Friday, September 3, 2010
Today I am highlighting an interview where it gives a glimpse of the dancing world in Malaysia. The interview appears in the sun dated Feb 10 2006
Title : In search of a sutra-ble audience
No male dancer has had as big an impact on the Malaysian dance scene as Ramli Ibrahim. He appeared on the public stage in 1983, and the same year, started the Sutra Dance Theatre. Now 53, Ramli has mesmerised audiences and dance critics for 22 years. He began with the Bharata Natyam and Odissi classical dance forms, but over the years, he has staged some provocative contemporary performances. For his contributions, he won the Boh Cameronian Lifetime Achieve-ment Award for 2003. But life has not always been a bed of roses for Ramli. Along with accolades, he has faced brickbats for taking the road less travelled. The iconic dancer takes Bissme S. on a journey into his life.
theSun: How has 2005 been for you?
It has been the most challenging year for us. Sutra produced several major works which successfully toured Malaysia, Singapore and India.
In India, we covered major cities such as Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi among others.
Asia is the place to be! India, especially, is culturally one of the most interesting countries in the world. To be recognised as a major Indian classical dancer in India means a lot to me. Though, I think Malaysians are not aware of the extent of our success in India. We also produced Titiwangsa for Istana Budaya which was one of our major successes for 2005.
But, on a sad note, I lost my mother when I was in Bhubaneswar (India), right in the midst of our tour. She died on Sept 11 (aged 84).
We also lost our beloved Kak Endon (the prime minister's wife) shortly after, which was a devastating blow to Malaysian arts. She was a strong supporter of the arts. These two events are personally the saddest times of 2005 for me.
Did you cut your dance tour short in India to attend your mother's funeral?
No. I continued with my tour. I had made a commitment with the organiser and I couldn't back out. In fact when my father passed away in 1986, I also had to dance on stage. It's all about commitment.
You seem to be performing more in India lately. Have you lost the excitement of performing in Kuala Lumpur?
I feel that my presence as a performer is saturated in Kuala Lumpur. I feel that the creative juices and momentum offered by serious artistes can no longer be sustained by the relatively small audience in Kuala Lumpur alone. Our artistes are moving forward but their audiences are not able to catch up, both artistically and in numbers.
The majority have a limited concentration and they would rather go for leftover Broadway and West End musicals. This is why I feel that it is time Sutra ventures outside Malaysia and this is exactly what we aim to do in 2006. There will be more overseas tours for 2006. We are planning for Europe and America. Some of the cities we plan to cover are Toronto, Paris, France, Zurich and London.
What is your long-term plan?
For our long-term plan, we hope to secure Sutra's future by setting up a Sutra Foundation. This would be our ultimate gift and legacy to the nation. Sutra Foundation would continue our aspirations and catalytic work on Malaysian contemporary and traditional performing arts.
Do you have a successor to take over your role?
It would be folly to programme a successor for Sutra. We can't dictate destiny. In fact, there is at present no such serious talent with the essential leadership qualities in Sutra. We have good dancers but this is not sufficient. To lead Sutra one needs serious commitment, dedication and idealism. The present dancers are still too young and immature. I think to make real impact one needs to possess not just dancing talent, but a whole lot of other qualities. We can only provide the hotbed for talents and hope for the best.
What is your opinion of the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage?
The minister has a lot of good visions and is very articulate. I am in full accord with the visions of our minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim but there is no exciting fresh blood in the ministry to execute the strategic changes that he envisions. So far we see only the same dead-pan bureaucratic zombies, completely uninterested in the arts except as a job. It is unfortunate that the minister has inherited and kept the dead woods of the previous ministry. The minister's more subtle ideas and spirit-sense go simply over their heads.
Look at the Budi Bahasa campaign, which has simpered to yet another bout of uneventful sloganism.
Judging from the brochures printed in quick time by the ministry, conceptually the officers have got most of the things relatively right on paper but they fall flat on their faces when it comes to execution.
To be fair, I think the secretary-general and her office are trying hard but I feel that they will soon be defeated by the very system that they serve because there is no fresh blood to genuinely help them to execute the new ideas. At city, state and federal levels, I am afraid that it will be temasha (circus) all over again. There are simply too much yet to be done! I remember at the beginning of last year, the officers used to say, "just call us if you have any problems". But they are impossible to get through to.
Yes, the minister of culture, arts and heritage is one of the most difficult and challenging ministerial portfolios.
Having said that, dance compared to other branches of arts such as drama and film, has improved the least since the ministry was set up. But Sutra has to move on whatever the scenario is.
What is the present challenge with the performing arts scene?
The continuing challenge is to be creative in spite of uncertain funding either from government or private corporations. It was not until last year that I got to perform in the hallowed hall of Istana Budaya for the first time. To get this slot, I remember that my producer had to rant and rave. Having scored this success, we were soon commissioned by the newly formed ministry for Titiwangsa!
Like a good boy, I have submitted our proposals for 2006 but have yet to get an answer. There is no consistency in decision-making regarding grants and sponsorship, so it's impossible to plan ahead for the year. (The two India Tours we undertook were unsponsored). We have to be very careful with our finances and performances. The juggling of the two seems to be the real challenge for us!
Some Muslims feel that you are a murtad (apostate) for doing Indian classical dances. What is your comment?
There are bigoted people everywhere in the world whether they are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or Christians.
The foreign press asked me: "Don't you face a lot of problems in Malaysia as a performer?" And I told them "each country has it problems and it is up to the artiste to rise to the challenge".
I also championed Mak Yong and it was once considered murtad for a Muslim to perform the traditional dance drama. I championed Mak Yong when it was still not politically correct to do it. Like poet Salleh Ben Joned, I was an incorrigible because I dared. Secretly, many admired our gutsiness but I did all of these things in the most unconscious kind of way. (It was) Amazing that I survived!
If we started to please these people and succumb to their blackmailing, there is not end to the compromises we will have to make.
Did you get into serious problems for your interest in Indian dance?
People were much more extreme at one stage. Certainly, under Pak Lah, things have improved. With so much terror in the world, people just want to have a change -- we should not have any extremist point of view, no matter what.
I was a Muslim doing Indian classical dance which, essentially, is associated with temple dance. But I approached Indian classical dance from the spiritual point view. I think most vocations and most callings are spiritual. Even cooking is spiritual.
Has this particular issue affected you as a performer? Did you ever consider quitting?
It affected me, superficially. I was just irritated. But I was articulate enough to argue. I have always been articulate and I am full of opinions. Most dancers have no opinions.
There are always dancers who can lift their legs higher than you can. But you must also be interesting when you open your mouth.
Have you got into problems with the authorities for dabbling in Indian classical dance?
Jabatan Ugama Islam called me (in 1992) right after I performed Adoration. The performance was about the relationship between a dance master and his student.
They (religious officials) looked at the poster and deduced that Mano (actor Mano Maniam who played the dance master) was my guru ... as someone I worshiped.
They asked me about my mystical experiences when I was dancing. One of them even said if I was doing a pose of Siva and died on stage, I died as an apostate. I had to explain to them my dances were metaphoric.
A lot of friends were surprised that I didn't bring a lawyer with me. But I am not easily frightened. I am one of those who can get out of tight situations unscathed.
A friend quipped that the authorities might be looking for a new "candidate" for the rehab centre which was then empty after they "cleansed" the Al Arqam followers. But I was not sent there.
Are you still a true Muslim?
What is a true Muslim? Who is a true Muslim? I think I am a thinking Muslim.
What about Odissi? What is its relevance in Malaysia in the long run? Is this your major legacy to the nation?
Odissi in Malaysia is truly unique. It has become a symbol of multi-cultural and multi-racial Malaysia. Whenever we performed in India and elsewhere abroad we were always complimented. They said it was so refreshing to see such a multi-racial group -- whose members comprised Malays, Chinese Indians and others of mixed parentage.
So, Odissi has become a paean of culture that transcends race, religion and national boundary. At the same time, it has become a symbol of incorrigibility. As such we are opened to being victimised and this happens all the time.
When there is a slight controversy, all the former issues such as being a Muslim doing Indian dances; the fact that we are foreigners and could not possibly understand the nuances of Indian dances and other previous bigoted statements will appear all over again. You can bet that bigotry, racism and other such prejudices exist everywhere really.
Yes, Odissi would be a legacy I would be associated with. But in the larger picture, more significantly, I had brought in that special aura to Indian classical dance in Malaysia, a professionalism and the recognition that Indian classical dance must be accepted as part of the fabric of Malaysian culture.
Yet, on an even larger canvas than my impact on Indian classical dance scene is my image as an artiste without any hang-up. My free-spiritedness was remarkable when one considers that I was functioning during a rather oppressive time of fervent fundamentalist movements of the early 80s and 90s. I liberated the body and mind during one of the most puritanical times in Malaysian history.
What do you think of male dancers in Malaysia?
Most male dancers are getting fatter than me (laughs). But there was a time when male dancers went on the "rise" and now it is stagnant. Truly, there are very few male dancers who can really inspire you.
Do you think parents are still reluctant to send their sons to dance classes?
Yes. I can still count my male students. In Malaysia, people still perceive males who take up dancing as sissy. Male dancers have to be really good to survive. They have to fight a lot of battles.
How would you change this perception?
I don't ask how I can change society. When the time is right, the society will change on its own. Society has its own way of dancing. Let the society change by itself. Don't underestimate society. I try not to be judgmental.
Did your parents object when you wanted to be a dancer?
I love my parents. But they have nothing do with my life. I do exactly what I want to do with my life. My parents knew the rebel streak in me. I got a scholarship to study engineering. I completed my studies and eventually went into dancing.
What attracted you as a Malay to the Indian dance?
The spiritual dimension and the depth of Indian dance. The idea that you are trying to bring out the perasaan (emotion) out of the audience is very challenging. The dance is so rhythmic.
People often say that the same familiar audience goes for theatre shows. Do you agree? Why is that?
Yes, I agree. We have not included (performing) arts into our current education system. That is one of the reasons a new audience is not being created. Previously, there were much more art and literature in our education system.
Last year a newspaper's reviewer hinted that it's high time you go backstage and remain as a choreographer. What is your opinion? Did the reviews affect you in any way?
It didn't affect me. There had been worse reviews in the past. In dance, once you reach 27, you are considered "has been". That is not the case with the Asian point of view. A dancer matures with time.
Personally, you don't have reviewers and critics that you can take seriously. That is a major problem in Malaysia.
If you find critics who are overly personal, they themselves have problems. The worst critics are usually the frustrated and failed performers. If you look at professional critics, they are a bit more detached from the performers.
What do you think of the media in Malaysia?
They are obsessed with young readers because they are obsessed with the statistics. You have to question the statistics. You have to think about quality readers and never underestimate them. You pick editors from magazines based on popularity, not their literary backgrounds.
I think the media have given limited space to serious arts. One must understand the media do make a difference.
Why do you think dance doesn't attract the audience as much as standup comedy and drama theatre performance?
There is not enough interesting work. There is a tendency for dance performances, especially contemporary ones, leaning more towards the darker side.
Sutra has always tried to put up performances that celebrate life. We are not saying dance cannot portray serious things. It can be serious, but a lot of choreographers are overly indulging.
What is your view on the national theatre Istana Budaya?
It is too big. It is trapped by its own bad design. You can only put a big production like Puteri Gunung Ledang. Unimaginative people are running it. There is also a lack of discipline and everything is done at the last minute.
What is your view on the newest theatre venue, KLPAC ?
It is also a disappointment. Things are much more expensive than they are elsewhere. The rental for rehearsal is not as cheap as intended. It is supposed to provide an alternative space.A teh tarik cost RM4.80 and what kind people are we attracting?
Some purist Indian classical dancers believe you tend to mix your contemporary and Indian classical movements and eventually bastardised the Indian classical dance. Your comments?
I am clear whether I am doing contemporary dance or classical dance when I am on stage. I never mix them. When I go and see their performances, they are so amateur, that is bastardisation. When you don't give the kind of dignity that the dance deserved, that is bastardisation.
What is the greatest misconception people have on Ramli Ibrahim?
I am a prima donna. I am difficult to work with.
Why do people have this misconception?
My demand for professionalism is high. When they are not professional, I get annoyed. But I am always thinking more for other people than for myself.
Describe your childhood years. What influenced you most artistically?
My father was a lecturer and my mother was teaching Quran. They had five children and I was the youngest. As a child, I was very artistic. I would sing, I would dance and I would paint. I used to dance at the back of the house when my mother was teaching Quran.
My mother loved cooking, sewing and flowers. My father was teaching Malay literature, and he had a deep appreciation for literature and had many literature books. I used to read his books which was in Jawi.
If you could change anything of your life, what will it be?
I would not waste my time in engineering . I would do painting. Even architecture and anthropology would have been a better choice
Why did you take engineering?
I was a product when the country wanted to produce doctors and engineers. I am not impressed with my students who says they get seven distinctions. I got seven distinctions when it was difficult (to get distinctions).
Now, it's much more simple to obtain distinctions and everyone is getting them. You can't speak a word of English, you still get seven distinctions. The youths are not curious enough. They don't have the kind of staying power we had, and everything is light, everything is easier
How do you like to be remembered?
Nothing. I don't want to be remembered. It is not important how I am remembered
Most dancers are afraid of getting older. Are you?
You don't realise your age is catching up. You only realised you can't do certain thing. If you can't accept your age, you have a problem
Some people say you can't retire and go behind stage. Is that true?
I am always behind the stage. I am the one who swept the floor when the show is over and everybody has left.
What is your advice to youngsters who are considering dance as their career?
Forget it. It is too difficult to survive unless you are strong.