A recent theatrical performance of silat left much to be desired, writes Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin
THE opening performance that heralded the month-long George Town Festival was billed “Silat — Our Heritage For The World”. It was performed at one of Penang’s heritage sites, Fort Cornwallis, on June 15 and 16.
It boasted such luminaries as Saw Teong Hin (director of the film Puteri Gunung Ledang) and choreographer and contemporary dancer Aida Reza.
It was touted as a performance that would lift silat to heights of artistry.
From the pre-performance write up, we were given the impression of a spectacular artistic creation based on silat movements. Some of us who have seen silat-based performances conjured up images of artistic performance at par, if not surpassing, the ones in countries like, say, Indonesia.
Unfortunately, it was a let-down. The performance was not only incomparable to the Indonesians’ traditional dance forms, but fared unfavourably when compared even with the local creative efforts of the Petronas Performing Arts Group, Istana Budaya and Aswara.
We had thought that the silat would be a contemporary abstract piece, or one that had an imaginary or legendary storyline using silat combat movements in a stylised manner to create horizontal, vertical, symmetrical and asymmetrical movements, patterns and formations that would titillate the audience with spectacular visual compositions blended with aesthetically correct musical compositions.
But it was not to be. Rather, it was a melee of uncoordinated movements accompanied by a cacophony of disparate percussive sounds that attempted to relate the story of Hang Tuah, the legendary hero and icon of the Malacca Sultanate.
Understandably, silat is inextricably linked to the prowess of Hang Tuah and his companions. Saw had Hang Tuah as the central character in Puteri Gunung Ledang.
For the uninitiated, it was quite difficult to follow the storyline as the motivated link between one scene to the next seemed absent. The choreographer opted to present a montage of the Hang Tuah epic.
What was curious was the visual depiction of the last scene of the duel between Hang Tuan and Hang Jebat, in which the wayang kulit screen was going round the perimeter of the stage like a monorail, blocking the action on the stage. Perhaps the director wanted the shadow effects of the duel to be cast on the screen from all angles, but it proved futile, a lack of theatrical sense.
Except for a few instances of unison movement execution, the rest, especially the chorus parts, were like a street brawl depicting some kind of demonstration.
The choreography basically incorporated free dance and violent silat movements. Its impact was that of people running helter-skelter, knocking and hitting each other.
One needs to understand silat in its entirety, the various movement nuances such as holds, poses, hand and body positions and the various kicking positions before structuring it into an architectonic and aesthetic framework to serve the dramatic actions.
Instead, what one saw on stage was a melee of raw silat movements. There was definitely a lack of understanding of performance concepts and aesthetics in the silat performance that night.
References should have been made to the Minangkabau dance, Tari Lilin and Randai of Indonesia to see the sophistication of silat movements used as performance art. Sadly, we are still at the mundane level of raw martial arts.
Lighting left much to be desired. Most of the time the actions were in the dark as a result of insufficient lighting.
The musical accompaniment consisted of a combination of gamelan and wayang kulit ensembles, and three rebana ubi (big double-faced barrel-shaped drums) as well as recorded music. Except for brief moments of structured gamelan and wayang kulit pieces, the rest were amorphous percussive sounds.
The music was not properly structured to address the dramatic actions and to create emotional intensities. It was used as background sounds and in the end, it was just a lot of noise accompanying the street brawling.
Silat music has specific melodic contour, drums and gong patterns. To be fair, there was one segment of solo serunai that was powerfully haunting.
The versatility of this melodic instrument together with the interlocking rhythmic silat drumming could be used to further serve the dramatic actions.
The show lacked a production and aesthetic concept that could unify all the disparate elements into a cohesive creative entity. Is this a wayang kulit performance or a silat martial arts exhibition? If these elements were to be presented in a production, there must be an aesthetic base to blend the wayang kulit and silat into an artistic creation.
Silat, just like the kris is our cultural heritage, a symbol of valour and should be portrayed in a manner befitting such august symbolism. Therefore, there is a dire need of researching and understanding the materials and their language of expression of movements, music and settings before attempting to fuse them into a meaningful aesthetic production. Otherwise we would be accused of fraud.
The writer, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin lectures at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Arts