The Malay Heritage Foundation

3LFI ISMAIL: A Journey Through Culture and Creativity

In the world of performing arts, Mohammad Elfi Bin Ismail, known as 3lfi Ismail, is a beacon of talent and dedication. Trained in both traditional and contemporary Malay art forms, 3lfi’s artistic journey is a fusion of cultural heritage and innovative expression. His passion for dance has taken him from humble beginnings to international stages, shaped by workshops with esteemed institutions such as Istana Budaya in Malaysia and Era Dance Theatre Ltd in Singapore.

3lfi has achieved notable milestones throughout his career, including earning the Career Certificate in Performing Arts with support from the National Arts Council and participating in the award-winning musical Puteri Gunung Ledang. His commitment to excellence is evident in his rigorous training, which includes completing the Starmaker Musical Theatre Bootcamp and working closely with industry veterans like Tiara Jacquelina.

Beyond his performances, 3lfi’s dedication to promoting cultural heritage and nurturing young talent is exemplified by his founding of T3at3r Muzikal Collective Ltd. This platform aims to foster a deeper appreciation for Malay-based arts programs and productions while empowering the next generation of artists. With a wealth of experiences spanning international festivals, educational initiatives, and collaborations with esteemed choreographers, 3lfi Ismail embodies the spirit of creativity and cultural exchange in the performing arts. We recently met up with him to find out more about his inspiring journey and vision for the future.

Balancing dreams since NS. ‍🩰(📸 Credit: 3lfi)

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in Malay performing arts, and how has your journey evolved since then?

In primary school, I saw a Malay dance performance and I decided to join but I told my mother that my teacher had asked me to participate in the upcoming Singapore Youth Festival (in fear that she would say no). However, that was short-lived after attaining the Bronze award. The kid in me didn’t do anything related to performing arts till I was in Nanyang Polytechnic. I did silat for a year then Malay theatre for the rest of my poly days. Inspired by my good friend who was a dancer and choreographer, I started to explore dance again, auditioned for Gentarasa 2007 (Titisan Caca Merba) and joined Artiste Seni Budaya (ASB), Tepak Sireh (under the tutelage of the late Mr. Rizman Kassim) where I rediscovered my place and passion for dance.

Dance was not a “popular” career choice, so after national service, even though I wanted to pursue it, my father was not supportive of it. Instead, I went to NIE and became a teacher, and spent almost seven years of that time juggling my teaching duties and dancing part-time with NTU Beztari and ASB.

In 2015, I left service and sought both my parents’ blessing to pursue performing Arts full time. My mother convinced my father, saying, “It’s in his heart, what is Elfi without Tari?”. From then on this was my love, career and life.

Looking back, it has come full circle with my business and teaching Diploma, my NS experience, and performing at the inauguration of T3at3r Muzikal Collective.

Q: Could you share some insights into the traditional and contemporary Malay art forms you specialise in?

My dance journey has taken me through Malay traditional dance forms with different folk music genres, such as asli, inang, and zapin, to other dances like Tari Istana and even simple movement creations that use everyday life gestures to create a motive. Apart from dance creation, I also do musicals and theatre productions. Other opportunities have been to work with visual artists and musicians to create new works.

Q: Your involvement in various international folklore festivals is impressive. How have these experiences contributed to your growth as a performer and choreographer?

My first overseas festival was in Dumaguete, Philippines, with ASB in 2009. Through this festival I learnt about a sense of professionalism and how you “carry” yourself as a performer on and off stage. The dedication, pride and full commitment of the dancers I met really became an aspiration for my personal self.

I went to many other international festivals with ASB and Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts Ltd (SW). In the words of Mdm Som Said, “No two festivals are the same”. She always emphasised the importance of values such as adaptability and readiness. Mr. Adel, the managing director of SW, was a great mentor for me in terms of team management. He was a kindle spirit that took time to take care of the welfare, spirit and “work life balance” of the delegation. This has enabled me to bring my own team of performers as a choreographer and Head of delegation.

Every folklore festival has its unique offering. It’s a feast for me to see how other choreographers improvise and innovate while keeping thousands of-year-old cultures and traditions alive, inspiring my choreography processes and works.

Stage presence: It’s all about how you carry yourself. ✨(📸 Credit: 3lfi)

Q: As the Director of T3at3r Muzikal Collective Ltd, what are your main goals and aspirations for the company’s future?

The main goals are providing platforms for collaboration for Malay base works and developing professionalism in young talents who are keen to pursue the art form.

Currently, TMC is made up of two units: the Art manager’s unit and the Dance unit. My aspirations for the company are to develop other units, such as a theatre and music unit in the performing arts wing and also other areas for art making, such as a writer’s unit or even a stage management unit. I hope to explore more unique collaborations within the traditional arts sector, digital media, or even businesses.

Q: How do you balance preserving traditional Malay arts with incorporating contemporary elements in your choreography?

First and foremost, having a good foundation in traditional Malay art is essential. I also need to be willing to continue learning, as I feel that knowledge of the art form is almost like a bottomless well in my journey.

The Malay traditional art form, like any traditional form, has its “rules and norms’. As a choreographer depending on the work and platform I’m creating for, I usually explore how I can challenge it, expand, or even work around its limitations.

This allows for creative thinking and innovation, such as learning new trends and/or practices that keep the work relatable yet preserve the important values and essence of the art form.

The art of dance is a constant exploration. ➡️ (📸 Credit: 3lfi)

Q: Walk us through your creative process when choreographing a new piece or production.

Start with an intent and develop a concept. In terms of choreography, I usually list all this on a notepad: the shapes, motive, or even a theme. Other information that may be listed may include the number of dancers, the gender, and/or even the props and costumes. Then, select music to inspire the choreography. At times, I use ready-made music, and at other opportunities, I create a new piece to “complete” the choreography.

In the next phase, I get into the studio, sometimes alone or with dancers, to draft the piece. This can happen after the concept/ideation is complete or concurrently, as the process may inspire changes to the ideas and/or concept. I always tell my dancers that they have to contribute to the creative process by bringing the other 50% to what I bring to the studio.

Finally, we process and complete the piece, selecting or even designing the costumes or props that further support the initial intention and/or concept.

The initial stage of a production is similar, only on a more amplified scale. It may include vetting the ideas, a lot of reviewing and reflecting while selecting the mode of presentation, and even financial plans and budgeting.

Q: You’ve worked on productions like Puteri Gunung Ledang and Tariditionally POP. What were some of the most memorable moments or challenges you faced during these projects?

Making it through the boot camp, audition and workshop of the musical Puteri Gunung Ledang and finally being cast as an ensemble member was a memorable milestone for me. However, the tour in KL and Singapore for Pesta Raya 2020 could not happen due to covid.

Although I was initially disappointed, that inspired me to produce and perform other musicals in Singapore with TMC and opened up other opportunities.

Other challenges include managing the high cost of producing a show while still making it affordable for the community.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring performers or choreographers looking to make a mark in the Malay performing arts scene?

My advice regarding pursuing this art form in Singapore would be to prioritise your education and choose the area of study that supports the role of a performer/choreographer, such as business studies, content creation, stage management, music production, etc.

The saying “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” doesn’t apply. Instead, continue to pick up multiple traits/skills that will help you master and build a niche.

Q: How do you envision the future of Malay performing arts in Singapore, especially in terms of cultural preservation and innovation?

I hope to see growth in terms of the way we teach and develop new processes with a high sense of pride and professionalism. An art form, that is not only practised and pursued by the Malays but also fellow Singaporeans. A new generation of practitioners that cares for the art form but also be brave enough to inspire change and stretch the limits.

Evolving Our Dance Legacy: Fostering Pride, Pushing Boundaries. (📸 Credit: 3lfi)

Q: Could you share any upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re particularly excited about?

S3kapur Sir3h 2024 will be staged at the Victoria Theater on June 7th and 8th. This will be my first large-scale dance production with a TMC dance unit featuring collaborators Atrika Dance Company, Ayunda Lestari, Azpirasi, Inspitari Dance Society, Permata Seni Budaya, and Mak Mak Menari. It will be accompanied by live music by Orkestra Sri Temasek.

Im excited to work again with two choreographers (with their mastery in the regional art form): Mr. Murah Mansyah (Indonesia) & Mr. Raziff Rahman (Malaysia). The production explores the contents of the Tepak Sireh, an artifact the usually sighted at weddings and used for dance performances.

Join us on this adventure through dance, music and storytelling. More information on our IG @t3atermuzikalcollective.

Q: Describe yourself in three words.

  1. Passionate
  2. Resilient
  3. Resourceful

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