From the dense jungles of Sarawak to the concrete jungle that is New York City, Raziman Sarbini has charted an interesting journey as a dancer and choreographer.
The 26-year-old – the youngest of eight children – left his birthplace Limbang for the United States a year ago. He is the recipient of a scholarship from Yayasan Sarawak Tunku Abdul Rahman, pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts (for three years) at the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Perhaps it was serendipity that Raziman would end up in the United States; after all, it was an American competition series that first sparked his interest in dance.
“When I was 18, I watched So You Think You Can Dance and I was blown away by the contestants’ abilities. They were doing crazy movements that I didn’t even think was possible for humans. I was like ‘Woah, I want to do this!’
“Since many of these movements were very athletic, I was attracted to the physicality of it, and the ability to produce or portray emotion,” says Raziman in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Raziman, who was an athlete in school and enjoyed sports, knew he had to push hard for his dream. At the relatively late age of 19, he dove headfirst into the world of dance. He went for an audition at the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (Aswara) in Kuala Lumpur, and was accepted. He completed his studies at Aswara on the Dean’s List and was awarded the Best Dance Graduate in 2015.
Since then, as a principal dancer with Malaysia’s ASK Dance Company, Raziman has performed in several countries. So far, he has participated in the Maybank Performance in London, the Yokohama Dance Collection in Japan and the Shantanand Festival in India.
In July last year, he held a two-day mixed bill performance at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre in KL. Titled No. 7, the production aimed to be a fundraiser to cover some of Raziman’s expenses in New York.
Speaking of which, Raziman is clearly thriving in the Big Apple, though he is candid about the challenges.
“The lifestyle there is so different, and it’s so competitive. I have to compete with people who started dancing when they were just three or five years old, whereas I am considered a latecomer as I started at 19,” laments Raziman.
However, he is undeterred.
“I am proud of the fact that I am from Sarawak, Malaysia, and I want to show the world that we are abundant in traditional and cultural dances.
“Not only do I know contemporary dance and salsa, I know how to perform different genres of Malay traditional dances, thanks to my training at Aswara. That is my ‘weapon’ as a dancer in New York,” says Raziman, whose other passion is cooking. Earlier in July, Raziman was invited back to Sarawak for the opening showcase of Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF) in Kuching.
“I felt so excited and honoured when I received the invitation from Joe Sidek (festival director of RFF),” enthuses Raziman.
“Joe wanted me to perform a dance that reflected my career thus far. I have been dancing for seven years, and it’s been an incredible, challenging journey. I also wanted to do something very traditional, which harked back to my roots. What I ended up doing on stage was improvisational.”
The response to Raziman’s performance was fantastic, according to Joe, who is also the festival director of George Town Festival (GTF) in Penang.
“He won over the audiences with his solo dance,” raves Joe. “I am impressed by his talent but more so, I like his personality; he is so humble about his background. I definitely see a bright future ahead for Raziman.”
Next, Raziman will be seen in Kelantan: A Living Heritage, the opening showcase of George Town Festival on Aug 4 and 5. Other highlights of this epic production, co-directed by Joe and experimental musician/artist Kamal Sabran (Space Gambus Experiment), include the use of rebana ubi (traditional big drums) from Kelantan, a royal court dance called Asyik and dance drama Mak Yong brought to life by acclaimed Kelantanese dancer Zamzuriah Zahari (of Mak Yong Titis Sakti fame). A wayang kulit segment will be presented by child prodigy puppeteer Kamarul Baihaqi.
Dikir barat group Sunang Detaga Arjunasukma with Tukang Karut Muslih Sang Saka will soundtrack the show. Where Raziman is concerned, he will choreograph a dikir barat-inspired piece which features a strong political message. An abstraction of the traditional folk dance theatre of Kelantan, it explores the theme of power and has previously been presented in international festivals.
There will be 15 dancers (from ASK Dance Company) featured in this segment, with Raziman being the lead and choreographer.
Raziman is a firm believer in telling stories and moving audiences through his dance performances.
“I truly believe that a performance is all about sharing. It is about giving and telling stories, or conveying your emotions,” muses Raziman, whose ultimate dream is to work with professional dance companies such as BalletBoyz in Britain or Nederlands Dans Theatre in the Netherlands.
He also reveals that he might just audition for So You Think You Can Dance next year, the show that started it all for him.
Indeed, the sky’s the limit for this talented young man, whose noble ambition includes giving back to his home state.
“I am grateful for the scholarship I got from the Government, and I want to give back to the people.
“At the end of the day, I hope to return to Sarawak and establish a world-class company. I want to train dancers who can go out there to show our culture, to show that Sarawak dancers are multi-talented.”
Kelantan – A Living Heritage plays at Dewan Sri Pinang in Penang on Aug 4 and 5. It opens the George Town Festival. More info: georgetownfestival.com.