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