I Can’t Dance

“Ai, careful,” Mdm Surianty Liu says as I topple over. It is 11 on Sunday morning. She is getting slightly impatient with my bungling. “I already covered these steps yesterday,” she says, in a Hong Kong inflection of Bahasa Indonesia. “But we try, yes?”

The Malaysian Dance Festival 2005 ran from the June 28 to July 10 at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre; I tried to catch everything and even paid up for a workshop, but I missed the second Afternoon Showcase and the first part of Mdm Surianty’s Serampang 12 workshop; I had the flu. That was yesterday. This morning I woke up weak but adamant – I am going to try to dance the Serampang 12 and I am going to succeed, dammit. We have been at it for an hour.

Mdm Surianty, in an ornate kebaya with her hair neatly coifed, steps nimbly towards the dance studio’s wall-­spanning mirror. I concentrate on her, but my feet experience a crisis of identity and I end up colliding with the mirror, wrong foot first, pointing toes instead of a heel, wrong arm raised.

There are two male participants here with me. One is an ASK dance student, and the steps come naturally to him; Serampang 12, though it originates from Indonesia, shares its movement vocabulary with traditional Malay dances such as the Zapin, which is part of his syllabus. He gave me some pointers on how to make the steps easier and I tried my best. The other is Joe, an economics student at Universiti Malaya. He has no prior dance experience and is taking this workshop, “Because I just want to learn this dance,” purely for personal enrichment. He doesn’t miss a step.

Mdm Surianty, of Chinese descent, grew up in Indonesia dancing the Serampang 12; during her youth, apparently, it was all the rage: it was their equivalent of the Twist. (She showed us a photograph of her and a beau dancing in a party during the 60s). The dance, in its traditional cycle, tells a simple, quaint narrative with kompang and piano accompaniment: a boy and a girl meet, play eye games, fall in love and get married in twelve steps.

Our instructor, who is also the president of the Hong Kong-Jakarta-Guangzhou South East Asia Dance Troupe, had detailed her efforts at “improving the Serampang 12”: she read up on its origins, reconstructed the original music with fragments of score, and choreographed new gestures to make the steps “more interesting and striking” – a sway of Joget here, a twirl of ballet there. “I changed it so now it looks nicer,” Mdm Surianty said.

Exactly like a fish

My presence at this year’s Malaysian Dance Festival (it was called MyDance Festival in previous years) is largely due to this article. A dance philistine, I was placed there specifically so it could impress me. After the festival’s opening Emerging Artist Showcase, on Tuesday June 28, I wrote gut-feelings and overheards in a notebook:

jack kek and rivergrass’s Different Water had a live band, its only interesting feature. ASK had three pieces: azizi sulaiman’s Jalan-jalan Cari Makan – four good-looking boys writhing from indigestion of food consumed onstage, m fairuz m tauhid’s Lemak Berjangkit – also about over-consumption, with exercise regimen sagas and pound­-abundant young women singing that they were ‘manusia juga’ (didactic therefore unsatisfying), m firdaus mustapha kamal’s Om Suasti Astu is a very cool parody of traditional Balinese dance, also two high school dance societies: opportunistic teenagers touching each other in leotards and snorkels. “so cute, one of the smaller boys, he was exactly like a fish,” which i’m not sure is a compliment, and singing negaraku is just weird.

Organised by MyDance Alliance but co-presented by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, “Negaraku” would be a requirement for every performance of this year’s Malaysian Dance Festival. Besides performances and workshops, the festival also serve as host to the Asia Pacific International Dance Conference 2005. I would later pick up the conference monograph, “Global and Local: Dance in Performance”, for my personal education, and I will read Dr Anis’s introductory overview, “Trajectories in Dance Studies in Malaysia.”

Dr Anis’s paper sketches the history of dance studies in Malaysia, detailing how local academics have been influenced by global trends in the social sciences: performance studies, gender theory, ethnochoreology, and anthropology. It also describes important works: Mubin Sheppard’s 1983 documentation of the Mak Yong dance tradition, for example, had “all the trappings of romance, fictions, testimonies and narratives,” and sparked renewed interest the study of that art form.

Reading the paper prompts me to look up the twin concepts of emic and etic. They belong to the social sciences: an emic account describes behaviour in terms meaningful to the actor; an observer’s perceptions would be an etic account. They seem pertinent to me, writing this article, but I don’t expect to clear the academic fog by looking up definitions. I continue flipping through the monograph collection, slightly concerned. “Hydra Head: Choreography to Criticism”, by Basilio Esteban S Villaruz, has an abstract that reads:

What must a critic see and know, to see and know what is dance? What point of view must be taken? How much of inside and outside should be reckoned with? Of subjectivity and objectivity? Of tradition and trend? In a like stance as an anthropologist’s observation and participation? And between watching and writing?

This outburst of questions is asked in relation to the art-criticism of traditional, ethnic dance-forms – should these forms be judged at face value, or with the help of anthropological and ethnochoreological background knowledge? A moot question – for me, the latter would be necessary for fair criticism. And I am really concerned, now: how am I, neither dancer nor academic, supposed to report on the Malaysian Dance Festival?

Anguished Vertebraes

Friday June 30, prior to watching Phoenix Rises, the collaboration between Ko Murobushi and Nyoba Dance+, I read up on Butoh as a dance genre as best I can:

Butoh was a result of post-war 1960s Japan, with student protests and general chaos being the crucible in which Tatsumi Hijikata brewed up Ankoku Butoh, ‘Dance of Darkness’. The body is “fundamentally chaotic”; the form is an antithesis of Western tradition, technically (grotesque contortions against the fluidity of Western dancers) and thematically (cruelty, death and sexual perversion against the make-love-not-war counterculture). Ko Murobushi is regarded in Japan as one of Hijikata’s spiritual successors.

It is not surprising that the Malaysian proponent of Butoh – a dance form whose aim is to boundary-push – is the cutting-edge weirdo Lee Swee Keong, whose Nyoba group is notorious for the incarnations of many dancing snakes.

Accompanied by glass bowls, an er hu, a double bass, a lute, and human voices, the night offers very many dark images: screaming and struggling against walls (they leave sweat stains), flopping about whilst entangled, the men catwalk-strutting and exchanging painful-looking high-heels, Ko Murobushi’s contorting until we see the knobs of his anguished vertebrae.

Phoenix Rises has a slightly cheesy denouement: the performers rise from their motionless places on the floor, the phoenix reborn like a resplendent cliché. Then they leave: now only Ko-san and Swee Keong remain, slow­-walking the lit edges of the triangular stage to a haunting singing voice; a stage that, now empty, functions as a screen on which is projected the image of cloud formations, as seen through a window, subtly changing.

It is strikingly beautiful.

Tonight was Phoenix Rises‘s last performance; afterwards, I find myself at their cast party stealing grape juice. I stand next to Kee Kuan Nam, Nyoba dancer and MyDance Alliance treasurer, and say hello.

“How did you find it?” he asks.

“I really, really like it,” I say. Oddly emboldened, I also say: “Actually, you know that I have seen very few dance performances, right? I’m usually confused when I watch dance. Because I’m from such a textual background, I always find myself asking – like watching you just now, I was thinking: What does this mean? What does that pushing the walls mean, what does walking along the edges of the stage mean?”

Kuan Nam laughs and says: “Thank you. Actually, it is good that you can talk to me like this, you know. After shows we get people coming to us, they just say: ‘Oh that was very good,’ and ‘I really like it a lot,’ that’s all, so we don’t usually whether our dance has really affected them. So, thank you. At least we know our dance has some effect on you. Even if it is you confused.”

Trying too hard to be cool and artsy

I had seen a total of three dance performances before the festival. One of these was the Leni-Basso Dance Company’s Finks, brought to Malaysia by Japan Foundation KL and staged in March at Actors Studio Bangsar. I had brought Sabrina, a college-mate along. Now I ask her how she found it.

She says: “I thought it was pretty cool. There were some bits when I went, like, Oka-y, I don’t know what’s that about, but yeah: I liked it.”

I say: “You thought so? They weren’t really all that good, though. Their movements were kind of sloppy. Not sharp, anyway. And they were trying too hard to be cool and artsy.”

I say the last three sentences and realise they are false, because those opinions are not really mine. Finks was a puzzle to me as I watched it. When the performance was over, my only evaluation was that it seemed too earnest, and I had hung around the clustered, slowly dissolving audience, listening in so I knew what to think.

I realise I did this at every performance I had ever seen.

“Really? Well, if you say so,” Sabrina says. “I thought it was cool. I wouldn’t know. You’re the artsy-fartsy one. I’ve never actually seen another dance performance here. I mean, BSC is like just down the road for me, but it feels all so elitist somehow, you know? Like, ‘oh dance’ – non-artsy people are not really supposed to get it.”

Time’s arrow flipping about

It has been almost a week since Phoenix Rises. It is Thursday July 7, and I am here to watch The Light in the Shadow, a collaborative work between Australian practitioner Tony Yap and Malaysia’s Mew Chang Tsing’s RiverGrass Dance Theatre. My readings and conversations have confirmed an essential feature of contemporary dance: it is textless (mostly); rather, its beauty stems from an inability to voice its text.

Light in the Shadow‘s narrative is easily deduced: cricket noises, prone figures, and Tony Yap’s slow dervish revolutions equals primal, slumbering humankind; as he gets faster and faster, and Mew Chang Tsing’s jerking movements increasingly frantic, the sleeping men awake, clash with each other in beautiful, improvised fights, while dancing non-dancer Berg Lee shouts “Ni shi shui?” (Who are you?) over and over again. Ergo, the modern struggle and inability to communicate. Then a beautiful muted trumpet and piano backdrop (live, composed by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey) to dancers returning to their places, then slowly revolving, as the light goes down, it’s okay, it’s okay, then from above, lighting designer Mac Chan tugging at suspended light bulbs, making them swing as they fade, beacons in the shadow.

It is all very moving, but I am frustrated. Having shut off external opinion, I try to figure it out on my own and fail. Somehow – unlike Nyoba’s near-total inscrutability – Light in the Shadow‘s hinting at a point to it all has distracted me: I am constructing a story, despite myself; worse, I am worrying that I am making wrong guesses.

The piece drops tantalising references, herrings: What is Tony’s intention when he borrows Sufi gestures? What is the book of poems Ben Rogan reads from, and why is he quietly reciting it? Does the act of one dancer falling into the arms of another signify comfort in times of adversity? How do the swinging bulbs fit in? Perhaps the anti­clockwise revolution of the performers at the end is a metaphor for a return to fundamentals, time’s arrow flipping about and retracing its trajectory …

Sakit Mak Yong

My Serampang 12 workshop on the morning of Sunday July 10 was refreshingly non-baffling; that afternoon I sit in for the APIDC’s Panel 14 – “Performing the Secular and the Sacred: The Malaysian Story”, the conference’s last panel, a refreshingly fundamental experience. I take my seat just as Patricia Ann Hardwick is beginning her presentation.

“Bridging the secular and the sacred: Movement, metaphor and meaning in the Tarian Menghadap Rebab” is a painstakingly illuminated documentation of the opening act of the Mak Yong dance narrative. Ms Hardwick’s work is clearly geared towards preservation, exhaustive as it is, and runs complimentary with the ASK’s Mak Yong curriculum, tweaked for modern student sensibilities.

Up next, Zulkifli Mohamad was supposed to present “Performing ‘angin’ from ‘Main Puteri’ Healing”, a study on the dance elements in that Kelantanese healing ritual, but instead performs for us an overview of his dance career: as a boy growing up in Kelantan among the Mak Yong masters and dalangs, an academic, a choreographer. He shows us videos of his work (Aku Binatang Jalang, part of the Emas 10 dance anthology staged last year by Istana Budaya) and demonstrates various movements from dance tradition – including the Crab, which he does in front of us, getting up from his place at the table and bending over, his back on the floor.

The discussion invariably veers to Zulkifli’s neglected Main Puteri. It is an interesting ritual: a large troupe of musicians and two healers are invited into a home to cure a member of the household struck with ‘angin’. This mysterious ailment may take on various guises; the healers conjure spirits, one after another, and try to identify those that inhabit the patient.

An example of one such spirit is the Dewa Muda, a temperamental young sky king who has conveniently escaped from the banned Mak Yong and into Main Puteri, to which the authorities close one eye. The angin Dewa Muda, in practical terms, is being afflicted by the need to dance the Dewa Muda’s part of the Mak Yong – and dancing it is the only way the spirit may be assuaged. The Dewa Muda is characterised as an egoistical show-off, and perhaps he knows that he will have a captive audience at these rites: Main Puteri ceremonies invariably draw large crowds, as the whole village comes to watch, peering in from the windows.

Angin Dewa Muda has been a pandemic in Kelantan and Terengganu ever since those state governments outlawed the performance of Mak Yong. Main Puteri, a private occasion of a medical nature, is more difficult to censor. I mull over the metaphysical implications. Later, I would try to communicate this to a friend:

“So Main Puteri is this healing ritual right? So there’s this Dewa Muda spirit right, which you treat by having the healer and patient perform the Mak Yong? But I don’t think these spirits are real, but more like aspects of the person itself, bits of a psyche – I caught a bit of a Majalah Tiga feature where the guy they were interviewing said that Main Puteri doesn’t have to continue until the person is cured – they just ask the patient whether he wants to continue or not, and if yes, yes; but if no, no.

“So anyway, essentially, when the part of you that is not satisfied because you can’t do something, that’s when you catch an angin. So the Dewa Muda is not really a sky god but a personal, spiritual need to dance. So, at Main Puteri they dance because just they need to dance, in the same way we need to dance when we go to a club and flop about to The Cure. It’s the same thing.”

Patricia puts it more succinctly: “It’s a spiritual sickness. They are just sick. They need to dance and they are not allowed to dance. These healers are getting calls every day, saying ‘Oh, so-and-so is sick, can you come and perform this weekend?’ ‘What’s the sickness?’ ‘Oh, you know, sakit Mak Yong lah.’ The whole state is sakit Mak Yong.”

As the panel dissolves for tea, I feel great. I am engaged, excited, left to ruminate on the esoteric and mind­ bending consequences of the things I had just learnt. In one of the very few instances in this past two weeks, I do not feel lost.

I can’t tell you why

Not feeling lost is not the point, though. I write this in my notebook after the Gala Night performances, that Sunday night:

the pak who was supposed to play at ask’s Menghadap Rebab had a stroke and couldn’t make it, so they had to perform with a recorded track. batu dance theatre’s Harvest Lass was so chinese revolutionary girl-meets-paddy field propaganda; vincent tan’s silat moves was a cheap cameo – if he is the Vincent rogayah mentions i am not impressed. temple of fine arts’ Pallavi … She Elaborates was, well, traditional. queensland uni’s Delirium had heaving young women handling each other, seemed at conventional modern art school fare. dance forum taipei’s Eastern Current was a great splicing of contemporary moves and chinese opera vocab, nice, with rollerblades somemore.

The opinions therein are completely mine. I am less confident about their veracity, but there it is, because I have just had an epiphany:

This was what matters in dance: that it affects me – the gesture or string of gestures, the idiosyncratic flourishes of a textless form, the dervish revolutions, the knobs of vertebrae, the childhoods among dalangs and spiritual conjurings – these had disturbed me, confused me, made me spend late nights trawling the Internet for a foothold; these were very beautiful.

I can’t tell you why, exactly. I cannot draw you an abstract notation (its called Labanotation, by the way) of a finger-flourish and its choreological background; even if you met me in person I couldn’t show it to you. I don’t really need to do all that to write about dance – if you’ve got this far, I did my best: I’ve danced phrases and linguistic devices and given you a purely etic rendition, a Friday-night party-goer’s alternative rock version of the Dewa Muda’s Mak Yong oeuvre.

The second-last piece of the Malaysian Dance Festival 2005 was an Apsara duet by the Cambodian Royal University of Fine Arts’ Sam Sathya and Hun Pen, both female. I know only rudimentary details about the form’s tragic background – the Khmer Rouge murdered Apsara dancers and almost annihilated the form – and I see that tragedy echo onstage: the Princess, after a brief dalliance with her Prince on the minimalist dais, now rebuffs him, with fingers bending backwards very many degrees, the expression on her face telling us that she knows the idyll cannot last –

I really, really like it.


Zedeck Siew can be found flopping about to The Cure at The Loft, Zouk, most Friday nights.

First Published: 11.08.2005 on Kakiseni

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