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Outrage at Culture Ministry's ban on ballet

The dance community of Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday received the disturbing news that Singapore Dance Theatre, one of the premier ballet companies in Southeast Asia, has been denied visas to perform in Kuala Lumpur by the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture, on account of the indecency of their costumes.

Singapore Dance Theatre was scheduled to perform at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) this weekend, bringing a selection of classical ballet works, ranging from a duet from ‘The Nutcracker' to Balanchine's iconic ‘Serenade'.

All of the costumes for women had long skirts, except for ‘The Nutcracker', which was to be performed in a short classical tutu and tights, the kind that has been worn by ballet dancers since they performed before the Russian tsars in the 1870s.

On behalf of MyDance Alliance, a membership society supporting dance and dancers in Malaysia, I wish to express my outrage about this deplorable decision, on two counts:

First, that the Secretariat of Puspal, the agency which approves visa applications for international artists, should have been so narrow-minded and uninformed as to attempt to censor the purest classical works of an international art form that is over 400 years old, and which is enjoyed and appreciated by thousands of people young and old in this country alone.

Ballet dancers in Baghdad are allowed to wear ballet costumes on stage.

Are we to understand that the Malaysian public is less cosmopolitan, less morally resilient and less broad minded than the citizens of a Middle Eastern country that has been ripped to shreds by war and violence?

Second, that Puspal should be so inconsistent and unclear in the application of its guidelines. Performances by international ballet dancers wearing classical tutus have been approved before.

Such dances have been performed this year, even in government-run theatres like Istana Budaya.

KLPac, by comparison, is a private business on private ground, with paying audiences who were well aware of what they were coming to see, and not one of whom would have been distressed by the costumes.

This inconsistent judgment from Puspal has caused enormous doubt in the arts community, not to mention a huge loss of money.

The arts, too, are a business, and such uncertainty can only make international investors shun this country.

In light of recent similar occurences, Malaysia risks an international reputation as an unpredictable and unreliable host for cultural performances. Singapore, with its more predictable and reasonable procedures, will continue to eclipse Malaysia as the venue of choice for world-class performances.

One of the stated objectives of the Ministry of Culture is "to increase national income through the contributions from the creative and communication industries", but with judgments like this Puspal raises the level of investor risk to unacceptable levels. Puspal's actions seem contrary to its parent ministry's objectives and, by extension, to the national interest.

Canceling a performance at the last moment is the most heartbreaking decision any artist can make. I hope that with better leadership from the Ministry of Culture the show will be allowed to go on, the ministry will raise its prestige as an open and consistent incubator of the arts, and the Malaysian public can once again be proud and confident in our image as a broad-minded nation rich in art and understanding.

 

 


 

Bilqis Hijjas is president of MyDance Alliance, A society to support and promote dance in Malaysia.