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Swinging Wildly In All Sorts of Directions

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In the incredibly small and largely DIY independent Malaysia art scene, it’s inevitable that us, arts practitioners, often have more on our plate than we ever ask for. Occasionally the various combinations of professional roles we assume seem to spell out like a cocktail recipe. With Bilqis Hijjas, our regular contributor on dance, we can describe her, in one long drawn-out breath, as a dancer, dance producer, critic, academic, dance advocate, alongside many other roles she assume such as dance company director, dance residency programmer and secretary of MyDance Alliance. Who else should we approach for a more qualified primer on the state of contemporary dance in Malaysia?

ARTERI: You are all in one person, a dance producer, a critic and a dancer, among other things. How do you balance these roles?

With difficulty! I’m still feeling my way through my different interests and obligations, figuring out where I am most needed and also what I enjoy. But the most difficult balancing act is between dance practitioner and critic. I am notoriously sensitive about my own work, and it seems hypocritical to judge the work of others while simultaneously refusing to hear anything bad about my own! But I think of my role as critic as helping the local audience to understand contemporary dance, rather than passing judgments. I want to use my familiarity with lots of different types of contemporary dance, and my insight into the background of the development of the works, as a fellow choreographer, industry news-hog or friend, to give readers another perspective.

Of course I have my own preferences, but I like to think that I like lots of things. And at this point in the development of the contemporary dance industry in Malaysia, I feel that it is most useful to be supportive and constructive, rather than vicious or dismissive. If I really don’t like a work, I won’t write about it. Very Malaysian – we all save face!

ARTERI: Given that you are trained in a number of different dance styles, ranging from traditional to contemporary, if you were to choose, which style would you consider your favourite?

Probably most of my years of training were in classical ballet technique. I really love ballet, and there are some things about it that remain deeply ingrained in my aesthetic and my body. But as I get older I realize that I have spent more and more time in contemporary dance, and this is definitely where I want to be. Contemporary dance is famously a catch-all term for all sorts of disparate notions. Anyone can say that they’re a contemporary dancer, and it’s impossible to refute! But for me the beauty of contemporary dance lies in that flexibility, its ability to eclectically absorb from all sorts of sources. That said, I like dance because I am fundamentally interested in movement. That may seem a superfluous statement, but given today’s trend towards heavily conceptual dance works, sometimes the quality of sensitive and accomplished movement itself is lost.

ARTERI: Is this why Balletbase is founded?

My high-school dance teacher once told me that I had been waiting all my life to start a dance company, and she’s probably right. The idea of Balletbase has evolved quite a bit since I started it in 2006. At the moment I conceive of it as providing performance opportunities for ballet-trained dancers who may not choose to be career dancers, but still want to dance in an enthusiastic if amateur fashion. And by amateur I mean not slipshod and half-arsed, which is what it is often taken to mean today, but referring to its original meaning, when an amateur was a passionate and often ground-breaking hobbyist.
Many of the Balletbase dancers are actually dance teachers. As a teacher, you don’t get to dance as much as you would suppose! They still want to dance, and they have admirable talents that shouldn’t be wasted. Also, in Malaysia there are so few professional opportunities for dancers that many people go into teaching, but once there they find it difficult to find the time to dance themselves. So I am helping to bridge the gap.

Most of the Balletbase work is contemporary, albeit in a very classically-informed style. Some people call it modern ballet, which works just as well. My idea with the company, and with the name, was to combine the elevation, extensions and line of ballet with the grounded weighty quality of contemporary dance.

ARTERI: Interestingly, your formal education is strongly focused on humanities. You have a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies from Harvard and then a Master in applied anthropology and international development. Do they in anyway frame or direct your approach to dance?

I like to think that my expensive education has not gone to waste! Studies in the humanities, and anthropology in particular, will always frame the way you look at the world, and dance is not exempt from that. I have always had a lot of different interests, and found it hard to settle to doing any one thing, which is why I like my life at the moment – I get to do all sorts of different things. And the liberal arts education, especially in America, is not designed to prepare you for a particular profession, it’s designed to teach you how to think. Or, as one of my Harvard tutors once told me, how to write a good essay. Perhaps that’s true, but inherent in writing a good essay is the ability to read well, to analyse, and, most importantly, I think, to doubt. The power of the carefully qualified statement is something I have come to respect very much, and which I put to good use, I think, in my critical work, where it’s important not to be dogmatic and to be able to appreciate new directions.

I am also interested in doing more scholarly work in dance studies. Professor Anis from the University of Malaya has recently given me the opportunity to write an essay for a book he is co-editing, so I look forward to returning to my academic past. And the theoretical tools that anthropology provides will come in handy. Dance studies is a multidisciplinary field, and quite a lot of the influential work done in dance studies has been done by trained anthropologists.

ARTERI: As a director of the Rimbun Dahan dance programme, you have facilitated in the production of works by four resident choreographers. How have they shaped or influenced your understanding of dance?

My mother and I both agree that the most personally rewarding aspect of the residency at Rimbun Dahan is the ability to have extra insight into the working lives of artists, to be privy to their dilemmas and their decision making, and to be in a position to provide inspiration or merely food for thought.

In some ways, the choreographers we have hosted at Rimbun Dahan have been similar. They are all emerging artists, all native English speakers and all with a fundamental background in classical ballet, no matter how much they may later have strayed from that. And they are all female. This is not something that I have deliberately chosen, it’s just the way things have fallen out. But even within this small group with apparent similarities there is a great degree of difference – if I got them all together in a room, I hardly think they would get on with each other! And partly that stems from the strong individualist streak that runs in all choreographers, which I appreciate more and more.

Independent choreographers of the type that we host at Rimbun Dahan also have to be very self-motivated and self-disciplined. Our residency can be lonely, isolating, alienating, but all of our choreographers have had successful residencies, mostly through sheer hard work. They all give themselves their own dance class, every day, in the enormous studio all by themselves. By the time I had woken up in the morning, Joey Chua was already putting her pointe shoes out to dry after her morning ballet class! Being around such dedicated and driven individuals is always inspiring.

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ARTERI: You are also the secretary of MyDance Alliance. How is MyDance helping to promote appreciation of contemporary dance in this country?

Since its last festival in 2005, MyDance Alliance has been operating on a smaller behind-the-scenes scale. We regularly give grants of under RM 1000 to dancers and choreographers to run small projects or to help them go overseas for training or performance experience. We used to have a fortnightly dance newsletter, with information about all upcoming performances and training opportunities, but we have since decided to merge this with AsiaDanceChannel, to conserve our resources. As the local representative of the World Dance Alliance, we run activities to celebrate International Dance Day on 29 April. Our studio in Petaling Jaya is also available at a very friendly rate for rehearsals or class. And we provide our members with discounts to performances to which we have provided financial support.

MyDance is the only Malaysian non-profit organization designed to support dance in all its forms, although it does tend to focus more on dance as a performing art. It’s a great opportunity to network with other people in the dance community, especially when we’re generally all so busy in our own little boxes. And it has good relations with the National Department of Arts and Culture, so it’s a good platform from which to lobby for change or to apply for grants.

Because it is a membership organization, our activities depend on what our members are interested in. If you think MyDance should be doing something, you can join MyDance and help do it!

ARTERI: Finally, as a writer on dance, could you comment on the current level of discourse on local dance practice? What are the prevalent theoretical lens employed in reading dance in Malaysia?

The current level of discourse on dance is so low that we cannot even begin to consider the use of theoretical lenses! While the majority of the population, and I mean even our art-loving theatre-going audience, wants dances to have narrative, or thinks it’s weird that contemporary dancers spend so much time on the floor, there is not yet space for the introduction of theory to the audience. Besides, I think our dance community is so small and at the same time so fractured and diverse that it is difficult to effectively wield any theory that can make sense of the range of work on offer.

I can’t comment on what happens within the dance academia, but a lot of public discussions tend to rotate around Malaysia’s post-colonial status, whether dance is part of cementing a single Malaysian identity or if it participates in dividing communities from each other, or perhaps creates a complex and synchronous layering of identities. There is currently more attention given to considerations of culture, ethnicity, traditional versus modern, than, I feel, issues like gender, class or aesthetic form.
Among dancers and choreographers themselves, the level of discourse is very low. Very few choreographers actively seek feedback on their work from beyond their own circle of friends and mentors. Most of their attention goes to the day to day challenges of just getting the work made. I know I am not alone in having structured my dances purely depending on how many of my performers could turn up for rehearsal that day!

ARTERI: We want you to put on your critic hat for a bit now. In your opinion, who are the next generation of emerging choreographers we should be looking out for?

Our scene is so small and incestuous, everybody knows everybody, and there are no well-kept secrets or hidden jewels! Choreographers are feted as soon as they show even a little talent. One of my favourite local choreographers is Aris Kadir. He is on his way to becoming quite established – last year he won the Datin Sri Endon Performing Arts Award – but I think he’s still on an exciting trajectory of personal growth. His ‘Nasi Putih’ was physically strong and emotionally powerful, harnessing all sorts of symbols from our collective unconscious, while remaining absolutely tasteful.

Suhaili Ahmad Kamil is definitely one to watch. In a way, her style is very ‘Melbourne’, courtesy of her training – stylish, ironic, humorous, emotionally restrained but unashamedly physical. Her work ‘Nerds Gone Nuts’ won the Best Dance Award at KLPac’s Short  + Sweet Dance this year, and will be performed again in Jamu at ASWARA in November. She’s very young and at the moment her work swings wildly in all sorts of directions, but I look forward to seeing what she will come up with next.

Last year one of the works I saw that literally made my life worth living was James Kan’s site-specific work ‘11:59 PM’ which was created as his final choreographic assignment at ASWARA. It was thoughtful and creative, at times quite daring, and made good use of the space and his dancers. James is doing his Bachelors in Dance at Taiwan National University of the Arts at the moment, so it’s hard to tell how he’s progressing. He presented a new work at ASWARA recently, which was interesting but underdeveloped. Let’s hope he will continue to deliver once he’s outside the institution and he’s not just a flash in the pan!

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ARTERI: The launch of Asia Dance Channel few months back herald a new level of coverage, discourse and appreciation for dance in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. What do you see is the next step in the creation of a critical mass?

I can’t thank Su Ling enough for founding Asia Dance Channel – it’s a tremendous effort, and I think it will be tremendously rewarding. Hopefully it will elevate the level of discourse about dance from the descriptive and the “I don’t understand it, therefore I don’t like it,” response that we commonly see to something more informed and productive.

I do feel like we are approaching critical mass in the contemporary dance community. So many trained and experienced dancers and choreographers are returning from overseas. ASWARA and now University Malaya are pumping out their dance graduates, either as practitioners or scholars. We even had “So You Think You Can Dance?” which, for all its weaknesses, made contemporary dance more familiar to the masses. So I believe we are ripe for big changes.

What will these changes be? I always get frustrated when you have meetings with dancers and choreographers, and everyone just says, “We need more money. We need more money.” Dancers all over the world need more money; so what? I think we have to be creative in our responses to need, and I think, on the whole, we have been. But, then again, if the government decided to establish a full-time 10-dancer state-funded contemporary dance company, especially one that focused on commissioning work from local choreographers, I would be the first to jump for joy. Although it certainly wouldn’t provide employment for all the dancers and choreographers who need and deserve it, it would create a structure of professionalism, increase competitiveness among dancers, and provide the public with regular opportunities to see dance. What could be better?

ARTERI: Where are we heading next? How would you describe the current state of contemporary dance in Malaysia? What are its shortcomings? What are its strengths?

Our strength, and of course our weakness too, in contemporary dance is our diversity. There is such a range of work and techniques to be seen and experienced, from butoh to ballet to contact improvisation, from work deeply inflected by local traditional dance to work so cosmopolitan it could have sprung from anywhere in the world.

The danger, of course, is that all these trends are operating like monologues rather than conversations. There are too many talkers, and not enough listeners. Everybody has had a different training experience. We’re all coming from different places, and we don’t have the shared physical vocabulary to make sense to each other. And there are lots of conversations that not everyone can participate in, literally. The Chinese-speaking community, in particular, has quite a thriving contemporary dance scene, but because of the language barrier it is sometimes difficult to get access to these works.

Now that ASWARA is maturing, I am looking forward to seeing a definite style emerging from ASWARA-trained dancers and choreographers. Then again, I like the diversity. One of the reasons I left Australia and decided to come home was because I felt the Melbourne dance scene was rather monotonous, and I was a round peg who didn’t fit into that square hole. Here we have holes for everyone!

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(SS)

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