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Gema Silapin
Sultan Idris Education University
16-17 September 2015, Auditorium DBKL

Sultan Idris Education University’s contribution to the KL International Dance Festival celebrates two forms of Malay dance – silat and zapin – in a pleasing, compact and well-rehearsed ensemble production at Auditorium DBKL.

In the first section, 32 dancers in baju Melayu sing “Salam…salam…” as they swoop and duck around each other, and 17 musicians on stage play a traditional composition by Mohd Pauzi bin Majid. This colourful overture combines zapin and silat movements, hence the ‘silapin’ of the title. Choreographer Abdul Hamid Chan, a faculty instructor at UPSI and formerly a student of zapin researcher Prof Mohd Anis Mohd Nor, puts his knowledge of traditional forms and his vocabulary of floor patterns to good use.

The second section delves further into the silat style. The men face off in the expected group battles. Delightfully, the women employ their jewelled hairpins, the cucuk sanggul, as daggers, leaping with poise while stabbing them towards the ground. Combining fighting fitness with ladylike manners, they reinsert their sanggul into their buns with cool finesse, and dive into forward rolls without once messing up their hair.

It is impossible to watch Gema Silapin on Malaysia Day without constrasting it with the red-shirt rally which shut down parts of the capital earlier in the day, resulting in an almost empty auditorium. Both employed silat to demonstrate the strength of Malay culture. But while the red-shirts use silat for Malay supremacist chest-beating, Gema Silapin opts for an almost contact-free display, carefully choreographed, focusing on the elegance of the movement – the smoothness of flexed fingers slicing through the air, the quiet dignity of the men as they sit in a circle. Elevated into art, it is almost totally devoid of violence. There is a gang of red-shirted dancers on stage, but with their gold trimmed outfits they look more like Chinese lion dancers, and neither they nor their opponents, clad in subdued songket, emerge as definitive victors from their highly refined encounters.

The final section of Gema Silapin is to a recorded composition by Affendi bin Ramli, adding cymbals, synth sounds and thunder tubes to the traditional Malay orchestra. More narrative than the rest, it is a rough depiction of different facets of zapin, perhaps its evolution, from earthy batik-clad village dance, to sprightly male ensemble with songkoks, and finally to a kind of evanescent Islamic revivalism, with the dancers in white and green robes and headscarves on the women.

Hamid intended to demonstrate how wearing a headscarf need not restrict dancing, but the movement is still somewhat constrained in this section, perhaps more for ideological reasons than physical ones. In the batik section, the women perform remarkably gender-neutral movements, with wide-legged poses and kicking leaps. There is even a mixed-gender zapin-style conga line, each dancer holding onto the sash of the dancer in front. But in the Islamic revivalist section the women are noticeably more subdued in their movement, with one hand to their waist in the more conventional style (although, thank God, there were no demurely downcast eyes), while the men stride around with both arms flung wide. There is even a moment where a man and woman dance together, as three other women circle the man, holding delicately onto the hem of his gown – physical contact is permitted as long as it’s only with your four wives!

Most of the performers of Gema Silapin are students, and the entire production has an earnest, fresh-faced air. The ensemble of dancers conducts itself with well-drilled uniformity. There are moments of gleeful abandon from the kompang players, and a lead bonang musician in the gamelan who plays with verve and confidence. Overall, Gema Silapin is more tasteful, with less glitzy costuming and fewer plastic grins, than your average government Malay dance production, and more thoughtful of its message. It was a shame there were no red shirts in the audience – Gema Silapin could have taught them something about the finer points of Malay culture.

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