The Legendary Dance Prodigy

He has a dance persona that is uniquely his own; one that has placed him well apart from the usual crowd of dancers, choreographers and dance masters. Fairly little is written in the media about Ramli Ibrahim or his dance company, Sutra, but both have been busy since the year began.

Sutra has been performing overseas (somewhat) as the unofficial cultural ambassador of Malaysia since the beginning of 2012. In fact, the momentum of their overseas tours of US, Europe, Thailand and India which was undertaken from October of 2011, spilled over into the beginning of 2012. Ramli elaborates, “I spent the new year of 2012 in Colombo, Sri Lanka and met my dancers in India in early January 2012.  We performed to a huge audience of more than 12,000 at the Alva’s Virasat Festival (Moodbidri near Mangalore, India). We then participated at another large festival called Saraang organized by the Indian Institute of Technology Chennai in February.

“I returned to Colombo, where I performed at the new theatre complex built by the Chinese for Sri Lanka. I performed something different with Sharmila Gunasingham from Singapore and Guy Manoukian a Lebanese composer/pianist superstar. The Sri Lankan President, Mahidra Rajapaksa attended; then to Cambodia where Sutra performed under the stars at the magnificent Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom; in Oman it was the International Film Festival in Muscat; and so on. For the rest of the year, Sutra Foundation will be presenting Tarikan – a Sutra Dance Festival featured three different productions in August and September 2012 taking in both contemporary modern dance and traditional Odissi. The first, Transfigurations will feature two world premieres: She Ra, choreographed by Kalpana Raghuraman (Korzo Theater, The Hague) and Panjara, choreographed by Rathimalar Govindarajoo (Sutra). The other two productions of Odissi, Sutrarasa and Pallavi will follow suit; in October we will be involved in the launching of the new museum in the royal town of Pekan, Pahang and in November, Sutra will feature a platform for male dancers at the Nartaka Festival in Kuala Lumpur. Lastly, in November itself Sutra will then leave for our annual end-of-the-year tour of India that will take in Bangalore and other cities of South India.”

Exhausting but Ramli just dances on.

Malaysian society has a penchant for age limitations, such as expecting newly married women to hang up their ‘salangai’ or just teach dance. Many a tongue would have clucked in disapproval if they had seen Martha Graham dance at the age of 82. What then of Ramli Ibrahim who has his biological clock ticking away?

There is a slight trace of exasperation that disappeared quickly and humour took over as the artistic director retraced the years back. “How will I take on dance when I reach that certain age? On my fiftieth birthday bash, almost ten years ago, a ‘nakal’ actor friend in a send-up, depicted a not far distant future scenario involving ‘moi’. A senior Ramli Ibrahim entered the stage in a wheel-chair with intravenous tubes feeding him all round, but still making an appearance with demonic energy to give his all. This may be a very prophetic vision…”

Next, taking on a serious note, he expounded that, “Martha Graham and even Merce Cunningham were the few who danced till a very advanced age. By that time the audience was not expecting them to do ‘grand jetes’ but their appearances were enough to stir the imagination. The late Martha, Merce, Kazuo Ono (Butoh) were iconic figures in dance. However, Asian dancers especially Indian dancers tend to mature with their art well into an advanced age and the most expressive artistes are the senior ones. I love seeing senior dancers perform as long as they don’t have a delusion of grandeur that they are still young and spritely. I have always been fascinated by Martha, make-up et al. With Martha and the few authentic divas, one revels in the drama of guessing if ‘art is imitating life’ or the other way round.”

Ramli however was not too kind with Malaysian dancers. “They however don’t even get to reach there. They are easily distracted from their talents too early in their career – boyfriends, financial insecurity, marriage and other petty incidences interfere with the full development of their art. I detest it when Sutra becomes a kind of a convenient and cheap ‘finishing school and grooming house’ for future brides.”

Though Sutra is a force onto itself, it is still afflicted as most other dance companies – finance! “There have never been sufficient funds for us, mainly because there has never been a clear arts-funding infrastructure in Malaysia where corporate and government policies are concerned. Serious Arts programmes, especially dance in Malaysia, have been sustained by sacrifices – financial, moral and energy-wise – mainly by the efforts of the artistes themselves. This is also true with Sutra. Yearly, Sutra undertakes a big chunk of artistic commitment, most of which do not give us financial gain. However, we firmly believe that serious arts, theatre and dance, are vital to nation building and thus we have kept going. Sutra has also become a resource centre where people come to seek ‘advice’ and it has become a vibrant community-based cultural centre.”

Today’s state of the dance was expressed by Ramli as, “The days when the content of dance can engage a full-scale evening programme are almost over. Everyone wants their 3-minute circus dance-trick fix or light musicals. The choreographic forays today tend to be more gimmicky and are blotting papers of the highly commercialized dance reality shows on TV. Audiences have become de-sensitized with the onslaughts of edited quick change of colours and movement, as well as nauseum. When I was a judge for the programme, ‘So you Think you can Dance’ in Malaysia a few years ago, I used to be bored rigid with the same ‘B’ boys’ tricks that I used to plead, ‘if I see another attempt at head spin again, I’ll throw up. Dance has regressed to ‘body-bashing’ tricks and ‘triumphs of vulgarity’. By the way, I don’t own a TV set,” says Ramli.

Without a doubt Ramli Ibrahim is a man that stands strong and passionate about his convictions and dance is, and will always be, his way of life.




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