A drama academic returns from Latvia, exposing a gathering of international theatre people to the use of silat in the contemporary stage, and HIMANSHU BHATT, who visits him, leaves knowing a few more things about the ancient Malay art of self defence.
A VISIT to Dr Zainal Abdul Latiff at his office at the Performing Arts Centre in Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang will see you in a room crammed with piles of books, manuscripts and old play posters.
One hardcover sticks out, lying in the middle of his table, as if undaunted by the academic clutter. It is titled The Art of Stillness. "It is about the animal energy in the actor," Zainal explains, leafing through its pages. "Even though an actor does not have any lines, he is alive. In the stillness there is movement." The book deals with a revolutionary dramatic technique of Tadashi Suzuki who took elements from the old noh and kabuki theatres of Japan to put together a performance methodology for the contemporary stage.
Drawing on strengths of traditional disciplines is something very close to Zainal's heart. And he has tried for the last 25 years, using the very martial arts training of his own culture and childhood, for the great love of theatre.
Zainal, an associate professor at USM, was recently in Latvia as the only Asian participant at a festival on theatre methods organised by the International University "Global Theatre Experience".
He trained 50 theatre specialists from Europe and America in a special programme called Pencak Silat in the Training of Theatre Practitioners. The trip was sponsored by the Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and USM.
For three days, participants were acquainted with the philosophy and techniques of silat - the old Malay-world art of self-defence - and how they can be adopted for preparation towards acting.
Zainal has been using silat in his classes since 1979 when he returned from Hawaii where he was pursuing a master's degree in drama and Asian theatre.
"One of the lecturers at the University of Hawaii was doing Shakespeare when he saw me practising silat," Zainal remembers. "He made his actors go through my movements for agility and concentration - it turned out to be very good for them." Properly guided, the sudden moves, the reflexes, the intense body focus of silat, can become highly acute tools in training the actor for any role - conservative or radical, realistic or avant garde.
There is an enormous awareness of the self, a mastery of physical alignment and a sense of confidence that silat imbues in its devout practitioner.
"Actors like Ahmad Yatim and Rahim Razali have taken up silat themselves. Look at their stage presence - they are very strong." Pencak means "systematic, trained body movements" and silat connotes "the application of systematically-trained body movements in a fighting situation".
But Zainal regrets that the original philosophy, way of life and the fluid body-mind movements of silat have been lost to youngsters only interested in fighting.
"Silat is as old as the race," he says. The youths, however, have missed the beauty and relevance of the bunga (flower) in the old Malay saying: In the move, lies the dance In the dance, lies the flower In the flower, lies the fruit In the fruit, lies the punch In the punch, lies the crunch Zainal was first acquainted with this potent, beautiful flower in silat as a child in his kampung in Malacca. "At one time, to be an adult you had to learn this art. We would train from eleven at night till one in the morning." Now he allows himself to be exposed to other martial art forms being adapted for theatre. The experience has helped him modulate the tenets and principles of silat for a similar purpose.
He talks keenly of Prof A.C. Scott who in 1954 introduced tai chi for his acting classes at the University of Wisconsin, and reads the works of Phillip Zarilli who uses the ancient Indian martial art of the kalaripayattu for actor training.
He also studied kabuki for a year, acting in the classic tragedy Chusingura or The 47 Royal Retainers - a story about a chieftain's warriors who are not supposed to take revenge on another lord, but do so anyway and commit suicide in the end.
And two years ago, he participated with John Knobbs of the Brisbane- based Franks Theatre Company - a devout follower of the Suzuki technique - taking the role of Macbeth's conscience, using minimal movement packed with powerful stage presence, and speaking only Malay.
In Malaysia, silat has been done before, though very infrequently, for the contemporary stage. Zainal remembers Belgian academic Tone Brulin directing the improvised play Naga-Naga Dimana Kau? Naga-Naga Siapa Kau? (Dragons, where are you? Dragons, who are you?), composed by Salleh Joned and Kishen Jit in the 70s.
"Salleh cycled from KL to Penang to see it!" The great challenge of silat, Zainal says, is how the actor personalises the ancient practice for his own characterisation work.
"An actor must drown himself into it; then he is able to absorb the audience, to pull them in. And only after the show is over is the audience released." "It is an internal thing. Only the actor who practices properly knows. In the end, silat is you. You become the silat."
Written by HIMANSHU BHATT
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