Mak Yong Dance Theatre
Bringing Malaysia’s World Heritage to the World Stage
My attention was focused on the question of “How do you know about Mak Yong Extravaganza?” when answering the questionnaires distributed to audience attending the opening night of Mak Yong Extravaganza on 28th November 2008. Personally, I was attracted to the banners hanged along Jalan Damansara, but frankly, there were not enough banners in town to attract people to go and watch Mak Yong. Mak Yong might be no alien to Kelantan and Terengganu people or perhaps people in dance, theatre and the arts in Malaysia, but to other Malaysian as well as expatriate and foreign traveler, it is still foreign. I must say that it was the illustration of classic Mak Yong princess’ head with “pemeles” headdress and jasmine flowers hanging from the “sanggul” hair bun that attracts me to be present at Tunku Abdul Rahman Auditorium, Malaysian Tourism Centre (formerly known as MATIC), Jalan Ampang, next to famous Saloma Bistro, to discover more about the mystical theatre.
When I arrived at the theatre foyer, two rows of girls were seating down on the red carpet, garbed with Mak Yong “pemeles” headdress and Malay ceremonial costumes, like young princesses of the ancient times, probably waiting for special dignitaries attending the opening performance. On both sides of the red carpet entrance, there were two baskets of colourful flowers with jasmine flowers hanging from the elevated baskets. The sound of “rebab” string music filled up the air with the scent of sweet jasmines. Earlier that evening, a fellow playwright asked me “what is extravaganza?” and “why extravaganza and not other words like “Pesona”(persona)? Extravaganza sounds so foreign and too glamorous to be connected with Mak Yong, a legendary Malay dance theatre from ancient times that now is UNESCO World Heritage”. I cannot argue with that but nodding my head to agree with the person.
The event is organized by Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara (JKKN) under the Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage (KPKKW) planned with four performances by different groups, and lecture-workshops by well-known teachers in the field. Though there were four performances scheduled from 27th December til 30th December 2008, starting with “Dewa Indera, Indera Dewa” by Kumpulan Mak Yong Kijang Emas, JKKN Kelantan, “Endeng Tejeli” by Kumpulan Mak Yong Seri Nilam Istana Budaya, “Raja Tangkai Hati” by Kumpulan Mak Yong Dewa Muda and ended with “Nik Kecik Dewa Muda” by Kumpulan Mak Yong ASWARA, the performance of “Tari Mengadap Rebab”, the overture of all Mak Yong performance, was performed by all the four groups, accompanied by the ever so spirited Rebab Master, Che Amat (Awang Omar). The stage was filled up with at least fifty performers; something plausible considering that Mak Yong is a dying art form. But on the other hand, that square proscenium stage is way too small to fit in fifty dance-actors plus the eight pieces music ensemble. The eight pieces of striking blue-yellow-white batik cloths that dropped from the ceiling to the stage floor were too decorative and disturbed the watching due to the jarring colors that do not blend in with the rest of olden hues. The hanging cloths stayed throughout the four performances, which is not necessary as the cyclorama at the back could be use for multiple purposes, especially with its changeable colors, according to situations. The two moving headlights used during the suspense parts were totally unnecessary and disturbing, as they were pointing toward the audience. Kijang Emas, the first group from Kelantan, was quite impressive, considering that all of the performers are new students, including musicians, except the Rebab player (who is also the Adiguru, or Mak Yong teacher for the group). This is exactly what UNESCO, requires after awarding the World Heritage’s Masterpiece, that the preservation work should be continued at its birthplace, Kelantan. Bravo to JKKN for championing the teaching of the arts expression that is being banned in its own state. Congratulations also to ASWARA (National Academy of Arts and Heritage) for making the Mak Yong as one of the compulsory subjects, together with Wayang Kulit, Randai, Bangsawan and Mek Mulong, UPSI (Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris) for introducing Mak Yong as one of the theatrical expressions, and ISTANA Budaya for promoting Mak Yong to non-Kelantanese performers. Malaysian should accept the fact that all these classical performances belong to the ancient culture and language; therefore they have their own language and innuendos. If we could appreciate Italian, French and German Opera or Japanese Kabuki, why not we also appreciate Kelantan dialect, an old dialect that belongs to Langkasukan culture from the second century. But having said that, we should not expect the main audience to understand the language of Mak Yong instantly. That is why we, the promoter and producer of cultural production, should prepare synopsis and arrangement of story in both Malay and English. I know it is quite difficult to prepare running subtitle to the performance as a lot of the parts are done in improvisation manner, especially for the (peran) court jesters’ parts. We could see that two screens on both sides of the stage were not utilized fully, so the translation would be perfect. After all, the extravaganza is not just for Kelantanese and Kelantan speakers or listeners, but also to all Malaysian.
Perhaps it is also one of the intentions of the organizer to get all the four participating groups to learn from each other and not to compete with one another, as all of them are still in the learning process. In that four nights we have managed to witness four of the twelve’s main stories of Mak Yong. In this age of globalization, delivering the songs, lines and dances Mak Yong it is no more enough to the audience, a lot more is expected from the performers and producers, especially if we are interested to bring Mak Yong to the higher level and to the world stage other than just in Istana Budaya.
Dr.Zulkifli Mohamad is active in promoting the arts through his KL Fringe Festival, production, collaboration, writing and teaching.