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Discussion, research and innovation – The Malaysian Performing Arts scene in 2016

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This year the performing arts gave audiences a lot to think about, but did audiences take up that opportunity? How often do audiences, critics and arts writers stop at opinion rather than engage in deeper discussion – and wy? Guest writer Richard Chua looks back at 2016 and at a few works that deserved further analysis. 

2016 has been a year celebrating William Shakespeare, four centuries after his death. The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC) ran a big festival entitled Shakespeare 400 lasting the whole year. On another front, Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) decided to improve their programming through more popular programmes with better mass appeal. This was apparent in the annual DPAC Arts Festival, as well as the development of new talents through the d’Next Artist Project. Other performance venues, for example theatrethreesixty’s theatre space called theatrethreesixty @ Tommy Le Baker, supported by the bakery a door away had their own small-scale theatre festival called Wearetheatrethreesixty 2016.

What kind of conversation was Nicholas Choong trying to provoke when he recreated The Artist is Present? Discuss. Photo by theatrethreesixty.

What kind of conversation was Nicholas Choong trying to provoke when he recreated The Artist is Present? Discuss. Photo by theatrethreesixty.

The definition of success

Most of the productions are well-made. However, we didn’t get to see them falter, making mistakes or presenting raw ideas in relation to the space, text and environment. These were not bad or shoddily-made productions. I am referring to productions that presented bold new ideas – I call them ‘worthy failures’. The term came from late Singapore theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun. His famous line, “A worthy failure is more valuable than a mediocre success”, has been an inspiration to those who continue to explore new ideas in their work. New ideas that are constantly researched in the theatre practice. Failures of these ideas are allowed in experimental theatre practice.

Conflict and criticism

Some productions had interesting ideas to offer. In dance, TerryandTheCuz’s Skin comes to mind. The production brought audiences to different venues and experiences to go through what illegal immigrants do, the ordeal they have been put through as well as the emotional journeys they have to experience. It was a good piece of experiential theatre. Unfortunately, they have been criticized online in a review about the involvement of real refugees in the show. One important question seems to have escaped discussion: What does the involvement of real characters in a fictional depiction mean to a dance (theatre) production? Issues on ethics and responsibility in local theatre could have been brought to the fore. The discussion dissipated months later.

When language barriers block discussion

In theatre, the Chinese rendition of Shakespeare classic Richard III comes to mind. Online discussions on social media highlighted rigorous and innovative new ways of direction, but also spoke about how the production seemed to have not impressed audiences with the necessary sensibilities of the Shakespearean classic. Chinese theatre practitioners used the word “energy” freely – the production’s ability to emotionally impact audiences. Some of them even attributed this lack of “energy” to the inadequate time of rehearsals and preparations of the production. We don’t get to see such discussions – especially in the area of artistic production – in online/offline publications in English Language.

What did the Chinese speaking media see that English speakers didn't? Discuss.

What did the Chinese speaking media see that English speakers didn’t? Discuss.

The absence of discussion constrains understanding

In the area of performative art forms that are classified as theatre, a few contrasting highly performative events are worth mentioning. They are the Butoh-trained dance artist Lee Swee Keong’s Butterfly Lovers; Nicholas Choong’s The Artist is Present; and Chin San Sooi’s re-presentation of the Cantonese opera The Inauguration of the Prime Minister (Lok Kok Tai Fong Siong).

Many have wondered whether Lee Swee Keong was performing the Japanese art-form Butoh in that contemporary Chinese-music filled performance that celebrates the love of the legendary butterfly lovers in the Chinese folklore. Was there a form to the production? Had the Chinese music diluted the artistic merit of the production? Was performer Lee Swee Keong actually “dancing”? Answers to these questions vary, but the presence of these discussions matter, albeit inadequately documented.

Did the music add to or take away from Butterfly Lovers? Discuss.

Did the music add to or take away from Butterfly Lovers? Discuss. Photo by Wee Ling.

On Nicholas Choong’s re-creation of Marina Abramovic’s performance art piece of the same name in a theatre festival, what kind of conversations was he trying to initiate or the programming team of the festival tried to ignite? If these conversations were initiated, the performance art piece would not have been regarded as a replica of Abramovic’s.

Veteran Malaysian director Chin San Sooi’s attempt to present an iconic Cantonese opera repertoire seems to be an alienating idea to his presentation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the DPAC. No discussions were initiated to the artistic reason why Chin San Sooi has chosen to present the Cantonese opera a day before the opening of his rendition of Macbeth. Interesting discussions could have been carried out. Unfortunately, they were not available.

Discussion in 2017

Who should initiate these conversations? Should academics or theatre writers be the ones to excavate information and start conversing about them? Would it be in their interest to do so, or are they merely creating a mountain out of a molehill, since most artistic choices are creators’ own personal fancies?

Why did director Chin San Sooi choose to present a Cantonese opera a day before opening his rendition of Macbeth. Discuss. Photo by Kelvin Yuen.

Why did director Chin San Sooi choose to present a Cantonese opera a day before opening his rendition of Macbeth? Discuss. Photo by Kelvin Yuen.

These questions continue to haunt theatre writers in this town. Some reviewers feel that they are not qualified to do so. Some of them feel that they might be shot down and isolated within the performing arts community. Perhaps, the theatre community in Malaysia should deeply reflect on how this feedback could be used to further their artistic practices in future productions. There should also be more experimental work-in-progress artistic works that are anchored in good and strong research structures, coupled with good documentation in their artistic processes. This is my wish for Malaysian performing arts in 2017.

About Richard Chua


Richard is an academic and theatre writer and edits online magazine Theatrex Asia.

ARTERI welcomes guest contributors. If you have a story, an opinion or knowledge to share with Malaysia’s performing arts community, send a message via our Facebook page or contact editor@arteri.com.my.

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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.