Tête-à-tête: Renowned dancer Ramli Ibrahim on finding his ‘groove' in dance.

“I was born an artiste. I had an artistic temperament even as a child. Dance, I find, refreshes me and satisfies my artistic need to express myself,” says Ramli Ibrahim, the Malaysian dancer-cum-choreographer who has wooed many an audience with his brand of dance. Ramli was in Thiruvananthapuram with his troupe, Sutra, as part of the Nishagandhi Festival. Excerpts from an interview:

Dance

I started formal dance class – ballet, modern dance... rather late, at 14. But prior to that I was into Malaysian traditional dances. I sang; I even did a radio series on Radio Malaysia. When I was in Australia doing my engineering degree, I used to go to theatres, museums, galleries… I was searching for the ‘groove' to becoming an artiste. By the end of my year there, I realised that engineering was something I had to do because I was on a scholarship, but that dance, was my destiny. And soon, I was with the Western Australia Dance Company learning ballet.

Bharatanatyam and Oddisi

I studied Bharatanatyam under Adyar K. Lakshman and Odissi under the late Guru Deba Prasad Das. I channelised my artistic side towards Indian classical dance because I was searching for a vehicle in which I could explore as a solo dancer. The Indian dancer has to be in charge, in command of his physical, emotional and spiritual aspect when he is on stage. Besides, I love the connection of Indian classical dance with literature, philosophy...

Although I started off with Bharatanatyam, I became disenchanted as I found certain dancers playing to the gallery. Also I found Bharatanatyam, especially the Kalashektra style, very rigid. I came to Orissa in 1978 and saw an Odissi performance by Deba Prasad and was enchanted. It is strong and not madhurya.

Breaking barriers

I am a Muslim doing Indian classical dance, which is essentially associated with temple dance. But I approached Indian classical dance from the spiritual point of view. I think most vocations and most callings are spiritual. But then each country has its set of problems and it is up to the artiste to rise to the challenge. I am now working on rehabilitating Mak Yung, a local art form that has been banned in Kelantan (in Malaysia).

Influence of various dances in your choreography

As a dancer one has to first understand where one stands; whether one is working within a tradition or not. I work as both, as an Indian classical dancer and as a modern day choreographer-cum-dancer. I do ballet to prepare the body. Malay folk dance brings out a wonderful softness, is more lyrical, not macho and is suited to Odissi; they are complementary. As a contemporary choreographer, my works are influenced by Asian traditional forms, especially Indian dance.

Our Oddisi performances have a Malaysian flavour. Not only are the dancers different, their movements are also different. They seem to like our style in Orissa. ‘Spellbound,' which we performed at the Nishagandhi Festival, will also be performed at the Konark festival in Orissa in February.

Contemporary choreographies

There's ‘Traditions and Transformation' that has been influenced by both Bharatanatyam and Odissi idioms in terms of vocabulary, but worked out in such a way that the statements are universal. ‘Kamala' is about the female principle, a sort of homage to the lotus. ‘Scheherazade' is about the perfume garden of Asia. So there are images of intrigue…images of exotic Asia.

Sutra

Sutra was formed in 1983. It acts as an umbrella in which I can present my own works. That way I don't have to depend on the sabhas or other organisations that will have banners in the background. Through Sutra, we are able to realise our objectives of creating new interesting works, even in Indian dance, training programmes, collaborating with international artistes…basically in helping to realise in Malaysia that art is important in nation building.

As a guru

I am a hard taskmaster and expect the best from my students. I am especially strict with the rich students as they tend to be spoilt.

Upcoming works

Sutra will be presenting an Odissi work called ‘Vision of Forever.' It is a purely Shaivaite and Tantric work, with highlight on ‘Dasa Maha Vidya.'

Dance reality shows

I am one of the judges for the Malaysian version of ‘So you think you can dance.' I am not a Simon Cowell; I tend to be very sweet and encouraging on the show. A result of such shows is that there is a dilution of the dance and it is difficult to find people who are truly sincere in learning dance as a passion. Most come with hopes of shortcuts to fame.

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