Much ink has been spilled debating the importance of the arts as cultural diplomacy by philosophers and artists.
Agnes de Mille, an American dancer and choreographer, once said: “The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.”
And it is this philosophy that drives Mr Muhammad Noramin Mohamed Farid, 31, a choreographer, dance educator and researcher, to produce artistic works that constantly question and challenge the normative notions of class, ethnicity, identity and gender.
Mr Noramin launched Bhumi Collective last year with his childhood friend and fellow artist, Mohamad Shaifulbahri.
He says: “I do believe that art is a form of cultural diplomacy. Through Bhumi Collective, what Mohamed Shaifulbahri and I intend to do is to tell the stories of the lesser seen, lesser heard and lesser talked about. In the context of the United Kingdom, we notice that there is a lack of Southeast Asian voices and presence.”
The multidisciplinary artist, based in the United Kingdom and Singapore, is dedicated to simultaneously integrating and breaking the boundaries of traditional dance forms by working with contemporary dancers.
He explains: “Today, we are able to define markers that represent the ‘Malayness’ of movements. These dance vocabularies can be easily integrated into the creation of contemporary dance theatre. For such movement vocabulary to be accommodated, there must be awareness and education of what such gestures mean and how its techniques are executed.”
His deep curiosity of traditional arts piqued his interest to research Malay dance for his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2017.
“With my work in Malay dance, I hope to take the traditional art unique to Singapore to an international audience,” says Mr Noramin, who is the first traditional arts scholar whose focus is on Malay dance.
Last year, he received the National Arts Council (NAC) Postgraduate Scholarship valued at $110,000 for PhD Studies, and an NAC grant valued at $4,700 for Bhumi, a multidisciplinary and international collaborative production at Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
He also became the first PhD student to win the Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award, which provides scholarships to Malay and Muslim students who display potential in non-academic areas such as sports, music, design, as well as literary and performing and visual arts.
“I see any form of art as an intention to tell a narrative, and that there’s a need to coalesce forms of human expression to tell a story. What is regarded as traditional dance has gone through gradual development from past to present. I see what I am doing as giving younger audience an alternative form of expression which is as equivalently relevant.”
A new lease on life
In his role as a practitioner, ambassador and preserver of the traditional arts, Mr Noramin believes that young arts practitioners should take ownership of their cultural traditions, and play an active role in creating innovative artistic works.
Through his efforts, he hopes that this will pave the way for future arts practitioners to further refine their craft.
Says Mr Noramin: “I would like to be known as the person who has encouraged and spearheaded scholarship into the historiography and sociology of Malay dance in Singapore. I would like to be the person who is involved in the thinking and rethinking of Malay dance pedagogy and choreographic practice.”
While he acknowledges that his art form is not the most popular, he says it has evolved and is continuously practised and passed down from one generation to the next.
He believes that the need for evolution of Malay dance need not come at the price of sacrificing its heritage.
He adds: “Practitioners must find the necessary vocabulary to express this relevance to our society so that we may challenge the commonplace conceptions of our dance form that are, at times, seen as backward.
“Like other traditional art forms, Malay dance is on par with Western forms such as ballet and popular dance genres such as hip hop and contemporary dance. I believe this to be true because the common binary that traditional is antithesis to contemporary continues to perpetuate minds today. Malay dance practitioners have invested time and intellect to generate knowledge and allow for the flexibility to integrate, accommodate and negotiate current trends and ideas in its artistic expression.”
While his work in Malay dance has made progress, the journey to pursuing it as a career has not been easy for Mr Noramin. His parents used to express their concerns about career stability in the arts, but his determination and passion managed to bring them around.
“They know that a profession in the arts is not going to be lucrative. I remember tense discussions with my parents about the matter. But eventually, I proved to them in some way that I’m capable as a practitioner-researcher,” he says.
When he started out, he had to contend with scepticism from the artistic community too.
In the early 2000s, he co-founded Dian Dancers, and his team was critiqued on their ability to manage a dance group.
“Many felt that because we were young, we were ill-equipped to handle the pressures of starting an organisation,” he says.
More than a decade later, the group has transitioned from an interest group at a community centre to a registered society at the Aliwal Arts Centre.
“I think we have shown we have what it takes to be resilient,” he adds.
Dian Dancers now represents Singapore in international festivals, giving emerging talents global exposure.
It takes a lot of courage to ignore naysayers and be confident enough to commit to making his dream come true, says Mr Noramin.
“I’m going to try, and I don’t mind failing. As long as I stand up after every failure, I believe I will eventually succeed,” he says.
Inspiring youth through dance
The Singapore Youth Award (SYA) finalist believes that youth can make a difference in their respective fields if they start having bigger aspirations, even on a global scale.
As he has done with Malay dance, engagement with various communities worldwide is key in creating a lasting impact in one’s work, he points out.
He has used his artistic medium to celebrate a nuanced and authentic view of Singapore on international platforms.
He explains: “I have benefited from my travels and education overseas, establishing myself as an international artist and scholar.
“By finding that balance of being actively involved in the local scene while connecting with other artistic communities around the world, I’m able to facilitate the change I want to see in my own community.”