It was an apt title for Asyik ... The Beauty of Classical Dance, a recent production by the Dance Department of the National Academy of Culture, Arts and Heritage (Aswara), which showcased a repertoire of classical styles from the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures through a simple dance drama.
“My dream is to take this production on tour one day. The level of appreciation for classical dance versus pop culture leaves much to be desired. Foreign perception of our dances is still very commercial. I want the world to see the real thing.
“I also want to take this production to other states in Malaysia because I find that each state has very little idea about classical dances other than its own.”
Gonzalez, the artistic director of Asyik, stresses that, “One must eliminate the misconception and fear that culture is about religion. A Chinese dance is not about being Buddhist; a Malay dance is not about being Muslim; nor an Indian dance, about being Hindu. The performers are simply Malaysians, and they are good at dances that are not from their own race!”
The academy has come a long way since then. This year’s production had 80 dancers, 25 musicians and an audience of 350. The repertoire included Gurindam, Silat Gayong Ota-Ota, Joget Gamelan Topeng, the Chinese court banquet dances Ruanwu (sleeves dance) and Jian Wu (warrior dance), Bharatanatyam, Warrior Silat Dance, Asyik and Terinai.
Gonzales’ idea for the production was borrowed from a bangsawan (Malay opera) tale, which somehow fitted in nicely with this genre and prevented it from looking like a commercial variety show.
The story is about a young prince who hears a melodious voice and is drawn to the magic of the lyrics and the hypnotic quality of the voice. The king summons his soldiers and orders them to find this person for his love-stuck son. The soldiers bring guests from near and far who present themselves to the king and prince with a showcase of their culture and precious gifts. The prince finds his love when a princess sings and dances the Asyik accompanied by maidens from the royal Kelantanese entourage.
For this performance, the talent of choreographers such as Wong Kit Yaw, Umesh Shetty, Vatsala Sivadas, Hajijah Yaacob, Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi, Firdaus Mustapha Kamal and Sharip Zainal Sagkif Shekwere sought to find exciting and fresh ways to present the dances.
Of all the performances, 1,000 Hands drew the most applause. The dancers, decked in resplendent white costumes, emulated the goddess of compassion (with 1,000 hands) in graceful synchronicity and with great aplomb.
In the Asyik, dancers, seated most of the time, swayed their upper bodies hypnotically like human pendulums and gazed fixedly at the slight but fluid and continuous movements of their own hands, each dancer very much absorbed in her own world. The bonang (bronze kettle drum) lead stood out as it lent a unique flavour to the music that accompanied the dance.
Overall, the performances served their purpose of educating and entertaining, although with practice, they could be perfected. But if the production manages “to fan the fire of patriotism and pride in being Malaysian” in even a small portion of the population, as is Aswara’s hope, then it would be deemed a success.