Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) October 17, 2004 - Choreography: A Malaysian Perspective

WHERE have all the choreographers in Malaysia gone? While dancers are aplenty, choreographers are, by far, too few. Faced with this issue, Joseph Gonzales, head of dance at Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK), Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage, made it his duty to write Choreography – A Malaysian Perspective.

Joseph began his career in 1981 as a dancer with Frances Ballet. He has performed with KESUMA (the cultural centre in Universiti Malaya), Federal Academy of Ballet, St Moritz Gold Band Dancers, Kuala Lumpur Dance Theatre, Bush Davies School, and London Studio Centre in England. A passionate advocate of dance, he also serves as artistic director for international festivals, workshops, and seminars. Recently, he launched to further promote Malaysian dance. At ASK, he teaches choreography, a core subject for dance majors. This is his first book.

Having spent five years on research, compilation and writing, the author’s labour of love is not in vain. The book serves well in documenting the contemporary dance journey and its evolution from the 60s till today. As a dance practitioner and choreographer himself, and one of the handful who are part of the evolution of contemporary dance, it is imperative that Gonzales shares his experience and knowledge, and provide evidence of the development of contemporary dance in Malaysia.

Choreography comprises seven chapters – An Introduction; A Brief History; Where to Begin; Movement Manipulation and Choreography; Musical Theatre and Post-Modern Choreography; The Profession, and The Choreographers. It is worthwhile to also read the Preface and Afterword as these offer some salient points and perspectives about choreography.

The book, written as introductory reading for young choreographers, is comprehensive enough as it takes readers through basic choreography jargon, sources of inspiration, techniques and exercises, history, and career opportunities. It even introduces a few influential and respected local choreographers, like Ramli Ibrahim, Lena Ang and Marion D’Cruz.

Gonzales starts by defining and qualifying the term “contemporary”, and putting it in its proper context. Insofar as describing choreography from a Malaysian perspective, he generously offers examples of past works and highlights aspects of choreography in those.

Those singled out boast diverse cultures, influences, training and education – and these are clearly reflected in their works, some of which are grounded in classicism and tradition, while others are bold and cutting-edge. This gives readers a clear idea of past efforts and collaborations, and an indication of areas unexplored. There are also photographs of some of the more significant and memorable choreographies.

The tone of the book is rather informal – a sharing of the author’s personal experience – and this makes for easy reading. The style, slightly inconsistent, shifts between the voice of the “veteran”, when going through history, and the “dance teacher”, when describing choreography.

Gonzales also takes care to define concepts and dance terminology so that even the lay reader can understand them.

The chapters on choreography specifically are a little more technical. He is right in stating that choreography is a wide subject, and even more so in multi-racial Malaysia. As such, many of the areas on choreography are beyond this book. As an example, the brief section on “fragmentation”, a useful tool for choreography especially when using traditional dance material, is insufficient. Choreographers have to read more about deconstruction and then reconstruction of movements in order to fully appreciate or maximise this tool. But for young and aspiring choreographers, these chapters are a good introduction to the basic principles of choreography, which help bridge the chasm between the dance genres in Malaysia.

On the whole, the book expresses the need to produce and nurture not just more choreographers, but quality ones who are mindful of their roots, have an open mind and most of all, have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. This attempt to complement the oral tradition (of teaching dance) with practical and functional literature is very much welcome.

Since most of today’s local literature on dance is locked away in private libraries and remains inaccessible to the public, it is heartening to know that local bookstores are giving shelf space to Choreography, which marks ASK’S foray into publishing. A good move as this encourages the process of documentation. Perhaps, next, they should invest in a dedicated publishing department to ensure consistent quality of production, and to market these books internationally.

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