Road Ahead for Mak Yong Dance Theatre
Academics and cultural activists have been discussing about preserving and presenting the Mak Yong dance theatre for decades. In the 1969, the late Khadijah Awang took the challenge of Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard to preserve Kelantan Mak Yong, after watching a group of old Mak Yong dancers performing for ASEAN Cultural Festival in Kuala Lumpur. Some of us remember Khadijah Awang (later awarded with “Seniman Negara” status by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism) for her famous role in “Anak Raja Gondang” (Prince of Cone Shell) story, one of twelve main stories in Mak Yong. After that, series of other Mak Yong stories were also aired on Radio Television Malaysia and viewed by millions of Malaysians, until they abandoned cultural programmes.
Twenty years later in 1980s, Datin Azanin Ezane Ahmad and her troupe, Suasana Dance Theatre Company together with Yayasan Seni, presented one of Mak Yong stories, “Raja Tangkai Hati” with new contemporary technique in dance theatre, aptly titled as “Cempaka Emas”, after a thorough research through hours of William Malm’s Mak Yong recording and personal tutors from Kelantan. The production was premiered at Kuala Lumpur City Hall Auditorium and traveled to Hong Kong Arts Festival and Asia Pacific Arts Festival in Australia. After that, Mak Yong has gone back to Kelantan to remain as a hidden treasure from the past.
In 1994, National Arts Academy appointed Khadijah Awang as the Mak Yong Master and uprooted herself from Kelantan, following the banned of Mak Yong by the PAS government in 1991. After years of teaching, documenting, promoting and lobbying, Mak Yong finally recognized as one of UNESCO World Heritage’s Oral Masterpieces in 2005 and we should not forget the role played by the people like Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard, Prof. William Malm, Datuk Dr.Ghulam Sarwar, Prof. Dato’ Dr.Ghouse Nasaruddin and few others in making Mak Yong as one of agendas in the National culture.
In the recent staging of “Raja Senyanya”, one of twelve Mak Yong stories, directed by Puan Fatimah Abdullah, daughter of the famous Mak Yong leader, Abdullah Awang and sister in-law of the late Khadijah Awang, she presented a male actor as “Pak Yong”, a rather rare treat for us audience in Kuala Lumpur to enjoy. In a recent past, we have witnessed the performance of the late Pak Su Mat of Besut, a male player playing the Pak Yong role. Pak Yong was formerly and known to be played by a leading female actor as Mak Yong dance theatre is said to be originated from the palace of Pattani Queens (Blue, Yellow, Purple and Green Princesses) in the seventeen century as well as the palace of Che Siti Wan Kembang in Kelantan. As I was watching the performance, I asked a question “Is the actor playing the role of a female actor who played the male king?” or “is he is simply playing the male king?” after realising that it is no longer forbidden for a male to enter the court of the ruler. “Is it the reason why the Mak Yong performers have to face the rebab and musicians as they were not allowed to look at the queen ruler?”. Perhaps yes. In this performance too, performers were facing the musicians, especially the rebab as the dance is called “Mengadap Rebab”. Unfortunately, the rebab, the most sacred instrument in Mak Yong, together with the rest of instruments and players were tucked away in between the two blocks of audience seats in that rehearsal studio, beautifully named as “Lambang Sari” at Istana Budaya national theatre. Perhaps the concept of tucking away the musicians is borrowed from the western orchestra where they hide them in the sunken pit. Unfortunately too, the performers avoid facing the rebab and musicians after the “Mengadap Rebab” ritual, the front audience became the prime spectators, ignoring the right and left of spectators, assuming that the performance is in the proscenium theatre. One might not realized the beauty of totality in mostly all Asian traditional performances, where music, dance, acting, singing, comedy and scenography are kept as one, to be seen and consumed by audience as well as experiencing the emotions.
“Raja Besar Senanya”(Emperor of Senyanya) is the tale of how the king impatiently waiting for his heir and went hunting for white elephant with black tusk to welcome the arrival of his son to the world. Princess Gak Petera finally gives birth to a “Siput Gondang” (Cone Shell). The king returns, shocked that his child is not human and throw out the wife, Princess Gak Petera, and the Gondang child. Years later, a young prince come out of the cone shell, named Prince Seelok Rupa, but become a nasty young prince in trying to fit in into the society, adopted by the Emperor of Senyanya when he saw that the prince was good looking, without knowing his mannerism.
Raja Besar Senanya, staged from 9 -11th January is the sequel to “Ending Tejeli” story, which was staged at Auditorium Tunku Abdul Rahman in December 2008. If compared to “Endeng Tejeli”, the performance has improved significantly, not only the length of the performance but scene arrangement is tightly weaved and done away with unnecessary dialogues and improvised acting. Though the performers are very close to the audience in this setting, they managed to maintain the energy of the performance as well as keeping the dance details at all time. Kudos to Puan Fatimah Abdullah, the Mak Yong Master at ASWARA (Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan), for her ability in teaching the classical Mak Yong dance theatre to the senior member of “Artis Istana Budaya” (formerly known as Kompleks Budaya Negara) and two main actors, playing the key roles, Rosnan Abdul Rahman and Norsiah. However, the court maidens who were also playing the bad girls seemed a little bit O.T.T. (over the top) in their acting, both in the court mannerism and bad behaviour group. Perhaps they have some problems in portraying the characters due to their background as dancers and lack of training in acting. The director may want to look further into the total production, other than just the dancing, which is great technically.
Over the years, we have managed to put Mak Yong in special place, but more efforts should be made to attract young talent and audience as well as national and foreign spectators. Well done Istana Budaya for staging this world heritage dance theatre alongside foreign and local, musicals and concerts. Though in the early years of Istana Budaya, Mak Yong were staged in the big theatre of “Panggung Sari”, where promoting arts and culture was one of the main objectives of the national theatre, now, after ten years of providing arts services to Malaysia, Mak Yong projection seems to be getting smaller. Istana Budaya is now committed to raise the standard of the performing arts in Malaysia as well as developing audience appreciation towards the arts through affordable entertainment and to promote the involvement of corporate sponsorship. Perhaps it is time for Mak Yong to have her own house or at least regularity similar to Bangsawan, especially being Malaysia’s first cultural heritage to be listed under world heritage. Perhaps it is time too for Mak Yong to have proper secretariat to handle activities related to it, instead of having few departments fighting over it, so that Mak Yong could be better preserved, developed, managed and promoted.
Dr.Zulkifli Mohamad teaches Arts and Culture Theories at ASWARA, and active in the development of tradition-based performance and promotion of contemporary arts.