What comes to mind when you think about dance? What are some of the struggles and challenges, old and new, dancers need to overcome? How are young, emerging dancers driving movements in the industry?
While dance has a long-standing value in the Malaysian arts and cultural scene, there is rarely space for discourse for its appreciation, let alone a platform for questions to spur discussions about the industry.
Questions And Dancers, a forum with leaders in dance, provided a bridge for both.
Held at PJPAC, 1 Utama E in Petaling Jaya on March 5, the event was part of a series produced by arts outfit MyDance Alliance in partnership with PJPAC.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, Questions And Dancers featured Aida Redza, Choong Wan Chin and Marion D’ Cruz, three leading women dancers in the local and international dance scene.
Questions And Dancers was moderated by Bilqis Hijjas, dance producer, critic, director and residency manager of Rimbun Dahan.
On the premise of the disparity in women’s question-asking in academic settings, Questions And Dancers was a platform for members of the Malaysian contemporary dance community to look into issues and challenges women, in particular, have in our current environs.
Questions were representative of different generations, with some being written in or asked in session by audience members and the panel. The forum covered many pertinent topics, from the challenges and shifts in career progression to confidence and its value in personhood and the practicality of being selective with work opportunities.
One of the central topics in the forum was the current landscape of the Malaysian dance scene. With an appreciative stance, the speakers shared some of the narratives they felt indicated a positive movement in the landscape.
Current trends, creative outlook
Aida, a contemporary dancer, choreographer and performance maker, offered a perspective on the development of dance in Penang, where works primarily remain on subjects examined for years, including issues on development and human rights. However, dancers intentionally explore these subjects through their lens, expanding expressions and conversations and bridging the subject matter to the younger generation.
Aida also notes that the increased exposure to social media has challenged young dancers to expand on creativity, framework and methods of presenting their interpretations of the world through dance.
D’ Cruz, a pioneer of contemporary dance in Malaysia, producer, and a founding member of Five Arts Centre (established in 1984), spoke on two aspects. The first is the development Malaysia is seeing in its range of highly trained dancers, now more than ever before – some of whom are proficient in traditional, classical and contemporary dance forms.
This has led to an expansion in the range of work currently being presented to audiences.
D’Cruz asserts that there is so much activity and movement in the scene showcasing the breadth, calibre and artistry in the community – something to be proud of.
Certainly, where traditional, classical, and contemporary dance forms exist in separate strains, it is encouraging to know that increased proficiency in the various forms adds to the possibilities for cross-cultural connections and expressions in the Malaysian dance scene.
A shift is also acknowledged in ballet by Choong, the founder and artistic director of KL Dance Works and the co-founder of Ballet Theatre Malaysia (BTM), serving as its artistic director till December 2022.
She recognises the abundance of talent and how the standard of ballet has been raised in the past decade. However, she points out that progression among young ballet practitioners advances to a certain level, suggesting insufficiency in ballet education.
Choong further shared her vision of a platform to equip young practitioners with access to tools and techniques, allowing local ballet learners to progress in their artistry without needing to go abroad.
Malaysian identity and dance
Some in the audience were particularly interested in the question of our postcolonial narrative and its relevance in the Malaysian dance scene.
D’Cruz spoke on how she views the postcolonial narrative as a tool to describe the colonised society and mind, posing decolonisation (or decolonising the mind) as the path forward.
“I look at decolonisation as an active; it’s a verb. It’s not an adjective to describe something. And I think we need to decolonise our minds, and that is something that is still very important. But my question is, who’s engaged in it?” she says.
D’Criz also notes that while the Malaysian identity is still important in Malaysian arts landscapes, few productions actively engage with the relationship between Malaysian identity and decolonisation, or the postcolonial narrative.
To offer a perspective, Bilqis responded with her observations of a shift in interest among practitioners in asserting the Malaysian identity, at least in the past 15 years.
D’Cruz furthered the argument by considering processes of globalisation and glocalisation and their relevance today, and the notion of identity(s) which emerge as a result of that exploration.
The panel also looked into crucial aspects to enhance and ensure sustainable growth in the dance industry here. On the question of if they had the power and resources, their feminist voice(s) went into practical efforts for community building, engagement, and empowerment through the following aspects:
1) Introduce dance education in the national school syllabus.
2) Advance multiple strategic support for dancers (and artists) through collaborative government and private funding mechanisms. This includes increasing incentives for private corporations to encourage their involvement.
3) Set up various bodies or avenues for young, mid-career, and older dancers to exhibit their works or carry out projects, including studio and rehearsal spaces.
4) Improve access to facilities for technical and production support.
5) Build sustainable platforms which provide jobs for dancers to train and grow professionally.
6) Facilitate bilateral relationships between the dance communities and the grassroots in society, allowing newer expressions, narratives and opportunities to emerge.
Platform for discourse
What I appreciated most from the forum was how some of the struggles, and therefore steps to move forward, extended beyond the realities of women in dance. Throughout the session, we heard of unrealistic expectations, little to no pay even when works had been performed and produced, and the lack of care and concern for women dancers and choreographers who also play the role of mothers.
If anything, aspects of ageing, retirement, familial responsibility, uncontested rights, and equal pay (and the certainty of payment!) are all familiar strains to discourse on women’s rights.
The panel also reflected on the government’s recent political decisions, which show no engagement in advancing the arts in Malaysia.
Undeterred, it was encouraging to see how pioneers and young practitioners held much hope for their continued journey as a community.
Their expressions and soul for the scene are tangible, evident with words like joy, heart, love, being, survive, and us, used to describe their individual responses to the Malaysian dance environment.
Where spaces for discourse are severely lacking and often limited to particular (arts) communities, Question And Dancers offered a framework for practitioners and observers like me to engage in the conversation.
In this way, Questions And Dancers was a space for appreciation of the Malaysian dance scene, reflection on the struggles in its growth, and an inter-generational transference of knowledge and experience for women and men, dancers and enthusiasts alike.
Questions And Dancers is available for viewing here.