Muhammad Noramin Mohamed Farid, 36, better known by his stage name, Soultari Amin Farid, is a Singaporean choreographer, arts educator and researcher. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in Theatre, Drama and Dance Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London, UK (2021). Dr. Amin is a recipient of the ASEAN-India Youth Award (2018), Singapore Youth Award (2017), National Arts Council Scholarship (2017) and Goh Chok Tong Mendaki Youth Promise Award (2016).
The Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) invited Dr. Amin as a guest speaker during the inaugural launch of Hari Warisan on 13 November 2022. In his sharing, titled “Turning the Tide, Embracing Innovation, Collaboration and Discourse”, he shared that the art scene in Singapore has shown remarkable resilience and practiced creative problem-solving when confronted with adversities due to the pandemic. Dr. Amin also observed and complimented how the traditional Malay scenes acted fast and adapted swiftly.
Dr. Amin was the Joint-Artistic Director of Bhumi Collective, a multidisciplinary performing art and producing company (2016-2021). He wears other hats, such as (i) co-founder and current President of DIAN Dancers, a youth Malay dance organisation, and also serves as an adjunct lecturer of Southeast Asian performing arts at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) (2021 – Present). As an arts practitioner-researcher, his works constantly challenge the normative notions of class, ethnicity, identity and gender. Dr. Amin is vocal about indigenous and minority rights and addresses privilege in his advocacy.
He believes that young arts practitioners must become leaders in creating artistic works that are innovative and critical and remain relevant to the ever-changing landscape that they may be confronted with. He occasionally writes for an online arts magazine, Arts Equator, and the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay. In this feature, we caught up with Dr. Amin to learn more about his fascinating journey to the world of dance.
Q: Hi, Dr. Amin. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. How have you been?
I am well, thank you! It has been a hectic two months of travelling to Hawaii, France and the United Kingdom for conferences, but I must say it has been very enriching so far!
Q: What piqued your interest in dance choreography, and was it something you had planned to pursue as a career when young?
Dance came into my life rather naturally. I was always involved in Hari Raya performances in school and chosen to lead my classmates in the front. My school did not have a Malay dance Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) back then, so I look forward to every Hari Raya, National Day and Racial Harmony Day to flex these skills.
But this was merely a hobby that became “serious” when I was inaugurated into the Malay dance community via my activities with Perkumpulan Seni in 2000. There, I networked and made friends with seniors and friends who were already dance instructors in schools. They became my inspiration.
Academic-wise, I did not study dance formally until I became a scholarship grantee of a programme called Choreomundus, which was an Inter-European Master’s Degree programme in dance knowledge, practice and heritage funded by the European Foundation and administered by 4 European universities in Norway, France, Hungary and the United Kingdom. Through this programme, I mustered the courage to become a practitioner-scholar and realised my value to my community of practice (Malay dance) in Singapore and maritime Southeast Asia.
Q: Growing up, where do you draw your influence from? Any inspirational or prominent figures that you look up to?
I look up to all those who have represented Malay culture in Singapore and abroad. I appreciated growing up, reading about successful Malay personalities who have done us proud. I am unable to name all of them one by one. Still, I appreciated an environment wherein our achievements of fellow Malays are celebrated and acknowledged so that they may become inspirations to the generations to come.
Q: You also wear multiple hats – dance choreographer, arts educator and researcher. How do you find the time and energy to manage these commitments?
I think my multiple hats are a testament to the neoliberal conditions that we live in today. The situation at hand is that artists recognise that we need to be more than just the artist’s role. In an environment of competition and the emergence of a gig economy, we take on various roles to maximise our best capabilities. Also, at the same time, these hats I wear show the diverse skill sets artists have acquired via their artistic practices. The arts are not merely the work of an artist, but very much ingrained in every facet of ALL of the lives, regardless of whether he or she is an artist.
Hence, it is not just a matter of having the time and energy. At times, artists do this to survive. Regardless of our educational level, these commitments are what we must work on, coordinate, and manage.
Q: You hold a Doctorate of Philosophy in Theatre, Drama and Dance Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom. This is a fantastic feat and also a rare achievement in our community. How was your experience studying abroad?
I acknowledge my privilege to have been given the opportunity to study elsewhere from Singapore. It started with my undergraduate study at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Subsequently to Europe for my Master’s and Ph.D. There is so much to share about my experience studying abroad. But I must say that my time overseas has taught me a great deal about the difference between tolerance and understanding and what it means to experience the global shifts of events.
During my time away from Singapore, I saw how countries (government and locals alike) cope with both national and transnational situations. I find myself constantly in interesting global predicaments. I was studying in Hungary when I saw Syrian refugees walking in long lines into the town of Szeged, walking towards Germany. Later, I was in the UK during the Brexit period. All these experiences were helpful because they made me understand better the importance of regional solidarity and collaboration. These experiences have given me the necessary life lessons to manage tension and community-building and recognise my capacity as an advocate of change.
Q: Can you share with us more about the origin of your moniker “Soultari”?
Soultari is a staged name revealed to me, interestingly, via a dream. The word Soultari consists of the word “Soul” and the Malay word “Tari,” which means dance. This is very much a reflection of the ideal traits I believe a dancer should possess: someone who dances with their soul. This reminds us that becoming a dancer with the utmost calibre is not merely about technique, character, and discipline; it is also about the soul, connecting the zahir and the batin.
Q: You recently presented “Moving Bodies, Connecting Histories” during the inaugural Sembang Ilmu Plus(+), where you touched on Ronggeng, social dance practice, and shared some misconceptions from the community. There was much interest in knowing more about Ronggeng from those who attended the session. What are your thoughts?
I have been lauded and criticised for this work I am doing. Ronggeng continues to be seen as taboo to a certain circle due to how some have stereotyped the Ronggeng girl (taxi dancers at entertainment parks) as a prostitute. This is a misconception because of a lack of education and understanding of the entertainment practices of the day. In any profession that involves the socialisation of human beings, some people would resort to vice. But to degrade a whole profession of taxi dancers who were providers of entertainment bringing village tradition to the urban centre of Singapore is a broad generalisation that needs to be corrected. This is, of course, one of my advocacies.
Besides bringing to the fore the downtrodden taxi-dancer, I am also interested in reviving the Ronggeng as social arts practice. The Ronggeng girl has undoubtedly brought the focus of the Ronggeng on just the dance component, but the Ronggeng as an event is more than just the moving of bodies in space. Many aspects make us an ideal Ronggeng event. There should, of course, include live accompaniment of traditional music, pantun exchange by singers, and the partnering dance between a male and female person. By reviving these social art events, we are providing a restored mode of presentation and engagement, creating jobs for musicians and choreographers, and regaining interest in traditional art forms such as pantun, dance, and music.
I am glad that it has generated much interest amongst the youths who attended the event. I believe youths will be the agents of revival as they succeed the generations before them. I pray they see the value of Ronggeng not only as a means of socialisation but one that integrates culture and arts. I see it not only as an experience but also as an educational form.
Q: Which is/are your favourite dance choreography and why?
I have two favourite dance choreographies that continue to impact and shape the work. A piece that was choreographed by Sumia “Lin” Samsudin entitled “La… Langkah Nengkeneh” in 2004 as part of a larger Malay dance festival called Malam Kilir Jati. This event was my first debut as a dancer for another group, and I witnessed this dance being performed by my friends from Teater Tari Era. The haunting and seductive visual imagery of the dancers clad in red and black remains etched in my mind. I admired the ingenuity of the dance’s narrative critiquing social issues and the precision with which dancers were executing their technique.
Another choreography I like very much is Zapin Gelombang, choreographed by my guru, Mohd Kamal Ridzuan. This was not a conventional Zapin piece as it included a narrative and was steeped in symbolism. In other words, it was not merely an aesthetic spectacle familiar in traditional Zapin but was, in a way, telling a story of social critique. I think it is evident that I love dances that want to say to me something more than just happy affairs of life but make me ponder hard about our social realities.
Q: How did the one-stop portal, Arkitari, come about?
We do not have a one-stop resource site wherein we can offer handy information about Malay dance. I fear that this could be why many people do not want to study dance because of its inaccessible knowledge. Arkitari is made available with the most foundational information for anyone curious about Malay dance. Should one require a deeper understanding of Malay dance, that would propel them to do their research or proceed to conduct interviews.
I hope Arkitari will become not only a one-stop portal for Malay dance but also feature the plethora of dances we have in Southeast Asia. This is because we share similar heritages and movement vocabularies due to our connected histories.
Q: Share with us one of your most memorable experiences/performances.
One of my most memorable experiences was setting up a Malay dance group in Australia in 2009 when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia. I was approached by a member of the Malaysian Students’ Council of Australia (MASCA) Queensland Chapter to choreograph a musical in conjunction with Malaysia’s Merdeka celebrations. The connections I made for that project allowed me to start my own Malay(sian) dance group soon after. The group became a popular feature of many Southeast Asian events in the universities based in Brisbane. I had members who were not only Malaysians but also Singaporeans and Bruneians. To be honest, the group was my life-saver, keeping me sane during days when I missed home or was very stressed in school. When I left for home in 2011, the students I taught at Temasek Polytechnic in the early 2000s also pursued their degrees in UQ soon after. They continued being trainers in the group. It seems that the group is still alive and managed by Malaysian students today.
Another memorable experience was when I was chosen to represent Singapore at the World Expo in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, in December 2021. I was part of a programme called “The Best of ASEAN Performing Arts” hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It was an honour to be with nine other artists representing our respective countries, especially with the tight Covid-19 regulations imposed. It was even more memorable because we became quite a tight-knit group!
Q: Many arts practitioners and professionals faced challenging times during the past few years of the pandemic. What are some challenges encountered, and what keeps you going?
One main challenge was moving live performances to the virtual realm. Performing for the camera to replicate the live performance experience proved challenging because you wanted to ensure that the same energy and dynamism could be transmitted through the screens. That would require much thought and strategy by both the performer and the people managing the recording environment and the camera.
Interestingly, now when shows are returning to the live stage, a new challenge has presented itself when performers are so used to performing in front of cameras which are usually frontal, which means that they would need retraining and reframing of their bodies. The activation of whole bodies (front and back) is necessary for a live spectacle.
In addition, before Covid-19, I have been a frequent traveller and ethnographer exploring the performing arts of many different countries, especially in Southeast Asia. The pandemic stopped my travels, and I was deprived of a routine that gave me much inspiration and strength. However, it also allowed me to reflect on my practice and imagine the many prospective works I would do with collaborators from elsewhere.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish to continue championing Malay heritage?
I hope to contribute to a gradual recuperation from cultural amnesia. I work a lot with Malay youths, and I have been approached by many who want to know more about their cultural history and belonging. Like them, I, too, was a culprit of this and have cast aside my own cultural knowledge and identity. But as I grew up and understood the world better, my cultural knowledge kept me grounded. It took me a while (half a decade) to come to terms with my identity as a Malay person of Minangkabau descent. Today, I take pride in acknowledging this cultural identity as one of the many identities I affiliate with very much.
I pray the generations after me will continue to be curious and critical and find a way back to their roots. Even if it is not in the form of activism, supporting and giving to efforts to promote Malay heritage is equally as important.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for the dance scene in Singapore? Any advice for those carving out a dance career?
I am not a proponent of colouring a vibrant picture of a dance career. I think we must be realistic, study the scene and the climate of our times, and acknowledge that a dance career can only be pursued with much perseverance and creativity. We evaluate what other skills we must have to keep going as artists. Don’t give up too quickly but take the time to analyse the route you are willing to take to get there. That said, routes may change, and you may need to take detours, pauses, and jump ship if necessary. Every experience offers insights and ideas for future artistic work and activations.
Q: Describe yourself in three words.
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