Dance, Music and Theatre in Malaysia
Malaysia's multitudinous performance traditions have been influenced both by the beliefs and cultures of indigenous tribes but also by the outside influences of Malaysia';s neighbors, especially the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and China. Malaysian performance arts have also been changed due to the spreading of various religions to the country. Many different dance, theatre, and music traditions tell the stories found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.
Malaysia's dance traditions can be broken into two categories: courtly classical dance, and folk dance. In the courtly tradition, the dances are similar to those of Thailand and Indonesia. Most court dancers are female. They are costumed in beautiful, flowing fabric which is often textured with gold and beads. Unlike the towering Thai crowns, Malaysian court dancers tend to wear smaller headdresses, wreaths made out of flowers, and headbands that allow the hair to hang freely. The costumes are influenced by courtly fashions from both Thailand and Indonesia, especially the nearby island of Java. Some dances require the use of apparatus, such as small handheld mirrors, fans, and flowing scarves. Though most dances are performed barefoot, certain courtly dances are performed in soft slippers.
Malaysian courtly dances were developed for the entertainment of royalty, as well as to commemorate life events such as weddings. Dances are accompanied by a large orchestra of chimes, drums, metallic gongs, and flutes. The most well-known music of Malaysia is the gamelan. Gamelan is also a series of classical dances, which are performed in a group as part of a courtly repertoire. The beautiful classical dances of Malaysia continue to be studied and performed today.
The folk dance traditions of Malaysia have also retained their popularity. Due to the many foreign influences as well as the variety of ethnic cultures indigenous to Malaysia, the folk dance traditions are even more eclectic than the courtly performances. Most folk traditions celebrate a life event or aid in a religious affair, such as a harvest festival, wedding, funeral, or entrance of warriors into battle. Arabic influences can be seen in many of the folk dances which tell Islamic stories, including the manner of costuming. In the Islamicized folk-dance, both men and women wear short trousers, silk tunics, and short silk coats. Men also wear often wear a small cap or turban, whereas women dress their hair with modest floral wreaths or veils. In folk dances which derive from Malay, Sumatran, or Javanese cultures, the colors of the costumes are much brighter, and often, the dances are faster-moving. Dances such as the endang pattern their movements off the motions made by peasants in the field, (winnowing rice, wiping their brows, plowing the fields, etc). The cinta sayang dance portrays fisherman going out to sea; the dance is a prayer to keep seafarers safe.
The folk traditions of Western Malaysia (that of the states closer to Kuala Lumpur), are quite different from those of Eastern Malaysia (the states of Sarawak and Sabah). The folk dances of Eastern Malaysia more closely resemble those of the Philippines and the Indonesian island of Bali. The costumes for these dances include larger, elaborate headdresses with plumes and tropical flowers, and brightly coloured garments with batik patterns, many of which are of native animals and birds. In one Eastern Malaysian dance, called magunatip, pairs of dancers spin and jump to avoid being captured within cages of moving bamboo poles. This pole-jumping dance is also found in the Philippines. As in Western Malaysia, the dances in Eastern Malaysia are often performed at festivals celebrating harvests, births, and marriages.
Malaysia is also home to a form of dancing which is also a martial art. Silat is a type of self-defense, which was brought into Malaysia from South Asia through the Indonesian island of Java. Silat mixes jabs, throws, punches, and kicks, with the turns and movements of a dance. It is sometimes danced with a ceremonial dagger, called a keris in Malaysia. The keris has a long, wavy iron blade and a thick handle made from iron or wood. This same weapon is found in Indonesian martial art dances, where it is called a kris. Silat is performed at festivals and weddings as a show of liveliness and strength. Most silat performers are male; however, women may also train in this performance tradition. The costume most often worn during silat is a short coat, long trousers, wide belt and Malay-style turban. Like many other dance costumes, the costumes for silat are intricate and colorful.
Numerous types of theatre also exist in Malaysia. Like many theatrical traditions throughout Southeast Asia, Malaysian theatre incorporates aspects of dance, pantomime, musical theatre, opera, and puppetry to form entertaining performances. Most of the stories told in Malaysian theatre are folk stories, which include fairy tales, romances, and tales of battles in history. As in Thailand, Malaysia has developed a theatrical style for the telling of the manora story, which was adapted from the Buddhist birth stories (jataka). Naturally, the Malaysian form of manora (or menora, as it is sometimes spelled) clearly resembles the Thai play. Stories told in Malaysian theatre derive from a number of sources, including Arabic intrigues, Indonesia folk tales, and even Portuguese fables. Whatever the origin, however, the way in which the stories are presenting during performance is distinctly Malay.
Malaysia is also home to several different forms of puppet theatre. Wayang djava and wayang melayu are both forms of shadow puppetry, akin to that seen on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. Wayang siam is type of puppetry which has its basis in Thai influence, and tells stories from Buddhism. The wayang kulit theatre is the folk shadow puppet theatre in Malaysia. In rural areas, this type of puppet theatre is still very popular. Wayang kulit also originated in Java. The master puppeteer is called a dalang, who works with the large cut-out puppets and moves them behind the screen on long poles. For some plays, the dalang is able to work alone, but for others with multiple characters or battle scenes, the dalang often has the help of an assistant. The dalang is also the narrator of the play. With the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra, he tells the story shown on the screen. Originally, wayang kulit stories were drawn from the Hindu epic the Ramayana, or the Buddhist jataka stories. However, in Malaysia, many wayang kulit plots come from native folk stories as well as moral tales which instruct young spectators in propriety. In the modern day, the government sponsors certain dalangs to perform puppet shows which discuss contemporary issues, such as hygiene and birth control. Unfortunately, some dalangs have been forced to shut down their puppet theatres and work as labourers due to governmental restrictions. The government also keeps a close eye on the content of non-sponsored dalangs, due to the fact that wayang kulit tends towards non-Islamic content and themes, which could be seen as controversial to an Islamic-centered government.
Though the traditional performance arts in Malaysia must now content with new entertainment forms such as cinema and television, the traditional arts continue to be of interest to both native Malaysians and the Malaysian government. Classical dance, and theatre are taught in Malaysian schools and universities, and within tribal towns, the art of dancing has not lost its ritualistic purpose. In the cities, the performance arts have been modernized to be performed on Western-style stages with lights and microphones for sound. Some of these arts, especially the folk operas, have even been televised. With both foreign and native interest in these arts, Malaysia's performance traditions will no doubt continue to evolve and persist as an important part of the nation’s culture.
An excellent description of Malaysian music and dance:
This website describes each type of dance in detail, along with photographs:
A good source, with photos, on Malay theatre:
Short page showing a wayang kulit puppet: