Onn Jaafar, one of the choreographers of dance-theatre show Onak Samudera, may be outside the Esplanade Theatre when it takes place there on Friday.
"I hate it," he says, with a laugh. "I don't like to tell stories about myself. Some people might think that I'm trying to show off."
The 90-minute show traces the ups and downs in the lives of three prolific Malay dance choreographers: Onn from Yayasan Warisan Johor in Malaysia, Tom Ibnur from Langkan Budaya Taratak in Indonesia and Som Said from Singapore's Sri Warisan.
The tribute show, presented by Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts, will be in the form of traditional and contemporary Malay dance, with dramatic monologue. There will be live narration, instrumental music and animated projections.
Acting as the three maestros are Singapore actors Marina Yusoff (as Som), Anwar Hadi Ramli (Onn) and Shahril Wahid (Tom).
Speaking to Life! on the telephone from Johor where he is based, Onn, 52, says although he is a little embarrassed, he is honoured that anyone would be interested in his life story. This included an opportunity in the 1990s to perform in New York, which he describes as a "turning point" in his life.
Marina, who is also the creative director of Sri Warisan, wrote the script and came up with the title, Onak Samudera, which translates into Ocean Of Thorns.
Marina, 38, who is married to Som's son, Adel Dzulkarnaen, managing director of Sri Warisan, says: "It describes the thorns they've encountered in the journey through the ocean of their lives."
The couple, who have four children, came up with the concept of the show to pay tribute to the three prominent figures in the Malay dance scene of their respective countries and who have been peers and collaborators for about 30 years.
Onak was originally meant to be a documentary, but morphed into a full-scale stage performance after the Esplanade approached them to do a show for its Pentas series, which regularly stages Malay performing arts productions.
The show is tri-national in more than one sense. Not only are the 40 dancers from the three different dance companies, each of the maestros worked with a protege from a different country to choreograph different sections of the show.
Som worked with an Indonesian choreographer, Tom worked with a Malaysian choreographer and Onn worked with 31-year-old Singaporean Muhammad Azhar Ismail.
Azhar described how he travelled up to Johor about 15 times, observing Onn's dancers at Yayasan Warisan Johor when the pair were unable to meet. When they could meet, they drank coffee and talked instead of doing anything hands-on.
Azhar, an instructor at Sri Warisan who has been with the company for 10 years, says: "He has a totally indirect style. I find it very interesting." His contemporary routine uses a rather unusual prop, a gymball, in trying to challenge himself to do something outside of his comfort zone.
For Som, 63, the show is a chance to share her life's journey, especially with younger artists. The 1987 Cultural Medallion recipient says: "Everybody knows about our successes, the awards. Now we want to show the other side, that there is no shortcut to success."
This article was first published on Nov 4, 2014.
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