ASK moving to one beat

As Akademi Seni Kebangsaan moves into its new purpose-built campus, PHILIP AUGUSTINE finds out what's in store for young talents. 

WITH famous names such as Marion D'Cruz, Mew Chang Tsing, Isabella Pek, Pak Nasir and Marlia Musa among its academic staff, the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK) looks set to produce the country's next wave of artistic talent. 

In addition, students can look forward to pursuing their passion in art education in ASK's spanking new campus in Kuala Lumpur which boasts its very own Experimental Theatre, spacious dance studios and modern facilities. Its showpiece, perhaps, is its uniquely shapedlibrary housing up to 15,000 books on art, and a black box theatre where students have free rein to express their creativity.  

The Experimental Theatre within the academy has played host to ASK's numerous highly charged performances.

After years of nomadic existence, ASK has finally come back to its original premises in Jalan Tun Ismail. When it was launched in 1994, ASK occupied part of the premises of the old Kompleks Budaya Negara (the predecessor of the current Istana Budaya). ASK then shifted to Jalan Ampang and not long after, relocated itself to Empire Tower in Jalan Tun Razak before finally settling into its brand new purpose-built campus earlier this year. 

Although the campus has not been officially launched and renovations are still in progress, ASK's five departments have already moved in and classes at the academy are in full swing.  

Diploma in Music student Ahmad Rafiyuddin Mohamed who is majoring in Drums says the campus has all the necessary facilities. 

“I had wanted to have a career in music since young and studying here has allowed me to pursue both an academic, yet fun programme,” says the 18-year-old who comes from a family of musicians. 

“My dad used to be in the army band and my older sister is a professional singer,” elaborates Ahmad, who is taking dance as an elective this semester. 

He adds: “ASK has a very flexible system of allowing students to try a bit of everything to explore their full potential.” 

Just like Ahmad, more students are turning to performing arts as a tertiary course as well as a career choice in life.  

In fact, the number of public and private institutions of higher learning offering undergraduate and post-graduate courses in performing arts has increased since the 1980s. 

Universiti Sains Malaysia's Centre for the Arts in Penang, is the oldest performing arts provider in the country and has produced some of Malaysia's best performers, writers and directors. 

Universiti Teknologi Mara's music department established the School of Screen Arts which focuses on theatre, film acting and script writing. Universiti Malaya's Cultural Centre now offers theatre, music, visual arts and dance at undergraduate and post-graduate levels. Other public universities which run similar courses are Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and Universiti Malaysia Sabah. 

More students are turning to the performing arts as a tertiary course and a rewarding career choice.

Similarly, private colleges and universities such as LimKokWing University-College of Creative Technology, University-College Sedaya International, the ONE Academy, International College of Music, and SAITO Academy are all internationally recognised hubs of higher learning that harness the country's young creative talents.  

Ahmad Firdaus Che Yahaya's reason for taking up a course in ASK is more nationalistic. For him, the sad fate of some of Malaysia's traditional dances prompted him to pursue a course in dance.  

Currently a first year diploma student, Ahmad has always had a special interest in traditional Malay dances, which he believes will slowly be extinct if interest for the art form wanes.  

“I wanted to take the challenge of studying classical Malay dances, which are very difficult to master.  

“I hope that by learning to dance well, I can help promote the art and sustain Malaysia's rich dance heritage,” pledges the 22-year-old, who, as a little boy, got inspired while watching public dance performances in Terengganu, where he was born.  

It has been exactly 10 years ago, when ASK was established by then Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism (now Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage) as Malaysia's first arts academy with the task of providing a formal system of education that would reflect Malaysia's cultural heritage and identity. 

The academy currently offers full and part-time diploma and certificate programmes in writing, music, theatre, dance and cinematography. A three-year diploma programme costs RM6,000 while certificate programmes range from RM500 to RM600, depending on the duration.  

“The objective is to nurture artistic talent and produce professional performers with a sound knowledge of traditional and contemporary forms of performing arts.  

“It also provides an opportunity for Malaysians to obtain formal training in the arts and to serve as a centre for research and creative work in the country,” explains head of Dance Joseph Gonzales, who has been with the academy since day one.  


A step back 

Despite the availability of performing arts courses in the country, Gonzales points out that the number of students who choose to pursue arts education at a tertiary level remains comparatively small. 

“The crux of the matter is that arts education has always taken a backseat especially in the primary and secondary schools curriculum. Most developing nations focus heavily on science and technology and Malaysia is no exception,” he laments, adding that in most cases, formal and informal training is only an option for those who have a strong interest and the financial means to pursue their creative passion. 

“Not many parents see the arts as a suitable field to earn a living in, and they try to dissuade their children from pursuing their dreams,” he adds. 

ASK diploma courses give students a good grounding in both theory and practice.

This strong stigma towards arts, he stresses, is unfortunate as the country boasts “a phenomenal number of talented individuals.”  

He adds: “Sadly, many gifted children are pushed to pursue other safer careers such as business, medicine and law.”  

In Europe, Australia and America, Gonzales says, children are encouraged to go to art schools to hone their talents at an early stage.  

“Unfortunately, Malaysia still lacks the infrastructure to support our rich pool of talent.” 

Another factor, he observes, is the issue of the performing arts industry and the lack of a definite career path that awaits young graduates. 

“Malaysia has no West End, Broadway or repertory company. Some might wonder what then would be the inducements and attractions of such a career? Those who dream of stardom will be faced with the reality that the industry is still very much in its infancy,” he cautions.  

There are, however, exceptions and people have broken the mould.  

“A few Malaysians have undergone the grind by qualifying as lawyers and engineers only to follow their dreams later,” points out Gonzales, who cites actor Chacko Vadaketh (trained lawyer) and acclaimed dancer Ramli Ibrahim (trained engineer) as examples.  

“These are some of the people who have taken the road less travelled and achieved success, but they are the exception rather than the rule,” he remarks. 


Shift in mood 

Nevertheless, enrolment figures in ASK alone he says, have been “very encouraging” especially in the last five years. Enrolment at private ballet schools, ethnically-based dance societies and youth clubs especially in bigger cities, he adds, is also on the rise. 

“I think it is slowly becoming less of a stigma, which is good. Parents who have a broader view of education and a global perspective on things are more likely to encourage their children in this path,” he opines.  

He elaborates that the three-year diploma courses conducted by all five departments give students a good grounding in both the theoretical and practical aspects of the field they have chosen. Dance students are required to perform in public as part of their final exams.  

“Students need to have a good understanding of art history as well as critical and analytical skills . Language and communication skills are also crucial for any aspiring artist,” stresses Gonzales who is not only an educator but also a choreographer and a professional dancer with more than two decades' experience.  

“Another exciting development is that the dance programme is no longer confined to traditional Malaysian cultural dances but now incorporates elements from modern, ballet and even Chinese and Indian traditional dance forms. 

He adds: “This combination helps produce better dancers as it exposes them to a variety of movements and helps to broaden their perspective on dance.”  

Gonzales advises students to be tenacious, as a career in dance is very competitive and looks and talent play an important role.  

“It can be a tough profession and every kind of support counts. You can make a decent living but it’s the satisfaction one gets as an artist, which eventually stirs them to improve themselves constantly. 

“If you have the talent, don't let others distract you as long as you have the right attitude and desire to make performing arts a career.”  

Related story:Dancing for peace 

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