If you squint your eyes and tip your head sideways, the two works Orchid and Habil & Qabil — presented last weekend as part of the final year presentations of contemporary dance choreography students from the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) — could almost be the same work. Christine Chew’s Orchid is set in the harems of Qing dynasty China, in which cloistered courtesans scheme and compete, form and break alliances, and plot to bring each other down. Habil & Qabil, by Mamat Samsudin, is a stylised rendition of the Cain and Abel story, with a fleet of male dancers dramatising the jealousy and resentment leading to the world’s first fratricide.
The structures of the two works are strikingly similar: both have a large group of mostly single sex dancers (the single girl in H&Q is there only long enough to establish the idea of Eve) in which a less-experienced chorus backs up a handful of lead dancers. Orchid adopts movements from classical Chinese dance, especially the speedy flexed-foot tiny-stepped walk, and H&Q takes its lead from Malay dance, turning that same flexed-footed walk into a rhythmic trot, striking the heel against the floor with each step. In both works, the same-sex groups, and the invisibility of the object of desire (Qabil’s pretty sister in H&Q, and presumably the master of the harem or the emperor in Orchid) lend a homoerotic edge to the sense of heterosexual competitiveness.
Another similarity between these two otherwise excellent works is their homogenous ethnicity. In H&Q, a work by a Malay male choreographer with a Muslim theme, the many male dancers and single female are all Malay. Orchid, a work by a Chinese female choreographer to a Chinese theme, has a few almost-unseen Indian girls in the chorus, but the four main roles are all danced by Chinese girls. [Christine, the choreographer, actually wanted all the dancers to be Chinese, so that they look uniform and anonymous, but there just weren't enough available Chinese dancers to recruit.]
This tendency of birds of a feather to flock together is not unique to these two works; it is just that the similarities between the works make it more visible. Nor is it unique to ASWARA in tertiary education — the dance department at the University of Malaya also leans largely in this direction. And certainly the phenomenon is not unique to tertiary education in Malaysia. In fact, dance within tertiary education is far more ethnically inclusive than dance in the general Malaysian community. Outside, it is such an established truism than Indians do Indian dance, and the only people who do ballet are the Chinese, that any exceptions to such rules — from Ramli Ibrahim mastering bharatanatyam and odissi, to the young Malay girl who recently won the hotly contested Category 3 prize at The Dance Society’s annual solo ballet competition — are cause for comment.
Some leaders in the dance community have long struggled against this tendency. Joseph Gonzales, the dean of the ASWARA Dance Department, has long championed the cause of ethnic diversity in the groups of students accepted to his university, as well as in individual dancers mastering art forms beyond their own ethnicities. All the students in the 3-year diploma at ASWARA are required to study all types of Malaysian traditional classical and folk dance, as well as ballet and Western-style contemporary dance technique. Under Joseph’s reign, Yunus Ismail and Norbaizura Ghani were the first Malay dancers ever to undergo the bharatanatyam arangetram, the rigorous solo graduating performance for this physically exacting Indian classical dance. And Ramli’s Sutra Dance Theatre has been the proving ground for a host of Chindian performers, as well as the occasional fully Chinese dancer, including January Low and Tan Mei Mei. [I wonder what it is about Indian dance that makes it the preferred stage for crossing ethnic borders. Is it because the fairly evenly matched rivalry between the Malays and the Chinese precludes them from venturing onto each others' pitch, but allows the 'third' culture, the 'Other' to both of the more dominant races, to become a more neutral meeting point?]
Yet still the ethnic ghettoisation persists, as Orchid and Habil & Qabil show. What makes it more troubling is that at ASWARA this phenomenon is not unconscious, nor does it go unnoticed. At ASWARA, seeing the Chinese kids hang out together and pick each other for their works, the students jokingly call it “MCA”. [And when I say the Chinese kids, I mean, the Chinese girls. Chinese male dancers, for whatever reason, seem not to choose to go to ASWARA; perhaps because, if they are any good, they know they can get a full scholarship to Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.]
The Chinese dancers and choreographers (and, to a certain extent, the Malays) explain this self-selection by saying that the Chinese dancers are the only ones who have mastered the sort of technical skills that they want. Given that Chinese girls are more likely to have childhood ballet training, and that such training needs to kick in early for it to have much effect, that makes some sense. But there are also Malay female dancers at ASWARA who have beautiful flexible extensions and lovely arched feet, so why are they not chosen? The Malay choreographers, similarly, say that they require the indefinable ‘rasa’ that only Malay dancers have, in the way that they hold their heads, in the smooth articulations of the wrist. And yet I often see non-Malay dancers who have captured that mysterious quality of doing Malay dance (an example that I remember from years ago: Lim Yong Shean’s mesmerising Mak Yong Menghadap Rebab).
Sometimes this ghettoisation seems unconscious, and then it disturbs me even more. I remember years ago having a conversation with someone from Hands Percussion — it might have been Bernard Goh, one of the co-founders — who told me that Hands is a deliberately Malaysian group, that it strives to create Malaysian works. Why, I then wondered, was everyone in the large audience except me, and everyone in the cast, Chinese? Perhaps it was a Malaysian sense of Chineseness, as opposed to mainland Chineseness, to which he was referring.
I often feel that the Chinese have built the most impregnable barriers against outside access. Chinese dance, promoted only to Chinese newspapers, using Chinese text without subtitles, exists to a far greater degree than its counterpart in other communities. Time and again I have asked about the annual national Chinese dance competition, which is a highlight of the arts calendar of Chinese-language schools. I only ever hear distant rumours about it, usually when it is over. Chinese people express amazement that I should be interested in watching it. And in regular life, the degree of ghettoisation is similar. I remember my amazement when my choreographer and lighting designer friend Low Shee Hoe, a Chinese-educated man who grew up in Kajang, described how in his early life he had never really known a Malay person, except from descriptions in government-issue textbooks. It was only when he went to university that he started to actually meet Malays. And I have met several Chinese Malaysian contemporary artists whose grasp of other languages is so weak that they can really only function in Chinese. As a Malaysian, I find that appalling.
I can understand reasons for the Chinese ghetto, and to some degree I sympathise. The Chinese are distrustful of the Malays, and so they should be, considering the treatment they have received. They are afraid of being forcibly assimilated into the politically dominant Malay cultural discourse. And that is a real threat — just look at Indonesia. Unlike the Indians and the other minorities, the Chinese in Malaysia are a large enough and financially stable enough community that they can retreat behind their walls and bar the gates against the barbarians. But it doesn’t make it right. [To be fair to Hands Percussion, I think now they do have a Malay boy in their main group. If I recall rightly, he went to Chinese school and therefore speaks fluent Mandarin, which suggests that the barrier is more of a linguistic than a cultural one. And they also train in Malay gamelan with Susan Sarah John, as well as experimenting with a host of other cross-cultural mediums.]
But don’t think that I have only the Chinese in my sights. There is an astounding degree of blatant ignorance and bad faith in the Malaysian dance community wherever you look. This year, an Indian choreographer (who will remain unnamed) asked me for recommendations for male dancers to fill some empty slots in a commercial dance gig. He asked specifically for Malays, so, thinking that he had been hired to do a Malay dance, I ran through the names of a few young dancers I knew who might be free, all of whom were trained in Malay dance. The choreographer was evidently uncomfortable with my suggestions of Chinese dancers.
“But Bilqis, how are they to work with?” he asked, as if I was proposing that he hire Eskimos. “You know, lah, the Malays, we [implying, it seemed, the Indian dance community in general, or, who knows, the entire Indian community!] are used to them, we know how they are to work with…but… the Chinese?”
Good heavens, man, how old are you, how long have you lived in this country, and you have never worked with any Chinese?
Anecdotes like this are common to people in the Malaysian dance community. From Malaysian audiences, they elicit only a certain amount of indulgent eye rolling and tut-tutting. But I spend a lot of time with international artists visiting Malaysia and I am constantly required to explain Malaysia’s complex cultural politics to them. Without exception, the visitors are continually surprised by it. Their surprise makes me look at it through their eyes, see once again its strangeness, its cultural contingency, its non-inevitability. Why are we this way? Do we have to be this way? What can we do to change it?
This, then, is my plea to Malaysian dancers, to make conscious and deliberate change: not just to allow other dancers, other choreographers and other audiences into our dance halls, but to invite them in.
Last year, the Malaysian Tourism and Cultural Minister issued a directive to make it compulsory to include dances from other races (read: non-Malay) in cultural performances. Given my pronounced distrust of the intentions and efficacy of the Malaysian government, and the vagueness of the directive — does it mean hiring non-Malay dancers? Or just including non-Malay dance? Is it for performances paid for by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture alone, or all government ministries, or for the Malaysian dance community in general? How is it to be regulated? etc — I don’t think it will have much impact. I only heard about it because a journalist contacted me for comment [see: http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2013/05/25/Dance-groups-laud-move-to-include-more-races-in-shows/]. And I don’t think an autocratic top-down directive can be the solution, although perhaps it can help. It seems rather more likely to create opportunities for cronyism, and token multi-ethnic inclusions of dubious quality.
All of those arguments against affirmative action — that it compromises quality, that it encourages tokenism — are valid here. But there are now — thanks, in no small part, to ASWARA — many excellent young dancers whose practice crosses ethnic boundaries, and they need to be continually encouraged and supported. Yes, sometimes it takes a little time to seek them out. It takes extra effort in rehearsals to overcome the limitations of language. It takes extra patience to deal with the inevitable cultural misunderstandings, and extra self-knowledge to see how we ourselves might be misunderstood. But don’t we do this every day of our lives, already? Is not this a part — or the whole — of being Malaysian?
The same weekend as Habil & Qabil and Orchid, another performance in town was trying to do exactly that. Yeow Lai Chee is a butoh dancer who broke off from the established Malaysian butoh company Nyoba Kan to follow in the footsteps of Japanese butoh master Yukio Waguri. Lai Chee founded her own company (which really consists of just herself), called Soubi Sha, and last year she initiated a project with Waguri to produce a full-length butoh work in Kuala Lumpur entitled Reminiscences – The World of Strange Tales. In reaction to Nyoba Kan — a Chinese company which has transformed Japanese butoh into an art form more Chinese than strictly necessary, by merging it with ideas of Zen Buddhism and classical Chinese literary traditions — Lai Chee saw the necessity of attracting other dancers and audiences to butoh.
2013 was a year of windfall funding, and Lai Chee received a grant to hold a workshop by Waguri explicitly targeting non-Chinese dancers. She managed it handily, and in June last year presented a work-in-progress of Reminiscences. This year it was redeveloped and re-presented last weekend at KLPac’s Pentas 2. Surprisingly — for contemporary dance in Kuala Lumpur, for butoh (which can be a rather off-putting medium), and for a new and fairly unknown company — both performances sold out. I think one reason for the audience response was the diversity of the dancers whom Lai Chee had personally chosen and invited to participate. Here is the list of performers:
Yukio Waguri, Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil, Foo Chiwei (trained, by the way, in classical Indian dance at Sutra), Lim Siew Ling, Rithaudin Abdul Kadir, Azmie Zanal Abdden, Tan Bee Hung, Lee Choy Wan, Kohini Balasingam, Lim Hooi Meng, Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid, Lee Ren Xin, Yeow Lai Chee.
Whatever the merits of the performance (and I have my misgivings about it — I actually preferred last year’s version, which, notably, had an equally diverse cast, with many of the same dancers) from the perspective of audience development alone, it seems to make sense to tap into other ethnic groups to enlarge the pool of talent and public interest. And whatever the feelings of the dancers themselves about the merits of the performance, I expect that they would all, without exception, feel that it enlarged their professional network and broadened their experience of working with ‘Others’ in an art form which is not native to any of them. Lai Chee’s project demonstrated the possibilities for conscious and proactive bridge-building between communities.
It can be done. I think it must be done. Some might disagree. Since Bersih 3.0, in our continuing discussion of what it is to be Malaysian, some people have argued that we need to cast off the restricting bounds of this constructed idea of ‘race’, and think of ourselves more broadly as just Malaysians, or just humans. I do believe that race is a socially constructed concept, that there is nothing biological that compells us to behave or believe one way or another. But I think to ignore our racial differences, after we have been brought up to believe in them so strongly, to say that we should just join hands and sing Kumbaya (or Negaraku, as the case may be), is also dangerous. Take heed from the feminist example. In our supposedly post-feminist world, after all the hoo-ha about gender mainstreaming, which was supposed to render gender differences a non-issue, we still live in a society in which women are paid less than men, occupy fewer positions of authority, and are subject to violence and abuse. Combatting these structural inequalities requires the deliberate and continual allocation of time, effort and resources. As in feminism, so in dance — and I shall leave the issue of feminism in dance for another day!
Building bridges is a slow process. So often a flood comes, and the foundations we have been laying so patiently get washed away. But eventually perhaps we will have some of those graceful bridges, as they do in Paris, where hopeful lovers come along, bolt a padlock onto the wrought-iron, and toss their keys into the river. Which reminds me of something else I saw at that recent ASWARA performance. Two of the student performers (who will, necessarily, also remain nameless), one Chinese and one Malay, had been a romantic couple for many years. Fairly recently their relationship broke up, because the Chinese girl knew that her family would never consent to a marriage with a Malay. But last weekend, when they had both done well with their performances, they gave each other a hug during the line-up for bows. Their knowledge of each other’s cultures now goes much deeper than dance, but it started with dance. They are an example of what dance might do, and where we can go from here.