With a recent national tour of Krishna, Love Reinvented (Odissi), and with tours to India and the US coming up, Sutra Foundation leader Ramli Ibrahim hasn’t had a moment’s rest.
Datuk Ramli Ibrahim is riding high.
With upcoming tours to India and the United States with his dance troupe Sutra Foundation, and a just concluded eight-city tour around Malaysia of Krishna, Love Reinvented (Odissi), he hasn’t had a moment’s rest.
“I need a sabbatical!” says Ramli with more than enough exaggeration on his face during a recent interview.
“My energy is taken up by administrative matters, teaching and producing, I’ve little time for other things. I want to write my book on mak yong.”
But before that, there is his performance at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) in Kuala Lumpur on June 21 and 22, something he is clearly excited about, but he keeps his emotions in check. Quintessence: Ramli Ibrahim And The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra will mark his debut show at the DFP.
“It’s a special show but I don’t let anything overwhelm me. It’s a challenge nevertheless,” says Ramli.
Under the batonship of Brazilian born conductor, Fabio Mechetti, the MPO will accompany Ramli and the Sutra Foundation dancers in three works: Claude Debussy’s Prélude L’Après-Midi D’Un Faune (Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun), Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade (featuring Penang-born, Hungarian-based soprano YiLing Chaing) and Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite. These works represent a tapestry of romantic and transcendent encounters with the strangely exotic in both dance and music.
The choreography, inspired by Asian dance vocabularies, will take the audience on a journey where the colours and movements of Asian modern dance are infused with the dazzling music of the great composers.
“I’ve chosen these three works because orchestrally, these are seminal works of the 20th century. And they are my favourite composers,” says Ramli.
Debussy’s original orchestral version was completed in 1894, and the French composer reworked it for performance on two pianos in 1895. The work is considered a quintessential example of musical Impressionism, a compositional style popular at the turn of the 20th century that was influenced by the artistic school of the same name.
Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun is a musical evocation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Afternoon Of A Faun, in which a faun – a half-man, half-goat creature of ancient Greek legend – meets several nymphs and awakens his sensual side, before chasing them away.
Vaslav Nijinky popularised the controversial ballet by rejecting the rigidity of classical ballet and dancing barefoot. The work had an overtly erotic subtext beneath its façade and is cited in history books as the beginning of modern ballet. Other choreographers who staged their versions include Jerome Robbins and Tim Rushton.
Incidentally, Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun was Ramli’s first choreography in 1984 when he returned from Australia. He selected the pas de deux segement and danced it with Frances Teoh, at the Experimental Theatre in Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
“We had no video back then so I had to rework it all over again. Imagine that!” says an exasperated Ramli.
“However, I never underestimate the synchronicity of things. The Sutra dancers performed another version in 2012 as a collaborative work in New York, with someone else playing the faun. With the present work, I’ve inserted the nymphs who will be doing a blend of Odissi. If I happen to do a balletic movement, that’s because I was trained in ballet.”
While Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun is a restaging with added elements,Shéhérazade and Firebird are new works by Ramli.
With Shéhérazade, based on a legendary Persian queen and the storyteller of One Thousand And One Nights, Ramli had toyed with developing a work but never got around to doing it, until now.
“There’s a section in the poem which talks about travelling on a boat to Asia to see the minarets. In this work, there is a lot of rasa exploration. There are elements of cruelty, slavery and a range of moods and images.
“There’s an abstraction of exotica with the idea of Asia – a kind of longing for something that is unreachable. I’m not literally interpreting the poem but using it as a point of embarkation.”
For the 40-minute Firebird, Ramli is collaborating with local contemporary dance outfit Dua Space Dance Theatre to come up with a piece he deems, “totally whacky but I love it.”
The ballet, originally choreographed by Michel Fokine, is based on the Russian legend of Firebird, a powerful good spirit whose feathers supposedly convey beauty and protection upon the earth.
“I’ve never seen the Firebird ballet before because I didn’t want to be influenced by the choreography so what you’re going to see is completely out of this world.
“The Dua Space dancers are very clued in on the rasa that when I tell them something, they get it the next time we meet. To a certain extent, my company dancers are brought up with very strict individuality, so I’m always trying to eke out more from them,” he says.
In Firebird Suite, Ramli transforms the enchanted tree into a kathakali cum manipuridancer.
“I’m a master of symbols so I see it everywhere and want to use it. I have at least 18 dancers on stage and they feed off each other well. The lyricism of Odissi lends itself more to a contemporary feel and blends well with the modern dance.”
Of the three, Ramli likes Firebird best “because I’m not dancing in it!” How long did it take him to put the show together?
“A thousand and one nights! Some of it was from my previous incarnations,” he cheekily quips.
Describing his vocation as “a path following my bliss”, the man of many firsts continues to push the boundaries as he prepares for this show.
“I perform with absolute reluctance!” says Ramli, laughing. “My dancing days are selective … only for friends’ birthdays and surprise parties. It’s mainly because I cannot afford the gift! As I get older, I want to watch as a director and not dance.”
At 61, he looks as good as ever, doing yoga daily and eating well to keep in shape.
He philosophises: “The more I age, I find there must be a reason for seva (selfless, voluntary service to the community. Sutra has many outreach programmes outside Kuala Lumpur. We believe that Indian classical dances have the power to transform and are capable of empowering youths – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
”Yes, we can do good dancing but we haven’t produced good teachers yet so I have to work on it because I won’t be around forever.”
> Quintessence: Ramli Ibrahim And The MPO takes place at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur on June 21 (8.30pm) and June 22 (3pm). Tickets are priced at RM250, RM180 and RM130. Bookings: 03-2051 7007 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, log onto www.mpo.com.my.