At the black box of the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) last week, choreographer and arts educator Joseph Gonzales staged the second phase of his project on makyung (also referred to as mak yong and mak yung).
Becoming King: The Pakyung Revisited. Phase 2 – a work-in-progress is a continuation of the work he last presented at Borak Art Series George Town back in August, but more on that soon.
During our visit on opening night, something stood out: in addition to a performance space, Becoming King also has a voting room, complete with voting booths and staff to ensure orderly queues.
This was for viewers to cast their votes just before the finale and help decide the pakyung of the night, an exercise which also serves as an interesting, interactive intermission.
In the performance space, a group of young men and women take turns impressing audiences with their performing skills, hoping to gain enough votes to secure the role of the pakyung, the lead character in makyung. The contestant with the most votes win and get to perform the coronation song.
As part of his research into makyung, Joseph’s latest performance is based on the preparation required to play the pakyung, a role traditionally played by women. Becoming King aims to give audiences insight into the making of this character, which requires only the very best of performers.
In the traditional theatre performance of Makyung, the Pakyung is the lead character who must be able to sing, dance, act and improvise. The Pakyung is the leader, the counsellor and the King (often played by a woman).
The role requires special qualities and in Malaysia only a very few have risen to the heights of being the acclaimed pakyung. Khatijah Awang is one such icon who was proclaimed National Arts Laureate in 1999, or Fatimah Abdullah who have served as inspiration for this work too.
— Becoming King: The Pakyung Revisited. Phase 2 – a work-in-progress, Facebook
Joseph presented the first phase of the project during PitchPad ASEAN at Borak Arts Series this year, alongside other pitchers from the ASEAN region. The performance however has grown considerably from what was visible in the raw footage shown at the conference.
Styled much like a reality TV competition, Becoming King is a contemporary dance performance which opens with almost-uniform choreography featuring all its performers (hereby referred to as contestants). Each contestant then perform scenes from makyung, dance in the style, and sing the best they can. Things eventually get less serious, and they start pulling physical gags and comedic dance moves with help from their “assistants”.
“I think it was GE13 and there were so many issues with intelligble ink and phantom voters,” we recalled Joseph saying during our chat prior to the opening, “and there were all these ideas in my mind. That’s when the idea for this pakyung performance was brewing in my head.”
As if to prove a point, our choice candidate who sang and danced very adeptly lost out to another who scored more laughs despite faring less impressively in other rounds. But take from it what you want; Joseph simply wants audiences to find the relevance of a character like the pakyung in the here and now.
In between all that’s happening on stage, there’s a ritualistic sequence in which the spirit of the pakyung appears and sings in the unique style of makyung, interacting with each contestant. Led by Zamzuriah Zahari, it’s an enchanting scene with credit due to Ng Chor Guan‘s trippy, murky audio underlying the segment.
The music also shines during the crowning, in which the winning contestant gets to sing the coronation song, a traditional number called “Lagu Mengadap Rebab”. It’s set to a hazy but melodic chord sequence in the background, giving the song a rather startling, contemporary quality.
It’s worth pointing out that “Lagu Mengadap Rebab” opens all traditional makyung performances — Becoming King ends where makyung begins.
One of the more amusing stagings we’ve seen all year, Becoming King resumes the winning streak local theatre has kept going since November — beginning with our coverage of Malam Terang Bulan — and we’ve yet to include site-specific, interactive Kenduri staged by art collective Lighters earlier this month.
Becoming King also took place the same night ASWARA’s Pusat Seni Pentas Traditional (PUTRA) staged a traditional makyung performance, and a week prior to fellow ASWARA educator Zamzuriah’s big performance. In her semi-biographical musical monodrama at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), Zamzuriah puts the role of the prima donna in traditional Malay artforms under the lens.
Is makyung back? Is it too late to learn? Do we need to have knowledge on makyung in order to enjoy these performances?
We believe that whether or not you had an inkling of how makyung works, Becoming King entertains all the same, and will most probably incite curiosity for the art form.
Also in the audience were many of Joseph’s friends and performing arts advocates — we spotted June Tan, Bilqis Hijjas and Soon Heng Lim among many others, and hope to see many more at the theatre again.
Becoming King took place from 10 – 13 December at Black Box, ASWARA. For more in-depth information on the performance, make sure to check out this excellent audio review from BFM: The Bigger Picture featuring Soon Heng Lim and Bilqis Hijjas . Featured image courtesy of Joseph Gonzales.