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Joseph Nair

ANWESHA – Beyond the Darkness!

By Ezekiel Oliveira
(524 words, 5-minute read) 

Maya Dance Theatre tackles mental health in a mashup of dance and theatre that gives us a quartet of characters all struggling with depression and social anxiety.

There is Shazam, an artist struggling with depression, played by Shahrin Johry. Providing contrast, Bernice Lee lets her hair-down as Jane – a wannabee career woman, Eve is a confident and high-spirited teacher played by Eva Tey, and Subastian Tan plays Sam, a jovial student. Yet beneath their bright exteriors, they too face mental health problems. All four are dressed in pale and beige costumes suggesting they belong to the same club or are possibly all being treated in the same institution.

Set against a black background, we see the quartet battling depression. There is something jittery and nervous in the atmosphere. Their gestures betray inner turmoil. With erratic hand gestures, Lee’s Jane tries to hold air in her hands, but we see it slipping through her fingers into nothingness. She is left hopeless. Shahrin Johry obsessively holds his neck with his left hand in moments of despair as he journeys through social isolation and moments of panic.

ANWESHA means quest or search in Sanskrit, a philosophical language of Hinduism. This work looks for a positive outcome for those living with social isolation. And the characters sometimes find it through the angelical, even heavenly sounds of Indonesian singer Peni Candra Rini playing Sita: representing hope. Sita comes to the rescue of the performers in times of desperation. Rini’s voice is magical, hitting the high note effortlessly and bringing light into the darkness

The darkness is represented by the sixth characters played by co-choreographer Danang Pamungkas. He is The Creature: the depression that hovers above them all. He lures the performers into different dances, passing out bracelets from his wrist and capturing everyone in a world of seething thoughts.

The ideas of entrapment and struggle are perhaps over sign-posted. Light brings hope in the form of Sita, while darkness shrinks the stage and emotional wellbeing to an all-time low. The conflict is evident.

The confrontation between Shazam and The Creature arises later, in the form of a dance-fight. By now the cast is well inside the characters, and typical signs of depression are visible in the cries for help. The dancers fall abruptly on the floor in desperation. But, slowly they approach each other with careful steps and singing engenders confidence in the depressed Shazam – enabling a real connection to the rest of the group for the very first time.

Kailin Yong composes a mash-up of Balinese sounds and electronic music that reminds me of Star Trek, and the occasional drum accelerates the rhythm of the choreography. The dancers feel comfortable with the fast stamping, flat-sharp-hands and grounding dance, but the sudden silence allows the dancers to progress and position themselves at the forefront.

Stripped of special effects and background noise, one at a time the cast stand before us presenting themselves to us and facing up to their own struggles and the world – this is a show that deals with life’s lows but one that ends on a definite high note. I left the Theatre uplifted.


Ezekiel Oliveira is a choreographer and dancer. Originally from Portugal, he has performed in Europe with Tamzin Fitzgerald, Hofesh Schechter, Stephan Koplowitz and Fleur Darkin amongst others. He choreographed  Skin – A Choreographic Response for Singapore Art Museum. Vent for Maya Dance Theatre, ONWARDS for NAFA and more recently Punch Me for ‘The Next Generation’ – da:ns festival. He writes extensively about dance in Singapore at FiveLines.

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