Battery Dance worked and performed in Penang, Malaysia, September 2011
Malaysia Program Specifics
During BDC's 2011 Malaysian tour, Hollander left Kuala Lumpur for 24 hours to visit the workshop that was taking place at Penang, with BDC’s Sean Scantlebury and ASWARA’s Lorna Hoong at the helm.
Again, the students were doing outstanding work, discovering their inner dancer while building their teamwork skills and self-esteem. It was extraordinary to see these young dancers leave the studio at Whiteaways Arcade (a part of Penang’s World Heritage Site), presumably to take a break, and then to step outside into the hallway and see them coaching each other and rehearsing their moves over and over again.
Hollander assisted in guiding arrangements for the final performance with Joe Sidek, Director of the George Town Festival, and Aida Redza, a Malaysian dancer and dance teacher, educated at the Rotterdam Dans Academy, who had spent months publicizing the workshops, gathering interested students from many different walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds, and negotiating space for the rehearsals. Joe managed to secure the historic Penang Town Hall for the performance and brought in lighting, sound and stage crews to support the show which, from all reports was well-attended and equally well-received.
Rimbun Dahan, Malaysia, September 2011
September 19 - October 2, 2011
Local Malaysian partners in Penang, Kota Kinabalu, Kuang and Kuala Lumpur offered their support in the tasks involved in organizing five separate cohorts of 20 students each to take part in DtC workshops and final performances. A list of partners is appended to this report. An emphasis was placed on reaching out to under-served communities including refugees, students at government schools, street children, orphans and so forth. Venues were located for each workshop – with the requisites of wooden floors, good ventilation, sound equipment and spacious dimensions. As the planning phase unfolded (between February and September), more and more people and groups gravitated to the program, expanding its outreach and scope many fold.
Battery Dance Company worked in Sabah, Malaysia, September 2011
Malaysia Program Specifics
A 5th workshop took place in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah on Borneo. This one was led by Robin Cantrell with the able assistance of ASWARA’s Faillul (‘Boy’) Adam. Hotel accommodations, workshop space, performance venue, and participants had all been arranged by dance teacher and choreographer Suhaimi Magi, whom Hollander, Cantrell and Scantlebury had met in January when he was still teaching on the faculty at ASWARA. He joined the faculty at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) in July and negotiated the dance department’s full support of Dancing to Connect. This was a radical departure from the foundation of traditional Malay dance training that characterizes UMS’ approach to dance training. Robin found the students hungry for the kind of approach she purveyed, though the final performance lacked coordination and was poorly attended, due, in part, to Suhaimi’s absence (he left the day before the performance for a conference in Korea.)
Battery Dance Company worked and performed Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 2011
Malaysia Program Specifics
The second phase of Battery Dance Company’s two-part program in Malaysia was built exponentially on the plans, relationships and intellectual property-sharing put in place during the first phase that had taken place eight months earlier.
In January, 2011, Jonathan Hollander and two Battery Dance Company teaching artists, Sean Scantlebury and Robin Cantrell, had established close rapport with two partner organizations in Kuala Lumpur, Sutra Dance Theatre and ASWARA, that were to become central to the projects culmination in September.
At ASWARA, Malaysia’s National Arts Conservatory, the American team had exposed students and faculty to the methodologies of Dancing to Connect (DtC) through a dual-layered approach:
Sean, Robin & Jonathan worked with 40+ ASWARA students in two groups, providing them with the guidance needed to create their own choreography following the Dancing to Connect model
The Battery Dance Company team selected a group of the most motivated ASWARA students and invited them to shadow the Dancing to Connect workshop program with 20 youngsters from the refugee community of KL, under the auspices of the UNHCR. Having implanted an understanding of DtC and created trust and mutual respect with its Malaysian partners, BDC was able to move on to the next step. With the guidance and cooperation ASWARA’s Dean of Dance, Joseph Gonzales, five senior dance majors and recent graduates were selected to serve as teacher trainees with the five teaching artists of Battery Dance Company.
Local Malaysian partners in Kuala Lumpur offered their support in the tasks involved in organizing five separate cohorts of 20 students each to take part in DtC workshops and final performances. A list of partners is appended to this report. An emphasis was placed on reaching out to under-served communities including refugees, students at government schools, street children, orphans and so forth. Venues were located for each workshop – with the requisites of wooden floors, good ventilation, sound equipment and spacious dimensions. As the planning phase unfolded (between February and September), more and more people and groups gravitated to the program, expanding its outreach and scope many fold.
Upon arriving in KL, the 7-member BDC team held meetings with the ASWARA trainees in preparation for the teamwork that would take place a week later. Subsequent attention was turned to the realization of the other pivotal 4 performances in collaboration with Malaysia’s leading dance company, Sutra Dance Theatre.
This series of performances, which attracted audiences of approximately 2,000 as well as major television, radio and print media coverage, involved performances of repertory pieces by each company. Taking full advantage of the opportunity to collaborate artistically, two works were created and presented in which dancers from each company worked with the choreographer of the other.
Into the Centre was a new work that Jonathan Hollander choreographed for the Sutra dancers which was set in January, rehearsed again in August when the dancers were in New York for Battery Dance Company’s Downtown Dance Festival, and then given a final polish in September when Hollander arrived in KL. Sutra Dance Theatre’s artistic director Ramli Ibrahim set his version of the classic L’Apres Midi d’un Faune (r.) on BDC’s Sean Scantlebury and 5 dancers from his own company. Both works earned sustained applause from the Malaysian audiences though response from the press was mixed.
The series of performances was interspersed with other activities – such as Hollander’s keynote address on the topic of ‘Hybridity in Dance’ which was delivered before the Asia Pacific International Dance Conference that took place in KL simultaneously with BDC’s visit. Barry Steele gave two lighting workshops that were extremely well-received by the local community of designers and technicians. The three-week MyDance Festival was also taking place during BDC’s visit, providing Robin Cantrell a platform for presenting her video-dance work, and additional press coverage. India’s leading dance critic, Dr. Sunil Kothari, called Into the Centre “the highlight of the MyDance Festival”. Once these events were completed, the Company’s concentration turned to its Dancing to Connect youth outreach activities. With supervision and design by Hollander, the 5 dancer/teaching artists of Battery Dance Company paired up with their ASWARA trainees and led 5-day intensive workshops for 100 Malaysian students from extremely diverse backgrounds. In KL, groups comprising 8 students from the Mont’ Kiara International School (which donated its theater and gymnasium for the training sessions, and its stage for the final performance) were combined with 52 students from Harvest Centre, KrashPad and Ti Ratana Welfare Society – teens whose refugee, orphan or otherwise disadvantaged status contrasted strongly with their peers from the international school.
Another group set up camp at Rimbun Dahan, a remote artists’ retreat donated by the family of Bilqis Hijjas, Director of the MyDance Festival. These students came from a nearby Malay Government school with extremely Spartan facilities and program offerings. Working in the tranquil and beautifully appointed dance studio at Rimbun Dahan with the nurturing support of BDC dancer Bafana Matea and ASWARA’s Murni Omar was an experience that I doubt any of the students will ever forget. This group traveled into KL on the day of the performance to share the stage with the other two groups at MKIS. The results were magical.
This documents Phase 1 of Jonathan Hollander's Fulbright Specialist Program in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2011.
Listen to Jonathan tell the story of the history of Battery Dance Company during a radio interview in Malaysia.
Phase 2, "Jonathan Hollander's Fulbright Specialist Program trip to Kuala Lumpur" can be read here.
Multi-faceted approaches can work well, even with a small team. This program was originally supposed to be a solo engagement with Jonathan Hollander as a Fulbright Specialist. During the planning phase, the opportunities for working with different populations – professional dancers, conservatory students, refugee children – kept appearing and, in close consultation with the Embassy and Fulbright program, we were able to add two teaching artists to the team and expand our reach dramatically.
Religious Issues: In our enthusiasm for the program, we inadvertently scheduled workshops on Friday afternoons during prayer time. We became aware that this was insensitive and adjusted our schedule accordingly
Picking the right partners
I had known the Odissi dancer Ramli Ibrahim for many years from his visits to New York that were organized by my close friend, the legendary Indian classical dancer and teacher Indrani Rehman. I had extended Battery Dance Company as an umbrella in sponsoring Ramli’s visa on one of those early visits and our studio for his rehearsals. As such, it was natural that I would ask him to be a partner and/or reference when I approached the U.S. Embassy in KL. Little did I realize how much resonance his name would have. I can still remember the PAO at the Embassy saying, “You know RAMLI?? He is the most celebrated dancer in Malaysia!” With a small staff and in the bad old days after the demise of the USIA (when Foreign Service Officers could actually receive negative evaluations if they strayed too far into the area of cultural programming), our program had been somewhat in doubt until that pivotal moment. My advice is to be open-minded and encourage your local liaison(s) to think creatively in problem-solving. Our problem in this case being that the only theaters that had the facilities and floor necessary for a performance of our size were already booked or too expensive. What was required was a good theater that would produce us and not charge the Embassy for rental, tech crew, etc. -- otherwise, the amount of money allocated for our travel and maintenance would go instead to local rental costs. The Embassy team was creative and resourceful: they approached the SGM (Soka Gakkai Malaysia), a Buddhist organization that had its own huge theater. Buddhism in a Muslim country? A religious organization as a sponsor for a secular performance? Attracting a mainstream audience in a suburban area? All the questions turned out to be irrelevant. Partnering with SGM was a stroke of genius. We had all the support we could have asked for in the way of tech crew, equipment, staging and so forth -- and we could barely fit our invited guests who came out from ASWARA, the Embassy and our hospitality sponsors, the Renaissance Hotel because the 1200-seat auditorium was packed to the rafters.
Morning and Afternoon workshops
Jonathan Hollander engaged the students in a 20-minute introduction, describing the programs, activities and history of the Battery Dance Company and answering questions posed by the students. A BDC dancer taught two master classes for students from the National Academy supplemented by dancers from the Temple of Fine Arts, Sutra Dance Theatre, and two national folk ensembles. Although the class size had been limited to 30 students per session approximately 75 students participated. The first session consisted of a Pilates-based sequence of stretching, centering and strengthening exercises. Some of the students were familiar with the methodology, but for most, it was a first exposure. The students followed well and put in a great effort. There was a wide range of ability in the room but all stayed focused and determined. After lunch and informal conversations with some of the students, a 90-minute modern dance class was conducted. The elementary level of the students was more apparent in this segment in which basic across-the-floor and adagio phrases were taught. The energy and enthusiasm of the students more than made up for their basic level of mastery. Following the modern class, the students of the Academy performed a traditional Malaysian dance, which was exquisite and touching. The BDC teaching artist who had led the earlier classes performed a solo to great appreciation from the students. Her popularity with the students was evidenced at the show at SGM Auditorium two nights later with whoops and hollers from the audience when it was her turn to receive an award. BDC Tech Director Barry Steele worked on lighting/tech issues for the 3 performances the company would give on the 26, 27 and 28.
Performance at Sutra Dance Theatre
BDC dancers performed solos on a program which began with a classical Odissi duet performed by Ramli Ibrahim, one of the most highly respected local dancers, and his disciple, Revati. Though the weather was threatening, with rain falling 30 minutes before the scheduled start time, the weather cleared and the performance took place as scheduled, followed by a dinner served al fresco in the garden of Sutra House. The performance was attended by approximately 50 people -- culture vultures of K.L. including the Ambassadors of Australia, Switzerland, Czech Republic and staff from the national theater et al. The performance was aimed to highlight the possibility of building a local arts fraternity and to lead the way to future collaboration between the Embassy and Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Theatre.
Performance for the Launch of MAFAA (Malaysian-American Friendship Alumni Association)
BDC performed Notebooks for approximately 300 guests. The audience was eating dinner during the performance, and despite best effort by the dancers, the impact was somewhat diluted. Many people were surprised by the aesthetic/style of the dancing - apparently having expected a more glitzy Vegas-style presentation. Conversely, Jonathan (a former Fulbrighter) was surprised at the lack of cultural sophistication of the audience comprising Fulbrighters and other international scholars. Despite this, the Cultural Coordinator of MAFAA approached Jonathan expressing interest in bringing BDC back to Malaysia for a longer, more comprehensive program of performances and outreach activities in the future. It remains to be seen to what extent this interest will translate into effective action. Likewise, a French national living in Malaysia and teaching music and art in a local school who attended both the Sutra Dance performance and the performance at the Renaissance promoted the idea of bringing BDC back to Malaysia.
Mainstage Performance at SGM Auditorium in Cheras
Jonathan met with Joseph Gonzales to share information on arts management, arts in education and trends in dance in New York. Gonzales expressed interest in developing an ongoing relationship with BDC. Jonathan also met with Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra Lighting Designer Shiva and discussed continued collaboration on a bilateral level. Approximately 1200 people attended the concert presented by BDC in Cheras, a location 30 - 45 minutes outside of K.L. 4 dance works were performed, showing the range of BDC's repertoire. The hall was full and the audience accorded BDC a standing ovation. The performance was outstandingly organized by the U.S. Embassy and the Soka Gakkai organization with very professional lighting and sound, coordinated by BDC's tech director Barry Steele, and organized with a rental package paid for by the U.S. Embassy. The rousing audience response (one of the most vocal BDC has ever received anywhere) demonstrated that modern dance could find a receptive audience in Malaysia. The Company was overwhelmed both by the cheers that followed their performances, and also by the lavish mementoes given by SGM to each member of the Company. The performance was followed by a light supper/reception at which time students from the National Arts Academy and other audience members had a chance to greet the dancers and share their reactions to the program. Jonathan was particularly struck by the comments of a young Malaysian writer who shared her thoughts about "Where There's Smoke" - which she deemed the most subtle and impressionistic work on the program; as well as expanding upon the Malaysian attitude towards Jews. Jonathan had mentioned in his remarks during the program that "Secrets of the Paving Stones" and its music by the Cracow Klezmer Band responded to the lost Jewish culture of Poland. The writer said that to her, dance is the best form of cultural ambassadorship - because it was abstract and therefore not subject to censorship, and yet potent and poignant in its emotional/philosophical impact. She said that Malaysians know nothing about Jews or Jewish culture, and that their prejudice cuts Jews two ways: as Zionists, they are despised as anti-Islam; as secularists, they are hated as denigrating the importance of religion.
“This activity helped develop new audiences for American modern dance. The Embassy has received many callbacks inquiring about Battery Dance Company’s next trip to Malaysia from this group of students. Students have expressed that the Battery Dance Company is sensitive to the local culture while imparting knowledge to them.” • Sadayan X. Riazurrahman, Cultural Affairs Specialist, U.S. Embassy Malaysia