Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, Founder of Sutra Foundation, voices out on the lackings of the Malaysian dance industry and what we need to do to rise to the top.

(Image by S. Magendran)

We've celebrated the gallant heroes of artistry including Red Hong Yi, Dato' Sheila Majid, Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina and Quek Shio Chuan, who have placed the Malaysian arts and entertainment industry to the international stage. Now, we're pointing the spotlight on yet another art form that's touched many hearts with its combination of dynamic movements and interpretive symphony – the dance.

In the Malaysian world of dance, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim is one who stands on top of the chain with his series of work that includes ballet, modern dance and classical Indian dances (odissi and bharatanatyam). Other than his noted success in the industry, he also helms the Sutra Foundation, an arts foundation that strives to serve and contribute to nation building through arts and culture.

In his keynote speech for Merdeka Symposium in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), he said, “The arts play a vital role in building the character of a nation. When we mention the arts, we associate it synonymously with culture.”

He continues, “To a layman, art generally equates to beauty and excellence. Culture, on the other hand, has to do with tradition, the way of life of the people and the endeavours, which represent the collective psyche of society.”

For Datuk Ramli, nurturing new talents for the industry is one of the key ambitions of Sutra Foundation. Since its establishment in 2007, the Sutra Foundation has produced a long list of wonderful talents and productions that is known far and wide in the region.

Datuk Ramli says, “We need to nurture talents – not just to dance but also other fields in the Arts, which will contribute towards developing original works and a sustainable eco-culture - more integrated and less consumerist in ethos.”

Unlike those who constantly create works that mirrors the big players like Broadway and West End, Datuk Ramli believes that as Malaysians, we need to be original and create our own style. A signature cultural standpoint that is unique to Malaysia, which will elevate us to the international stage.

He says, “To emulate them and have another Broadway and West End in Malaysia is sheer folly. The Malaysian market has to find its own niche and then its own level.”

To incorporate different cultural references when creating art is something crucial to the industry, in order for it to find its own voice. Malaysians need to start to develop the indigenous talent in the art industry and to steer clear from being too centralised and mainstream.

Datuk Ramli is a man who stands firm on his beliefs and perhaps that is what makes his body of work unique and different from many others in the industry.

He explains, “What I do with my career and life is my business. I seldom seek approval from my family or friends. I may seek their advice but eventually, it is my decision and take full responsibility for this.”

To ignore negativity and head straight on to the whirlpool of trials and tribulations is how Datuk Ramli rises to the top. Throughout his years in the arts, he learnt that failures are not allowed and to survive the arts, one needs to be on their toes at all times.

He says, “Enormously talented artists are special people. Their gifts must be heeded. I always say that the dance chose me and not the other way round.“

Indeed, dance has chosen this man to be its voice to the world. For Datuk Ramli, what he has done and will be doing is the most natural of all things.

When we asked him about his alternative choice of career if art never went through, he says, “This is the normal life for me. Going to a 9 to 5 job would be abnormal and I would probably be obese or dead by now.”

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