**This article appeared for the now-defunct malaysianinsider in december 2014.
USING the Malaysian traditional theatre of makyung, which received Unesco recognition as Oral and Intangible Heritage of the World in 2005-6, dancer-teacher-choreographer Joseph Gonzales has come up with a contemporary performance featuring the person who introduces the story to the audience.
Says Gonzales about his show, Becoming King… the pakyung revisited which starts Dec 11, 2014:
“In the traditional context of the performance, the pakyung has god-given powers. He is a king and is the all-important character that introduces the story to the audiences.
“Makyung is beautiful because it combines acting, dancing and singing. It is a complete holistic performance genre. There are 12 main stories and from these 12, other stories evolve. They are usually full of magic, suspense, drama, betrayal, loyalty and so on.
“There are very interesting characters like the evil spirits or jin, and all this shows the array of Malay culture and philosophy.
“My inspiration is from the fact that although this character is from a traditional theatre form, I realise that it is still very relevant to today’s society.”
Becoming King… the pakyung revisited is Gonzales’ full-length hour-long contemporary dance production since his last full-length show, Awas, in 2003.
“I am doing this because it is my artistic response to my nation and the world at large. I have had this idea in my head for a very long time,” explains Gonzales, the dean of the Aswara (National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy) dance faculty.
It’s not like he hasn’t been busy as he presented a full evening of his previous works in 2007, when he also did the choreography for Tunku the Musical, “which was one of my favourite projects”.
“A full-length is different because we want to engage the audiences at a different level — I felt that this time, for what I wanted to say or do, I needed that one hour!”
Becoming King… the pakyung revisited features Aswara dancers, with new commissioned music by Ng Chor Guan.
“There are many reasons we create art — as a teaching tool, to entertain, to worship and so on. This time, my intention is to make a work of dance that can speak and touch the audience at many levels. The idea of the dance is like a ‘back-story’ — a behind-the-scenes to give people the idea of how hard it is to become the pakyung.
“The dance is about so many things. Primarily, it begins with the questions of what it takes to become the pakyung? How does one train? Or learn?”
Writing down dance production ideas is one of Gonzales’ hobbies. He started pre-production work on this show in April 2014 because he knew he wanted to stage it later in the year. The show had to be scaled down due to costs despite consistent support from the Sime Darby Foundation, which helps give the dancers a reasonable salary. Funds also came from the Krishen Jit-Astro Fund Award of RM9,000.
The physical creative process began with daily rehearsals in September.
“I divided the show into sections and was very clear in my head, about what each section was to be about. I also carry my notebook, very old-fashioned, but sometimes also write notes onto my phone. I like to work out ideas in this way first… writing, reading and planning.”
After understanding the dance movement motifs, Gonzales chose to focus on the similarities that his dance idea for Becoming King… the pakyung revisited had with silat — the Malay martial art.
“I deconstructed the phrases and started to then rebuilding the vocabulary based on certain elements of spiral, grounded, weighted movements to build my own phrases.
“I basically created the steps in my head, as I cannot perform them at all anymore, and I explored it with my dancers.”
The process of refinement will continue till the day of the performance, he adds.
“Certain sections require the dancers to use their voice and playing with a prop too (rotan berai) which is used in makyung.
“I think that the biggest challenge is keeping the narrative and fluidity in this hour-long production. To find new aspects to introduce to the audience during this time, keeping the end final vision in sight, and having the overarching story or throughline.
“In this performance, the dancers are truly challenged because they will have to sing, dance and convince the audience that they are the most suitable candidate to become the King (the pakyung).”
He warns that this is a contemporary dance production and does not need a “real” pakyung onstage. But he had created a similar character played by Zamzuriah Zahari, who will appear onstage and give the position and power to the person who is selected by the audience present.
“This is going to be one the MOST interesting features of the show — where the audience gets to vote for who they think is the best person or most suited to become the pakyung.”
“I have always been attracted to this character — the style, grandeur — and am using this character as a metaphor for what I am trying to say.
“I want the audience to understand that it is important to decide wisely and to select based on criteria/qualities. There will also be a question and answer session about why they selected a particular performer to become the pakyung.”