Metaphorical Metamorphoses

The demands of his professional life would defeat most, but Ramli manages his kaleidoscopic commitments with apparent ease and is bemused when asked from where his energy comes. Whatever the source, his achievements are impressive and could never have been achieved without drive and dedication. The only clue to this organised dynamo is that he considers everything he does should be executed as well as possible with as much energy as the task needs.

Sharing coffee with him at 8.30am is an enlightening experience. Despite having a hectic day and late night behind him, he generated the kind of ordered tranquillity associated more with a meditative life than a volatile artistic one. All movements are fluidly elegant as if what he shows on stage is not learned but more an expression of Ramli himself. Whether it is placing a coffee mug perfectly in the centre of a drink coaster, or talking to one of his well-loved pets, this man exudes a delightful mastery of refined movement.

His usual working day finishes around 10.30pm but by the time he has eaten and ‘cooled off after the extreme ‘high’ he experiences post-performance, it can be nearly 1am before he gets home.

He dislikes the idea of discipline, saying he is ‘not a severely programmed person’, but surrounded by catalogued books in his wide ranging library it is obvious that if not disciplined then his life is very ordered. He said, “I am driven to always give the best of myself but I am not rigid in my ideas. However I know that sometimes I am over-committed and love a time when I can do absolutely nothing.”

Ramli doing nothing is not easy to visualise. Although he considered his recent three-week trip to India to be rejuvenation, he was performing in a couple of cities and presented a paper in another.

It is difficult to equate the well-groomed man dressed in minimalist black with a characterless insect, but that is exactly what Ramli will portray as Gregor, in the forthcoming production of ‘Metamorphosis’ based on a Franz Kafka book and adapted for the stage by Steven Berkoff. Ramli himself has ‘metamorphosed’ many times during his life. From the military cadet in Malaysia he changed to being the dancer in Australia and then moved on to establishing Sutra Dance Theatre here in Kuala Lumpur. However he confesses that his dramatic debut in this production is a landmark saying, “Every day is a metamorphosis for me, but some changes can be bigger than others and this is a wonderful way for me to begin the year.”

He compared the idea of reincarnation (something which is bound up in much of the Indian dancing he performs) to that of metamorphosis. “My understanding of reincarnation is being transformed. The Indian philosophy is of looking at self as being part of creation as a whole and not just as people appear on the surface. Trying to find the layering underneath – always looking for the message -what is the psychology behind events or behaviour­ this all helps me in this performance as Gregor.”

Kafka was one of the great observers of human society, an existentialist who wrote about a very ordinary, though dysfunctional family. He made no moral judgement but presented a young man who felt dehumanised by his situation. Ramli expressed empathy with that emotion, saying that at the moment he is experiencing difficulties in his relationship with teaching dance and questions if he should leave the lower levels of teaching to others while concentrating on areas giving him greater pleasure.

He said “We all need some stress in our life but it is dehumanising for me to try and teach the joy of dance to people who have not yet found themselves. I am shocked that our education system produces people who are not sensitive to beautiful things and are incapable of understanding what commitment means. It makes me so tired-it drains me-when I see people in a class who are in abject ‘non participation’ mode behaving like zombies. I think that living is to find the point of resonance where you can connect with people. The moment you are faced with people who behave like dead wood, something in you dies”.

Despite having read Kafka’s books and appreciating his observations, it was Steven Berkoff’s involvement that attracted Ramli. They met professionally when both worked in Australia and Steven impressed with his beautifully crafted works. Through his writing, Steven creates a very physical theatre that the director (Christopher Jacobs) challenges the cast to carry out with stylised movements, which make actions bigger than reality.

Some of the dance work carried out by Ramli is physically challenging but as he has been performing consistently for a long time this does not daunt him. However he finds that he has to be somewhat schizophrenic at times, changing his mood from the normality of Gregor to ‘something else’ when he becomes the cockroach. He said, “Unlike when I am usually dancing, I am not striking poses which try to be beautiful although some of Gregor’s macabre dances can be terrifyingly beautiful. The challenge for me is to be true to this man who feels himself ugly, repulsive and detested. The most difficult thing is controlling the voice and taking it deeper. The voice has to change as the character changes.”

His dedication to the future growth and development of Sutra House is immense, but Ramli accepts that people come and go in the organisation and the dynamics are ever changing. He likens this to what Kafka wanted to show in ‘Metamorphosis’ saying, “Everything changes. We have to decide whether we leave with bitterness or with love, even if there is felt to be a betrayal –as with Gregor.”

Ramli is enjoying the challenges of a dramatic production but will only be attracted to further drama if it is good and appeals to him. He has written and published his own play, which he would like to present and at the moment finds great pleasure in his painting.

When asked what he wants for the future, he says he would love to have a company of professional dancers who would be working or rehearsing every day rather than twice a week as his dancers do at present. He would also like to collaborate more with musicians and composers, concentrating on direction and choreography and not have to worry about administration.

In Kafka’s play we see what impact a changed person can have on everyone around him or her. It will be fascinating to see where Ramli’s future metamorphoses take him …and others around him.

Photos by Jenny Daneels

First Published: 29.01.2002 on Kakiseni

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