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Halcyon Days

  • September 7, 2007
  • 9 Views

By Zedeck Siew

Things began in 1975: the world’s first home computers were made available to the public; American Congress had signed the Foreign Assistance Act, leaving the Republic of Vietnam to its fate; and Marion D’Cruz, who would become one of Malaysia’s most important dance practitioners, was walking the corridors of the Universiti Sains Malaysia, a sophomore student in the country’s first Department of Performing Arts.

Before they became home to an educational institution, the USM campus in Pulau Pinang had been a military base. “I was heading to our theatre space, which was called Sasaran, because it was formerly a shooting range,” Marion told me. “That was when I saw Janet, who was in her first year at the time. I didn’t know her, then. I started walking with her.”

“Janet was KL mari,” Marion said. “She had seen some stuff in KL, and she knew people in LIDRA,” — the Universiti of Malaya’s Literary and Dramatic Association, which was founded by theatre director and critic Krishen Jit — “So she was quietly obnoxious and arrogant. I was from Johor Bahru. I was equally obnoxious and arrogant, of course — but not as laid back.”

Janet Pillai wasn’t even in the same programme — she was studying Sociology in the School of Social Sciences — but the two became fast friends. 32 years later, Janet (now a veteran arts educator, and heritage and youth theatre advocate) and fellow university-mate Anne James (one of the most revered stage actresses in the Klang Valley today) would join Marion in “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya”: a celebration of diversity, “a swashbuckling performance of Malaysian stories,” — Marion’s first full-length project in years, and perhaps her last.

Getting In

“Back then, my father said that computers were going to be the next big thing,” Marion told me. “It was either study that, or library science.”

By the time she was in Form Six, however, she had her mind made: it was going to be the performing arts. “I wanted to do it in Malaysia; I didn’t want to go overseas.” The Universiti Sains Malaysia had opened its arts department in 1971, three years before. “Right time, right place,” Marion observed.

USM was Marion’s first choice during application; her admission, she admits, was a fluke. “My Form Six results were not great. But, obviously the number of Indians applying was not so big, then. So I got in. Odd thing about the quota system.”

Marion chuckled slyly as she said this. Marion is a regal woman, now in her 50s, with closed cropped hair and a smile frequently sardonic; that evening, a week before the opening of “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya”, I was meeting with her and Anne James to listen to them reminisce about university.

“If you look at us now you wouldn’t believe it, but back then Anne and I looked alike,” Marion said. “We both had the same hair. People kept asking us: ‘Do you have an older sister here?’ “

Anne entered USM in Janet’s batch; 1975 was her first year, as well. “You know how you have to fill out your five choices in your university application?” she asked me. “I wanted to do Law, or History.” It didn’t take long for that resolve to weaken, however, the young woman was seduced in her first semester. “I took a class called ‘Introduction to Performing Arts’,” Anne told me, “And I switched majors.”

Anne speaks softly, with an even and calculated air — during our interview, however, the glow in her voice was unmistakable. “I grew up in Alor Setar, she said. “Before that, I had never left home. University was amazingly liberating.”

Playing with Identity

In the years succeeding the May 13th Riots, the biggest cultural question for Malaysians was the nature of our national identity, and the students at USM embraced those ruminations. ‘We were taking ownership of Malay forms in an academic, deep way,” Marion said.

“It was exciting,” Anne agreed. “We were using traditional forms, mixing them with modern forms, merging them.”

USM Pulau Pinang was master dalang Pak Hamzah bin Awang Mat’s first teaching appointment. He and fellow lecturer Patricia Matusky — who had a PhD in wayang kulit music — were responsible for one of the most important campus performances of Marion’s years there. “It was the first time we ever did wayang kulit,” Marion remembered. “It was, for the first time, a non-Malay, non-male performance of wayang. We were in it. Janet was playing the gong, Anne played the canang, and I was the dalang. We were scared.”

Although students in the USM performing arts were expected to know the traditions and conventions of the forms they were studying inside out, experimentation ran rampant and unchecked. “It was: ‘Yes, we have to have rigour,'” Marion said, “But on the other hand, we’d say: ‘Nevermind lah.’ That, for me, was really life-threatening.”

Of course, not all trials are successes; some were nothing short of abysmal. Dramatist, director, newspaper editor Kee Thuan Chye was in Marion’s year, at university — and, although he was a literature student, he had free run of Sasaran. “He was the enfant terrible of our generation,” Marion said. “We hero-worshipped him. So when he wanted to do Kabuki, we all joined in.”

The show was called ‘Narukami’: Janet was assistant director; Anne and Marion were leads. As research, they had only watched film about the form. “It was so bad,” Marion said, “What the fuck did we know about Kabuki?” Then she smiled. “Still, we did it with great gusto.”

Anne placed the vitality of this pioneering spirit in the fact that the faculty were, themselves, trying out the boundaries of their vocations — after all, an all-women wayang kulit performance was as much a first for Pak Hamzah as it was for Anne, Marion, and Janet. “The lecturers themselves were discovering new things,” Anne said. “And we were part of the process.”

Teaching Then

Listening about those times meant listening to Marion recite a roll call of names that would be familiar to any attentive observer as a cross-section of Malaysian intellectual lights. “USM carved its own trajectory,” Marion told me. “The vice-chancellor of the time, Hamzah Sendut, was bringing in all these lecturers. We had Lim Teek Ghee,” –­ who, after the controversy surrounding the Centre for Public Policy Studies’s Bumiputera equity study in 2006, resigned from his post as the think-tanks head, but did not retract its findings; “Kassim Ahmad,” — who, in his study of the roles of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat in the classics, would spark an re-evaluation of the latter’s importance in national literature; “Chandra Muzaffar,” — a political scientist who was the director of Universiti Malaya’s Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, and is now president of the International Movement for a Just World; “TK  Sabapathy,” — who is, perhaps, still the region’s most important art historian.

“I hated Sabapathy,” Marion said. “He was so pandai, and he made us feel so stupid.”

The legacy of these teachers was the kind of learning experiences that would remain with students long after class was over. Marion recounted one such example: “We had a philosophy lecturer called Cornelius Simoons; we called him the Dutch Baby — because he was Dutch — and he had a droning voice.”

Marion’s fellows were about to discover just how disarming that voice could be. In their first lecture, Cornelius began sketching out the subject and its importance; his listeners, dutiful undergrads all, began writing these things down. Soon however, some of the more alert ones realised their instructor had begun a free association monologue. “He was talking nonsense!” Marion said. “We had to nudge each other to get people to stop writing.”

That operation took a while, and Cornelius kept on with his stream of consciousness until every last person had put their pens down. “Then he said: ‘And that is your first lesson,'” Marion said, wide-eyed. “It was the most powerful lesson on note-taking I’ve ever had.”

After graduating from USM, Marion went abroad for a brief period; she brought home with her a desire to question the very foundations of dance, her chosen vocation. Marion’s work in the 1980s — mostly deconstructions that played with form and blurred boundaries between the various kinds of stagecraft — did not sit well with Malaysian critics.

“But what I was doing wasn’t that unusual,” Marion said. “The things I saw in New York, the movements in Japan. If people had a global perspective, they wouldn’t have had a problem with what I was doing.” Audiences, in short, were scoffing at things they weren’t familiar with.

Teaching Now

Marion now wears the reputation she gained during those years — that of an uncategorisable “dance terrorist” — as a badge of pride; practically no discussion of modern Malaysian dance practice proceeds without mention of 1988’s “Urn Piece”, which has become iconic. Since Dato’ Krishen Jit’s passing in 2005, Datin Marion (they wed in the 1980s) has been Five Arts Centre’s guiding member. That she herself hasn’t undertaken a large-scale production in eight years is due to a combination of personal commitments and the fact that the arts collective is burgeoning –­ production is, after all, consuming work.

That said, being an artist rarely pays the bills. “My bread and butter is teaching,” Marion told me. She lectures at The One Academy and Sunway University College’s School of Performance + Media; she teaches dance at the Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan in Joseph Gonzales’s faculty.

I was curious as to what Marion thought about the state of arts education at the tertiary level in Malaysia today, and asked her about it.

“There are so many programmes now,” Marion answered. “I teach in three different Performing Arts programmes. Whether there is an industry to support all these new graduates, I don’t know.”

More worrying than those practicalities, however, is the erosion of what an education, in general, is supposed to be like for its students. It gets tiresome to repeat tropes about graduates today, who place less importance in getting a comprehensive experience, then they do in earning credentials. But it is largely true that young Malaysians have forsaken the ideals of academics — not necessarily because they’ve become more cynical, but because they’ve lost to vocabulary in which it idealism is possible.

“I think that all the surrounding forces — family, social structures, politics — that should support teachers,” Marion said, “Are completely not supporting them.”

She remembered real rigour and research. “Writing assignments for our lecturers, we had to sit in the Red Spot section of the library — which was so annoying because you can’t check the books out — and read up.” A teacher herself, now, Marion told me that she was disturbed with seeing paragraphs cut-and-pasted off Wikipedia. “I tell my students: ‘Eh, I’m looking at the same things you are looking.’ But I can’t blame the student. It’s the whole education system. We’ve just marshmallow-ed out.”

The Revolution

It is not unusual for those with college educations to speak romantically about their past years of wilder abandon and better academe; people, without exception, are inclined to yearn for Golden Ages. Still, it is fairly indisputable that Anne and Marion went to university at a time when institutions of higher learning in this country were at their apex of vibrancy.

“The early 1970s was life-changing for people who engaged in the post-1969 discourse,” Marion said. “There was Hishamuddin Rais, Bong Selamat. It was the time of Baling, of hunger strikes. I remember slipping flyers under doors at 2 AM., of carrying wet towels in plastic bags, just in case the FRU fired at us with tear gas. When people got arrested, the registrar of USM himself went to bail them out.”

In 1971, Malaysia passed the Akta Universiti dan Kolej Universiti, a draconian law curtailing student freedoms; intellectuals and legal scholars would eventually cite it as one of the primary reasons why Malaysian academic culture became so impotent in later decades — and still is, today. Back then, however, things continued on, regardless. “I didn’t feel it much,” Anne said. “Within campus, the environment didn’t change. Student elections were much freer. Thinking was still going on.”

Those in the performing arts department tried to replicate the revolution. “We did something called ‘Happenings’. It was a very 1960s thing. We had been reading performance theory, reading people like Franz Fanon, and we were trying it out campus.”

” ‘Happenings’ were events that happened spontaneously,” Marion explained. “We would interrupt lectures to deliver performances to protest world politics: the Vietnam War, things like that. We would do guerrilla theatre. We would roll down a hill. Then, before you could even figure it out, it’d be over.”

“It was about new spaces,” Anne said.

“Of course,” Marion said, “A lot of them just thought we were presumptuous, pretentious Performing Arts students.”

These opportunities — to do what they wanted and, arguably, be ignored — made campus culture so powerful for all its students: everyone was engaged with each other, but also with a diversity of things. “There were all these pockets of alternatives. There were the nerds from the sciences, of course. There were the highly political ones, the revolutionaries — Fatimah Busu wore fatigues all the time. There were us. And this was the thing: we,” — meaning, those who were doing degrees in the arts — “were not important.”

Further, the boundaries between these subcultures were porous: Janet and Thuan Chye cut their teeth in work outside the ambit of their chosen courses; “Happenings” didn’t only count performing arts undergrads in its participants’ list. “We were all part of a whole kind of thinking,” Anne said. “We all breathed an air.”

Of course, there were also more corporeal bodies than gas, and less high-minded escapades. Anne noted for me a singular fact, emblematic of the difference between then and now, one that would spark incredulity in any Malaysian campus today: “Beer was allowed on campus.”

“Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya”

My conversation with Marion and Anne happened at the Five Arts Centre premises in Taman Tun Dr Ismail; rehearsals for “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya” were over a month deep. The project found its inception a while back, in “Choreography for Non-Choreographers”, a performance that was part of the year-long Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series 2006.

“People have asked me to do something for a long time,” Marion said, when I asked her about how she got working again. “It was the choreography workshop that made me bite the bullet. I wanted to vomit blood already, then; so I told myself: ‘Well, I may as well do this, too.’ “

“Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya”, for Marion, is her reaction to the polarisation of Malaysian society in the past few decades. “One of the things we’re losing, as a nation, is the desire of real, honest diversity.” A big part of the problem is the categorisation: a Malay person is Malay, a Liberal is a Liberal, if one is Middle Class, one is Middle Class. “We are moving away from variety. You cannot straddle.”

Her project’s answer, therefore, is a cast of 22: of both genders, all races (including Jacqueline Ann Surin’s conspicuous “D.L.L.”), a wide sample in age (Marion, at 53, is eldest; Ezdianie Hayatie Omar, Ahmad Firdaus Che Yahaya and Janet Moo recently graduated from ASWARA), and varying day jobs (including lighting designer Mac Chan, and lecturer and playwright Leow Puay Tin).

It is a group of people that were set to deliver a show equally as miscellaneous: a dance drama anthology whose stories range from the sublime to the ridiculous. When I talked to her about “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya”, Marion was not particularly worried about reactions — especially from critics. “If people say: ‘What the fuck is this?’, they will. My question is: So what, about the form? Does the performance itself affect you? If it does, it’s successful.”

“But, if it doesn’t,” Marion continued, “Then problem lah. Fail.”

I had the opportunity to sit in on one of “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya” ‘s early rehearsals, previously. As the performers were warming up — they were in a circle, passing a plastic ball amongst themselves, shouting the number of its rebounds as they tried to keep the object aloft for as long as possible — they seemed, to me, to be a bunch of virile kids, having fun.

This also appeared, at the time, to be a bad thing. As the session proceeded, the vignettes I saw were not so much ridiculous as they were simplistic and overwrought. “Chilayu”, one of “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya” ‘s more literal segments, had its players approach a large table (the vessel called Malaysia, of course), declare their state­mandated Race, and position themselves on the furniture accordingly: the Chinese sat with their legs dangling over the edge; the Malays stood, proud; and the Indians and the Others were underneath, in between the table’s legs. When one of them proclaimed that he was Chilayu, in defiance of convention, everyone was predictably taken aback.

That entire exchange lasted over an almost uncontrolled 20 minutes, and had all the subtlety of a student protest. It would take me several weeks to realise that that was the point.

The Spirit

“Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya” opened on September 6th, 2007; after performance, Janet Pillai would ask which part the night I had enjoyed the most. “I liked ‘Chilayu’,” I said.

They had got it right this time. It still seemed a slight bit amateur, and wore its message like a brandished sledgehammer — but it was jaw-breaking-ly funny, performed with great gusto, and very moving: when Hariati Azizan hangs on to James Lee’s right leg, insisting she is “Malay” in the face of Fahmi Fadzil’s insistence of “Melayu”-ness, you laugh – you also start rooting for her, and when she finally stands up and squeaks “Melayu”, defeated, you feel that social loss in your gut.

Most of all, it recalled my conversation with Marion and Anne: of them telling me about water fights, boys over in the girls’ dormitories, and of afternoons spent listening to professors argue with each other. “I find ‘Chilayu’ very interesting,” Janet said, “Because of the linguistics, and about what it says about what we call ourselves: how we are ‘Indian’, as opposed to ‘India’.”

It is difficult to say if the loss of thought (that Marion described) and diversity (that “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya” is meant to combat) is irreversible. “We had an all-student audience last night, before opening,” Janet told me. “They were laughing at the weirdest bits.”

Even on the night I saw the show, some people in the theatre cheered on the smug consolidation of Chineses-ness or Malay-ness they were seeing onstage; several laughed at Puay Tin’s Chinese Opera rendition of coffee-table wisdom and patriotism, not because it was witty and hilarious, but because her colloquial Hokkien formed stranged sounds. “Pa lang!” the row behind me kept repeating, “Pa lang!”

You win some, you lose some. I think there is cause for optimism. There may not be very many stellar academics from the current generation of Malaysians, but we have arguably grown in our roster of competences; the cast list of “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya” is evidence enough: Jacqueline Ann Surin, whose work with the Sun is one of the reasons it is now considered the most incisive and well-argued of our national dailies; James Lee, whose movies regularly ride film festival waves and return with awards; dancers Elaine Pedley and Gan Chih Pei, whose work enjoy the esteem of the dance community; writers and directors Fahmi Fadzil and Mark Teh, whose last stage project interrogated the life of Pak Hamzah and the elements of the Wayang Kulit form.

“It connects back to what USM was like,” Anne told me, ‘The ability to take everything and play with it, the ability to ask. That confluence of thinkers.” Anne was talking about “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya” ‘s genesis; that Thursday evening, I got to see the continuity, between one generation’s formation and the next, for myself.

“We did a piece, Anne and I, for the USM alumni reunion some years back,” Marion told me, somewhat wistfully. It was called “1974”; both performers wore fatigues and silat tandaks. Margaret Martinez, another former course-mate, read a poem, and Anne and Marion tossed their headgear into the audience, confronting them, admonishing them, asking: “Where is the revolution?”

“There never invited us back, of course,” Marion said. “But after we finished, someone came to me and said that what we did had reminded him of university.”

~~~

Zedeck Siew writes for Kakiseni. “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya”, Marion D’Cruz’s sumptuous Malaysian mess, played at The Actors Studio@ BSC from September 6th to 9th, 2007.

First Published: 07.09.2007 on Kakiseni