original instruments, and the classical music instruments include the veena, flute and the violin, which has adapted itself very well to the Karnatic style. This particular style is mostly associated with southern India and places emphasis on the vocals with instrumental accompaniment.”

Besides classical indian music instruments, Dr. Bharathi also included a keyboard in this production. He explains, “Though a surprising choice, it musically connects the listener to a historical situation because of its multi-tones capacity. We also used the gamelan which is used very much in Indonesia, Cambodia, etc..” 

For him, the creative challenge was to make ‘period music’ that reflected the era the production was set in using present-day instruments. Inspired by the plot, they sought to present a variety of cultures from different regions while blending them into a symphony.

Lighting designer Alberto Wileo sitting with other technical crew checking light cues
Programming in the light cues for the dance production

Lights

The role of a lighting designer is to create a fitting atmosphere and direct the audience’s attention to the right moments on stage. The right lights can evoke emotions and enhance the experience, while poor lighting design may hinder or distract the audience. 

In Marabu – The First Ripple, the lights transitioned from warm orange to fiery red to cool blue to signal changes in the plot/narrative. These specific lighting hues and designs informed the production and intensified the emotions and atmosphere of the show.

Lighting designer Alberta Wileo, who has more than 18 years of experience, shares, “In dance specifically, there are less set pieces as compared to theatre. This means that the look of the show mainly depends on the light design.” It is a misconception that lighting design for dance is simpler than theatre. 

While a typical theatre show relies on intricate set design to convey space and time, dance productions may not have that luxury. With most of the stage reserved for dance movements, set designs in a dance performance may be minimal. Lighting design takes on the responsibility of visual presentation to the audience.

Thiru fitting the dancer to her dothi

Costume 

Costumes, together with hair and makeup, complete the visual element of the dance production. Make-up and hairstyling are typically done an hour prior to the show before the performers adorn their costume. The dancers wore traditional Bharatanatyam costumes sewn in India. The costumes consisted of a fitting bodice and dothi—garment made of embroidered silk or satin wrapped around the waist, passed between the legs, and tucked in at the waistline. A pleated cloth hangs from the waist to the knees, brightly coloured, accentuating the waist. The actors wore period-specific costumes to aid the story-telling.

Actor getting his make-up done

Wardrobe mistress Ambujah Thiru says, “There are always many ideas for wardrobe on what will look good. But it is only during the dress rehearsal that the practicality is worked on. If something hinders the movements or does not look good, then we re-think it and try something else.”

During rehearsals, Thiru was seen painstakingly sewing hair extensions to the actor’s headgear, inviting him to try it on, making rounds of adjustments back and forth to ensure that it was not too heavy for movement. Minutes before the performance, minor adjustments were still being made for the actor. 

Having worked on plenty of dance productions by different companies, Thiru shares how she helps the performers remain calm during quick changes. This shows how the relationship between the performers and the creative team goes beyond mere job scopes and tasks. 

The music, lights and costumes are by no means the only elements that make a dance production happen. From the front-of-house to the backstage crew, everyone is indispensable in the production of a dance performance. 

Marabu – The First Ripple is the first part of a trilogy that explores the legacy and ancestry of the Indian community in the Southeast Asian region. 

Presented in the form of dance-theatre, Marabu – The First Ripple is a co-production between Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and Esplanade – Theatre on the Bay for Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts.

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