Ramli Ibrahim is the dynamic force in Malaysian theatre and possesses open-mindedness for both the Old and the New. Trained in classical ballet, modern dance and Indian classical dance, Ramli is a creator and a visionary in the arts who sees unity within the diversity of all of Sutra’s artistic endeavors. In Malaysia, Ramli is acclaimed as a pioneer dancer and choreographer of international standing in the major fields of dance that he has mastered - Bharatanatyam, Odissi as well as Contemporary Dance.
Below are some of the questions proposed in an interview with the corresponding answers by this magnificent dancer - certainly a treat for his fans (Don't forget take note of his birthday too!)
What made you take up dance as a career?
There is no particular point in time that I can refer to. It was always there in me. Even as a 3-year-old, I used to like to dance. I used to dance in the fields instead of walking..it was innate in me. I guess, even then there was the ‘entertainer’ in me. I’m a qualified mechanical engineer but I pursued dance alongside my academic activities. I learnt Malay folk dances and ballet and have performed with the Sydney Dance Company in Australia, New York, London and Europe. I learnt Bharatanatyam from Adyar K Lakshman and used to perform Indian classical dance under the name of Ramachandra! But when I saw the Odissi dance, I told myself, “Wow! This is an absolutely wonderful dance form”. My attraction towards Odissi as against the structured, too steeped in tradition Bharatanatyam prompted me to go to Puri and learn from a disciple of Guru Deba Prasad Das. But I soon found that I was not learning what I wanted to and became a direct student of Guru Deba Prasad Das.
What were your idols and guiding forces during the early stages of your career?
Picasso, Japanese poetry, books on myths and mysticism, works of Carl Gustav Jung, ….. I always ask people whom I have high regards in their fields to recommend me the 5 best books to read.
How tough was it for your dance company ‘Sutra’ to attain the sort of recognition and patronage that is so essential for the advancement of the arts?
Financially, my company Sutra has been totally unsupported since the beginning. It has taken years of hard work to bring Sutra to its current status. Now, no one can ignore us, as we have achieved recognition in Malaysia and abroad.
You are trained in classical, folk and contemporary dance styles. How do you strike a balance between them?
We learn various art forms and perform them as per our choreography. It is the critics who attempt to compartmentalise and put our style of presentation into various slots. In some items, the music may be Odissi like in ‘Pallavi’, but I have deconstructed it and given it a contemporary layering. We can define contemporary aesthetic now from an Asian point of view and not from a Euro - American stance.
What is your focus now at this stage of your career?
Choreography is and always will be my main focus. In the many beautiful Odissi dance items, I find scope to exercise my own choreographic interpretations unlike the structured Bharatanatyam items. All my Odissi productions are commissioned works. My contemporary choreography is influenced for instance by the performing arts genre like Makyong and Menora, Malay martial art form of Silat, besides Indian classical dance idioms. I am involved in a lot of networking and cross-genre work as I travel a lot and meet many artistes from different countries. The dance items that pertain to Sakuhachi reflect the meditative quality of music. In ‘Mukaiji Reibo’, a zen monk is on a punt adrift on a misty sea. He hears the mellow tones of a flute, played by Sakuhachi flautist Christopher Blasdel, and is drawn towards it. The story is of Japanese Buddhist origin but I take the point of embarkation from the divine flute player, which is Krishna himself.
How do you keep yourself fit? What advice do you give your dancers on fitness?
I dance all the time, I do yoga in the morning. I am moderate with my food. No overindulgence in food. I guess that keeps me generally fit. One of the things to keep myself relatively free from dance injuries is the good habit of warming up and preparing myself physically before a performance. I get livid if my dancers do not warm up. But people like Bala did not work out. Maybe their work then was not that strenuous. Eras change and an era reflects the society of the time. Time then was slower, life was slower. But now, if dancers do not take care of themselves, they will pay for it later. Problems in knees, ankles, hamstring, tummies…those who are interested in life, take care of themselves, or the Muse, your ‘shri’ will leave you.
What book are you working on at present?
For more than 9 years, I’m working on a book called MOVING BEINGS. I was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Artiste in Malaysia in 1999. The thrust of the award is towards researching Malay shamanism. ‘Main Petri’ and ‘Makyong’ are 2 Malay traditional performing arts genre that also touch on shamanism and performance healing. Surprisingly, a lot of the archival material on it is not in Malaysia but abroad.
Have you ever been overwhelmed by anything in your dance career?
I’m overwhelmed by youth…the boundless energy….
What’s your birth date?
What do you do for relaxation?
I do a lot of things. I love to work in the garden. I cook. I paint. I have 2 dogs and 2 cats. I like to nurture things. I’m a nurturer. And I love teaching. I think I make a very good teacher. I sometimes see maybe a not so very good-looking dancer, maybe a not that graceful body, but I can spot his / her latent talent waiting to be extracted, to express itself…I want to nurture that talent. We have recently decorated the Sutra premises with some extraordinary furniture. Our technical director Sivarajah Natarajan and I collected blocks of old timbers around and we were stimulated to create furniture with original designs as we perceived it in those timber pieces and we now have some exquisite furniture.
You say you love teaching. What kind of a guru are you?
I don’t like people diving at my feet! Whatever you do, you must start with a pure inner heart, not just an outward ritualistic show. When it comes to a performance or class, it they don’t come up to expectations or make me wait, they get hell from me. That’s the guru in me. If you do not have respect for your art or for your parents’ money, why are you wasting my time and yours? That’s why we have performed very few arangetrams. We do not recommend arangetrams unless the student is serious about making dance a very important part of his / her life. Otherwise, it has no relevance. For a lot of students, arangetram is the beginning of an end. Most of them start a kitchen class. Too many mediocre teachers and dancers around. Over popularizing Bharatanatyam has resulted in this.
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