In the Year of the Tsunami – Pt. 1

Theatre: 138 productions (Last year: 148)

In 2004, theatre began with three-and-a-half hours in hell, in the company of pretty pretty boys, that we call thespians. Painful from the first minute, the Chinese-language gay love story Sam & Jet should prove once and for all that not all gay men are talented. Then, we were offered submissive kampong feminism in Istana Budaya’s Anak Kerbau Mati Emak, which was followed by the juvenile, misogynistic stand up comedy Cocktales. After this, I had to resist the urge to throw rodent carcasses onto the stage of the women-bashing Tamil-language play Irovar, written and directed by DBKL script-vetting committee member S.T. Bala.

And then to make sure that only insipid small-minded plays could be staged, S.T. Bala and his DBKL script­ vetting friends came and ravaged the restaging of Huzir Sulaiman’s Election Day by Five Arts Centre.

If anything, these first few plays showed that we need more women voices in theatre. So we got the coy voices of historical women: Hang Li Po (by Rahimidin Zahiri), Tun Fatimah (by Raja Sabaruddin Abdullah) and Lady Swettenham (by Sabira Shaik). How about more contemporary women? Mona, anyone?

Out of the 138 theatre performances last year, 41 of them had scripts fresh from the oven: 15 in English, 15 in Bahasa Melayu, 10 in Chinese, and one in Tamil. Teater Festival Malaysia at MATIC added to this number significantly.

Kudos: to The Actors Studio for the launch of the KL Performing Arts Centre; to the young Penangite Mark Beau de Silva, for churning out three plays within a year (Dear Papa, Dangerous Children, and Krismas in Kulim); to Gardner and Wife for bringing in the excellent Irish play Stones In His Pockets; and to Rohaizad Suaidi for a production that bridged languages and forms in Ops Ophelia: A Fashion Opera.

Interestingly, most of the English language original plays had KL settings, while many of the Malay language plays took place in kampongs, and Chinese language plays either existed in nameless planes or China or Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the one Tamil play (Ipede Apedi; Iruvar was a restaging; though both are by S.T. Bala), must take place in some parallel universe where women are social ills and men are the pills. Well, for better or worse, Bala writes because he obviously feels strongly about these social issues. What do our non-DBKL writers feel strongly about?

Music: 355 (last year: 313)

The year in music began in a crowded smoky bar with folks holding back tears. Sitting in the dark, they snapped their fingers to great acoustic music performed for the last time under those spotlights; by the bar, great conversations ensued, the last beers, the last hugs, the last laughters. No Black Tie closed at the end of January.

New watering holes opened up their premises to fill the void left by No Black Tie. Paul’s Place (Old Klang Road) features rock and youthful, angsty music. For cabaret or torch songs, head on down to 1919 Bistro (Jalan Pudu Lama). Cool cats of jazz sizzle amidst tinkling wine glasses at Alexis Ampang, which also hosts the Songwriters Round. Pete Teo’s idea also caught on at La Bodega (Tengkat Tong Shin) with Valhalla Nights, and at Le Bernardin (Changkat Bukit Bintang) with Songwriters Avenue.

David Gomes & Junji Delfino proved themselves to be the hardest working couple of the year, with an album launch around Christmas. Francissca Peter made a comeback and the hopefully-back-for-good Sean Ghazi gave us nice goosebumps with his concert I Have Dreamed. Alex Wong, aka Singletrackmind, aka the PanGlobal dude, gave us

Alliance Francaise attempted to lend us their Fete de la Musique to limitted success (Liberty, Fraternity, Equality? On Malaysian streets??). No Philips Jazz Festival, but: The Sunrise Carlsberg Jazz Festival, The Penang Island Jazz Festival and the International Kuching Jazz Festival. Kuching is also home to the Rainforest World Music Festival, always worthy of an annual pilgrimage, if only to get high on tuak and feel at one with the world.

Petronas chairman Tan Sri Azizan, who gave us the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, passed away mid July at his Putrajaya home. At the Gala Opening Concert in August, the MPO played his favourite piece, the 4th movement (Adagietto) of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, popularly known as the theme for the movie adaptation of Thomas Mann’s A Death In Venice.

Principal conductor Kees Bakels will step down to be replaced by Swiss conductor Matthias Bamert. The MPO has 64 listings last year and continue to promote jacketed classical music appreciation in Malaysia. Kudos to associate conductor Kevin Field for ploughing through red tape and a national resistance to New Sounds to pull off the whole International Composer Award. And welcome home to Kluang-born Chong Kee Yong, our first MPO resident composer.

On a more populist front, we were visited last year by Idols: Gareth Gates, Klang-born Guy Sebastian, and the one-man motivational seminar William Hung. Inspired, thousands of unattractive, untalented Malaysians turned up for the Malaysian Idol auditions, while millions spent hundreds voting for the one they want to be. Based on multiple SMS votes per person, however, the results seem less a measure of a singer’s popularity than her fan’s stupidity. That’s what we are: a country of fanatics.

Dance: 49 (Last year: 84)

After celebrating his 50th birthday in 2003 and then winning the Boh Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Award – and then his protégé January Low bagged the Best Solo Dancer Award – Ramli Ibrahim could afford to chill out in 2004. And he did. Though with nine event listings, Sutra Dance Theatre is still the over-achiever among the dance companies.

The Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage comes close with traditional performances at Istana Budaya and cultural showcases (everything from Tarian Portugis to Musik Kulintangan) around the city during the well­ intentioned but poorly publicised Malaysian Folk Arts Festival. This festival piggybacked on an earlier presentation at Akademi Seni Kebangsaan called Tapestry – The Fabric of Malaysian Tradition. Head of the dance department at ASK, Joseph Gonzales, also launched his book, Choreography – A Malaysian Perspective. Incidentally, Ramli Ibrahim is also presently spreading himself across coffee tables throughout the country in the form of a handsomely bound book.

In lieu of the MyDance Festival, we had Jamu 2004 at the re-opened Experimental Theatre, now property of ASK, as well as Emas Sepuluh at the Istana Budaya.

Meanwhile, Lee Swee Keong took his slow-motion campiness in A Cherry Bludgeoned & A Spirit Crushed down to Singapore and befuddled passerbys outside the Esplanade. In December, he gave us the equally intriguing Green Snake, done in collaboration with Jo Kukathas, whom, he said, made him think a lot. Gosh, dancers who think! What will we have next?

Malaysians Abroad: 42

While the Singapore Arts Festival featured little Malaysian collaboration, the Performance Studies international conference made up for it with a strong Malaysian contingent. Watching Khoo Gaik Cheng, Sunetra Fernando and Lee Weng Choy strut around with intimidating intellectual poise, I realised that Malaysia has the sexiest nerds. A proposed paper for the next conference: The Myth of the Exotic Asian Academician: Sex Appeal or Trauma?

We also found Richard Chang, a Malaysian actor in New York, and Tattfoo Tan, a Malaysian gallery owner in New York. Someone – we are not sure a Malaysian or not – in the Netherlands organises a regular Pasar Malam Besar; last year, guitarist Roger Wang was invited to play there. And Charles Cham of the Orangutan House fame continues to hold successful exhibitions in Hungary.

Most significantly, Malaysian filmmakers are being represented at the following festivals: Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco, Rotterdam, Bangkok, Manila, Amsterdam, Torinno, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But not Malaysia.

Which leads us to Films… Click here for Part 2 of this article.


Please note: Numbers of events listed may not be accurate. Some of the events naturally fall into more than one category, but the programme can only make one mention of each event in the list.

First Published: 06.01.2005 on Kakiseni

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