Friday, 13 June 2008

Western Theatre - Eastern Culture vs Eastern Theatre - Western Culture

University: For the module Culture Identities and Theatrical Practices , we had write an essay on the presentation we presented. We spoke about 'Western Theatre taking Eastern Culture vs Eastern Theatre stealing Western culture. Well something like that. One of my group member uses Peter Brook as an example of someone who takes in Eastern influence and include it in his theatre. I countered this by arguing that not only the Westerners that steals ideas from the East, as the East has also stolen techniques and cultures from the West.

In my presentation I spoke about the East’s manipulation towards Western theatre’s culture. As the East are often known as passive of Western ideas and images (Latrell, 1988:46), my presentation argues the opposite saying that the East plays a big role in manipulating such influence into their existing traditional theatre. The structure of my presentation is mainly based on Craig Latrell’s article After Appropriation. From the main ideas and arguments of his article, I then do further research in order to present a better understanding of the subject matter to class.

First, my group member Karina spoke about Peter Brooke. Brooke is known for inserting Asian influence into the practise of his production without recognition to the authenticity of indigenous cultural meaning. (Brown, 1998: 1) I continued by giving a commercial example. In Madonna’s video Frozen, the singer can be seen dancing and mimicking traditional Indian dance gestures. However like many pop icons, they insert these elements without any apparent reason to their songs and understanding of what lies beneath these movements. This is typical of the West to borrow other cultural elements as decoration in their experimental piece.

I then put across that intercultural borrowing is not just a one way process. I begin by giving the meaning of Intercultural Transfer as explained in Latrell’s article After Appropriation. Intercultural Transfer is

‘when an artist borrows performance techniques from a genre outside her own culture and inserts them into new performance contexts with out regard to indigenous cultural meanings’.(2000:48)

Here I counter Karina’s argument by stating that the East is capable of doing the same.

I told the class when mentioning the word Butoh, one automatically thinks of it as a “Japanese form of dance”. However, Butoh is very much influenced by Western style of dance. Kazuo Ohno was born 1906 in Hokkaido, Japan. He started to dance after being inspired by a Spanish dancer known as La Argentina. Ohno danced under various dancers including the first important modern dancer in Japan, Baku Ishii, who studied classical ballet and less classical form of Neue Tanz from Germany. These forms of dances are the basis of Ishii’s “Creation Dance” which then influenced the works of Ohno and Butoh’s creator Hijikata to creating a Japanese born eccentric dance. (Bourke, 2000) I stressed that just because Butoh seems organically Japanese’s new form of art and uses Japanese onomatopoeia in their pieces (Nanako, 2000) many are ignorant to the fact that it is highly influenced by Western styles and techniques.

Next I spoke about Khatakali Othello which ‘renders both Shakespeare and India monochromatic’ (Loomba, 2005:128-129). In 1966, a Delhi based dancer-director Sadanam Balakrishnan designed a production of Othello in Khatakali which stretches and played upon the rules of Khatakali. The play however was criticized for stepping out of traditional repertoire of Khatakali stories. I explained to class briefly what Khatakali is; a traditional performance ‘developed to be performed in the presence of the gods within a temple’ (Brown, 1998: 11) and its relation to Indian’s caste system. In a way such intercultural theatre gives awareness to Indian audiences of both Shakespeare and Khatakali but I personally feel that it is inappropriate. It took away Khatakali’s originality in many ways and uses Shakespeare as a way to address domestic issues. Another version of Indian Shakespeare, Othello: A Play in Black and White, again, through Shakespeare showed the issue of Indian racism and elitism. (Loomba, 2005: 132) I showed pictures of an actress enacting a scene from Shakespeare using Khatakali gestures in a production by TheatreWorks. (Peterson, 2003: 84)

Ania Loomba (2005:129) suggests that the writer, Balakrishnan, were not interested in Shakespeare at all. I put my opinion that by using Shakespeare, the writer took the opportunity to globalize India. As a result it infuriated Indian patrons who felt that the Khatakali-influenced Shakespeare was inappropriate for Khatakali; while Khatakali is too tedious and inaccessible for the Western market because for them, Khatakali is just a style. (Loomba, 2005: 129) In my point of view, as much as Shakespeare is in the international market due to post-colonialism, it does not work for Khatakali to be traded out of India in a Western theatre form. As explained above it is dance for the gods.

Similarly, many indigenous theatre in Southeast Asia borrowed formal and stylistics techniques of Western theatre such as staging and sound equipment into their performance. This is not saying that such elements are of Western origin but it does prove modernism. This is mainly for tourism purposes. (Latrell, 2000: 52-53) I demonstrated to class a few Balinese dance movement in hoping they would get an idea of its eccentricity and explained to them that every single movement has its story and meaning. Nowadays Balinese dance is not just reserved for temple ceremonies but performed at tourist venues. Indigenous theatre that was originally performed in sacred places like temples as part of praying ceremony is now performed in tourist venue. As John Russell Brown argued, indigenous productions are now performed in ‘western-style’ theatres with modern stage equipments while tourists are charged high priced tickets. (Brown, 1998: 10)

Another interesting theatre I pointed out is Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Musical staged at Istana Budaya (theatre), Kuala Lumpur. As I narrate the story to class, I passed around pictures of the musical production. Here it is obvious that the production uses Western theatre culture to produce a traditional legend on stage. On the official website of the musical, it is written that the objective of this production is to produce a unique Southeast Asian stage musical that is directly inspired by PGL film (it was first made into a film before it went on stage, an example of imperialism); Malaysia’s first attempt to stage its very own West End scale production. This proves the production is highly influenced by Western culture. Having seen the musical myself, the choreography is a fusion of Balinese and traditional Malay dance with contemporary and minimal hip hop influence. The music played by an orchestra incorporated traditional elements into a contemporary composition. True such production has promoted local cultures outside Malaysia and proved that a Southeast Asian country is capable of staging a big West End show, but would this ‘traditional/indigenous – West End/Broadway’ genre (similar to Lion King The Musical) abolish the authenticity of one’s culture? I let the class answer this for themselves.

Rishi gave feedback and pointed out that we need to discuss more about Post Colonialism. One reason for indigenous theatres to borrow or apply Western techniques into their performance is due to Post-Colonialism. Since countries such as India and Malaysia were once colonised by the British, the country’s culture are ‘affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day.’ (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, 1994: 2) Although these indigenous theatres still practise their traditional culture they feel the need to ‘adopt’ culture from coloniser with the ‘assumption being that it has universal validity’. (Barry, 2002: 196) Pointing to example above, traditional performances performed using staging facilities is one way to show coloniser’s superiority in defining modern. As for PGL The Musical, the production literally adapted the form of Western staging and performance producing a Malaysian musical with cross-culture quality. It could also be said that these are the practises of eurocentricism which explains the use of English subtitles in performance and program books written in English.

Although intercultural transfer introduces one’s culture to another, indigenous theatres should preserve their traditional culture.

~ Despite what I said about PGL, I thought it was groundbreaking. Have not seen P. Ramlee the musical though. What a shame. Sigh. I heard it is just as good~



Colin Essential English Dictionary, Glasgow: Harper Collin, 2003

BARRY, Peter, Beginning Theory; An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002

DESMET, Christy and SAWYER, Robert, Shakespeare and Appropriation, London: Routledge, 1999

LOOMBA, Ania, “Shakespeare and the Possibilities of Postcolonial Performance” A Companion to Shakespeare and Performance, Ed, Barbara Hodgdon and William B. Worthen, London: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pp 128-132

MARTIN, Carol and BIAL, Henry, “Introduction” Brecht Sourcebook, Ed, Carol Martin and Henry Bial, London: Routledge, 2000

MARSDEN, Jean, The Appropriation of Shakespeare, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991

PAVIS, Patrice, Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, London: Routledge, 1991, pp 230-240

ASHCROFT, Bill, GRIFFITHS, Gareth and TIFFIN, Helen, The Empire Writes Back, London: Routledge, 1994.

Internet Sources

BOURKE, Emily,Butoh: The Darkness Amongst Joy, 2002, Tangentz Performance Group. Availale at> [Accessed 6 Dec 2007]

Electronic Journal

LATRELL, C., 2000. After Appropriation. The Drama Review [online], 44(4).

[Accessed 6 Dec 2007]

BROWN, J., 1998. Theatrical Pillage in Asia: Redirecting Intercultural Traffic. New Theatre Quarterly 14 [online], 1 (NTQ53), pg 9-19 [Accessed 6 Dec 2007]

NANAKO, H., 2000. Hijakata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh, The Drama Review [online], 44(1), pg 12-28. [Accessed 6 Dec 2007)

PETERSON, W., 2003. Consuming the Asian Other in Singapore: Interculturalism in TheatreWorks’ Desdemona, Theatre Research International [online], 28(1), pg 84.


fadz said...

tiara takkan terasa, dia akan bangga, coz all those points u wrote, has been quoted by Faridah Merican (i read it somewhere).

LosT PearL in bIg Oyster said...

Hello Abang Fadz, seriously? I have never read that by Faridah Merican. thanks for reading and your comment!

zubin said...

first, thx fadz for pointing this site. second, interesting writings on theatre. so where are you studying in London? I am attracted to manythings that you have written about Eastern-Western, there are many examples such as Lear by Ong keng Seng of Theatreworks Singapore using western story and bringing asian aesthetics into it, which is typically singapore, or Robert Wilson 's La GaLigo staged in sg, europe, ny and jakarta finally. other than brook, perhaps you could also look at ananya charterjee's book Butting Out about how asian and african work been seen and exploited by the west in the manner of postmodernism and post-colonialism discussions. But then we should also look at how passionate was Brandon towards Asian theatre as well as eugenio barba, who is still practising theatre in Denmark.

Perception about western idea towards PGL was written by Rohani Yusof in Pentas, Istana Budaya's magazine. On the other and Solehah Ishak, who is an academician supported the idea of pgl as benchmark for Malay theatre. so what should we do with Bangsawan, wayang kulit, mak yong etc?

LosT PearL in bIg Oyster said...

Hello Prof. Dr. Zukifli, thank you so much for taking the time to read my amateur essay. I appreciate your comment and reading suggestion, this will be very helpful for my studies.
I am currently studying at London Metropolitan University. Have just completed my first year and now doing internship in KL for summer holiday.

As for your question: 'what should we do with Bangsawan, wayang kulit, mak yong etc?',my first respond would be it is not about WHAT can we do, its the question are we ALLOWED to do it?
I personally feel that traditional art such as Mak Yong, Bangsawan, Wayang Kulit etc. should not only be practiced by professional practitioners but also seriously introduced and practised in schools as part of their curriculum.
From my humble opinion, by inheriting it to the new generation we get to preserve it in the long run. It is a shame that nowadays normal sekolah kebangsaan are being very sensitive with such activities by mixing them up with religion. After all what is a race without culture? Therefore only a small group of expertise are appreciating this art.

In terms of keeping it strictly traditional and preserving its indigenous cultural meaning, this is hard for me to say. Although I stressed in my essay's conclusion to preserve traditional art , it is hard to not move with the times and develop or experiment with traditional theatre. We dont want to kill the indigenous art/culture,at the same time we dont want to be backwards either. True what Prof. Dr. Solehah Ishak said about PGL being benchmark for Malay theatre. Perhaps there should be a balance between preserving it and borrowing it to create new work.

Whereabout do you teach Prof. Dr. Zulkifli?

zubin said...

dear lost pearl, dont call me prof. I am an independent scholar trying to research in the actual condition and practise. Go to my blog. I am not teaching anywhere, only last week started teaching writing at IIUM. If you ae here in KL, we can meet up to talk abt theatre. U speak Malay if yes you can read me ranting in Malay in my blogs ( i am still trying to consolidate the 5 blogs).

I agree with you. Both must go on at the same time. Thx again Fadz for the link!

LosT PearL in bIg Oyster said...

Dear Dr. Zulkifli, are you still keen on meeting up to chat about Malaysian theatre? I will be in KL till end of sept.

zubin said...

Hi, Selamat Ulangtahun Kemerdekaan dan Ramadhan, definately, I am interested to meet up to chat, let me know when you are free. Call me at 0192459282. Just got back from Myanmar and Thailand