Getting schooled on the arts

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 02 Sep 2018

FROM surprise visits to schools, replacing white shoes with black, and referencing the Finnish education system as a possible one to emulate, the new Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik has made waves with his fresh approach.

Expectations are running high and the field of arts education is no exception – many are buzzing for the ministry’s plans to open a new Malaysian Arts School in 2019 .

The right kind of arts education can do wonders for nation-building, says Dr Joseph Gonzales, Head of Academic and Contextual Studies at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

“We have seen what arts education can do. It is not just about learning to be an excellent dancer, singer, musician and so on.”

It’s also about learning about the different cultures of Malaysia, adds Dr Gonzales, who was Dean of the Faculty of Dance at Aswara (National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage) in Malaysia from 1999 to 2015.

“I was in Aswara for 20 years and played a role in developing a curriculum focussing on traditional theatre and dance. It was shocking how little most of us knew at the beginning. Coming from a Western arts background, I had been missing out on beautiful theatre forms practised in Malaysia.

“When we started we also saw that Malay dance, Chinese dance, Bharatnatyam all had factions according to racial lines. But as time went on, we were able to offer a multicultural education in which our students developed a cultural understanding of each other,” says Dr Gonzales, who has also authored a number of books on Malaysian dance.

It took eight years to fine-tune the curriculum, he notes.

“We had to have the best teachers possible and that included bringing Malaysians who were overseas back.”

“To me it’s not about becoming very good, and of course we have had seven dancers who are great at Bharatnatyam, none of them Indian. It’s about being unafraid to embrace another’s culture and that is so beautiful, and that was only possible through empowerment through dance.

Cultural understanding: Dr Gonzales performing a traditional Malay dance in 2011. He believes that embracing another culture is vital in today’s Malaysia.
Cultural understanding: Dr Gonzales performing a traditional Malay dance in 2011. He believes that embracing another culture is vital in today’s Malaysia.

“The study of other cultures does not make them any less of a Muslim or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or an atheist. The point is that they become open. And that is imperative in this Malaysia today. We need to stop being afraid of ‘the Other’.”

His views are echoed by local arts company Five Arts Centre, who says in a recent statement that arts education should be made integral to the education curriculum as it has proven to foster young people’s abilities in areas of creativity and multiple intelligences, cultural confidence, participatory engagement, and academic competencies.

In calling for a cohesive arts education policy and curriculum, Five Arts Centre says, from its various integrated arts-in-education programmes, it has witnessed “the intrinsic benefits and joy that the arts bring to young people, while at the same time enhancing their critical thinking, emotional well-being, and cultural awareness and appreciation.”

Dr Gonzales recalls how when he was growing up, the arts stream was usually deemed inferior to the sciences.

“It’s a reality. I ask myself if I had children, would I want them to pursue arts professionally? I can’t answer that because I know that unless that child has incredible talent and work ethic and the right mindset, it’s going to be very challenging. Before you get that ‘Yes, I want you in my show’, you will get thousands of rejections and criticism. “I certainly remember days of depression, struggling as a dancer, thinking, ‘why am I doing this?’

“I am a science graduate from Universiti Malaya and I was thinking, maybe I should have just worked in a bank. Prestige is one thing, but financial security is another.”

Dr Gonzales recounts how for him, arts education is something he arrived at almost accidentally.

“I never thought that this would be my journey. Since the age of 20, I have been involved in performing arts and making a living from it. I realised that you must equip yourself with knowledge on how the industry is changing.

“Being on stage in UK in the late 80s and early 90s was the pinnacle of my performing career and eventually I moved to education. I was thinking, ‘how do I upskill?’

“So, 10-15 years into my career I did a Masters, and then enjoyed it so much that I did a PhD. My father prioritised education, he may not necessarily have been thinking dance education, though! In the 1980s, I was a showbiz boy prancing around in tights pretending I was in Fame, and now I am this dance professor with all this knowledge.”

Dr Gonzales cites Prof Datuk Dr Ghouse Nasuruddin, Janet Pillai and Prof Mohd Anis as leading dance scholars with a global profile and urges the new government to take advantage of the expertise available.

He also urges the new government to be more open than the previous ones, adding that less censorship would invariably increase the quality of arts in the country.

“The government needs to be less thin-skinned. Both cartoonist Zunar and people like Fahmi Reza are creative and provoke a response with their work. They annoy a lot of the conservatives, but that’s art, as opposed to sanitised musicals of our political leaders. We have such a sycophantic mindset, which is disturbing.”

Dance is a little different, he says, as it’s non-verbal.

“Marion D’Cruz, for example, is a politically-driven artist, who has done political works – like at the Emergency Festival! 2008 (in Kuala Lumpur), where she performed a dance piece called ‘ISA’. We also did a performance on the detention of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the deaths of Altantuya and Teoh Beng Hock. And they ran to full houses, so an audience is there (for these types of work).”

Dr Gonzales believes we need to expose children to the arts at a young age.

“It must be compulsory, like one hour a week. It doesn’t have to be examined. Talk to them about Usman Awang, mak yong – we can present it all lightly through games but it must be done.

“It just needs proper planning. We need to look at 13 years of arts education. Ideally, we can provide incremental learning without students thinking it’s another subject they have to do.”

Dance producer Bilqis Hijjas calls for the strengthening and development of the arts sector in the country, as well as wider arts education.

“I would love to see more art schools. There are studies showing what dance does for you in terms for communication, collaboration, problem-solving and even living a longer life. There is much about arts education that shows it’s not just arts for arts sake. The world needs holistically formed individuals,” she says.

She would also like to see some specific changes in the form of the arts, especially dance, being offered as a minor course.

“I think it would be great if we could have students doing a business major and dance minor for example. Right now with the emphasis on the dance degree, we do have the irresponsibility of graduating kids, knowing that they can’t get jobs.”

Global star quality wanted: Our arts training has improved but we have yet to produce our own Akram Khan.
Global star quality wanted: Our arts training has improved but we have yet to produce our own Akram Khan.

She concedes that not many dance professionals agree with her.

“Mine is an unpopular view in the industry but I think we shouldn’t necessarily push for cushy jobs and the opening of the next new dance department.

“I think there is nothing wrong with holding a day job in another industry or teaching part-time and then also working in the arts. You can argue that it may impact on quality but we want a sustainable situation. I think we cannot have a situation where there is too much dance education, but not enough work for dancers.”

Dr Gonzales stresses the need for synergised infrastructure.

“We have three great places like Istana Budaya, KLPAC, Damansara Performing Arts Centre and yet none of them are easily accessible by public transport. In the UK you have Convent Garden that everyone can access.

“I would call on the government to look at a theatre district. Maybe six to eight theatres, with bangsawan everyday, wayang kulit, mak yong, musicals with good salaries, and high levels of performance, and then the audiences will come.”

Dr Gonzales and Five Arts Centre also point out the urgency and value of having programmes at grassroots level in places like Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah, Sarawak.

“They are rich in culture, yet many of the art forms are faced with extinction if we don’t encourage it at that level.

“In fact, over the last 15 years, dance training has developed to a high level, but we have yet to produce artists who are internationally acclaimed,” says Dr Gonzales.

“It would be great if we can have our own Alice Reyes, Akram Khan and Sardono W. Kusumo.”

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