25th anniversary interviews/

Marion D'Cruz

Marion D'Cruz

One of the original founders of Five Arts Centre in 1984 alongside her late husband Krishen Jit and Chin San Sooi, Marion D'Cruz is a pioneering contemporary dancer-choreographer. Having graduated with a BA in Performing Arts and an MA in Dance from Universiti Sains Malaysia in the 1970s, Marion has studied classical, modern and contemporary dance in Malaysia, Indonesia, London and New York. In 1983 she formed Marion D'Cruz and Dancers, who have performed extensively both locally and internationally. Marion's focus has been to create a contemporary Malaysian identity in dance and to create works that speak of what she is passionate about.

Marion now teaches, produces, performs and choreographs. At the 2006 Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, Marion was awarded the Cross-Cultural Champion of the Arts Award.

What was your entry point to Five Arts Centre?

I was young and enthusiastic, and either stupid or brave - depending on how you choose to look at it. Probably both. I was damn lucky to be hanging out with Krishen [Jit], [Chin] San Sooi and their generation of visionaries. They had already cleared the jungle and had ideas and plans. Their works and ideas inspired me. It was those two old men who embarked on the idea of an arts company dedicated to original Malaysian creativity. I was looking for Malaysian contemporary dance – my work fit in perfectly. [Redza] Piyadasa and K.S. Maniam joined the gang – gang of 4 men in their 40s/50s, one woman in her 30s. I was lucky to have found myself in the company of these guys - they were ahead of their time. Piya had already rocked the visual arts world with conceptual art and his ‘May 13, 1969’ (1970) coffin with the Malaysian flag. Durian runtuh lah for me!

Managing Five Arts is a hell of a job. What has this experience taught you about Malaysian performing arts management in the last 10-15 years? (Janet Pillai).

It is hell of a job but getting better. We began in my house - I used to fax things out to press at 2am!! Cos very hard to get through during the day. I used to go to DBKL for license. Now I don’t fax anything anymore and I have not been to DBKL since the sit-in that I did in February 2004 to get the license for ‘Election Day’! Now we have a nice studio, office and other people to run.

I learnt on the job; we still do not have a real culture of arts management in Malaysia although we are trying. Korea is really into arts management. We just all do all - multitask all the time because we have to. That’s good and bad. Sometimes we are well organized and efficient, at other times unnecessarily gila. We need to develop a serious system of arts management - it’s crucial for the industry to grow. I have learnt that one has to be extremely multi-focal and be good at crisis management. One needs to be good at nurturing… nurturing people, sponsors, artists, audiences. One needs to be efficient and calm and resourceful. I am definitely NOT good at all of these things. I used to be much better. Now more and more, I shout and scream and threaten to burn down everything.

In my career with Five Arts I have been dancer, choreographer, producer, assistant producer, stage manager, publicity manager, business manager, crew, sound operator, lighting operator, front of house, tour manager! This is arts management in the industry here. But if we carry on this way, its bad - we need people to be able to focus and become excellent at what they choose to do, and we must pay them well. We need expertise and excellence, not “jacks of all trades”. Now much is on a ‘make-do’ basis.

Why run Five Arts as a collective, as opposed to being the dictator's wife, and subsequently, the dictator? Isn't a collective more messy, tiring, cumbersome, and in [Chew] Kin Wah's words, "lots of red tape" and bureaucratic? (Lew Chee Seong).

Yes, collectives are messy, tiring etc… but I am really one of those who seriously believes that many heads are better than one. In the case of Five Arts, 14 heads are great. So much of our work would never have happened if the company was entirely envisioned by one person. In fact I miss the kinds of sparring that used to happen when Krishen used to attend meetings. And I miss the intellectual rigour that used to come from [Wong] Hoy Cheong, and Charlene [Rajendran]’s wit, and San Sooi’s calm optimism.

Each individual in Five Arts brings a unique perspective to the work - there are the dreamers, the autocrats, the practical ones, the worriers. The diversity in Five Arts is very real for me, and yes, quite difficult - but it’s really worth listening to what the other person has to say. I’m a good listener and feel safe within the Five Arts gang - safe to be the individual artist I want to be.

How has being in this arts collective influenced your own work and processes? (June Tan).

A symbiotic relationship really. From 1988 my work became extremely collaborative… in listening to many bodies and many voices. Collaborative choreography is like a Five Arts meeting… many suggestions and ideas… thrash it out and hopefully arrive at good results. Also in the early years, Krishen and San Sooi were so supportive of my work. All the strange things I was doing, they supported, gave feedback, produced, etc etc. Krishen was my severest critic and strongest supporter all at the same time - scold me for using non-dancers, then steal my non-dancer for his play!!!! Steal many ideas from me. But openly admit. Five Arts support and critique is very useful for me as an artist.

Can you share with us how your personal self has developed alongside your art? (Ivy N. Josiah).

It’s hard for me to analyse myself. You must analyse me – you know me for so long oredy. I believe I am good at crisis management… through the arts, and into personal matters. More and more I have merged my art and my work and my politics.

My art has been pushing boundaries, and as a teacher I believe my art has given me discipline, courage and resources to push the boundaries there as well. I am a very alternative type of teacher - and teaching is such a performance! I think I have learnt patience and resilience through the arts, and I am good at listening to advice… all that negotiation in Five Arts meetings!!!

Actually its all campur-mancur now - art, life, work - all merging all the time. In August The Star asked me to write an article for their Merdeka supplement on 1Malaysia. I did and they wanted to edit out some major parts. I said, “No, cannot take out those parts as they are crucial to the piece”. So they decided not to run it. Then they said, “Actually, we wanted your dancer’s perspective”. I found this bizarre. Told them “But this IS my dancer’s perspective”. These days I am just a very angry person - at the state of the nation. And my art is getting angry.

If you had gone on into a full-blown, active career as a choreographer, what possible directions might you have taken dance into? (Janet Pillai).

This is a full-blown, active career as arts worker. I think that’s more exciting than being only a choreographer. Now I see myself as dancer-choreographer-teacher-producer. I like where I have taken dance into and will continue to take dance into. Hard to say, but a singular choreographic career might have yielded boring work. If I were not engaged in education and society the way I am now, what would I be dancing about???

When you graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia in the 1970s, what were your hopes for dance in Malaysia? How have those expectations changed over the last 30 years? (Anne James).

I really don’t know what my hopes were for dance then. I was just full of the idea of looking for Malaysian vocabulary for contemporary dance. It was not a general hope for dance but a personal mission.

I am still interested to see the new generation of artists carve unique identities for themselves by looking seriously at form and content and to be engaged with the socio-political landscape of Malaysia. I see now much more interest in dance - more trained dancers, more choreographers, more shows – ‘Sehati Berdansa’, ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’, ‘Jom Berdansa’, ‘Alam’s Story’. But what are they all dancing about?? There are some pockets of real excitement. A. Aris Kadir’s ‘Nasi Putih’ is a spectacular piece, both in form and content - multilayered readings, brave and bold! Now that’s exciting!

What do you understand of 1Malaysia? And what’s the difference between the idea of 1Malaysia in 2009, and during the 70s when there was no need for crappy slogans? (Chew Kin Wah).

It sure is a crappy slogan. I really DO NOT WANT 1MALAYSIA. Please go read my article in The Nut Graph entitled “Who Wants 1Malaysia?” In the 70s we had more questions than answers. That’s what was exciting.

Have you ever considered opening your own school for dance or the arts? (Suhaila Merican).

No. Have never wanted to. That’s the way many dancers go. That’s one way to make money and leave a legacy. But I always felt that if I started running a school, my art would suffer. I would be doing what parents wanted to see… doing school concerts. I feared it would stifle my work as a dancer-choreographer. The models out there led me to believe that. But who knows…could be wrong…

If you were given unlimited resources to start a school, what kind of school would it be? And why? (Chee Sek Thim).

The School of All Things Alternative. Intake from two years old to 102. As long as you want to come to my school, you can.

The aim would be to get people to think out of the box in limitless ways and attempt to achieve much. Think, think, think and do, do, do. Kids would be taught to colour within the lines but also encouraged to colour outside the lines. The sea could be orange and the sky green. Many types of the Arts – dance, music, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, photography, directing, acting, film, writing, performance art, new art. New ideas all the time. But also sociology and politics and anthropology and Malaysia. Round and Triangular teaching areas. Gardens, swimming pools, waterfalls, spa, playground for kids, playground for adults, safe spaces, great food.

A damn happy place of living and learning and feeding the mind and soul. Unlimited resources right????

What would you like to change about Five Arts right now? (Ravi Navaratnam).

Our financial situation. To find some way where we can be really financially secure to do the work we love doing and need to do.

A permanent space for us - like our present studio but one that we own.

A more effective way for all of us to be involved in the discussions and the work.

You've been the strongwoman and proverbial glue that has held Five Arts for a long, long while, but surely it won't be that way forever, kan? Share with us your thoughts about the future of Five Arts. (Fahmi Fadzil).

I am relieved and encouraged that we have four generations of members in Five Arts now. I do NOT see myself as the strongwoman and glue anymore. I see greater ownership of the company and its vision by members, and I have learnt from the systems of others. The future of the company lies in the work that we will do – all four generations of us. I do not believe it lies only in the young ones. As long as the work is exciting and good and relevant, and as long as we keep making work… that’s the future.

You've been the bedrock that the company is built on since the beginning. What’s with all the dedication and staying power with regards to Five Arts? (Kubhaer T. Jethwani).

Stupid lah.

But also I really believe in the work that we do. And believe it or not, I actually enjoy Five Arts work most of the time. I do not enjoy the getting funding part. And I do not like preparing accounts for the accountants every year. But everything else is fun. And rewarding. I’m also a creature of habit!

What have been the three best shows or events you have seen in Malaysia, and why? (Lew Chee Seong).

This is a tough question and I have been ruminating for days. In an attempt to be objective, although I really do not believe in objectivity, I will keep the Five Arts work out of this and consider the best stuff I have seen which are not Five Arts projects.

Air-Con’ – the play was honest, brave and multi-layered. The direction was sharp, the performances were all very good. Every single person on stage was great to watch and to feel. The staging – set, lights, everything – high production values. Mostly it was honest and dealt with so many issues that are hard to tackle.

Puteri Gunung Ledang’ – for the sheer extravagance of it all. Some people say, “Ya, sure lah, got huge budget sure can do like that”. But actually, no. It’s a damn good example of doing a great job with lots of money!

Reformasi – In 1998, the Reformasi was a great event when Malaysians showed that they had courage to fight for what they believed in and for justice. Week after week for about two months, Malaysians gathered on Dataran Merdeka or Kampung Baru or in front of the Istana – 10, 20, 50,000 thousand Malaysians – tirelessly. The tear gas and water cannons flew each week but the following week more Malaysians were out there. It was shocking and inspiring.

What was your favourite Five Arts project?

Family’ (1998) and ‘Ne Zha’ (1999). For both, the logistics were HUGE, like we were trying to do the impossible. And with each solved problem, the next day there would be another.

One day during the preparation for ‘Family’, I was sitting on the steps of that big old house waiting for the plumber to come to sort out plumbing and I really thought I was going to go mad… at the thought of the monumental amount of work that needed to be done. I think I called Ravi [Navaratnam] and almost started crying!

And for ‘Ne Zha’… 14 shows in like 7 different locations with kids to look after and keep safe! And some of the areas we performed in were far from safe. After ‘Ne Zha’, I really wanted to die cos I felt that we had achieved really a lot and there was nothing left to do!! Both these projects were damn challenging and they were damn good shows in very different ways. And therefore, very rewarding.

What is your view about Five Arts being called "significant" in the Malaysian arts scene? What do you think the real ‘significance’ has been? (Mac Chan).

Who calls us significant?

Maybe we are significant cos we have been at it for 25 years. Cos when we did ‘The Cord’ in 1984 people were generally not interested in local English language plays telling Malaysian stories. People asked, “Who is K.S. Maniam?????” Now local plays are the flavour of the stage! Cos when we came out of the urns in 1988, it was probably the most bizarre event in the history of contemporary dance in Malaysia up to that point. A leap of the imagination.

Cos we did ‘Family’ in an old Chinese mansion where audiences had to move around. Cos we did the ‘Emergency Festival’. Cos we nurtured Rhythm In Bronze. Cos ‘Suara Rimba’ was a seminal children’s theatre production. Cos we did ‘Work – The Malaysian Way’, and performed in places of work and people cried. Cos when we could not find plays to do, we started devising material. I think we have had many really significant events - in our experimentation with form, and in our dealing with the Malaysian experience on so many levels.

Let's settle this once and for all - is there such a thing as a "Five Arts style"?

There is.

7 January 2010