DATUK RAMLI IBRAHIM has traced an illustrious career in dance. He is a master of his craft, revered cultural icon and most accomplished teacher of Indian classical dance.
Ramli revisits his 30-year career and distils the essence of what keeps him going. It is a deliberate desire to follow what gives him bliss, recognising the divine madness in himself and chasing perfectionism every single day.
These qualities, are not unique to dance or the arts. They can be applied to almost anything anyone wants to do, if we so choose.
Ramli, now 61, remembers dancing since his childhood. He has trained in classical ballet, modern and Indian classical dance.
Thinking back, he says there was no specific moment in his earlier years that the skies opened and he was struck by an innate desire to dance as if it was his sole mission in life.
“I have always maintained and enjoyed my independence, even as a teenager. I know that I have to follow my bliss. I have always kept to that,” Ramli says.
Dance was what gave him that supreme feeling of bliss, the equilibrium that one feels when the path feels right.
The only problem, he feels, is that the arts was and perhaps still is not considered the right thing to do in Malaysia. In secondary school, Ramli recalls how the high achievers were automatically placed in the science stream.
“I happened to be temperamentally artistic but was sent to do sciences. I chose engineering instead of medicine,” he says.
And so, Ramli pursued a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Western Australia having been awarded a scholarship.
But this did not mean that Ramli closed himself off to other things and threw himself deep into his tertiary education.
All the while, Ramli allowed his mind and body to be “fertilised” by art by visiting galleries, museums and dance rehearsals.
Swiftly after graduation, Ramli dedicated two years just training his body in classical ballet and modern dance.
He studied Bharata Natyam under renowned Indian guru Padmashri Adyar K Lakshman and Odissi under the late Guru Deba Prasad Das. Ramli is often associated with Odissi, which he has successfully implanted on Malaysian dance soil.
Back then, his only concern was if he could survive another year as a dancer. It was a job that paid poorly but he made ends meet through modelling gigs and tutoring in mathematics and physics.
His discipline for his craft is reflected in his choices, preferring to train his body to fancy dinners and outings.
“I did all kinds of things in order to keep myself alive for those two years but it was never considered difficult — it was just a challenge. This is what youth is about — you just do what you want to and the rest feeds that,” he says.
In pursuit of perfection
After returning from Australia, Ramli established Sutra Dance Theatre in 1983 to develop traditional and contemporary performing arts in Malaysia. Over the years, the dance company has trained hundreds of students.
It has also staged productions that have received national and international acclaim for their excellent and innovative theatre presentations.
Sutra Dance Theatre recently toured India and the US with its home-grown production Krishna, Love Reinvented (Odissi). In July, Ramli collaborated with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra on a performance called Quintessence.
Over the decades, Ramli has toured over 100 cities as a dancer, choreographer and instructor.
Yet, his attitude towards his craft has remained the same: it has to be perfect.
“I have to be good,” he asserts. “When I first did my choreography, it had to be very good. In a way, I cannot afford to fail and people assume that it’s going to be good. You have to assume [what people assume].”
The public can be cannibalistic and Ramli feels the pressure.
“You are [judged] on your last performance. This is the kind of thing I fight all the time, even at 61, they will expect that I will just dance.”
In many ways, Ramli is married to his craft and it is an ongoing endeavour. It is about striving for perfection every single time and not rest on his laurels now that he is a world-renowned dancer.
“There’s no forgiving if I am not good. It’s got to be good. There are no two ways about it. I’ve been very graced by the Almighty that everything has, in a way, come ... well because I know the public will kill me if it’s not good.”
But that’s not to say Ramli strives to be perfect for his audience. For Ramli, it has always been about dance and less about performing in front of thousands of people and receiving applause.
“I understand that I am in that game and I need to get myself together spiritually, physically, emotionally so that I’m on track within myself,” he adds.
“But if you are true to yourself as a dancer, you don’t care who the hell is on stage in front of you as you are dancing for yourself. And you are doing something that is true. This is something that you must have on stage.”
Dealing with that divine madness
Dancers are known to have short careers. But this does not hold true for Ramli.
Speaking with Ramli, you wonder if there is a secret to maintaining such youthful energy on and off stage.
The 61-year-old has been described as a “master of dance” who performs with “energy, passion and fervour that is unrivalled among his peers”. He is recognised as a dynamic force within the arts scene.
“There is divine madness in me and that is the reason why there is power in one’s presence on stage, and all that because you are an altar that is burning,” Ramli smiles.
This divine madness can be a double-edged sword. The key is to recognise it within you and learning to channel it.
“The person with an artistic temperament — if they don’t realise it, it can be very destructive,” Ramli says.
“It’s almost like being a shaman; if you’re gifted and you don’t use it or you don’t want to recognise it because you are afraid, the gift will curse you. It’s a scary thought.”
But as a teacher, Ramli laments that the younger generation of dancers seems to show less of the commitment that he expects.
Ramli recalls an earlier time when dancers would sacrifice their time to practice their craft. Everybody was excited to go to rehearsals and there was freshness in the air.
“There was very strong camaraderie between choreographers and dancers. We were doing classes four or five times a day — not a week,” he smiles.
As a teacher of Bharata Natyam and Odissi, Ramli continues to groom over a hundred students at Sutra House. His easy smile quickly fades when he speaks about his dancers today and expresses the problems he encounters with his younger students.
To dance is to experience it and Ramli contends that you cannot do it by reading, taking short cuts or chasing instant gratification. It requires strict dedication.
Ramli also expresses his disdain of dancers who focus too much on staying pretty on stage. In fact, pretty dancers are boring, he adds.
“You have to find the depth. If you are pretty at the same time that you have that something, that intensity, then you are something. But if you are just a pretty face and a bimbo dancing, who cares?”
This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 06 - 12, 2014.