Dream or Memory: Creating a Site-Specific Work

Choreographer Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid tries to rekindle the atmosphere of childhood, along with two dancers with little experience in contemporary dance.

Nurul’s essay was translated from BM.


She Simply Disappears” is a site-specific contemporary dance work. This ten-minute work was performed at Rimbun Dahan in the Dancing in Place 2015 program from 31 January to 1 February, 2015. The work tells the story of two sisters, or perhaps they are best friends, who are dependent on each other. They play, eat, enjoy life and seek out fun together. While creating this work, I drew inspiration from a writing of Barbara Alpert, about the connections between sisters:

She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway. She is your partner in crime, your midnight companion, someone who knows when you are smiling, even in the dark.

In this work, we see the changes in atmosphere, and emotions such as happiness, joy, sadness, conflict and loneliness. Sometimes fights occur, or separations caused by loss or death. Emotions like these are experienced by everyone. The memories or dreams which have been absorbed into this work can be said to be 60 percent my own, and 40 percent the adaptation and interpretation of my dancers.

In this work, I intended to tell the story of two of my own sisters who in the beginning were extremely close, almost inseparable. But after other people started coming into their lives, and as the result of agitation, doubt and conflict arose which caused their relationship to crack. Their connection still exists today but mingled with doubt and still somewhat tense.

To create this choreographic work, I chose the area underneath the traditional Malay house at Rimbun Dahan, Rumah Uda Manap. This space reminded me of my own grandfather’s heritage house in my kampong. The structure and shape of Rumah Uda Manap was just the same as the ancestral home where my two sisters played as children.

No Experience in Contemporary Dance

The two dancers in this work, Siti Noorliyanti Binti Ramli (Yanti) and Nor Hidayah Binti Hayon (Yaya), are first- and second-year students in the Bachelor of Performing Arts (Dance) program in the Faculty of Music and Performing Arts, Sultan Idris Education University. They were traditional dancers, and had not been exposed to contemporary dance.

Yanti, a student in year two, semester four, had studied the basic movement techniques of ballet and contemporary dance. Yanti’s strengths lay in her flexibility and physical strength. Yanti was somewhat slow in receiving and memorizing movement but she worked hard on correcting that weakness.

Yaya, on the other hand, was a first year, semester two, student, who had studied the basics of ballet technique. In the beginning, I was worried about the choice of Yaya, because her abilities and her bodily training was not yet sufficient from the point of view of physical fitness and flexibility. But after getting to know her, I discovered she was persistent, and had the confidence and spirit to learn.

In addition, I also worried about the understanding between Yanti and Yaya because they were from different cohorts in the university. But from the third day during the improvisation and exploration process onwards, I did not worry again. Both of them were very cooperative. They also viewed this process as an opportunity to add to their learning to improve their abilities and strength in contemporary dance. Day by day, both of them began showing good improvement and started to develop a common understanding and sensitivity.

Improvisation, Exploration and Choreography: From Studio to Performance Space

Before beginning rehearsals on the first day, I explained to Yanti and Yaya the content that would be imbued in the work. I wanted them to truly understand what I wanted to transmit through the work. The choreographic process began in the studio. In the beginning I was somewhat hesitant and worried because the two dancers had no experience in contemporary dance. But the process in the first week was good because they both cooperated and showed a strong intention to learn.

In the first and second week, I only gave them movements and carried out exploration. The process of creating solo movement for each of the dancers was difficult because sometimes the material I gave could not be performed or interpreted well. As a result, there was a lot of repetition of movement motifs in the choreography. The following week, I began the process of improvising using props like a chair and a table. I gave the dancers a fifteen-minute task whereby they were to try to explore the props with their bodies. After that, I rearranged and added to the movements that had been acquired. While rehearsing in the studio, it was clear that the dancers were quite comfortable and did not face any obstacles especially while performing floorwork routines. Nevertheless, I suspected that difficulties would arise and they would have trouble adapting themselves to rehearsing at Rumah Uda Manap.

In the fourth week, we departed for Rimbun Dahan and began four days of rehearsal there. On the first day in Rumah Uda Manap, I started rehearsal with the choreography that had been created and arranged in the studio. A few movement motifs and results of the improvisation were not appropriate and needed to be changed. I continued the process of improvisation and exploration in the space and got lots of ideas from using the pillars and bars that we found in the space. We then arranged and tidied the results of this improvisation.

Before beginning the process of improvisation and movement exploration, I divided the space into three parts. Each part had a memory or dream that needed to be expressed, influenced by the breadth or tightness of the space. At the same time, I also thought about where the audience should be seated to watch each part. I felt that the audience should move from place to place to get the clearest view and the message that the work was attempting to transmit. But during the actual performance, it became clear that the audience preferred to sit in one place, and they required coaxing from the ushers to change their point of view.

The experience of staying the night at Rumah Uda Manap strengthened Yanti and Yaya’s relationship and brought them closer together. The understanding between them expanded and they succeeded in immersing themselves in the work. But from a physical standpoint they had difficulties because they had yet to adapt to the environment, especially the rough cement floor, which caused quite a few injuries and small wounds every time they rehearsed. But they did not give up and instead tried to find strategies to solve their problems. I advised them to observe, understand and respect the environment of the performance space. Thus the situation improved from every day to the next.

Baju Kurung Without Kain?

In this work, the costume I chose was the top half of the baju kurung, without a sarong on the bottom. This costume choice was influenced by the chosen space and also inspired by memories of my childhood. At the time, most young Malay girls who lived in the kampong would go to religious studies after returning from school or after the Asr prayers. During religious studies they would be wearing their baju kurung, but after returning home, they would take off their sarong to go and play beneath the house. This was the kind of thing which my own sisters did.

After choosing the costume, I didn’t think of any possible negative effects because I viewed the dance as a performance based on my experience. I also felt that perhaps some of the audience would have experienced the same. I sought the help of the grandmother of a friend to sew the costumes. When delivering the fabric, she asked, “Why only four meters? Why are you making a baju kurung without the kain (sarong)? Haih, it’s no good, like this! Too sexy…” I smiled and had to give a thorough explanation and information and understanding about what contemporary dance is. After hearing my explanation, she understood and agreed to make the costumes.

When the costumes were finished, the two dancers and I were surprised with the results of her design and sewing. She had made the baju kurung on a contemporary model with a narrower collar compared to conventional baju kurung design. Aside from that, she had also expanded the bottom half of the baju with the justification that it would make it easier for the dancers to lift and spread their legs. She said, “Didn’t you say contemporary? Well, I made it contemporary!”

Creative Opportunity and Experience

I feel extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity and to have been invited by Rimbun Dahan to make a work for the Dancing in Place 2015 program. I feel very proud of the achievements of my two dancers who made the work a success. At the same time, I also got to meet and converse with choreographers both from Malaysia and overseas.

In the end, many audience members gave the work a positive reception, and some of them were surprised with the performance of the two dancers who apparently had had no previous experience in contemporary dance. Joelle Jacinto, a dance writer who was also a dancer in Dancing in Place, wrote in her review of the program, “Applause goes to Nurul’s clever choreography, which highlighted the strengths of her very young dancers.”

In the process of creating this work, I became more knowledgeable and experienced with creating contemporary dance work, especially site-specific work. “She Simply Disappears“ could not have existed with the same atmosphere in any other place. As Joelle Jacinto observed, “Easy as it would be to prop chairs and a table for the two stage sisters to dance around and with; though the charm of the wannabe sister – who is not a sister at all actually, since the disappearing sister is just a figment of her imagination – dreaming of a playmate while dutifully sweeping under her house would be lost and perhaps unreplicable on another site.”


Nurulakmal Abdul Wahid is a tutor at the Faculty of Music and Performing Arts, Sultan Idris Education University. More

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Featured photo:
Nor Hidayah [left] and Siti Noorliyanti  in “She Simply Disappears”, Dancing in Place 2015, Rimbun Dahan, Kuang, 31 January, 2015. Photo © Marvin M Kho