Heritage in Motion

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HE looked straight at me with an unwavering gaze, “yes, of course they can,” he said with a sense of quiet confidence and just a hint of nonchalance.

We were seated in Joseph Gonzales’ functional but otherwise unremarkable office, which on that mundane weekday afternoon, became the space for a rather extraordinary conversation.

The Edge Financial Daily was invited for a chat with the dean of the National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy (Aswara) dance faculty on its latest Merdeka Season line-up of programmes throughout August and September.

Instead, we came to discuss if Aswara dancers have what it takes to make it on an international stage. But it would seem I had gotten the initial question the wrong way around.

Known for its role in preserving our cultural heritage in the area of dance, national arts university Aswara unsurprisingly has a reputation — and casted in the public consciousness — as a school for traditional dances, to put it simply.

In point of fact, the conversation started off on the preservation of heritage while moving forward in today’s Malaysia.

There is no denying the significant success Aswara has had in its primary role as an institution in preserving Malaysia’s once rich heritage of traditional dance, despite lamenting that many had been dying “at an incredibly fast rate”.

It was in trying to press on the topic of the future and sustainability for our traditional dances, admittedly expecting to hear premeditated answers about the importance of keeping tradition, that unravelled a revelation that Gonzales’ vision for Aswara was already far ahead and much more.

The easy part, he pointed out, is to replicate the likes of So You Think You Can Dance (a popular American dance-based reality-television show) and one of its choreographers, Mia Michaels.

A show his dancers would be performing tomorrow for the final day of the Kakiseni International Arts Festival, titled Take Off, is one that Gonzales, with a wry smile and a wave of his hand, quipped: “Looks like it’s borrowed from an episode of So You Think You Can Dance”.

Since introducing a syllabus that places emphasis on classical ballet and modern contemporary training in 1998 when he took the helm at the national academy’s dance faculty, the long-time dean has tried to place a balance on the type or range of choreography and shows Aswara performs.

“We can go out there and do one of the most authentic and traditional Mak Yong’s you can find,” said Gonzales, “and then turn around and do a completely Western contemporary piece like Take Off.”

It is, however, really a game of patience for the sake of educating and cultivating the audience here in Malaysia that Aswara mindfully plans its mix of repertoire.

Without mincing words, Gonzales calls out our local fixation on what we perceive as “high quality international art”, one that often comes with the glitz and glam plus an often hefty price tag.

From its beginnings as an academy that mostly full time cultural dancers with various government bodies came to get accreditation, the profile of Aswara students has changed to 95% secondary school leavers, and since 2005, broke the mono-race track record with the arrival of its first few Chinese and Indian students.

Mostly young 17 to 18 year olds with little foundational training, Gonzales said they take five to six years to train up for their diplomas and degrees (with a wide range of theoretical, anatomy and historical studies involved), where the aim is clear — marketability.

“We have to have graduates [equipped] with the needed skills that would give them employment,” said Gonzales, himself a well-known dancer. His experience taught him that it’s not enough to just keep heritage, as he put it.

Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany and New York — when it came to listing where his students have landed after graduating from Aswara, Gonzales did not hold back his pride as a teacher and mentor, especially when most, if not all, of these students have gone from no formal training to dancing on the world’s stage.

In fact, Gonzales cited that in the last five years or so, his students regularly placed in the top few in ballet and modern dance competitions hosted locally and regionally. It was a long fought journey for the director, one that now also places Aswara as one of Malaysia’s top schools when it comes to exporting dance talent and in international collaborative projects.  

Given, it is only 10% of students who go the distance, as it were — a majority would join local government cultural groups or departments, while some pursue commercial work — something that the passionate teacher said, is ultimately their decision which he will not judge.

“As an educator, I [just] have to open all the doors,” added Gonzales, but the battle is for the group that will “become the Ramlis (famed Malaysian dancer Ramli Ibrahim) and so on”, ones he said who “are excavating choreographic ideas and working for international exposures, pushing themselves to a new level.”

It is with that motivation to provide them a platform for exposure and the dissemination of Malaysian arts that led the founding of Aswara Dance Company (ADC) — one of the only two full dance companies in Malaysia (with sponsorship from Yayasan Sime Darby) — it is made up of graduates and top students from the academy.

The company performs regularly around the region and overseas, recognised for its authenticity with our traditional dance forms, be it Malay, Indian or Chinese. Just last month, ADC performed a full length Bharatanatyam for its Merdeka Season (he’s planning a full Chinese dance next year) and was invited to Singapore to do a series of Malay dances at the Esplanade.

While they have learnt to be “everything” for the sake of surviving, Gonzales revealed that the long-term plan is not just traditional dance forms or emulating Western styles, which he stated is “quite boring”.

People who follow Aswara’s work would have recognised a distinctive infusion of ethnic and traditional influence in an otherwise modern contemporary style.

“That is the choreography we encourage,” admitted Gonzales, who champions an authentic Malaysian identity that can sell abroad. “All-final year students have to do one dance that is based on traditional vocabulary (but that is not actually a traditional dance form).”

In 2013, the company performed Rooted in Silat in Thailand, a thoroughly contemporary show based in Silat vocabulary.

“They would say, ‘oh, this is what contemporary is in Malaysia’,” highlighted Gonzales proudly. To give a clearer picture of the potential that lies in re-interpreting our cultural heritage, a success story is Taiwan’s famed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Its breathtaking works rooted in Asian aesthetics and philosophy have captured worldwide attention.

The answer to my initial question on whether our dancers can compete in terms of skill overseas was clearly fixated on non-traditional training, but it is in the traditional dances that will build the bridge to exporting a truly Malaysian identity in art.

Yet, at a time when dance has taken on a global, fast moving trend, Aswara is in a place where it is battling to be recognised here at home.

“It’s a sad thing really, but Malaysia doesn’t want to produce us,” said Gonzales matter-of-factly. The problem is hardly new and one that plagues every local performing arts group in varying degrees.

Rather unsurprisingly, the answer to sustaining and preserving heritage moving forward comes down to the practical steps of clearer structures, funding and a less bureaucratic system that would benefit the drawing out and developing of talent, of which Gonzales said there is plenty in schools.

In that respect, he pointed out that we can draw an example from our closest neighbour, Singapore: “It has a national arts council, which works closely with the Ministry of Education… everybody works with everybody. The routes for applying for funding are clear, everyone knows how to get art housing.”

He also lamented that our full-time art schools needed better quality educators, drawing a comparison to Singapore’s School Of The Arts, he said, “It is built like Julliard. It’s ridiculous, the infrastructure.”

It’s not entirely without reason that Gonzales gets worked up, as he explained that the younger our local talents are discovered and trained, the better overall would be the standard and chances for them to get to Aswara.

Pointing to 26-year-old Fairul Zahid seated next to him, who by now is in New York as the first Malaysian accepted into the prestigious Tisch School of The Arts, Gonzales homed in his point: “We don’t want them to spend the best 10 years of their life overseas, and then come back when it’s kind of over. So we need to find an avenue for them to perform here at the prime of their lives.”  

For now, however, the director said they can simple start with better floors and a clinic for his dancers.

Gonzales (left) leading the troupe in choreography at Aswara. Photos by Haris Hassan

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 15, 2014.