Singaporean students to stage dance at Edinburgh fringe festival

Zunnur Zhafirah Sazali (standing) demonstrating Malay dance moves to the members of the group.
Zunnur Zhafirah Sazali (standing) demonstrating Malay dance moves to the members of the group.PHOTO: THE BHUMI COLLECTIVE

A group of Singaporean students in London will be staging a dance production at this year's Edinburgh fringe festival, the world's biggest art festival with over 3,000 shows each year.

Titled Bhumi, the show marries traditional Malay dance and music with contemporary elements and explores concepts of identity in a multicultural and multinational environment. Bhumi is a Sanskrit word meaning earth or soil.

The 45-minute show will be performed by six dancers, including three Britons. It will run from Aug 15 to 20, and 22 and 27 at Upper Theatre in Edinburgh.

The seven-man creative and production team, who call themselves The Bhumi Collective, are aged 30 and younger. All are pursuing bachelor's or master's degrees in the arts in London.

Producer Mohamad Shaifulbahri Sawaluddin and creative director Muhammad Noramin Mohamed Farid, both 30, decided to collaborate on a work together when Muhammad Noramin moved to London late last year. They have known each other since childhood and supported each other's creative endeavours. Mohamad Shaifulbahri founded community youth theatre group Yellow Chair Productions in 2005 and Muhammad Noramin co-founded Malay dance organisation Dian Dancers in 2003.

Mohamad Shaifulbahri is pursuing a master's degree in Creative Producing at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Muhammad Noramin is in the United Kingdom for the final semester of his master's degree in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage by Choreomundus, an inter- European programme.

They roped in Nabillah Jalal, 23, a Royal College of Music student in her fourth year, to be the music director for the project. She had been in contact with the SpaceUK in Edinburgh, which runs multiple venues for the fringe festival. Upper Theatre is one of its venues.

The collective contacted the venue in January and received official confirmation that they were part of the festival about four weeks later.

"The Edinburgh fringe festival is open enough for anyone to apply and be a part of it. It was a case of the stars aligning - we thought, what better time for this bunch of Singapore Malays in London to come together to do something," says Mohamad Shaifulbahri with a laugh, over Skype.

Completing the creative team are dramaturg Grace Khoo, 30, assistant choreographer Zunnur Zhafirah Sazali, 20, stage manager Muslihah Mujtaba, 22, and lighting designer Stella Cheung, 23.

Initially, the team had wanted to explore themes related to identity from the perspective of a Singaporean Malay in London, but found that they had to think in wider terms as the team has members who are not Malay or Singaporean. Out of the six dancers, which include Muhammad Noramin and Zunnur, three are British students from the London Contemporary Dance School.

"It gets difficult to talk about your experiences about being Malay when you're working with a cast that is multinational and multicultural," says Muhammad Noramin. "But the Malayness is there."

The music will work motifs taken from traditional Malay music, such as Suriram, an old Malay lullaby, into contemporary music.

The dance production includes elements of the Malay dance style inang and Malay martial art, silat.

Dancer James Adams, 21, who, like the rest of the team, is working on this show on top of school work, says learning about traditional Malay dance is "very exciting".

"I find it exciting to perform as well, as it requires a different performance quality," he says.

The collective are planning a series of work-in-progress showings before they hit the Edinburgh stage in August. Rehearsals take place twice a week.

Mohamad Shaifulbahri is also hard at work trying to secure funds to cover the cost of about $30,000.

The National Arts Council has given the collective a grant of about $5,000 and they hope to receive support from the Singapore International Foundation, as well as from private donors and through crowdfunding.

The Edinburgh fringe festival does not give out funding. The collective have to pay for the venue rental of Upper Theatre, which entitles them to box-office management, publicity and technical support.

The team are excited about the journey and have bigger plans to stage Bhumi in Singapore.

Mohamad Shaifulbahri says: "We want to leave the UK with strong memories. You know the phrase "go big or go home"? For us, we want to go big and, even if we fail miserably, when we do go home, we can say that we tried."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'Singaporean students to stage dance at Edinburgh fringe festival'. Print Edition | Subscribe