When Lee Lee Lan took her last breath at the age of 77 in May last year, dancers and lovers of the performing arts across the country mourned the loss of the inimitable danseuse. She was the darling and first lady of Malaysian ballet, the one who established the scene and paved the way for aspiring performers, many of whom have made a name for themselves on world stages.
Lee was the founder of Kuala Lumpur Dance Theatre (KLDT) and the Federal Academy of Ballet (FAB), where she trained many professionals including Joseph Victor Gonzales, Vicknendran Siva Lingham, David Lee and Andrew Pan. In 1985, she formed The Dance Society of Malaysia (TDS) with an aim to raise the country’s standard and awareness of classical ballet and provide a platform for young dancers to showcase their skills and talents. Throughout the years, the baton has been passed to various leading personalities, among them classical ballet danseur Sunny Chan, who has held on to the title of president for 32 years.
“So I came in and never got out,” he jokes, “except for one year because I had this big project in Klang.” TDS committees are all made up of volunteers. Chan is the director of Akitek Tenggara and has been an examiner for the Board of Architects Malaysia for 38 years. At his Ampang office, the Malaccan is joined by two other TDS committee members, treasurer Kathryn Chew, and Ho Kah Yeng, who is in charge of competitions. They are teachers at the Federal Academy of Ballet and Sri Wilayah Ballet School respectively. “They do everything for me lah,” he teases. The 76-year-old acknowledges that age is catching up.
TDS’ last festival was in 2009 at Putrajaya. The sensational celebration featured about 350 local and foreign dance students from different genres. Chan had plans to coordinate a succeeding festival a few years ago before Lee’s death, but they were thwarted by the Movement Control Order. “When she passed away last May, I said look, we better do it.”
The Festival of Dance VIII was hence organised in memory of TDS’ founding president. It will showcase some 30 performances ranging from classical ballet to tap and contemporary dance by 23 schools and groups over a period of two days. Prior to that, dancers can take part in a variety of masterclasses and workshops, some of which will be conducted by guest performers from Kenny Shim Dance Collective, Wuxu Dance Troupe and Sutra Foundation.
“Malaysia has so many types of dance,” Chan marvels. The sprightly man, who once took ballet classes with the late dame at a tender age (“I was the only boy!”), performed as her partner and taught at her school part-time, is a stickler for standard and technique, but advocates for its principles to extend beyond ballet. “Malaysians are very creative. Don’t stick to classical; with body training, you can do whatever you want.”
A special exhibition, organised by Lee’s son, Larry, will also be held at the event. There will be banners that offer a glimpse into the doyenne’s early life, academic background, milestone productions and accolades. “We’ll also be displaying some of her past costumes,” adds Chew.
“Fun fact: Spring by the FAB, which will be performed as the final item before intermission [on Saturday] and first item on Sunday, is actually a re-choreography of Mrs Lee’s work at KLDT. Spring uses an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is re-choreographed and rearranged by her student, Michelle Lo, who is now a senior teacher at the Federal Academy of Ballet.”
The trio have been committed to TDS for many years, working tirelessly to ensure the art of ballet continues to progress in Malaysia via events, competitions and workshops. While Chan agrees that it has come a long way, there is always room for improvement. Unfortunately, parents are among the main hindrances, he notes, as they believe pursuing ballet rarely equates to a successful career.
“I started ballet at the age of five,” he reveals. “I hated it. I did it because I was born with a curved spine.” In retrospect, perhaps growing up with a piano teacher as his mum taught Chan a thing or two about the beauty of the arts. It was not until years later at a boarding school in Melbourne, when he laid eyes on a staging of Peasant Pas de Deux, that the young lad decided, “I must go back”.
“Ballet gives you discipline,” he assures. And discipline is key to success. Chan and Lee are testament to that.
'Festival of Dance VIII' will be held from March 9 to 12 at PJPAC, 1 Utama Shopping Centre, PJ. For more info, see here.
This article first appeared on Mar 6, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.