Until the present century the best-known Malay performing arts depended on royal patronage. Even performances of the popular wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre had some crucial royal support. With British colonial rule the local sultans lost their influence and many of these arts almost disappeared. It has only been in the last decade that a concerted revitalization effort has been made by young choreographers brought up in an independent Malaysia. the Suasana Dance Company is the first Malaysian group to bring international recognition to this new trend.

The traditional arts were preserved best in areas furthest from the colonial seats of power - particularly the Sultanates of Kelantan and Terengganu on the east coast of the Malay peninsular, but also in some rural areas. Shortly after she returned from university studies in Australia, Azanin Ahmad went to the then rather remote islands of Langkawi, off the west coast. Her research into the myths and folklore of these islands led to her first two dance dramas, Dayang Sari (1978) and Jentayu (1980), the latter of which brought the company international recognition through well-received performances in Europe.

Suasana and Revitalized Malay Arts

Cempaka Emas

Hong Kong Tenth Festival of Asian Arts

18 October - 3 November 1985


Those two productions incorporated dance forms from throughout Malaysia, and in this way were similar to other productions being put together in Malaysia at that time.

Where Azanin Ahmad has really broken new ground is largely in her two recent dance dramas, which confine themselves to more coherent Malay art forms. The scholarly research of her husband Dr. Shaharil Talib, a history lecturer and Coordinator of the South East Asian Studies Programme at the University of Malaya, has been of direct benefit here.

Putri Sadong (1982) was derived largely from the arts of the state of Kelantan, with some influence from the music of Terengganu. The source of Cempaka Emas (1984) were more restricted again, being limited to the most classical theatre form, Ma'yong.

Ma'yong was patronized in the Malay courts of Kelantan and Pattani, an area now in Southern Thailand. It was also performed as rural theatre and arguments still rage as to which came first, court or rural. Royal performances took place at the palaces and it could take several evenings to complete a story.

There are only 12 Ma'yong stories - variety comes largely in the improvised jokes of the person in the clown role. A connoisseur could of course appreciate the nuances of various interpretations of the dance movements and slight variations in text caused music alterations. The stories themselves always concern a young prince who seeks and wins a beautiful princess after overcoming many hardships - he also usually inherits her father's wealth.

Suasana's production Cempaka Emas comes from one of the 12 Ma'yong stories, Raja Tangkai Hati. Of great benefit were video tapes of Ma'yong performances made in 1969 by Dr. William Malm of the University of Michigan. Actual Ma'yong performances today are extremely rare. The script is by Tan Sri Haji Mubin Sheppard, author of a number of books on Malay culture. It is a fairly straightforward condensation of quite a lengthy story into a well-paced two-hour production.



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