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Why Don’t Malaysia’s World-Class Dancers Receive World-Class Support?

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“I am confident that I can put the best ASWARA or UM dance graduate alongside the best NYU Dance graduate and they can compete, says Joseph Gonzales, founder of ASWARA Dance Company.  Confident, perhaps, because his dancers have, in fact, already gained international recognition. So why do dancers who are making waves overseas barely get a ripple of attention here?

Dancing our local stories

In the world of dance in Malaysia, the popularity of Western contemporary dance forms such as ballet, hip-hop and jazz, are rising; and traditional forms of Malaysian cultural dance are fading behind them. The more commonly known Zapin, Joget, Bharata Natyam, Lion Dance, and Sumazau are seen in school cultural clubs, touristy shows, and government events; but the seldom seen Mak Yong, Bangsawan, Ulek Mayang, Farapeira, Kuda Kepang and the like are virtually unseen by the masses.

Close to a year ago (in an interview with The Daily Seni) Joseph Gonzales, spoke about the state of Malaysian arts education. We caught up with him – as well as three dance professionals from the younger generation: ASWARA Dean of Dance, Mohd Yunus Ismail (31); ASWARA Dance Lecturer, Mohd Nur Faillul bin Adam (29); and ASWARA Dance Company dancer, Mohd Fauzi bin Amirudin (27) – to find out if the situation has changed.

Bharatanatyam Yunus Ismail

“These Malaysian dancers, trained in Malaysian and Western dance are having their voices heard across the globe.” Dancer: Bharatanatyam Yunus Ismail. Photo by Normalridwan Kamarduddin.


Well, has it?

“Dance audiences are growing,” says Joseph. “But slowly. It is still primarily the father, mother, relative audience.” With the mushrooming of private dance schools and the popularity of dance as an art form on reality shows both local and international, interest in dance has grown exponentially over the last decade. “We cannot count only on families to support our shows. So, we have had to – very consciously – incorporate audience development into our programming; by spacing out our shows, using social media, and spreading awareness via the school students that are taught by our dancers.”

This tactic has paid off as the last three productions staged by ASWARA Dance Company (ADC), “Becoming King“, “Seru” and “Three Faces” sold out and the audiences according to Joseph, “were new and were generally people that we had not seen before.”

Where support is, and where it needs to be stronger

Aside from the differences in ADC’s change in marketing, Joseph also puts this down to the exposure that has come from the slow but visible growth, awareness and exposure to dance. “Support from the government is also important, as they can bring arts exposure to the masses via government shows,” adds Faillul, “an example we could look at is in China, where they have a national television channel dedicated to dance, so people grow up getting dance exposure.”

When asked about the government’s three performing arts schools (Sekolah Seni) and whether these schools produce graduates who invested and interested in pursuing a career in the arts, I’m greeted with shrugs and headshakes. Some do join ASWARA, some join Sultan Idris Education University (UPSI), but the quality of education at the school level is not there.

“Generally, the kids who have spent 5 years in Sekolah Seni are not on par with a kid who has learnt part-time ballet for a few years,” Joseph explains. “The teachers are untrained in the arts but are given the responsibility to teach an art syllabus. “The best teachers need to teach at the youngest level. It is essential that the introduction to the arts is done by those who are the best from the arts.”

The surprising truth behind some of our best dancers

Most students who join the dance department in ASWARA start with zero dance experience, they just have an interest or a hobby. Yunus, who started dancing in form 4, learnt Zapin only on weekends; Faillul and Fauzi both started only with an interest in dance and a little experience from the cultural clubs in schools. When ASWARA began in 1994, the first Diploma in Dance batch consisted of 4 students, they have now expanded to about 80 students over the last few semesters.

Fauzi Amirudin 1 (small) (1)

“Most dancers who join the dance department in ASWARA start with zero dance experience.” Dancer: Fauzi Amirudin. Photo by Normalridwan Kamaruddin.


Overcoming misconceptions

Another problem, Fauzi explains, is that, “Students assume that that ASWARA is only for Malays.” In fact, from their beginning in 1994, it took them 11 years before the enrolment of non-Malay students, largely due to Joseph’s outreach efforts, “I spent the first 10 years trying to overcome those barriers and prejudices: changing the syllabus; speaking to prospective students, and telling them we have Indian Classical Dance, we have Chinese Traditional Dance. And now, years later, we are at the forefront of Malaysian Arts,” he explains.

Dance as a privilege rather than a right

In Malaysia, using dance and theatre as a tool for learning is totally absent, unless the school has a headmaster or teacher who is interested in the arts. This tends to only happen in private schools, some of which have yearly musicals which plant a love for performing arts in the student who goes on to sometimes pursue performing arts as a career.

However, many of these students and the dancers who have been learning ballet for years, tend to go overseas and end up with an international education in contemporary western dance, but no education in Malaysian dance or performing arts. “Support from schools also largely depends on the strategy of the school itself, and how they expose and motivate their students with regards to the arts,” says Faillul, adding that “Chinese schools have a lot of dance programmes which are privately funded by the parent-teachers association of each particular school, but mostly in ballet and contemporary dance.”


The low cost of incalculable rewards

Under the government’s support, a child can get an incredibly good arts education (Diploma and Degree via ASWARA, UM, and UPSI) for about RM12,000.00, as compared to a Dance Degree from NYU which over RM500,000.00, “I am confident that I can put the best ASWARA or UM Dance graduate alongside the best NYU Dance graduate and they can compete.” Says Joseph, “So the ROI via these government supported educational institutions [on a tertiary level] have been incredible.”

In fact, ASWARA graduate Raziman Sarbini, from Limbang, Sarawak, who received the Best Dance Graduate 2015, 5 gold medals at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, and is currently studying under the MFA program at New York University, Tisch School of Arts. Many arts practitioners have gotten places internationally to pursue their Masters or to attend residencies but lack the funds to take up these offers. And there is a lack of funding from all parties for carrying on arts education to higher levels. Yunus explains that many “don’t know how to, or are able to measure the difference and quality in dance.”

Consistency is what is most lacking in Malaysian Arts Education. Without quality arts education and exposure at a primary and secondary public school level; as well as opportunities to continue arts education on a post-graduate level; consistent and transparent funding for residency opportunities, workshops and the like; arts education will slowly move forward but at a snail’s pace.

What we can’t afford to lose

Joseph, who is recently back from New York after showcasing his work “Other Echoes” in New York, and Yunus, Faillul and Fauzi (and Raziman in New York) who from their humble beginnings in dance have all gone to perform internationally, with Faillul and Fauzi heading to July both will be heading to World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific 2016 in Korea. These Malaysian dancers, trained in Malaysian and Western dance forms, are having their voices heard across the globe. But they are few and far between. The worry, now, is that our Malaysian stories, told through local art forms, will be drowned out by more popular international art forms, rather than co-existing in the industry side-by-side.

“So does the government support? Yes, they do. But, do they see? I don’t know.” Says Joseph.

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.