The Undanced Heroes of Malaysia

Two years ago, French human resource consultant Cyril Rayer took a sabbatical – to “leave the analytical approach to work” and to capture instead the meaning of work through photography – to travel through Asia. Starting at Iran, he visited factories, studios, stages, places of worship, farms, NGOs and even political parties, finally ending up in Malaysia in Feb 2004. “A little persistence, the help of good people, chance (or the hand of God) opened many doors and provided me with very rich human adventures,” writes the 36-year-old avid traveller. In KL, chance, or “the hand of God”, led him to a friend he had not seen for 10 years, a fellow student back at HEC Business School in Paris. She is Kakiseni co-director Jenny Daneels, who immediately put him in touch with Akademi Seni Kebangsaan. He was “struck by the dedication to arts [by] teachers and students working here, the dedication to promote, and the dedication to develop arts in a country that… after successful economic development, [has] decided to catch up in the world of the arts.”

Traditions in transition

One of the most well known of the dedicated teachers at ASK is the charismatic leader of the dance department, Joseph Gonzales. Together with his students, they are presenting Tapestry 2005 – Traditions in Transition at the Experimental Theatre on the campus, from Fri 25 – Sun 27, Nov 2005. When we threw some tough questions at Joseph about the upcoming show, he said, “I am not Dr. Anis, in case you haven’t noticed. He is the one with the brains and I get by with my looks, but here goes….”

Pang: In your publicity for Tapestry 2005, it says that this year the focus is on “new traditional repertoire”. Can you give us some examples?

Joseph: An example of something we will be performing is Inang Renek from Kedah, which was created in the late 70s, or 80s, by Wan Zainal Alam. Inang is a female only dance, fluid and graceful, almost like a simpler version of court dancing – it is possible that the court dances were sometimes so intricate it could not be learned by lay people, and so a version was developed to be performed by others. Wan Zainal then took a song “Inang Tua” and created Inang Renek. It is a completely different dance. While he has maintained the gracefulness, he has added the women being seated on the floor and then swiveling. It is very beautiful. But still very traditional.

Where are these choreographers now?There is also the Zapin Hanuman, created in the 70s by Syed Hanasuddin. Zapin as you know is mainly from Johor, and done to four counts. So he created a Zapin that uses these stylised monkey movements, very fast and vigourous. Many of the states cultural groups, including Istana Budaya, have this in their repertoire. But when I asked the Istana Budaya dancers, they don’t know the history of it.

Some of them have retired. They used to work, performing or teaching, within the Taman Budaya project started by the Ministry in the 60s. Wan is in the state cultural group to this day. Syed is not very well now, but does teach when he can.

So this is how the tradition evolve: the choreographers rework a traditional dance, and some of it actually enters into the regular repertoire. It’s great to know there is actually so much of that going on.

The work in Malaysia over the last 10 years by Badan Kesenian Kedah’s Wan Zainal Alam, Yayasan Warisan Johor’s Onn Jaffar and Seth Hamzah (who has since left to join Taman Mini Malaysia) are excellent examples. Their knowledge of traditional forms infused with their creativity allowed them the ability to explore the dance in an organic manner, retaining all the basic forms and structures of the dance. The employment of interesting ‘canon’ and ‘unison’ as well as themes and its variations have become accepted traditional dance choreographic techniques. Its resulting repertoire is extremely appealing to performers and audience alike.

If the tradition keeps changing, what happens to the original form of the dances? How do you document all the changes?

Firstly, what is the original form? Who really knows it? There is hardly any documentation that can support it. Through my work at ASK, I have made an incredible effort to source for the traditional masters. The work is conducted in 2 stages:

The students spend up to a month at a time in these villages as ‘anak angkat’. During this time they participate in all family and village activity which could be from farming to weaving, dancing and playing musical instruments. They document their work. Upon return to ASK, the work is restaged in an informal showing/seminar amongst the lecturers and other interested parties. Some of the results have been excellent while others mediocre to poor (bearing in mind that these are students and thus the quality or depth of their observations is limited).

The second phase is to invite these masters to ASK to work with all the students over a period of one month and thus more documentation can take place.

For example, Habsah Mohammad, whom we call Mak Usu, came to stay a month to teach Zapin Tenglu. It originated from her kampung, Kampung Tenglu in Mersing. There was also Guntik Sabili, from Semporna, Sabah, near Tawau, who spent a month here to teach the dances of the Bajau Laut and the Cocos. It is not always easy for them. Sometimes they feel very uncomfortable staying in hotels, so we have to put a student there to stay with them. Both of them are illiterate, so it is impossible for them to write anything. They have to dictate to us. But they feel embarrassed about the fact that they can’t write, so you have to be extremely cautious because you don’t want to offend them.

How many have you invited altogether?

We’ve been doing this regularly for the last five years, and have invited at least 20 masters.

Where are the places, or who are the choreographers, you are still trying to get?

We still haven’t reached some places within Johor and Sabah. I haven’t had anybody from Terengganu; we had a student go there, but we haven’t had a person to come here. At their age, they are just not interested in travelling. There is also a lady we are trying to bring here: Wan Salmah. She is one of the dancers from the 60s and one of the few people who know the Lambang Sari, which is one of the dances from the Joget Gamelan. Long ago, the Joget Gamelan apparently had 77 different dances, but now people only know 5 to 10 of them.

Making inroads

Traditional dance academician, Dr. Mohd Anis Md Nor, in an interview with Kakiseni [Taking On New Meanings]. says: “The most intrusive and extremely difficult of all obstacles is the mindset 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.”

What kind of progress do you think Malaysia has made with regards to changed mindsets?

With the issues of the mindset of the owners and performers of indigenous practices, I think my affable personality and my own lecturers’ and students’ ethnicities have allowed us to make inroads where perhaps others have faced obstacles. Needless to say, my own work is still in its infancy and therefore non-threatening.

How can it be threatening?

It has happened in Johor. Research is being done at the rural places where they are doing these dances on a daily basis. They study bring it back to a state function or any such events. And I have witnessed on many times, when they perform it, they don’t even acknowledge the teachers or creators of these dances, even when they are sitting in the audience. This is insulting, humiliating. I make it very clear that my work assists ‘the owners’ in ensuring the continuity of their traditions and culture. The act of researching does not give the researcher and or performer the right to act as if they have acquired ownership but rather to see themselves as part of a larger picture to educate and propagate.

At ASK, we make sure that their names are on the mailing list, and that they are invited to the performances, the graduation ceremonies, etc. They have to be told that they are appreciated. Our students call them Bonda, Ibu, Pak, etc. They said to us, “If anytime you have forgotten this dance, we will come back to teach you.”

There must many of these unsung heroes of Malaysian culture. Movies could be made about them, or even about the search for them. Then maybe people will stop saying there are no Malaysian heroes and keep harping on about Mawi.

But Malaysia is a mix of contradictions – from the Kelantanese PAS government that ban performing arts for being ‘un-Islamic’ and conservative parents of any race, to the wild clubbing scene of KL, the pornographic videos, ‘mat rempits’, drugs, violent sex crimes, etc. This is the fabric of society.

Some of the works by Malaysia’s theatre practitioners have had tremendous obstruction and censorship. Dance, however, being non-verbal, often abstract and representational, often escapes bureaucratic clampdowns. Even overtly protest-pieces such as my AWAS!, Marion’s Malaysia Boleh or Ramli’s AKU were staged with the blessing (and a little funding from the Ministry). It is a good thing DBKL has limited knowledge of the relationship between movement and meaning!

However, isn’t interesting that lap dancing is common place in night clubs and discos? The dancers wear the skimpiest of costumes I would not put my dancers in! What is the censorship are we talking about exactly. The censorship is as contradictory as the country.

What about the mindsets of the parents of the students?

Many of the parents of ASK students are simply wonderful and special people. Many of my interviews/auditions are in the presence of parents. I am careful in explaining as clearly and accurately as possible what the education is about and what the industry is like. I discuss in detail career prospects, daily challenges that include the wearing of tights and leotards (this is for class; rarely any choreographer ever use them these days, so there is not much fear of having to appear in public in tights), the possibility of physical contact in their daily routine, the issues of wearing the head scarf and so on. I do not want anyone to be misled. I believe that parents place a lot of trust in ASK and what we have to offer. The education that a child receives here is so unique.

Sometimes they may have to perform in a temple because their teacher, like Wong Kit Yaw, has been invited by a Chinese temple to put up a performance. They have also been invited to perform Bharata Natyam at the Temple of Fine Arts. You are not going there to pray to the gods, but to pay tribute to your teachers. And it is an honour that they have asked you perform their dance in their space. I’ve not seen anybody who has lost faith because he performs the dances of another religion. It’s just an understanding of each other’s culture.

Where are some of ASK dance graduates now? Who are some of the stars?

Graduates are all employed – some are television actresses (Malay drama), 3 in Istana Budaya (choregraphers – not very wonderful), about 5 continuing their studies in local universities (not very challenging), a few freelance artists (including Cameronian Winner 2003 – Syed Mustapha).

In my opinion, the most outstanding graduates must be Azizi Sulaiman (Korea National University), Aris Kadir (has done projects with UCLA/and is now at IS Jogjakarta), Zamzuriah Zahari (great research on Tari Inai – dance tutor), Shafirul Suhaimi (Great talent/potential choreographer).

There are no stars because the dance industry itself only has a few stars, so give them time. There are also no stars because the ASK students do not come in the January Low good-for-English-Press package of beauty, brains, talent and eloquence! I love January! Most of my students can barely speak English and shy away from interviews. It is the way it is and this is something that I also have to work hard at!

Tapestry 2005 – Traditions in Transition is being staged at the Experimental Theatre on the campus, from Fri 25 – Sun 27, Nov 2005.

First Published: 24.11.2005 on Kakiseni

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