Members of the ASK Dance Company performing Eclectic Shift. Image courtesy ASK Dance Company.
After almost two decades teaching dance, JOSEPH GONZALES founded the Ask Dance Company to create more opportunities for professional dancers and to share the art of dance with citizens. We speak to him about the state of dance in the country, how the light of traditional dance has diminished in the face of urbanisation, and how the act of dancing can make living in cities more bearable.
Tell us about the birth of the ASK Dance Company (ADC).
Everything that I have done in dance has been a response to a need or a situation that I believe needed to be addressed. ADC was the same. After about 15 years at the helm of the Faculty of Dance at ASWARA, having diligently carved a new curriculum, and attracting larger candidates of great potential, we finally began producing graduates of high calibre. This led to the development of ADC.
How have you set out to make ADC different from other dance companies?
It is quite complicated to explain the Malaysian model in a few words but I will try. Almost all Malaysian full-time dance companies (where dancers are salaried), are funded by the government. They are state-owned, such as by Dewan Bandaraya KL, the Department for Culture and the Arts, Istana Budaya, etc. Generally, the primary focus of these companies are to promote Brand Malaysia, at global tourism events. They hardly ever present performances in theatres to paying audiences (unlike the Royal Ballet, the New York City Ballet or Bayanihan of the Philippines, for instance). So fundamentally, there is a huge chasm in Malaysia.
There are many commercial companies that mainly employ freelance dancers who are full time professionals, and you see them on television, and at the shopping malls during festive celebrations. These are run by several individuals who employ freelance dancers based on their availability, and only for specific projects. A few, such as The Dance Company by Peter Choo, has been around for about 20-30 years. Dance is how they earn a living.
Sutra Dance, Kwang Tung and Temple of Fine Arts are large institutions with beautifully trained dancers working in specifically one genre but most of their dancers, while having an incredibly high level of proficiency, have to have day-jobs to sustain them. For the most part, dance is NOT how they earn a living. There are several small companies like Borneo Dance Theatre that work within the contemporary dance field too, but the only two companies that employ full time dancers with monthly wages are Dua Space Dance Theatre and ADC.
This structure, therefore, sets us apart. ADC has received funding from Yayasan Sime Darby since 2011 to the tune of about RM 3 million and this is historic for a dance company. But this is because we are pursuing the highest standards possible (I am sure everyone is) and we are NOT about making a profit.
Also the ADC repertoire is unlike any other in Malaysia. The dancers are trained in all genres of Malay, Chinese, Indian dance as well as ballet and contemporary dance. They also have knowledge of Mak Yong and other traditional theatre forms since they are all graduates of ASWARA. This makes our performances very different from the others. The ethnicity of our dancers are also more reflective of our nation. We really celebrate a deep expression of multiculturalism and promote this at every opportunity.
Jabar Laura in ‘Chicken & Egg’. Image courtesy ASK Dance Company
Tell us about your ‘Building Bridges’ programme and how you designed it to contribute to society.
This is our flagship and capstone project. Over the course of two days, ADC teaches eight genres of dance ranging from Malay classical dance, Chinese dance, dances of Borneo to hip hop dance. The selection of the dances would depend on where we are presenting the workshop. What drives the project and the selection of dances is that there is generally a GREAT lack of knowledge and exposure to the myriad of dance forms practiced in the country.
Naturally, through urbanisation, many of these ethnic dance forms are also becoming obsolete. We see it as our mission to propagate many of these dances – as many as we can in the short two-day span of the workshop. We also aspire to give the participants the joyous experience of expressing themselves through dance.
As this program is offered FREE to all, our intention is that dance does not become the experience of the privileged but one which all can partake.
The response over the last six years has been astounding. Our smallest workshops are to about 150 people and we actually target a minimum of 200 participants. However, in Johor, Sabah and Sarawak, we have had groups turn up of between 500-600 people!
The most significant outcome is that participants learn to appreciate and to love the diversity of our cultures, breaking down the walls of “us and other” that seems to be pervading Malaysian society like a destructive tumour. They learn to dance freely and joyfully, expressing themselves as young people should.
Scene from ‘Crossing Borders’. The dance company bridges gaps in the community by offering free dance lessons to the public. Image courtesy ASK Dance Company.
“Naturally, through urbanisation, many of these ethnic dance forms are also becoming obsolete. We see it as our mission to propagate many of these dances – as many as we can in the short two days. We also aspire to give the participants a joyous experience of dance.” – Joseph Gonzales, Director, Ask Dance Company
Tell us more about how urbanisation is diminishing the popularity of dance.
Modern city living has generally increased the isolation of individuals – one often has little contact with neighbours in condominiums, as an example. The speed of communication through social media or through the internet, has enabled us to remain in contact with those who may be thousands of miles away, and yet, alienates us from those who are physically around us. This is ironic.
Traditional dance has evolved organically from being a part of daily life and activities, playing a significant role to build communities, and bridging gaps. Families and friends gathered together to celebrate “rites of passage” of births, deaths and everything in between. Dance expressed the gamut of emotions and sealed relationships.
City life allows for very little of this. Traditional dance when performed now in cities, plays a greatly changed role – as a visual experience or treat, an exhibition, a performance to be enjoyed.
Has modern city living then influenced and changed the forms of dance?
In most metropolises of the world, it is common that resident dance and music companies be housed in the national theatres – the Paris Opera Ballet in Paris or New York City Ballet in NYC, for example. They often also have philharmonic orchestras and possibly, well established contemporary dance/music/theatre companies too. These companies are generally the best funded in the world and have shaped the palate of the citizens – providing a staple of classics that keeps Petipa or Shakespeare alive. Added to this mix, would be the world of musicals or Disney. Since all this also costs a fair amount of money and takes an investment of time too, it is largely these genres that thrive.
Since arts is inaccessible generally in Malaysia, audiences for fringe or alternative art is still limited. Alternative art is available in many cities, but one has to look for it, and develop a taste for it.
Traditional dance has had its role changed drastically from the days where dances marked rites of passage in daily life. Image courtesy ASK Dance Company.
Can dance contribute to a more liveable city and make urban life more bearable?
Dance can certainly make city life not just more bearable, but exhilarating, healthy, responsive or connective. The current model would include going to associations or dance schools to enrol in classes, or social dances. However, studies have shown that dance (activity) keeps the mind alert, and is most beneficial for the ageing population too, keeping them sharp and agile.
Friendships can be made, and these and other similar interest groups, can enhance the quality of life hugely. The mushrooming of line dance or ballroom all over the world is testament to this.
My question would also be, why not zapin, joget and other traditional dances too?
“Traditional dance has evolved organically from being a part of daily life and activities, playing a significant role to build communities, and bridging gaps. Families and friends gathered together to celebrate “rites of passage” of births, deaths and everything in between. Dance expressed the gamut of emotions and sealed relationships. City life allows for very little of this.”
Malayan Embassy Poster Circa 1960s. Image: Malaysia Design Archive.
With this in mind, how does ADC contribute to the Malaysian performing arts industry?
ADC contributes in innumerable ways. As mentioned, our flagship outreach program is the most extensive in the nation and nothing of this magnitude has ever been implemented.
ADC is also committed to staging productions once or twice every year in Kuala Lumpur or as part of invited performances in other festivals such as Sibu Festival, Kluang Festival, Dancing in Place, etc. We believe that our brand of dance (traditional, contemporary, blurring/crossing boundaries) is bringing freshness to the industry. In terms of recognition for our work, we have won many awards – Selangor Young Talent Awards, Boh Cameronian Arts Awards – that may be used as a yardstick for excellence (although this is relative), and there is much more to achieve.
Dance brings people together regardless of whether they’re participants or observers. Image courtesy ASK Dance Company.
In your view, what is the current state of dance in Malaysia? Is the industry blossoming?
Yes and No. It is not easy to encapsulate the ecosystem in a few lines.
Yes – because we have much better training available in Malaysia than ever before. Universities offering tertiary programs for the arts has certainly helped to push the standards higher. We get to see far more well-trained dancers on our stages.
However, the obvious gap in Malaysia’s ecology is that there is nowhere for the creme de la creme of students to go, especially if they remain in the country. There is no full time professional company that would be able to fully utilise the training that they have had, or push them even further.
With the increasing number of graduates, there has also not been a corresponding increase in high quality jobs. Work at the highest levels are still scarce and funding is even more scarce.
Funding for productions is still extremely hard to come by. While Yayasan Sime Darby has been God-sent, they do not have bottomless pockets, and thus they do not fund our productions or our overseas trips.
There are also very few scholarships that can assist dancers to further their training locally and abroad too. Most students who remain in Malaysia for their higher education in dance, do not come from privileged backgrounds, therefore, practical decisions need to be made, and often their dreams are sacrificed because they become the main breadwinners in their families.
Going back to your question of whether Dance is blossoming:
Yes – because there are more venues. No – because there is not enough money to present shows there.
Yes – because we get more invitations to present work overseas. No – because we often have to decline due to lack of funding.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said about desperation. Back in 80s or 90s, there was very little infrastructure and equally little money, yet there seemed to be a hunger for the arts by the artists themselves. This ‘almost’ desperation was what gave birth to renowned dancer/choreographer Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Foundation, Dance Theatre, Academy and many more.
Currently, with those under 30, there does not seem to be such a hunger. I may be wrong, but they appear to not want it as badly, but because someone else is doing it, they are happy to go with the flow.
Also I believe that at the moment, dancers are not using social media to the advantage of their careers as much as perhaps singers like Zee Avi or Yuna who broke into the mainstream and international arenas by using this platform. This should be utilised far more.
I believe that dancers could be more socially and politically aware, which in turn would make their work more interesting as choreographers. We do have outstanding examples but they are still few and far in between. Presently, Malaysian artists have not reached the global standards of recognition of Eko Supriyanto of Indonesia or Pichet Klunchun of Thailand. ADC is really trying hard to push towards this, but it will take some time.
“Dance can certainly make city life not just more bearable, but exhilarating, healthy, responsive or connective… The mushrooming of line dance or ballroom all over the world is testament to this. My question would also be, why not zapin, joget and other traditional dances too?”
What can be done to push dance, both in terms of paid work and dance appreciation?
Despite many corporations coming forward with support, there needs to be a more concerted effort for sustainability.
Our policies are too fluid, if at all they exist. Aside from restrictions and censorship, we are unable to implement a serious calendar for arts festivals or conferences making it difficult to build a brand like the Singapore Arts Festival, for instance.
Malaysia does not have an independent, autonomous Arts Council (again, unlike Singapore) that has clear transparent means to disseminate government funds for the arts. We could establish this and learn to do this but this has to be on the agenda, and it must be viewed and acted on sustainably.
Imran Syafiq in Stalemate. Image courtesy ASK Dance Company.
What does the future hold for ADC?
Ah. I always have plans. Big plans and big dreams. At the top of the list is that one day, ADC will become like Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan or the American Dance Centre of Alvin Ailey. That would be the ultimate; a centre of our own where we will run our programmes, classes, events and productions.
However right now, we need to see the outcome of our proposal for extension with our funders. We are trying to show them that we will become more sustainable and be less dependent on them while maintaining our quality and our programs. This takes time but we are working hard.
We are not ready to announce several ideas as they have yet to be confirmed. In terms of performances, we have had several invitations – one to Japan in April (2017), and we would really like to grow our international profile. Since May 2015, we have performed in New York, two cities in Sri Lanka, Kolkata, Yokohama and soon Niigata in Japan, Seoul and Bangkok, just in June 2017. All this for a young company is fairly exceptional.
Joseph Gonzales is one of Malaysia’s foremost dance practitioners and lecturers. He is also founder and artistic director of the ASK Dance Company.
This story was first published under the now-defunct “Think City Channel”.