Era Dance Theatre explores Singapore's past in new work Tumasik

Era Dance Theatre artistic director Osman Abdul Hamid (far right) directing a rehearsal for Tumasik.
Era Dance Theatre artistic director Osman Abdul Hamid (far right) directing a rehearsal for Tumasik.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Dance drama Tumasik explores what might have happened in the nation's early days using traditional and contemporary forms

While planning the upcoming production of Malay dance company Era Dance Theatre, executive director Azrin Abdul Rahim wanted to do something involving Singapore's history.

But he found that most people do not know much about what happened, besides the founding of Singapura by Sang Nila Utama in the 13th century, and the next chapter of Sir Stamford Raffles.

"There is a 500-year gap during which nobody really knows what happened," says Azrin, 52.

"The sighting of the lion that gave Singapore its name, even though there were no lions in this region? That was also a basic question nobody could answer," he adds.

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Tumasik, a roughly 90-minute dance drama production, will look at lesser known parts of the country's history. The name is taken from an ancient spelling of Temasek.

It takes place on Aug 7, in celebration of Singapore's National Day, at the Victoria Theatre.

  • BOOK IT / TUMASIK - REVISITING HISTORY AND REWRITING OUR STORY

  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 11 Empress Place

    WHEN: Aug 7, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25 to $45 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

    INFO: www.tumasik.info

Osman Abdul Hamid, 55, artistic director of Era Dance Theatre, says the production is not meant to be entirely historically accurate and will "take on nuances" from different periods in history.

But they are using an academic essay from National University of Singapore Assistant Professor Sher Banu A.L. Khan as a guide to what might have happened in the past.

For example, Sang Nila Utama might have imagined the form of a lion as the lion is an important symbol of power to Buddhists. It is not widely known that he was Buddhist.

Tumasik also looks at Singapore's role as a busy trading port before Raffles stepped onto its shores.

The production is a collaboration between Era Dance Theatre and Sultan Idris Education University in Perak, Malaysia. The script was written by Dr Salman Alfarisi from the university's department of performing arts.

And of the approximately 90 dancers, musicians and vocalists involved, about 20 dancers, 10 gamelan musicians and eight vocalists are students from the Malaysian university. The rest are from Era Dance Theatre and include other artists from Singapore.

The production features a mix of traditional and contemporary forms. For example, the music will be a mix of gamelan as well as contemporary and include a string section.

Osman is also excited to revive the art of taridra, or a drama presented in the form of dance. Taridra is a portmanteau that combines the Malay word for dance, "tari", with "drama".

"It's been more than 20 years since I did a taridra and I wanted to revitalise the art form," he says.

This is the second time that Era Dance Theatre is working with Sultan Idris Education University. They had collaborated on Era's annual Malay dance festival, Muara, in 2015.

Besides this production, the two are also working on a bigger project - Era Dance Theatre is pioneering a Regional Arts and Cultural Academy in Singapore.

The academy - which does not have physical premises yet - was set up earlier this year to promote South-east Asian arts and culture in Singapore.

Through partnerships with regional institutions, the academy will offer short courses on different artforms, embark on research projects, publish books and more.

Through Tumasik, Azrin hopes that the younger generation of Malays will realise and be proud of the rich history of their people.

"Malays used to rule the area. We travelled the world over. We were not people at the fringes of society. We were warriors," he says.

"Hopefully this realisation will give them a better understanding of their roots."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2017, with the headline 'Imagining Singapore's past'. Print Edition | Subscribe