Duration: 26 min
ArtsEquator’s dance podcast series returns this year, after a short hiatus, with a lively and thoughtful discussion between Chan Sze-Wei, (dance-maker, performance-maker and sometime trouble-maker; Chloe Chotrani (movement artist, writer and gardener); and Soultari Amin Farid (choreographer, arts educator and researcher of Malay dance)
This month they discuss two programmes that took place earlier this month: the first is Joget, presented at the Esplanade and featuring the work of four Singaporean choreographers: Norisham Osman, Norhaizad Adam, Badarudin Hassan and Hasyimah Harith. These new works, created in collaboration with choreographer Susan Sentler as dramaturg, were influenced by traditional Malay dance practices and also inspired by the everyday concerns of Singaporeans.
The conversation also touches on Intersections: Traditionally Speaking, a performance-lecture-dialogue between two practitioners and teachers of traditional dance: Elizabeth Chan and Amin himself.
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Corrie Tan: Hello, I’m Corrie, guest editor of Arts Equator, and welcome to our dance podcast. Here in the studio with me today, I have Chan Sze-Wei, who is a dance-maker, performance-maker and sometime trouble-maker [laughter]; we have Chloe Chotrani, a movement artist, writer and gardener; and Soultari Amin Farid, a choreographer, arts educator and researcher of Malay dance.
This morning we’re here to discuss Joget, which was presented at the Esplanade last week. This dance piece featured the work of four Singaporean choreographers: Norisham Osman, Norhaizad Adam, Badarudin Hassan and Hasyimah Harith. These new works, created in collaboration with choreographer Susan Sentler as dramaturg, were influenced by traditional Malay dance practices and also inspired by the everyday concerns of Singaporeans.
We’re also going to touch on Intersections: Traditionally Speaking, which is a performance-lecture that is also a dialogue between two practitioners and teachers of traditional dance – one of them is of Chinese dance, who is Elizabeth Chan; and one of Malay dance, which is Amin, whom we have in the studio today.
Just to begin, I wonder if you could maybe share your experiences of watching Joget and maybe take the conversation from there.
Amin: I would say that there’s an exciting development for these four choreographers experimenting and the Esplanade providing that platform. Because, as a scholar of this form, of the Malay dance form, we see how they have gone to such great lengths to really look through, question, critique the form. And I think with Susan as dramaturg as well, that’s also helped them to really, you know – to ask whether it’s necessary to even keep the form, and just go beyond. I’m not sure what the rest of my colleagues here would want to say about it as well?
Chloe: I’m coming from a very fresh perspective without much experience of Malay dance, which is really interesting, because then I get kind of a pure response. Joget I think for me was a very important conversation to happen today, especially with the timeline of the joget modern post World War II. So the fact that it is in conversation and there is a platform is very exciting, and I’m very curious about – what now? What happens after?
Sze-Wei: I was really excited by what I saw at Joget. I know three of the choreographers pretty well; Badarudin I know a little bit less. I also know the dramaturg and had conversations with them through the process, but I was really delighted to get to the theatre and see what they had come up with because, well, I’m not Malay dance-trained, I’ve got a smattering, but having watched various pieces in different settings over the years, there was something incredibly fresh for me, whether looking at it from a maybe more traditional perspective, or looking at it as a contemporary choreographer. And when I say ‘contemporary’ I’m very aware that we carry this baggage of a western convention of what we call ‘contemporary’ that monopolises this term. And what I saw was really exciting.
Maybe I’ll just say a little [bit] about what I thought about them, or how I would describe them. It started with Badarudin’s piece, or is that Bada for short?
Amin: Yeah, Bada for short. [laughter]
Sze-Wei: It was a very simple solo, choreographed in five parts in five different parts of the stage, where I really saw him stripping down what in some Malay dance schools are considered like the canon of the different sort of basic steps or techniques. And he really put them under a microscope, and deconstructed them in a very careful way. And what was very beautiful – and starting with his piece – was that it was done to Bani Haykal’s soundtrack, which was not the usual reliance on drum-based music, and I guess quite a simple rhythmic format? Bani was playing with some quite abstract and polyrhythmic patterns, and some industrial, almost machine-like noises and humming. And the rhythm of the body really emerged. So it was very simple, almost in an exercise-like format, I felt? But it was incredibly beautiful to watch.
The next piece was Syimah’s piece, which for me was really an incredible pleasure to watch. She brought in a sensuality – she had four female performers, including herself, who were just clad very, very simply in sarongs tied at the chest-level and you could see their bra straps. I was already quite surprised – in a Malay dance context this would be considered very revealing. And the proximity with which they danced so near to the audience, and the sensuality with which they treated their own bodies – not in a kind of like, selling their sexuality kind of way, but in a very intimate, private way – was really exciting. It was so beautiful.
Norisham’s piece was very, very different from all of the others. He built from the footdrill – I know he does his NS [National Service] in the civil defence force, but the footdrill and the kind of rituals of obedience and domination and things like that, and he built conflict out of there. I guess what I saw was he was asking, where does the Malay identity sit within that, where is this kind of jovial joget kind of celebratory thing, where does that identity sit within the rigidity of that.
And then Haizad’s piece really blew my mind. He kind of deconstructed the joget in a way that brought together, in a very sort of – it began with an almost sort of pop entertainment way? He was just there in his shorts. Again, I know, very difficult for a Malay dancer to do, just there in his shorts. As an aside, Syimah and Haizad are a couple, and I was like, oh, this is both of them going to their underwear, brave people! [laughter] But anyway, he was there, and it was almost like a clubbing music, and he was starting with very tiny movements, but I could see that he was looking at the mechanism of the joget, the ronggeng and the circular motion of the wrist and building patterns out of it. But almost in a way that was reminiscent of a go-go dancer? As the piece progressed, there were pieces of clothing dropping from the ceiling at various points, and the dance would start to evolve as he became more dressed and more conservative, and we began to see the joget vocabulary that we see represented on stage today. And in-between each of these episodes, there would be a change in the music, a kind of like ticker sound, and he picked up what looked like a begging bowl and went round to the audience asking for change each time in this kind of like almost over-the-top repetition. It was hilarious, but it was also extremely thought-provoking. It was fantastic. So that’s four pieces.
Chloe: The second and fourth piece, the husband and wife duo, had a really interesting kind of parallel pattern of this undressing and dressing, and this self-soothing, and it really made me think about the word ‘dirty’, because the joget is always seen as this kind of erotic, intrinsically erotic form, so how do we view that word ‘dirty’ and what is ‘dirty’ in dressing and undressing. So there was a very interesting pattern happening there with the second and fourth piece.
Amin: If I can contextualise joget for all of us here, the term joget is a music-dance genre as part of the Malay canon. It’s also a dance form that was influenced by the Portuguese when they colonised Malacca, and after that it was taken on by the Malays, indigenised, etc. And then after you saw that the joget also became a very important feature in dancehalls and entertainment parks of the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore, so what happens there is that you’ll use a coupon, men buy coupons to dance with a taxi dancer. So because of that, it becomes a, there were a lot of negative connotations which came about from there. For women who are taxi dancers, they were called perempuan joget, for example. What was really interesting was after that we also saw a sanitisation of joget, and we see joget becoming a national dance of Malaysia, for example, then also used in many parts of the Malay world to represent Malayness.
So I thought it was a really opportune time, today, 2018, for us to unpack this negative connotations or what’s been sanitised. For my colleagues, my contemporaries who have created these works, I felt that they were really challenging those boundaries. Again, two of my favourite works that really looked at how unpacking the labour in dance – Haizad’s work featured that a lot, understanding the labour that comes in the dancing, and how it’s transformed, and also the act of asking for money as well, right? We read biographies of some of these perempuan joget or towkays – they actually have double lives, you know? In the morning they work as other things, and at night they work as towkays of these joget establishments. So it really showed, he really tried to show us history. What was interesting is that at the end of it, he’s clad, dressed in traditional wear, songkok and all, and giving that money to people. Personally, I felt that was a sort of morality thing as well? Like despite being someone that is seen as ‘dirty’ or ‘derogatory’, he also does his part as someone in the community, and giving back. That was interesting for me.
For Syimah’s work – oh, sensuality. We do not have that. We don’t show that in Malay dance. We don’t have contact either! When you have two, a male and a female dancer dancing, we don’t touch! Because it’s just not in the decorum. And for her to be clad, and for her dancers to be clad in spaghetti [straps] and just a sarong to cover, well that’s a contestation. Now, a lot of traditionalists who came felt very offended by what they saw. The female body in such a manner, not dressed appropriately. And I thought it was interesting because that sensuality, that touch, and I must say also, as a researcher of the scene and of the community, 70 percent of Malay dance choreographers are male. So this is an opportunity for women voices to be heard. And for Syimah to do something like that, that was definitely a statement.
Chloe: If I could just bounce off of that: with Syimah’s piece, I talked to her about it after, and it was all about self-soothing, and you know there’s a lot of pieces now that are responses to the divine feminine, there’s a very popular term we were talking about yesterday called ‘radical softness’ and all of this, so I was asking her about all of this. Is this what is energising your work? And she was saying, no, it’s not about that at all, it was really about self-soothing and cleaning as a form of soothing one’s self, for yourself rather than for the male gaze. I found that interesting that it was not necessarily the intention, but it translated in that way.
Sze-Wei: I think what was actually also very important about this was the way it was curated. And in that I think we really need to credit Fezhah, who, if I’m not wrong, I know she programmed this and that she’s at the Esplanade programming The Studios, but she also programmed this and decided to bring in Susan as dramaturg. But the idea to profile this – it’s part of Pesta Raya, isn’t it? The Malay Festival of Arts. And to situate this within something that usually features very canonical, traditional type of repertoire, pitching this specifically to a Malay audience – I could see the audience that came, it was predominantly Malay, so it’s very different from if it had been done, say, under The Studios’ label or da:ns festival. It’s a very different audience. We did have a conversation at a Dance Nucleus event about a month ago, about why does one need to commission a platform for Malay choreographers? Are we ghettoising them in some form? But when I saw what Fezhah was doing, I can see that she’s also making a bid to shift the audience and shift the way we view things, and of course there’s a great risk involved. I also heard about how many people in the traditional Malay dance scene are quite angry about this work. I don’t have to bear that myself because I’m not one of the choreographers, I’m not in this situation, but I understand that it’s something that they do go through. I think it’s very important, it’s very bold, it’s very brave, and as a contemporary artist I would see that as – I don’t know, is this offensive to say? I think that they could almost take that offence as a compliment. They are where they need to be, they’re on the cutting edge, they’re asking questions which are so relevant that they hurt.
Amin: Thinking about this as well, a lot of those who were offended were actually their own gurus. It was interesting as well because Alfian [Sa’at], who was there for the post-show talk for Joget, asked them, “Have you all been disowned by your gurus?” And it was interesting that they said, “Oh, well, they’re not very happy with the things that we do”, and some of them even called themselves rebels, etc – I find it really ironic, as a researcher myself, it’s interesting that for their gurus to be very unhappy, they [the gurus] were also one of those who were rebels themselves in their day. So I wonder sometimes whether innovation stops somewhere, and we are willing to innovate but it stops. “I innovate, but only I can.” So that’s something to have a conversation about, definitely. In the scene, we rarely have conversations, and it’s always a case of respecting our gurus and putting them in a particular position, but I think having a conversation is to respect them, enough to know a little bit of their own perspective. And I’m using this as a platform also to talk a lot more about why the Malay dance needs to have these conversations. A lot of times you have veterans who want a particular way, a particular look, and because amongst veterans today there’s this talk about ‘grace’, about “we are lacking grace in Malay dance”, and “we need to be nostalgic, we need to look back at our time when we were very graceful and we were very simple”. There is this shift, trying to bring us back to that time. Personally, as someone who’s also a creator, I don’t find that necessary. I find that it’s up to us as youths, the new choreographers, the upcoming ones – well, we’re not upcoming, we’ve been here for 10 years, I don’t think we’re ‘upcoming’ – but we’re still considered as ‘young’ choreographers to our teachers, but that’s fine. [laughter] But that conversation needs – we need to have that conversation. We need to have a conversation where we can bridge, at least, to show that we respect our veterans, but at the same time we need to have our own voice.
Chloe: I think the discourse is just as important as the dance, and I think it does have to happen more. And I think the conflict is also, the tension, the friction is also such a place of potential and opportunity where things are happening.
Sze-Wei: Actually, if I could hop over to Amin and Elizabeth’s piece now, on this topic of conversations – what I felt when I went to watch your piece, and I also saw what friends in my network on Facebook were writing about your piece, I really had a sense of this great hunger for conversations. That there is a difficulty to have them, but when in offering the piece Intersections, the performance-lecture that you and Elizabeth did, you opened a space for conversations. On the day that I attended, the majority of the audience seemed to me to be Malay dancers, and maybe your students and your friends, jumping into the conversation very openly, very sincerely. I had the sense that this is very rare for them, to be able to do this. So it’s, it’s crucial. I think we are at a crucial point, and squashing this discussion would be really counterproductive.
Amin: If I could say a little bit about what me and Elizabeth have been doing, we’ve been working for about two months on this, Intersections: Traditionally Speaking, having conversations about how our practice and form, how similar they were, and how different they are at the same time. And also for Chinese dance, particularly, a lot of times when we talk about Chinese dance, its centre is in China. Also at the same time, being Chinese in Singapore, and the sort of intermingling that’s been happening – do we still need to refer to China? That’s one conversation that we had. But for the Malays, we do not have a particular centre, right? Do you go to Indonesia? Or do you go to Malaysia? Or Brunei? Southern Thailand? There are so many places that identify themselves as Malay. But again what I wanted to do as well as to unpack this racial term ‘Malay’, because ‘Malay’ in Singapore, being an urban site of having many different sub-communities of the region coming together in this hub – are we really Malay when at the same time we are also Javanese, Boyanese, Minangkabau etc? And if so, if we identify with these “sub-communities” – and I’m putting that in scare quotes, “sub-communities” – why are they not represented in the Malay dance canon?
So these are the things which I talk about, and it was very interesting – one of our moderators was Dr Chua Soo Pong, who is himself a Chinese wayang doyen and a researcher of the traditional arts in Singapore since the 1980s. He felt that the CMIO [Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others] model was really needed at one point in time, because it was for nation-building etc. But it doesn’t work any more today, he says. Because I think we have found ourselves, to some extent, we have intermingled really well. But also at the same time, there’s the question: does the Malay dance model work today? What more can we do with it? How can we unpack it? These were the things we were talking about as we were doing the work for Intersections. But it was quite unfortunate, I think, and I’d like to say it as well, that we didn’t really highlight everything that we wanted to talk about because, you know, we realised that the audience might be quite new to the whole idea of having traditional artists having a conversation –
Sze-Wei: “Oh my god! They have brains!”
Amin: I agree with that!
Sze-Wei: “They have opinions!”
Amin: I agree with that, because it’s like a first for them. Like what you said, it was this thirst for conversation, and I gave them the opportunity. And to have my own dancers coming to me after and saying, “Abang, I have so many questions I want to ask you.” And they gave me SMSes and WhatsApps of so many questions. And I said, oh my god, I need to do another lecture! Because there were such great questions. “Abang, if you are trying to say that everything we do is contemporary today, then what is tradition? Why do we call ourselves traditional artists?” And these are great questions, from the minds of 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, from polytechnics and secondary schools, and we need to have that conversation. A lot of our traditional artists are not that articulate at the moment because we don’t have that conversation. So, yeah. I was very happy to have that platform to do this, and I was very happy that the two of you were there as well to bear witness to why we need to have this conversation in the first place.
Sze-Wei: I think it says a lot that the work spoke to many people who are also not identifying or practising as traditional Malay dancers or Chinese traditional dancers or classical dancers. Whether as dancers or as artists or as general audience, there was I think a sense of the stake in identity and tradition that these things have, the tension that generates with needing to exist in a contemporary sense. I heard that that same hunger and thirst and questions, also confusion – confusion creating the need for questions and dialogue about it – when Elizabeth presented yesterday at the Dance Nucleus. Over the weekend, in fact, at the Dance Nucleus there was something called Scope where mainly associate artists were presenting different aspects of their research, and Elizabeth – I don’t know how she multi-tasks like this – had another presentation with two other Chinese dancers, talking about pedagogical aspects. And the questions were really multiplying in that space. And it was interesting to be there almost like witnessing it, and engaging with it from the viewpoint of a dancer who is much more used to a western contemporary dance discursive framework. And trying to see how Elizabeth tries to bring those two approaches together.
Chloe: I think the format of performance-lecture is a really interesting opportunity for dancers and artists to come together in dialogue through applying choreographic strategies and different ways to converse, which is not just on a verbal plane, but also like when you and Elizabeth were conversing during the lecture, I found it so charismatic and so engaging and so enjoyable, and it’s hilarious because I’m listening to you, Amin, and you’re talking about these traditional Malay dances and these gendered forms, and you within your hyper-femininity and the way you speak and your tone, that moment is loaded in itself, and it’s so multi-dimensional. I’m very interested in that format and how we can apply choreographic strategies to explore our own discourse beyond the questions of traditional and contemporary.
Corrie: We’ve had some really interesting conversations and I think what I kind of have drawn from all three of you is looking at how things calcify, how innovations sort of calcify – not just in choreographic practice or in dance, but also in terms of CMIO in Singapore; it was innovative for that time, but now how can we go beyond that conversation. So I think in Joget you have four different artists conversing in that way, having that conversation among themselves; and then between you, Amin, and Elizabeth is another conversation going on, how you can bring that further, introduce really productive frictions and tensions to see how this will grow. So thank you so much for talking about this, I think we’ve explored really rich territory, and thank you for being here!
All: Thank you for having us! Thank you.
Joget ran at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 22 – 24 March 2018. It showcased the choreographic works of Norisham Osman, Norhaizad Adam, Badarudin Hassan and Hasyimah Harith, and dramaturged by Susan Sentler.
Intersections: Traditionally Speaking was presented at Centre 42 Black Box from 22 – 24 March 2018, and was produced by Docket.sg and Bhumi Collective.
Podcast Guest Soultari Amin Farid is a choreographer, arts educator and researcher from Singapore. He is currently based in London where he is a PhD candidate in Theatre, Drama and Dance studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.
Podcast Guest Chloe Chotrani is a movement artist and writer based in Singapore. Her embodied research is oriented towards her ancestry, eco-feminism and the movement landscape of South/east Asia and the Diaspora. When she is not dancing or writing, she bridges art and ecology through permaculture by building and tending to garden installations around the city with Cultivate Central.
Podcast Guest Chan Sze-Wei stepped into a dance class for a university P.E. requirement, and hasn’t stopped dancing since. Blending conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, performance installation and film, her work is often intimate and sometimes invasively personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender. Her work has been shown in Singapore, the UK, Indonesia, Laos, Taiwan, Croatia, Brazil and the USA.
About the author(s)
Muhd Noramin Mohd Farid (Soultari) is a choreographer, arts educator and researcher from Singapore. He received his Doctorate in Theatre and Dance studies (2021) from Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. He is a recipient of the ASEAN-India Youth Award (2018), Singapore Youth Award (2017), National Arts Council Scholarship (2017) and Goh Chok Tong Mendaki Youth Promise Award (2016). Amin is the Joint-Artistic Director of Bhumi Collective, a multidisciplinary performing art and producing company. He writes occasionally for Arts Equator, Straits Times and the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay.