Indian classical dance is a marathon

Published Date:

June 21, 2015

American Laboratory Theatre Contributing Writer
An interview with Director and Dancer, Ramli Ibrahim, from Sutra Dance Theatre
Abhijit Ganguly / ALT Contributing Writer / March 2015

Recently, a nine-member group of the Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia performed a 90-minute show entitled, ‘Krishna, Love Re-invented’ at the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) Kolkata. Accomplished in ballet, modern, and Indian classical dance, Director, Ramli Ibrahim is a cultural icon who has performed internationally for more than three decades. He is now curating the Dance Component of a comprehensive Arts Festival: DiverseCity: Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival 2015.

What led you to start Sutra Dance Theatre?

This is a long story. I formed Sutra Dance Theatre more than 32 years ago in 1983 when I returned to Malaysia from Australia after more than 8 years as a professional dancer. Sutra Dance Theatre was established in order to consolidate my activities – artistically and administratively – in a more organized manner. By artistically, I mean my choreographic forays and my teaching activities as I needed good dancers to execute my repertoire and choreography. Administratively, I wanted also to be more efficient in the way I organized our shows, get funding and brand our artistic products.

What is your opinion on the current climate of the performing arts for upcoming dancers?

There is a shift in young dancers’ mentalities as the digital and virtual world has become more pervasive, it seems to have numbed their imaginations, aesthetic senses, and preferences. Upcoming dancers now want instant gratification from the work they’ve put in.  Unfortunately, this is not the nature of classical arts – you can’t quickly achieve success and there are no short cuts. The discipline in all ‘seriousness’ and classical art systems, be it music, dance, visual or anything, requires time, energy and dedication. Young people are now easily distracted from the hard work of honing their talent. They consume cheap popular culture like they consume junk food. This affects their aesthetic choice. They don’t read anymore and don’t have time to get into the depth of their art. The current climate is not conducive to classical art as consumerist; cheap popular art has become very effective in distracting young people from dedicating their time, talent, and lives to real art.

What is the most important thing for a dancer in terms of creating his/her own niche—style, experiment, physique, or creativity?

 As I mentioned, serious art requires time, energy, and dedication. Of course, you have to have a mentor/guru who helps guide you to go about it the right way. I believe in this. A good teacher not only teaches the right technique and style, but also guides the right approach the dancer should take in making decisions about his or her career options. The wrong guru can simply wreck your technique or enthusiasm. There must be a certain amount of idealism and striving for perfection for a dancer. Then, there are the prerequisite qualities – aptitude and talent, right physique, determination, and passion. Last but not least, a great deal of luck!

Learning Indian classical dance requires great effort and long-term dedication. Are young people still willing to undertake the endeavor?

Indian classical dance is now so popular that it’s everywhere. This does not mean that all of it is good. There is now a sea of faceless Barbi-Doll classical dancers cavorting on stage which is painful to watch. Needless to say, very few will make it. The field is becoming more and more difficult as Indian classical dance has to compete for attention with other popular forms for reasons mentioned above. Indian classical dance is a marathon and not a short-distance dash. Only the talented, hardworking, passionate and intelligent will survive!

What suggestions can you make for incentivizing dance in countries like India where dancers are forced to look for alternative professions to meet livelihood needs?

Dance is difficult and I think it is the same everywhere. I represent that generation which viewed dancing as a privilege and gift. We did not see it as a mere profession. We did not dance to ‘meet our livelihood needs’. We danced to live… We now lament the passing of an era. This may sound far-fetched and clichéd but it’s true – the livelihood comes as a result. It comes as a natural result of dedication and success. I think if you want to have a comfortable livelihood, then dance is the wrong choice for a profession. Having said that, we have always fought for dancers to get paid for their work. But a dancer’s life is hard everywhere – be it in New York, Malaysia or India. I do believe that it’s one of the hardest and heart-breaking professions. So, be prepared.

There are many young dancers who are interested in taking up dance professionally. What is your advice to them?

I don’t usually give any advice as dance itself will decide for them. Truly, dance is not just a job but a calling. There is also ‘serious’ and commercial dance. Professionally, you have to seek what ‘drives’ you. Eventually, things will find their own level and settle equitably. The talented, hardworking, and lucky will seek further and ‘find’ themselves in dance and consequently, their own niches. Dance is experiential. You cannot ‘get it’ by watching it on the Youtube. I guess the rest, who do not realize this, will still be glued to their digital world and just watch as it goes by…

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