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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Dancing with Kindred Spirits

After mixing tradition with the contemporary, Aida Redza brings her dances onto the streets.

The Moved by Padi project.
The Moved by Padi project. Photo by Penang Monthly.

Dance and theatre fans know Aida Redza for her extraordinary and fearless performances. While grounded in a firm knowledge of the past, Aida’s work marks her out as one of the country’s most forward-thinking creatives and an iconic embodiment of female power.

Perhaps her family roots offer some clues for why this should be so. Her father’s ancestors traced their lineage to Minang royal court warriors in Naning, then part of Negeri Sembilan. On the Medan-Mandailing matrilineal side of the family, Aida’s grandmother was an ustazah invited to lead the women’s community in Singapore and married a journalist who helped found the magazine Qalam before moving to KL. She also played the gambus and sang nasyid, a skill she passed on to Aida’s own mother.

It’s no surprise, then, that Aida finds it second nature to traverse South-East Asia’s cultural boundaries. The apple never falls far from the tree.

As a student at Penang’s Convent Green Lane Aida already nurtured an early interest in the arts and dance. Ironically, her mother forced her to take ballet from the age of 10 because she thought it would help make her unruly daughter more “feminine” and “refined”. “If I didn’t go for arts, I would have gone for rough sports; my dad was a rugby player,” she says.

Anyone who has seen Aida’s performances cannot but be impressed by her physical boldness. “There is no boundary in terms of how I make use of my body,” she says. For some, climbing walls, risking yourself on a small boat in the middle of the sea and dancing in a muddy paddy field may seem bizarre undertakings. But Aida, who grew up in an environment where she was the only girl, learned very well how to blend with different sorts of nature.

“When I was a kid, there was no difference between me and my brother. We were wild. We used to go out and do things together. I even learned martial arts at that time,” she recounts. All of this of course ran against the current of the time – when middle-class Malay girls were expected to be demure and domesticated. It was a form of “girl power” before its time.

Voice of the People

Aida is now an administrator for Penang Arts Link and also at the forefront of Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio, a collective of artistes and producers who nurture shifting cultural identities through contemporary performances. Her own artistic voice belongs to the people: she stands for the community, speaking on behalf of the marginalised, the underdog, the poor, and is the voice of the unheard. “It is just in my nature. I have always cared for people, animals and the environment. When I work, I just choose subjects that are ignored, at the margins,” she says.

Creative work indeed has an important role to play because popular culture – with the performing arts at its centre – is capable of attracting people’s attention. In the hands of a skilful artiste, dance can be a powerful conduit for transmitting social commentaries. That’s its mysterious power. Dance is a wordless medium that relies on the movement of the body to express potent and complex ideas and emotions.

Aida uses this expressive power – sometimes tender and poetic, sometimes physical and insistent – to present social narratives, especially to those who are not familiar with this kind of performance or who feel they don’t have the cultural capital to appreciate it.

She decided to perform on the streets instead of in a theatre, using a language of movement that everyone could understand. “I want to cut the hierarchy between rich people’s culture and the poor. Theatre is supposed to be for everyone – it can be played on the streets and costs little money. Here in Penang, we are lucky to have a longpreserved street tradition,” says Aida.

Having trained both locally and internationally, Aida’s inspirations are wide-ranging and eclectic. She reserves a particular regard for two great Malaysian mentors – Marion D’Cruz and Krishen Jit. Their example enabled Aida, in her own way, to combine influences from all round the world, to reinvent from the traditions – and then transform them. The result is a dance form that is contemporary, innovative and critical. It is also politically engaged.

Female Power

An interesting double thread runs through much of Aida’s dance journey: the need to represent female resistance and the notion of Mother Earth as a manifestation of feminine power and spirit.

Ta’a was one of her earliest projects, and it has much to say about her passion in advocating women’s issues. Ta’a, which means “obey” or “comply”, was first created as her final-year project at the University of North Carolina in 1993. It was conceived as a form of cultural critique of the patriarchal system that subordinates women to men, particularly in Malay-Muslim society – the assumption of women’s obedience and obligation to their husbands. It questions “women’s lives that have to be given to the men, the father and the children,” she adds.

For Aida it is the environment that holds the key to another possible world. Besides reaching larger audiences, it is also the reason she works outdoors most of the time. Each of her recent major productions – River Meets Light, Bridges and Kaki Lima and Cross Waves and Moving Jetties – engages directly with the immediate environment: a river, an urban streetscape, the sea.

And this concern lies at the heart of her current production. The Moved by Padi project, born in Balik Pulau and to be brought to the streets of George Town later this year, is a mixed media production that is best described as a creative act. It encompasses visuals, installations and music in an experiential site-specific dance performance honouring the semangat (spirit) of paddy, and the local community’s ways of living with rice – as a source of existence and self.

“Because I care for nature I can very much relate to the role of nurturing in both the mother and in Mother Nature,” Aida explains. This is no mere romanticism, but an ethos of how people should conduct their “Because I care for nature I can very much relate to the role of nurturing in both the mother and in Mother Nature,” Aida explains. This is no mere romanticism, but an ethos of how people should conduct theirlives.

“I regard Mother Earth as a feminine power and spirit. It’s important for us to raise our children to care for women, to love our mothers – to reduce violence and bullying. At the same time, we must bring them up to care for nature, the mother spirit. I dance the soul of the mother. I am the mother. I am the warrior in the context of my work with nature.”

Wayang Koh Mak.
Wayang Koh Mak. Photo by Penang Monthly.

Overcoming Obstacles

South-East Asia is a region where various local arts and traditions thrive. Nevertheless, these ethnically specific traditions, particularly those that are practised all over Malaysia, are under considerable strain. Public performances of wayang kulit, mak yong, menorah and main puteri face marginalisation or even extinction. This is mainly due to the introduction of many regulations by the government, as most of these art forms are claimed to be un- Islamic. But it also has to do with the loss of an audience in the face of competing popular entertainments.

Swimming against the tide, initiatives such as Ombak-Ombak have organised a whole range of cultural events to promote local performing arts, particularly in urban areas.

For Aida, such movements to raise awareness are extremely important. This is especially so in a country where conservative ideas dominate the socio-religious and cultural discourses. “Take Indonesia, for example. They preserve their old arts and traditions even though they are the biggest Muslim country in the world. These arts are our identity and we don’t have to touch them,” says Aida. And places like Penang at least seem to welcome both traditional and modern art forms in a more tolerant way.

The biggest obstacle for Aida is time. She has a lot of hats to wear: a wife, a mother, an artiste and a social activist. On top of that, being an artiste in Malaysia is not as secure an undertaking as in Western countries, where the arts receive greater public subsidies and sponsorship. In Malaysia it’s a different story. “The arts don’t pay. I always tell my dance students that they have to start thinking about their future. Being an artiste in this country is not bright and glamorous. It’s an arduous path.”

The lack of production companies and producers is one of the biggest challenges faced by artistes, particularly in Penang. “Here, there is no one who can take executive producer roles. I have to do that myself, but it is very hard,” says Aida. Having that capacity is vital to allowing artistes to work in various productions instead of working alone, which could stunt their progress.

And to that end, she has recently initiated the Euphoria Penang Modern Dance Ensemble that focuses on developing and empowering a young team to create new dances that are strongly rooted in diverse cultural forms. “I want them to take ownership of our Malaysian cultures and create a new Malaysian dance identity and form,” she says.

Despite the obstacles, Aida is determined to explore new ideas with even greater verve and vitality. “We are now in 2016 and I really feel that it is time to do my own creations where I am also performing, including projects I’ve put off.” She is a living embodiment of the truth that performing arts have a unique capacity to inspire. “I want to use dance as means to make change, to raise awareness and to mobilise action. It’s the very core of why I do what I do.”

*This articles was first published in Penang Monthly, March 2016.


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