A Pontianak, according to Malaysian mythology, is the vampire ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth and returns to haunt the living.
It sounds like the stuff of horror movies, but the belief is still so widely held today that some Malaysians refused to go to see the first incarnation of South Australian choreographer Lina Limosani’s dance work inspired by the legend because they feared seeing a Pontianak portrayed on stage.
One of the performers even wanted to bless the theatre in which it was being performed.
“It’s quite a tragic and horrific superstition that they have,” says Limosani, who will this month premiere the reworked dance at Adelaide’s Space Theatre.
“A lot of people really do believe it … but there is also a culture that knows it’s a superstition.”
An added complication for the first production – a result of an Asialink arts residency Limosani did in 2008 in Rimbun Dahan, outside Kuala Lumpur – was that one of the performers was five months pregnant. This led to concern among her family and friends that something terrible might happen to her or her baby if she went ahead with the show, given its themes, hence the title of the work: A Delicate Situation.
Ultimately, however, the production went off without any hitches and was well-received by audiences. It also won awards for both performance and costuming.
Limosani, a dancer and choreographer who began her career at the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide, says she wanted to create a work inspired by Malaysian culture while she was based there.
“I really liked the idea of something I could animate on stage; taking something that’s ethereal and bringing it to life on stage.”
“I didn’t want to present something that was just safe and nice and pretty. I wanted to push myself as a choreographer to investigate something that’s not so pretty and not so nice – to present something to the audience that’s challenging but also really engages them so they don’t want to leave their seats.”
In addition to researching the myth – one of many Malaysian stories centred on ghosts – she watched horror movies to see the devices they used to captivate an audience. Her aim was to create a dance-theatre work with a strong narrative element.
The original Malaysian version of A Delicate Situation featured four Malaysian dancers, one of whom will perform in the new production opening in Adelaide. However, Limosani says it is now a very different work presented with just two dancers, Suhaili Micheline and Carol Wellman Kelly.
A major influence on its development was the fact that after her residency, Limosani lost her partner to cancer. She started investigating more ideas about the process and fear of death and its aftermath, and ultimately sought to blend these with the story of the Pontianak.
“I found that I was drawn to the image, after the tragedy of losing someone; I was drawn to that story. There is a sense of loss about that story.”
The development process helped her process her grief.
“It was totally what I needed. I think I process things creatively … I needed to get my thoughts around it all, to find some sort of positive outlet to it.”
Limosani describes the final work as “hugely theatrical”. It incorporates classic theatre story-telling techniques with beautiful costumes, object manipulation, puppetry, shadow play and dance.
“I’m really trying to bring the dance and the theatre together. I’m trying to find a blend between the two – where the characters can’t live without the story and the story can’t live without the movement.”
A Delicate Situation, recommended as suitable for audience over 14 years, will play at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, from May 22-24.
‘in conversation with Lina Limosani’ from L i m o s a n i P r o j e k t s on Vimeo.
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