Taking On New Meanings

Passionately academic and handy with anecdotes about every dance practitioner in this country, Dr. Mohd Anis Md Nor is a walking encyclopaedia of Malaysian dance history. Highly respected as a professor of ethnochoreology and ethnomusicology at University Malaya, he has been, for the last six years, the adviser for MyDance Alliance, the NGO responsible for the mega ambitious Malaysian Dance Festival 2005 storming through KLPac this week and next. He is also the president of World Dance Alliance Asia-Pacific and organiser of the Asia-Pacific International Dance Conference that takes place from Fri 8 to Sun 10, July 2005, as part of the festival.

Kakiseni emailed him some questions regarding the obstacles facing traditional dance in Malaysia. Check out his canggih answers below.

In your experience as an academic and an ethnochoreologist, what are the obstacles facing traditional dancers in Malaysia?

The most intrusive and extremely difficult of all obstacles is the mind set of the owners and performers of these traditions, ie. Malays or other indigenous communities. It will always be an uphill battle to convince and reconstruct perceptions of dance as permissible artistic expression when it remains to be perceived as deviant. I guess it has to do with the notion of ‘dance’ as understood as ‘tari’ or ‘tarian’ in Malay, which came about as a fairly recent phenomena of the late 19th and early 20th century. Prior to this, ‘dance’ was part of game or gambol, ‘main‘. Hence it would not be wrong to ‘main‘ a Zapin or Tandak (old Malay term for responsorial singing and dancing) for example but it would not be proper to ‘dance’ the Zapin etc. This situation could partially be blamed for the lack of knowledge in cultural appropriateness of the dancers/choreographers/dance artists themselves when dance and dancing the ‘traditional’ genres were uprooted from its traditional settings to modern stages i.e. joget stages, cabarets, night clubs, and proscenium theaters, not to mention how it was displayed in the Malay movies in the 1950s.

Changing such mind sets need more than just performing the dances. We need people who can write about dance to the general public without being too academic. We need dancers who could advocate the perception of non-violation of traditions and appropriating the dance within the context of its role and function in society even if it has to appear in new choreographies or in neo-classical expressions.

Hence, choreographers and dancers of traditional dances are responsible to draw a fine line between expressive or contemporary reconstructions of ‘traditional’ dances, and the re-enactment of a representation of ‘traditional’ dance. There are very clear guiding lines that govern the core structure of ‘traditional’ genres, transgressing them would mean violating what is appropriate in the eyes of the tradition. Currently, many dancers/performers take these rather lightly to the point of performing copied styles rather than knowing the techniques of forms and styles. This has led to the explosive reactions between the traditionalists and the modernists, between the conservatives and the avant-garde.

The government on the other hand has not taken all these too seriously. The attitude of packaging traditional dances as tourist commodities has taken its toll on some esoteric dance traditions, especially in East Malaysia and parts of West Malaysia. I remember fully well how shock I was to see small Bajau Laut children in the Semporna area dancing their igal dance bedecked with sequined costumes, diluting their movements with ‘contemporarised’ fast movement phrases and not sustaining the uplifted chest with pliant feet. I found out to my amazement that these kids had taken what was performed by dancers in the Citrawarna or Malaysia Truly Asia as being the most ‘favoured’ and hip. They were no longer interested to perform their dances with their ‘regular’ costumes or dancing the ‘regular’ dance style. Elsewhere in Malaysia, the same has taken place.

Now that the government is retracting their earlier sanction to some traditional dances, do you think this means there will be greater freedom?

Freedom is relative. As long as the state feels that they have the power to sanction and de-sanction any  particular dance traditions i.e. the likes of Makyong and the exquisite repertoire of the Menghadap Rebab in Kelantan and Trengganu, inter-gender folk dancing such as the Joget Lambak in Melaka, Manora in Kelantan, or even forcing Ngajat dancers to wear tight black shorts instead or the original ‘sirat’ loin cloth or Muruts to wear red shorts and not tie their original loin cloth with bark jackets, the state is in the position to police and re-invent traditions as it pleases. It would be wonderful if “full respect” is given to each and every dance tradition without the need to be ‘moral policing’ such traditions. Freedom to perform should be on the main agenda all the time.

Apart from freedom to perform, what else do traditional dance practitioners need? What else can the state do? What else can we do?

Traditional dance practitioners should be given moral and material encouragements compensated with remunerations, accorded with special status of ‘master-teacher’, ‘senior artists’, ‘community artists; etc. and greater freedom to out-reach communities beyond theirs. The state should have concerted ‘cultural-programme’ to encourage and educate young performers as proud beholders of traditions peculiar to specific districts or regions. The successes of the Johor Heritage Foundation, which operates under the supervision of the Menteri Besar’s office, in the promotion of Zapin dance, Ghazal and Keroncong music in Johor should be emulated by other states. When there is political will, things will happen that benefit both the people and the government.

How has academic research and studies affect the traditional dances and the practitioners in Malaysia?

Only recently, perhaps in the last decades, that dance studies become significant in Malaysia. With the establishment of ASK and eventually the setting up of performing arts programme in local universities, the need to embrace knowledge in dance and its discourses becomes necessary. This year will also see the first undergraduate dance programme (BA Performing Arts in Dance) being offered by the University of Malaya, complimenting the existing graduate programme (MA and PhD) in dance studies, which had existed since 2000. All these developments have made dance studies and dance research components crucial to the teaching of dance techniques and performance. Teaching of traditional dances has shifted from oral transmission via teacher-student tutelage to structured methods of pedagogical implements that recognise both the dimension of orality and permanency of ‘cultural structured movement systems’. Traditional dance practitioners are no longer ‘side show’ performers for curious onlookers but are beholders of knowledge and tradition to be reckoned with.

What do you think is lost or gained in putting Malaysian traditional dances onto the urban stage? Please give example.

Any ‘traditional’ dances which are performed outside the context of its performative structure i.e. engaging audience as part of the performances such as in the village festivities, and performed on a designed space (proscenium and trust-stage), studios or open air stages, will take on new meanings and new constructs. The width and depth of such performances spaces will eventually takes its toll on the dance and the dancers as they try to fill empty spaces. This conceptual framing of horror vacui, the fear of living empty spaces unfilled, has led to traditional dancers to literally run from one point to the other on stage, to the point of re-inventing new perceptions to kinesthetic components such foot shuffles (gesek), steps (langkah), turns (kirat) etc. Added to this the re-invention of street dancing via Malaysia Truly Asia or Citrawarna, creating a kindred of Mardi Gras in Malaysia. Dancers had to wear sandals or shoes, wear colourful but billowing costumes, carry huge head dresses hats with bananas and pineapples, cloning Carmen Miranda to its visual fullest; hence, reconstructing ‘traditional’ dances as cultural/tourist commodities. This paradigm shift has left an inerasable mark in the ‘meaning’ of traditional dances.

What do you think are some of the more interesting attempts at making traditional works contemporary?

There are several good examples in making traditional works contemporary without loosing the significances of identities. Ramli Ibrahim has reconstructed classical Indian dances, Bharatanatyam and Odissi, in Sutra without spilling the microcosmic structures, sustaining the ‘traditional’ crucibles of these dances in spite of rearranging them to contemporary understanding. We know more about Bharatanatyam and Odissi today through such efforts. Likewise, some new choreographies of traditional Zapin in Johor have enriched the ever expanding vocabulary of dance movements and motifs. Younger choreographers are always in consorts with local Zapin masters to explore new kinesthetic experiments within the dictum of Malay Zapin.

While your work involves educating those who are specialising in the subjects, how do you think traditional dance can be brought to the appreciation of Malaysians at large? How does one educate the public? What roles can traditional Malaysian dance play in our lives/social history, etc?

It is through education. Nothing more can be done if dance education is sidelined as extra-extra curriculum or for the annual parent-teachers day celebration. The same goes to the public media, especially TV programmes or publicly sponsored cultural programmes. The general public in Malaysia is gullible enough to accept anything that is shown or performed without the slightest hint of critical thinking due to their ignorance. We have to eradicate this in order to develop discernable audience and critical viewers. Traditional dances cannot be relegated to ‘cultural curios’ or ‘cultural emblems’, which fulfil the needs to identify with some form of cultural semiotics.

What are you personally looking forward to regarding this coming Malaysian Dance Festival?

I am looking forward to see the crossings of dance traditions, histories and cultures, diachronically and synchronically – synergies that bespeak of our self as Malaysians. If we want to look for the semiotics of ‘bangsa Malaysia’, this festival should not be missed out. Malaysian Dance Festival had evolved over the last six years from the MDF (MyDance Festivals) series to become what is known today as the Malaysian Dance Festival.  The organising committee may have changed but most of the pioneers have remained as the core group members. I have seen how the previous MDF showcased wonderful displays of dance works – contemporary, modern or traditional by young and not so young dancers or choreographers in Malaysia, joining hands in making dance a joyous occasion for all to see. This year’s MDF is special in many ways. It is the first ever dance festival which is supported by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage Malaysia while enabling an NGO like MyDance Alliance to be the organisers. I definitely would look forward to see the synergies of the state apparatus and a dance NGO work hand in hand to realise this wonderful occasion. Similarly, I look forward to see friends and colleagues in dance to come, perform, showcase and meet in this festival. Exchanges of this sort are so endearing and potent to all of us who are privileged to witness this occasion.

First Published: 27.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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