"Indian classical dance is a marathon and not a short distance dash" - Ramli Ibrahim

                                                                                                                                  photo courtsey - sutra dance foundation

Recently a nine-member group of the Sutra Dance Theatre, Malaysia performed hour-and-a-half long ‘Krishna, Love Re-invented’ at the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) Kolkata.The show is directed by Malaysian dancer Ramli Ibrahim with lighting designs by Sivarajah Natarajan of the dance company. Accomplished in ballet, modern, and Indian classical dance, 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 in Kuala Lumpur:DiverseCity: Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival 2015. Abhijit Ganguly spoke to him on the sidelines of the show.

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 there. Sutra Dance Theatre was established in order to consolidate my artistic activities – artistically and administratively in a more organized manner. By artistic, I mean my choreographic forays and my teaching activities as I needed good dancers to execute my repertoire and choreography. By administrative, 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’ mentality as the digital and virtual world gets more pervasive and seems to numb their imagination, 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 quick achieve success and there is no short cut. The discipline in all ‘serious’ 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 is so pervasive and effective in distracting young people from dedicating their time, talent and life 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 to guide you to go about 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 prerequisites qualities – aptitude and talent, right physique, determination and passion. Last but not least, a great deal of luck!

Learning Indian classical dance requires some 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 is well. There is now a sea of faceless barbie-dolls classical dancers cavorting on stage which is  a pain 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 was viewed 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 cliched but it’s true. The livelihood comes as a result – it comes as a natural outcome of our dedication and success. I think if you want to have a comfortable livelihood, then dance is the wrong choice of a profession. Having said that we have always fought that dancers should get paid for the 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 square things off 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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