Gubahan Tari Tradisi
Fakulti Tari ASWARA
Panggung Eksperimen, ASWARA
1-3 March 2019
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
It’s a delicate dance, updating tradition. Stalwarts will decry the loss of authenticity, as the young bloods thirst for novelty. It’s even more dangerous when sex is involved – or gender. I have written elsewhere about the tightly scripted gender roles ingrained in the performance of traditional Malay dance. So watching this showcase of new ideas for traditional dance – created and performed by teachers, students and alumni of the Faculty of Dance ASWARA – I felt it would be productive to look at how the gender roles might have been tweaked, with the changing times in mind.
I am no expert in traditional dance, but even a newbie can see that in Malay dance men and women are usually strictly separated. In social dances like joget and zapin they dance in mixed pairs, but are forbidden to touch. Women dancers are expected to cast their eyes downwards and take up little space, while the men strut their stuff with protective gestures and expansive delight.
Some might argue that gender relations are the core of these dances; to change the gender relations risks making the dance unrecognisable. Witness, for example, the controversy surrounding a contemporary dance performance choreographed by Hasyimah Harith at the Esplanade in Singapore last year. Its sarong-clad women, moving pensively without a man in sight, and daring to put their hands on their own bodies and each others’, was considered scandalous by Singapore’s Malay cultural gatekeepers, largely because the title of the series was Joget, and such words are sacrosanct. You can change a little, the reigning wisdom goes, but a joget of independent women is simply too much.
No doubt Gubahan Tari Tradisi was a challenge for its artistic director, Norsafini Jafar. An expert in the royal East Coast tradition of joget gamelan, she is the current Dean of the Faculty of Dance (where she is dubbed ‘Puan Dekan’), and thus a key preserver of cultural traditions. But she seems to wear this responsibility lightly. With ‘Gambuh Menari’, her own contribution to the program which also opens the show, she demonstrates how subtle innovations can update traditional forms to more current beliefs about men and women.
I don’t usually find joget gamelan very compelling. The dancers are supposed to be women of the royal household, perhaps even concubines, and they are often demure but disregardable: obedient servants in a pageant of king worship. But Safini injects a dose of humanity into her version, as well as extra helpings of physical virtuosity. The dancers manipulate their fans with the usual elegance, but in extreme back bends, their headdresses almost touching the floor.
These are working women, the dance suggests: they mime domestic tasks, shunting a closed fan back and forth like the shuttle of a loom. One gesture uses the fan to pat down the length of their songket-clad haunches; this subtle flirtation makes them suddenly seem like real red-blooded women! So do the dagger glances they send each other, as they brandish their fans like weapons.
At one point, the dancers became uncharacteristically sombre, miming rocking an ailing child in their arms — woe betide the unlucky concubine whose male heir fails to thrive! Like The Story of Yanxi Palace, the current hit of Chinese streaming tv, the dance paints a portrait of women covertly jostling for position in the most patriarchal of environments. Sure, their options are limited, but within their confines they are exercising whatever agency they can.
The same cannot be said of Zamzuriah Zahari’s ‘Asyik Emas’. The emphasis on back bends and golden headdresses remains, but this reimagined court dance renders its women as literally little more than ornaments. They symbolise ‘bunga emas’, the elaborate golden trees offered by the sultans of the northern states of Malaya in tribute to the kings of Siam in the 19th century. The historical connection is appropriate: tari asyik comes from Kelantan and traces its origins to 17th century Pattani, both vassal states to Siam. And the dance is certainly attractive: the dancers’ long fake gold fingertips intertwine like spiky blooms, and they pose serenely with one foot upturned behind them in the flying apsara pose familiar from Thai dance.
But the implication of women as the property of men, the idea of giving women as gifts, disturbs me. If you made a dance reenacting Malay rulers prostrating themselves at the foot of the Thai king you would probably cause a riot. And yet we are so normalized to the idea of women as property, as doll-like decorative objects, that a dance like ‘Asyik Emas’ is, sadly, totally uncontroversial.
Across the sea, in East Malaysia, the status of women in traditional dance is not much better. In most of the traditional dance from Sabah and Sarawak, women do small extremely repetitive movements. Large groups of women function as an undifferentiated chorus, juxtaposed against a single male protagonist depicting a warrior or shaman. In this show, Douglas Philip Labadin’s rendition of tarian Mongigol from the Rungus of Sabah retains that pattern, with the added emphasis of having the single male dancer select his chosen consort from the ensemble by bestowing her with a necklace. What woman could resist? I would be wary, if I were her: being chosen by men has poor outcomes for women in dance. See The Rite of Spring, in which the Chosen One is sacrificed to fertilise the soil after winter. See also: female tribute, as above.
So I was relieved to see a different, still segregated but more equal, vision of gender relations in Muhammad Yunnus Zainalabidin’s version of the dances of the Melanau Lijou from Mukah, Sarawak. This is a tari bubu, which uses a woven bamboo fishing trap dressed in baju and sash to represent a member of the dead. At the climactic moment, the bubu, suspended by cords in the centre of a circle of men, appears to dance eerily by itself. The women still play a secondary role, not touching the bubu, dancing in circles around the men. But they hold ceramic plates which they tap with chopsticks in counterpoint to the rhythm of the percussion, almost as if they are conducting the spooky proceedings. And if the bubu is empowered to dance, so are the women, in a strikingly similar manner: a series of parallel-footed little hops around in a circle, one of the only times in the evening when I saw women with both feet off the ground.
Indoctrination into gender roles starts early in life, and the most anxious gender policing happens around the bodies of children. Kayrol Marknann’s ‘Perahu Kayuh’ is a case in point: a horde of little kids from SK Taman Megah, probably between the ages of 7 and 10, in a dance about paddling a boat. The girls, given the liberty of wide-legged pants under their little kebaya, get to shriek and charge about, but the boys still look like they’re having more fun, kicking and bopping their way around the stage. The distinction became particularly noticeable at one moment when the kids sit in a line on the ground like dikir barat, to clap and chant and row. The boys get to sit cross-legged, while the girls, even in pants, are required to kneel on their heels. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it’s really hard to get traction for leaning, rowing and clapping when you’re kneeling. You’re in constant danger of toppling over. Being a little woman doesn’t seem like that much fun.
The work that tries the hardest to achieve parity between men and women is Seth Hamzah’s ‘Zapin Sengkeling’, inspired by the straddle stance of kaki kekuda in silat. Silat is one of the few Malay cultural practices in which women are allowed to take a wide-legged position (the cross-dressing Pak Yong in tarian makyong is another, as are female dancers of the traditionally male tari inai). So here the women dress similarly to the men and are able to do somewhat similar moves. Disappointingly, this hybrid format failed to gel, especially among the male dancers, perhaps because of a breakdown between movement and music, or because of the inexperience of the dancers. I hope it wasn’t because the male dancers felt that their masculinity was threatened!
And yet anyone worried that Fakulti Tari ASWARA is boringly heteronormative would have been reassured by the finale, Muhammad Zakwan Hafizie’s totally camp ‘Joget Terbang’. The all-male dancers sport fabulous powder blue and gold ensembles, with lofty sharp-angled tengkolok presumably intended to look like the tailfin of a plane, and royal blue superhero capes. Inspired by flight attendant safety announcements, the dancers gesticulate with flat hands: emergency exits are here, here, and here. Was this a subtle nod to the reputed proclivities of airline stewards? In any case, the sight of 12 grown men earnestly pretending to be aeroplanes brings a welcome sense of humour to the proceedings. Towards the end, the music speeds up and the dancers do likewise. Prepare for lift-off!
As the crowd went wild, I thought that AirAsia really should hire them all, recaparison them in trademark red, and fly them around the world to perform. Pop a few women dancers in there (in pants, please, not mini dresses), and it would make a fine advert for gender inclusivity. Because in this day and age, really, everyone can fly.
All photographs generously contributed by LH Tang.
Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes that the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.