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Diverse artistry of Malaysia

The Lan E-Tuyang Ensemble debuts with a genteel performance that offsets the celebratory glitz of the evening.

June 23, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Malaysia presented a sampling of its diverse national cultures and performing traditions in a splashy 70-minute program at the Hollywood Palladium. On Friday, a reduced edition reached the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica -- still heavily promotional in concept and still ending with the pop anthem "Malaysia: Truly Asia."

But so much has changed in two years that Malaysia missed a major opportunity with this tour. Instead of bringing another relentlessly varied dance pageant, the country could well teach Americans a valuable lesson by showing us another face of Islam than the one now dominating television news coverage -- the Southeast Asian form of Islam committed to respecting a wide range of cultures and belief systems.

Instead, Santa Monica saw the usual out-of-context ethnic vaudeville: a weakly executed Chinese dance with paddle fans, a Malay umbrella dance dominated by the women's mastery of a seductive swaying walk, a display of Indiapop with men bearing drums and women beating ribboned sticks, a clumsy foray into martial arts.

As in the Palladium show, nothing in the Tourism Malaysia Cultural Troupe's portion of the program endangered the pervasive middlebrow entertainment values by being slow in pace, subdued in style, small in scale or extended in development. But, happily, another company on the bill offered an alternative to all the celebratory glitz.

In its local debut, the Lan E-Tuyang Ensemble of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, offered an unhurried, unassuming, masterly introduction to a fascinating and little-known island culture. You could argue that the amplification was unnecessary, but the musicianship of Mathew Ngau Jau and Uchau Bilung offered a genteel, humane artistry on an evening otherwise dominated by canned accompaniments.

Those lucky enough to visit Borneo might recognize the intricate, elegant ornamentation on the costumes and musical instruments. However, a warmer, looser approach emerged in the melodic sweetness of the sape (lute) duets and jatung lutang (wooden xylophone) music. These performances offset the showier, more predictable segments: Jau's hunting dance, complete with blow-gun demonstration, and wordless lesson in the warrior code to audience member Janis Helbert.

In "Datun Jelut" (the Long Dance), Corrie Kalang and Selina Tugang carried feather fans that looked like round bowls, slowly swirling them in the air while stepping in a stately style reportedly based on the motion of hornbills.

Kalang also danced a solo, Tugang played the sape and both women sang in other Lan E-Tuyang selections.

Currently on a 10-city North American tour, the companies were sponsored in Santa Monica by an array of Malaysian tourism interests and the Center for World Music of San Diego.

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