Wong Kit Yaw’s name prominently resonates in Malaysia’s dance scene. A graduate of Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), he has firmly established himself as a Chinese dance master.
Since 2000, he has been teaching dance at Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan (ASWARA). Although officially retired in 2017, he still works as a part-time lecturer at ASWARA.
In 2022, his remarkable contributions were recognized as he received the prestigious Anugerah Adiguru from ASWARA. This distinguished title reaffirms his position as an authoritative figure in Malaysian Chinese dance.
On October 29, 2023, I had the privilege of attending JAMU 2023 at ASWARA. JAMU, a production by ASWARA‘s Faculty of Dance, serves as a platform for faculty lecturers to showcase their expertise.
It highlights their ability to balance theoretical knowledge and practical skills within the dance department while inspiring students and the community. JAMU 2023 featured eight captivating works presented by eight dedicated lecturers, including Wong Kit Yaw’s mesmerizing piece, ‘Orchid in an Empty Valley.’
The title of the piece, Orchid in an Empty Valley, is derived from the Chinese chengyu (a four-character idiomatic expression) 空谷幽兰 (kōng gǔ yōu lán), which directly translates to “orchid in an empty valley.”
This phrase symbolizes the rarity of something, portraying it as elegant and highly valuable. The choreography was beautifully executed by the talented and skillful dancers, Wong Chi Ying and Ong Jia Shyen. Both of them expertly conveyed the intricate movements and emotions of the performance.
The dance begins with a captivating depiction of a budding flower. Veiled dancers, moving closely together, are illuminated by a vibrant blend of yellow circular gobo patterns with a hint of magenta light, effectively capturing the essence of a blooming blossom. The opening scene evokes the image of a delicate Phalaenopsis orchid, adorned in shades of pink and yellow.
The ethereal presence of the veiled dancers intrigues me, and their meticulously choreographed movements keep me eagerly anticipating each beat, wondering what will unfold next. The flowing layers of their garments resemble countless petals, adding to the illusion. Their graceful motions make them appear as two unfolding buds, undergoing organic, almost autonomous growth.
As the dancers reveal themselves, their movements gradually expand, encompassing a larger range of motion that extends from their initial positions. The choreography beautifully mirrors the natural progression of a flower’s growth. It begins at a low level, akin to being grounded, with dancers in seated or kneeling positions. From this humble start, their movements ascend gradually, much like the gradual unfurling of petals, reaching upward toward the heavens until the orchids are in full bloom.
The dancers adorned themselves in silk gowns with multiple layers that billowed gracefully from the chest, creating a voluminous and delicate structure. This choice of fabric harmonized perfectly with the softness of orchid petals. The gown was predominantly white, with an inner layer of leaf green. When the dancers twirled, a glimpse of green peeked through the layers of white, resembling the sepals that support the petals.
Additionally, on their right hands, they wore white silk water sleeves, long sleeves extended beyond the dancers’ hands, creating an illusion reminiscent of the orchid’s lip—a modified petal known for its larger size and occasional irregular shape, distinct from the other petals.
Mastering the art of handling water sleeves is undoubtedly a highly specialized skill essential for practitioners of the Chinese art form. Both dancers showcased exceptional proficiency, expertly twirling the sleeves in elegant, circular motions in the air, skillfully flinging them and gracefully retracting them. This technique was seamlessly woven throughout the choreography, allowing the dancers to interact with each other and the surrounding space, enhancing the performance’s artistic depth and visual allure.
Every element meticulously incorporated into the choreography pays a perfect homage to orchids. The dance’s dynamics are impeccably balanced, complemented by a soothing musical accompaniment, arranged by Sun Bin Bin, which enhances the tranquility of the performance space and the dancers’ interactions.
The development of the orchids, starting from their delicate budding, then blossoming into full splendor until the final graceful pose, evokes parallels with a classic Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam’s alarippu. In alarippu, dancers begin with subtle movements of the eyes, neck, shoulders, and limbs, gradually descending down the body and building momentum toward larger, varied motions. Just as a well-executed alarippu elicits a profound connection to nature through the dancer’s movements, so do the two orchids in this choreography, mirroring nature’s elegant progression in their every graceful sway.
In this enchanting choreography, we are invited into a realm where nature unfolds before us with the wonder of a first encounter. Flora, often overlooked, is showcased in splendid isolation, revealing its exquisite beauty that is seldom appreciated. Wong Kit Yaw guides us into a world where we can cultivate a fresh and profound appreciation for flowers, specifically orchids, encouraging us to see them through new eyes and recognize their inherent magnificence.
The choice of orchids holds profound significance, extending far beyond mere preference. In the Chinese tradition, orchids are part of the esteemed quartet known as the ‘Four Gentlemen‘, or 四君子 (Sì Jūnzǐ), along with plum, bamboo, and chrysanthemum. These plants, indigenous to China, have been perennial themes in Chinese arts and literature, symbolizing essential human virtues such as loftiness, righteousness, modesty, and purity. Orchids, as one of these noble symbols, encapsulate a rich cultural heritage and deep-rooted values, making their inclusion in the choreography a deliberate and meaningful choice.
Confucius, the revered Chinese philosopher from 551 to 479 BCE, saw in the orchid a representation of virtuous character. He noted how orchids, nestled in remote forests, exude a delightful fragrance, unwavering in their beauty even when few witness it. This parallelled the unwavering moral integrity of a genuine gentleman, who upholds ethical principles steadfastly, even in adversity.
In the second part of the dance, melodies from an excerpt of “只此青绿” (zhǐ cǐ qīnglǜ; literally translated as “Only Green”), a dance poetry drama about a classical painting “千里江山图” (qiānlǐ jiāngshān tú; Thousands of miles of mountains and rivers) by Wang Ximeng is used. In this choreography, the melodies, originally composed by Lu Liang, are beautifully enhanced by Zhe Lai’s vocalization, echoing through the air and conveying the serene emotions inspired by orchids to the captivated audience.
During this part, a poignant lyric resonated, adding a deeper layer of emotion to the performance:
心中若能容丘壑 (xīnzhōng ruò néng róng qiū huò)
下笔方能滙山河 (xiàbǐ fāng néng huì shān hé)
“If your heart can accommodate hills and valleys, then your writing can capture mountains and rivers.”
These lines serve as a bridge connecting the inherent beauty of orchids to the expansive natural world that envelops us. Orchids, as one of the four plants of virtues, have a long-standing presence in traditional Chinese paintings, making these verses particularly poignant. Within the choreography, they transform the dance into an unfolding masterpiece, reminiscent of an intricate painting, revealing the profound significance of orchids both as artistic inspiration and symbols of human virtues.
In these lines, we are urged to embrace our environment, to observe and absorb the wisdom imparted by the flora and fauna that surround us. The choreography acts as a lens, allowing us to “capture” the profound beauty nestled within mountains and rivers, offering us a glimpse into the intricate world of orchids while encouraging a deeper connection with nature and life itself.
In Wong Kit Yaw’s Orchid in an Empty Valley, the orchid stands as a powerful emblem of moral excellence. The orchid’s capacity to thrive in solitude while retaining its elegance and grace signifies unwavering integrity. It embodies a genuine standard of beauty, where individuals shine at their best, irrespective of the audience.
In JAMU 2023, there was indeed an audience, and I count myself fortunate to have been among them, witnessing the brilliance of Wong Kit Yaw’s choreography. His work not only captivated my senses but also expanded my perception of beauty in every form. Most importantly, it inspired me to delve deeper into the symbolism of orchids in Chinese art.
You see, it’s more than just attending a dance performance, experiencing joy, and returning home. Exceptional art lingers in your thoughts long after it has concluded. It compels you to contemplate its meaning, urging you to explore further. Through this exploration, you gain a profound understanding and a heightened appreciation for the piece and the profound message it conveys.
Wong Kit Yaw’s Orchid in an Empty Valley stands as a testament to his mastery of Chinese dance choreography. It serves as a brilliant illustration of how dance can seamlessly educate the masses about culture, imparting deep meaning without imposing it.
Personally, I eagerly anticipate further exploration of this piece. Perhaps a series of choreographies representing the other three symbolic plants of virtue would be a magnificent endeavor. Such an initiative promises to be nothing short of spectacular.
All images supplied by Azam Arifin.