By Rogayah Shahariman
Not being a dancer or choreographer herself, Rogayah Shahariman doesn’t want to be known as a “dance expert.” Nevertheless, her keen following of the scene seems unusual. More so in a country where dance, particularly contemporary dance, appears to be one of the least marketable (and fund-able) of the arts. Perhaps she sees something in it that most of us take for granted. Her dedication to the art even led to her leadership of the MyDance Alliance (Malaysia) for a while; this year, however, she is happy just to sit back and learn, having signed up the Asia Pacific International Dance Conference (Fri 8 – Sun 10, July 2005) held in conjunction with the Malaysian Dance Festival 2005. Kakiseni shot her some questions via email about what happened to the artform once known to be the most progressive in Malaysia.
Many believe that dance is the most progressive of the arts in Malaysia. Your thoughts on this?
Rogayah: I don’t know enough about what is happening in the other arts to make a comparison. However, looking only at dance (contemporary dance in particular), I don’t think it is as progressive now as it has been in the past. Although I have only been around since 1998, I understand there was an influx of fresh ideas, practices and much creative activity throughout the 90s when people like Lena Ang, Aida Redza, Joseph Gonzales, Mew Chang Tsing, Loke Soh Kim, Choo Tee Kuang, Vincent Tan, Anthony Meh, Aman Yap and others returned from studying and performing abroad. Over the years some have left the country, some have stopped altogether; others battle on while the next generation has yet to make an impact.
Can you give examples of what / who you consider are the progressive dance artists in this country? And what kind of boundaries are they trying to push?
To be progressive means to challenge conventions in concept and practice (eg choreographic method and structure, movement vocabulary and presentation). To be progressive requires experimentation and the risk of failure as well as success, and points in between.
Perhaps the following are not especially innovative in a worldwide context but they remain noteworthy examples of dance making and presentation in Malaysia over the last few years. I am not always comfortable with what they do, nor do I think they are always completely successful, but I do respect their attempts to try.
Loke Soh Kim pushed boundaries of concept and taste in presentation when she created Watermelon Juice and Durians in a Wheelbarrow (Jamu II 2005). These pieces were based on the physical properties of two distinctive fruits giving rise to images and allusions that were gross yet witty.
Both Suhaimi Magi and Umesh Shetty have pushed boundaries within different types of traditional dance. In Ubah (MDF 2003), Suhaimi altered the form and presentation of tari piring by breaking down its general structure then reassembling the bits in a playful, seemingly ad hoc way together with a few theatrical touches.
In contrast, in Tandava I & II, Umesh broke down the actual movement of bharatanatyam into fundamental elements and combined them with elements taken from ballet, modern and jazz to create a movement vocabulary (or style) that was a unique and seamless blend of its component parts.
Jasni Abdul Hamid pushed the concept of cultural dance itself with Penusing Sinui (MDF 2003) when he used elements of buto to create a piece that explored the lives of the Orang Asli community. The result was a work stripped of the usual splendid costumes, musical accompaniment and recognisable dance steps.
Junainah M Lojong pushed conventions in choreographic method by preferring to focus on the process itself rather than an eventual theme or story. Untitled (Dance Box 2001) was based on the ideas of ‘movement within defined spaces’ and ‘drawing shapes with the body’. Another piece was tailored to the vertical and horizontal dimensions of a performance area that she chose to work in (as opposed to what was available).
Mohd Arifwaran expanded boundaries related to the constituents and content of a dance performance. Believing dance was more than just exploring ways in which the body could be moved, his piece Dogs (Singapore, 2002) contained bits of monologue, song and movement, with a politically stark theme.
Mun Lee, as visual rather than dance artist, has her own approach to creating and presenting performance pieces. In Private Collection and Fang Xue (Dance Box 2001, 2002), the performers (not all trained dancers) generated their own movements based on everyday gestures. These were then manipulated and placed within the overall visual design of the pieces. In addition, multiple scrims for the projection of photos, video and shadows added layers of depth and contrast to the action on stage.
Lee Swee Keong challenges just about all boundaries related to dance making. He has explored the dark side of human nature, moved with excruciating slowness in works that appear only loosely structured, incorporated multiple art disciplines (not always coherently), performed in unconventional spaces, piddled on stage, smeared himself with raw eggs and so on.
What are some of the obstacles (personal, state, audience, etc) to the progress that our dancers are trying to make? Do you think some of these factors are causing some of our best dancers to move away?
The following obstacles to being progressive are not unique to Malaysia but that doesn’t make them any less real or relevant.
Inadequate finances – most choreographers do not have sufficient financial income to focus solely on creative production and experimentation. Until recently there has been little access to funding from state, corporate or private sources. There continues to be minimal monetary support from the public in terms of ticket sales. While some financial support may be available for dance that is safe and familiar, experimental dance is neither, no matter how progressive.
Lack of funds also means lack of time, energy and focus as choreographers work to support themselves teaching, running schools, establishing and maintaining companies, raising families and so forth. And it is these latter undervalued factors that are essential to trying out, developing and refining new ideas in dance making.
Restricted platforms – while a few do exist to showcase new work, access is often limited to associated personnel eg Jamu and Gelombang Baru / Langkah for the lecturers, graduates and students of Akademi Seni Kebangsaan, and Kua Bu for members of the Kwangtung Chinese Association. Two more inclusive platforms, Dance Box Series and Dance Species (both supported by The Actors Studio), have become inactive though MyDance Alliance does aim to revive the former when a suitable venue becomes available. New ideas need to be put into practice and seen so their viability can be tested.
Lack of ongoing exposure – an obstacle more pertinent to Malaysia than for example Europe, USA, Hong Kong or Taiwan is the lack of ongoing exposure (for audiences as well as dance practitioners) to what is taking place elsewhere and new trends in dance making. It is often through such exposure and an openness to unfamiliar material that creators become stimulated and catalysed into, not copying, but experimenting and creating something that is fresh and yet their own.
One of the reasons for this lack of ongoing exposure is Malaysia’s geographical location in relation to centers of progressive dance activity. To see examples of dance outside the country is uneconomic and few individuals or organisations are willing to finance and organise the presentation of foreign dance performances in Malaysia, especially if demand is low.
Other sources of exposure such as magazines, books, performance recordings and workshops do exist but may be variously limited, expensive, or difficult to access.
While some might identify Malaysian bureaucracy as an obstacle to progressive dance, I don’t fully agree. In some ways it can be restrictive (eg no nudity, nothing overtly political or sexual, no performances in unauthorised spaces). But with dance and movement, it should be possible, and a creative challenge, to find alternative ways of expressing desired ideas.
These probably are the reasons why some of our dancers and choreographers leave or stay away – in Malaysia there are few opportunities for them to practice their art as fully as they would like, compounded by a lack of recognition from the state, corporate sector and general public for the work they do and what they have to offer. There are more opportunities and greater recognition for progressive dance makers in other parts of the world.
What would you like to see Malaysian choreographers challenge themselves in?
It would be inappropriate to dictate ways in which Malaysian choreographers should challenge themselves, that is for them to decide. Instead, it would be more fruitful if ways could be found to provide choreographers with regular exposure to new/different ideas; funds and time to focus on experimenting, developing, refining ideas; a platform for presenting the results; and an audience open to the experience. In effect, we should look for managers and producers to bring together conditions and opportunities conducive to the development of progressive dance.
What are you personally looking forward to regarding this present Malaysian Dance Festival?
It will be interesting to see the results of the two collaborations between local and international artists [Nyoba Dance+ / Ko Murobushi (Japan)] and [RiverGrass Dance Theatre / Tony Yap (Australia)]; and also performances by local artists with whom I am unfamiliar.
Much as I am an advocate of local dance, I will still make the most of this rare opportunity to view the videos of dance taking place elsewhere and also the performances featuring foreign artists.
First Published: 05.07.2005 on Kakiseni