Dutch choreographer Gerard Mosterd is in town, en route to a new project in Jakarta. Last year he brought a collaborative work with Sumatran choreographer Boi Sakti to perform in Pentas 2 at KLPac. This time, during his brief stay, he gave a repertoire workshop at Sutra Dance Theatre, for the benefit of Sutra’s Friday evening contemporary dance class.
During the class he taught a phrase from a solo work he created in 2002, in which he contrasted the ambitious self-seeking world of his Dutch father with the darker, more retiring world view of his Indonesian mother. Mosterd had designed the work to highlight the differences between the European ballet tradition and Asian dance traditions; the phrase he taught in the workshop came from the latter. As he taught it, he recalled the images that had inspired the movement, from paddling wooden canoes, to stalking prey, Arjuna firing arrows, and tsunamis crashing into shore.
The phrase had a beautiful sense of breathe, rhythm, and a satisfying circularity of momentum accompanied by arms slicing and carving into the space. Any potential essentialising of East and West in its concept in no way undermined the pleasure of dancing it. At dinner afterwards, Mosterd noted that the work explored a notion of himself at in 2002, when he was struggling with the burdens of both cultures, and that his current work goes in a completely different direction. However, Mosterd continues to be interested in building links between Asia and Europe, and is embarking on a second major collaboration with a Minang choreographer in Sumatra at the end of the year, which go on tour in the Netherlands.
The previous collaboration with Boi Sakti, although it produced a very watchable show, was also apparently disastrous: it collapsed under the weight of two opinionated choreographers who were unable to reach a compromise. For his next project, Mosterd says, he has learned his lesson: this time, he will be the indisbutable boss, possibly employing a dramaturg to help mediate between the choreographers. It is a practical solution for a perennially difficult problem. When I asked, jokingly, if Mosterd felt like the returning Dutch imperialist, telling the little brown man what to do, he was not amused. I am sure Mosterd has considered this issue, and, under the circumstances, I think the issue can hardly be ignored — certainly the Indonesian choreographer, no matter how he relishes the opportunity that Mosterd is providing, will be unlikely to miss the suggestion of historical precedent.
During dinner, Mosterd expanded upon his desire to provide opportunities for Malaysian dance scholars to study in the Netherlands, especially in dramaturgy, for which the Netherlands is famous. In Europe, as he says, the state of general education is so high and the audiences so critical and demanding, that without a dramaturg to provide historical context and a dramatic structure a dance work is lost. Dramaturgy is the newest thing overseas, but has its time come in Malaysia? As I pointed out, the financial situation is so precarious here that we can hardly afford to pay our dancers, let alone hire a dramaturg! But I agree that there is certainly a need for people thinking, writing and researching about dance, as well as practising it.
It’s difficult for Malaysians to be constantly reminded of the undeveloped nature of our artistic community; it reminds us of our colonised past. While we progress in great leaps and bounds, we still feel very far behind. Mosterd was not so impolitic as to suggest that the West is teaching the East how to do it better, but this is the understanding that we share. Nevertheless, it is still a point of sensitivity for us, and future collaborations might go better by bearing it in mind.