The 12th Annual Solo Classical Ballet Competition
The Dance Society of Malaysia
30 May – 1 June
Malaysian Tourism Centre
The Dance Society [TDS] solo ballet competition gives a good snapshot impression of the state of local ballet instruction, practice and performance, but it can be a bit of a gamble. Last year, coming after a long hiatus, I found the standards at the competition a little disappointing. Category 3, the youngest group of dancers, who are not required to dance en pointe, I found to be the most vivacious, and Category 2, the first group of dancers required to dance en pointe, seemed to have the strongest technique, while Category 1, the senior group, was fairly disastrous. The judges apparently thought so too. Last year they decided not to award the coveted 1st position for Category 1, giving the hopefuls only 2nd and 3rd.
However, TDS has not despaired. This year they introduced a new category, the Adult Open, to cope with those over the age limit for Category 1, which indicates quite a degree of confidence in the state of ballet instruction and practice in Malaysia. Never mind that they only got three entrants for the Adult Open! At least they decided that the 1st prize was deserved, and it was duly awarded, likewise across the age-limited categories.
This year I attended the TDS competition as part of Camp Aurora. Ballet can be competitive at the best of times, even without prizes on offer, and this event is no exception. TDS has made a diplomatic decision not to include the names of the studios from which the dancers hail on the program, but still there is quite a bit of sizing-up and posturing between ballet schools behind the scenes – where would the fun be otherwise? Being allied with Aurora School of Dance as a result of my friendship with Suhaili Ahmad Kamil, I was unabashedly routing for the four entrants from Aurora, who, I’m happy to announce, came up trumps. With all four entrants qualified for the finals, Mrs Suraya Ahmad Kamil, the principal of Aurora, was happy, and happier still after all the results were announced.
Talent at ballet schools, as in nationwide competitions, comes in waves, and this year Aurora is lucky to have a particularly talented and hardworking trio in its Advanced 2 Ballet class – Teo May Jean (this year’s 1st place winner of Category 2), Siti Amellia Feroz (2nd place winner in Category 2) and Nelly Chew, who went home with the Category 2 consolation prize. But there is talent coming up in the ranks too – the spectacularly beautiful Amelia Thripura Henderson, who has only recently started studying ballet but is obviously naturally gifted, walked away with a surprise first place in Category 3. And Suhaili, who herself coached, joked with, criticised and comforted the other competitors from Aurora in preparation for this competition, worked hard for the Adult Open Category, but had to be content with third place.
Winning a national ballet competition in Malaysia is not the equivalent of doing so in other places that take ballet more seriously. It’s unnecessary to point out that the local standard is lower. More importantly, an event that might rocket a dancer to fame and stardom overseas, or at the very least to a few decent job offers, here passes as an item to be checked by overachievers on the way to adulthood, like getting 13 A1s, or passing your Grade 8 piano exam. With no local ballet company to go to, there are no jobs on offer. A few dancers will move into teaching and perhaps set up their own studio. Some, perhaps, will go overseas in search of a career, but most will give up dancing altogether, perhaps when they start college, certainly when they leave college, and never look back. And after seeing the hard work and talent on offer at the TDS competition this year, that makes me immensely sad.
Take 18-year old Chew Zi Xin, winner of last year’s Category 2, who this year bagged 2nd place in the most coveted Category 1, despite her youth. She’s a great all-rounder, transitioning smoothly from very classical pieces to a contemporary style with lots of floor work. Both fast and strong, she appears on stage to have genuine enjoyment for what she does. The Category 1 first place winner, Lee Jia Xi, is a very different creature. She chose her routines – Odile’s triumphant solo from Swan Lake Act 3, and a slow exacting choice variation — to showcase her extremely strong sense of placement and line, and absolute control. I would like to see more of what she can do, but the TDS competition is one of the few occasions when Jia Xi, and many other dancers of her calibre, come out of the woodwork to perform for a broader audience. And at least we don’t have to worry about keeping an eye out for Raymond Liew, 3rd place winner in Category 1. He dominates this year’s dance diploma graduates from ASWARA, and is a convincing choreographer in addition to being able to bring the house down with his jumps. Or maybe it’s just nice to see a boy at the TDS competition, one with capable technique and a good dose of testosterone.
Boys are thin on the ground in ballet anywhere in the world, but more striking, I thought, was the racial breakdown of the competitors. It is apparently agreed, now, that only Chinese girls should fight for the top spots at a ballet competition, but has it always been so? Yes, there are a scattering of Malays and Indians in the younger ranks, but while there are a few Indians are still slogging through the upper categories, the supply of Malays seems to dry up when they reach Category 2, aged 15 to 17. I suspect that this has less to do with genetic natural talent than with nice Malay families not wanting to see their daughters flashing their legs in pink tights in public after they reach puberty. But black tights are always an option! Witness Siti Amellia Feroz, winner of second place in Category 2, whose panache and style were equal to any throughout the competition. In the required routine she demured with a little romantic country-style number, but in the choice routine she pulled out the stops, flashing eyes as well as legs to win the judges around. And black tights are not the only option — I believe that there are imaginative ways in which Muslim families can get around their trepidation about seeing their daughters on stage. They needn’t give up altogether. In all types of dance we need to resist the surge to ghettoisation by ethnicity, and ballet, by dint of being an ‘impartial’ import from the West, has the additional opportunity to be a middle ground where dancers from all races can come together, in competition or not.