Arts Esplanade Theatre Studio Singapore

Review: Amara – Dancing Stories of Banteay Srei by Apsaras Arts

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 8.56.10 AM

Telling stories and legends through dance.

Cambodia probably houses some of the world’s most beautiful religious sites, the most famous of which would be Angkor Wat. With Apsaras Arts’ new production, the local Indian dance company shines the spotlight on Banteay Srei, one of Cambodia’s more unique sacred buildings. Standing out for its small size and pink hue from the red sandstone it is made of (looking almost like wood), Banteay Srei also features a massive number of exquisite, intricately sculpted motifs, figures and scenes from the Hindu Mahabharata and Ramayana epics.

Taking inspiration from the site, and the stories and legends carved in its bas reliefs, Apsaras Arts presents Amara – Dancing Stories of Banteay Srei as part of this year’s Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts. Presented online, we were invited to Apsaras Arts’ home at Goodman Arts Centre for a viewing party of the stream, where artistic director Aravinth Kumarasamy introduced us to the work. Speaking about the beauty of Banteay Srei, Aravinth also explained how the temple was even rubbed with sandalwood oil from time to time to maintain a fragrance as visitors walked through it, further enhancing its sacred nature. While the temple isn’t in use anymore, on a full moon, a dance ritual would still be conducted there, almost as a testament to how significant and powerful it remains as a former place of worship.

While we can’t experience the site itself in these times without travel, Amara then sought to give us an opportunity to ‘travel’ there through dance, using Bharatanatyam choreography to bring to life the female divine Yoginis of the temple, and the characters inscribed into the temple walls. We’ve seen a lot of digital works emerge in this period, but Apsaras Arts seemed to take things one step further by creating a 3D environment of Banteay Srei for the dancers’ backdrop. With the restrictions in place, filming hasn’t been easy either, such as how scenes with five dancers needed to be recorded in two phases, before the scenes were spliced and edited together. When performing in front of a green screen, plenty of coordination is required to achieve the level of precision, and it was evident that much time was spent on rehearsals and practice. Even the musicians had to be recorded individually, and the effort that Apsaras Arts have invested into this production is impressive. 

One highlight of the performance that really captivated me was a dance that retold the story of Shiva and Parvati, performed in an area with a replica of the two characters’ depiction at Banteay Srei, sitting atop a white bull. The gods are awakened by a melodious tune, with the dancers dressed in intricate, elaborate costumes representing their divinity. The dance itself was beautifully executed, and showcased how much love Shiva and Parvati had to give each other.

Now being led to another part of the temple, we are introduced to a Yogini, donning intricate jewelry, Cambodian-themed costume, big eyed which accentuate her beautiful face. While Bharatanatyam is always about how expressive the body’s movements are, Indian dance also prides itself in how the dancer’s eyes and face can also tell a story, and enhance what the body already says.

In the scene that aptly rounded off our ‘tour’, We were invited to the full moon ceremony in which dancers still perform at the site even though Banteay Srei is no more functioning as a temple. We went on a spiritual journey with the dancers, all dressed in white and gold ceremonial garb to represent respect and purity. Yogini shared some words of wisdom, recalling how as a flower falls from a branch, it will never go back. But contrary to that, the story that unfolded before us instead presented how the flower did return to the branch, transforming into a butterfly, and evoking ideas of love, reincarnation and the afterlife. 

With this virtual tour of the temple and the stories that unfolded, we were impressed by the beauty and detail that had gone into recreating the site, and certainly, got us interested to visit the actual temple at some point in the future and see it for ourselves. Not only that, but the spiritual elements of the performance stood out for us, enhanced by the mysticism surrounding the stories performed. Much like how every carving on Banteay Srei has to be done exactly right, Amara is a carefully constructed, intricately designed tapestry of dance, one we appreciated for the effort that goes into it, and a performance that left us lifted by tales and legends beautifully performed.

Photo Credit: Apsaras Arts

Amara – Dancing Stories of Banteay Srei is available to watch online until 29th November 2020, and runs as part of Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts 2020. Tickets and more information available here

Kalaa Utsavam 2020 runs from 20th to 29th November 2020. Tickets and more information available here

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