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Friday January 14, 2011

Suhaili goes against the odds

Scoliosis has not dampened Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil’s quest to master ballet.

IT is a day Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil will never forget. She was only 12 years old and had been practising for a sports tournament in school. What seemed like routine suddenly turned into a nightmare when she had to endure excruciating pain in her back.

“I felt a sharp pain in my upper back torso. It was so bad that I collapsed on the field. My parents had to rush me to hospital where I learnt I had a spinal disorder called scoliosis. It was devastating and emotionally very stressful,” recalled Suhaili in an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.

When doctors informed Suhaili of her curved spine, it seemed her dreams of becoming a ballet dancer had been dashed.

Passion for dance: Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil (bottom centre) is a renowned choreographer, Aswara dance lecturer and international performer.

“It was frustrating knowing that I was crooked and hunched. Prior to determining my condition, I had failed many ballet exams. I had to correct my injury in order to be able to dance on stage,” said Suhaili, the eldest daughter of Suraya Ahmad Kamil, ballet teacher and principal of Aurora School Of Dance in Subang Jaya.

Not wanting to dwell on her misery, Suhaili decided to seek treatment for her ailing back. It included painful spine correcting sessions with physiotherapists and chiropractors as well as wearing an uncomfortable body brace. Doctors also recommended swimming and ballet lessons to improve her condition. Despite it all, Suhaili kept up her spirits by reassuring herself that every cloud has a silver lining.

Once her spine’s lateral curvature had improved, the aspiring ballerina persevered towards perfecting her pirouettes, splits and port de bras. She practised relentlessly, knowing that she had been given a second chance.

Today, Suhaili is a renowned choreographer, a dance lecturer at the National Arts Academy Aswara and an international performer. While her inspiring life story seems befitting a Hallmark Channel drama, it’s not wrong to say that it was her determination that thrusted her to greater heights.

“I fell in love with ballet when I was four years old. I used to follow my mother for classes and often found myself mesmerised by ballet as an art form – its grace and gentle movements drew me in,” said the former Seri Cempaka student who, upon completing her SPM, pursued a dance course at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School in Melbourne, Australia.

It was here that Suhaili was introduced to contemporary ballet, which further fuelled her passion in dance.

Suhaili Micheline Ahmad Kamil

“Contemporary dance opened a new door for me to adapt to the scoliosis through dance practice. I learnt many ways to strengthen my back and began to appreciate the advantages of what my body could do in terms of movement compared to conventional classical ballet,” explained Suhaili, who holds a degree in dance from University of Melbourne.

Upon returning to Malaysia in 2007, Suhaili has kept busy choreographing. Her works have included 2=1 for Aswara’s contemporary dance showcase Jamu in 2008 and Nerds Gone Nuts which won first prize in the dance category for Short + Sweet in 2009. Another highlight was Sepatuku for the 2009 KL Fringe Festival. (Last January, this performance was showcased at the 2010 Asia Contemporary Dance Festival in Kobe, Japan. Next month, it will be re-staged at the Hong Kong International Arts Festival).

Last March, she also collaborated with Temple of Fine Arts lecturer Dr Dhanya Thurairajah in choreographing Salvage for Aswara’s Gelombang Baru Festival.

As a dancer, Suhaili has showcased her mettle both locally and internationally. In 2007, she was a finalist on 8TV’s reality show, So You Think You Can Dance (Season One). In 2009, she participated in The Dance Society of Malaysia’s Festival of Dance and Rimbun Dahan’s Dancing In Place.

Last July, she made the country proud by clinching two awards (for dance category soloist and duet alongside Naim Syahrazad) at the 2010 World Championships of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. In August, she was selected to participate in an art residency hosted by Omi International Arts Centre in New York.

On Jan 15, she will be adding another feather to her cap by performing a contemporary dance, Luna, as part of the International Ballet Gala organised by local dance company Danceworks Production and Ena Ballet Studio Company of Nara City, Japan. Taking centrestage from Jan 14 to 16 at Istana Budaya in KL, the event features seven performances, including Don Quixote.

Luna, choreographed by Choong Wan Chin, is a Japanese dance about a girl lost in a moment of chaos. Steve Goh accompanies Suhaili in the abstract dance.

Luna is about a girl in search of her true identity and is unsure of choosing between good and evil. Steve and I found it very challenging to perform this piece because we’re almost the same height and weight. We have had a few problems doing the lift actions because body wise, I’m heavier and harder to ‘toss around’,” joked the svelte beauty.

Choreographer Choong specifically chose Suhaili and Goh because of their background in classical and contemporary dance.

“The choreography is physically demanding and requires emotional depth. Suhaili has contributed her own interpretations and movements, giving the work her personal signature and unique style. She has immense potential and lots of opportunities ahead of her as a dancer and choreographer,” said Choong, whose choreography works include Dancework Productions’ Carmen and Danceworks And Friends.

The past few weeks have undoubtedly been tough for Suhaili, especially the rigorous training sessions. But she isn’t complaining as she knows the performance serves as an avenue to showcase different aspects of ballet.

“It’s a positive sign that ballet is slowly being accepted as an art form. Hopefully with the right exposure, people will learn to have an artistic appreciation of this dance form,” said Suhaili.

Suhaili hoped such performances would also enlighten ballet students about the possibilities of pursuing ballet as a career and not merely as an extra curricular activity.

She said: “Most parents don’t take ballet seriously. Sadly, many talented students end up quitting ballet at a young age to concentrate on their studies. Hopefully, with good exposure, we will be able to introduce more ballet dance forms to our community and inculcate ballet appreciation.”

Don Quixote will be staged tonight (8.30pm) and Jan 16 (3pm) while the International Ballet Gala show is on tomorrow (8.30pm). Both shows are for charity and will be held at Panggung Sari, Istana Budaya, Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur. Tickets are priced between RM50 and RM220. For details, call 017-608 5025 or browse or