Performing arts, as the inspiring women featured here would agree, is not just about the performance. Behind the lights and pomp are issues that lie close to the hearts of each performer. For some, the mission is to spread socio-political awareness in their message, while for others it is to pass on the love of arts to the next generation. In their own unique capacities they continue to inspire, be it in acting, dancing, or singing, through their specific talents. Top 10 of Malaysia takes a look at its list of the Top 10 Inspiring Women in Malaysia’s Performing Arts (presented in random order) who are lauded as the dames and queens of the industry.
Dato’ Faridah Merican
With unofficial titles such as ‘First Lady of Malaysian Theatre’ associated with her, one knows instantly that Dato’ Faridah Mericanis no ordinary woman. From the late 1950’s, Faridah shone through acting credits such as ‘Udadan Dara’, ‘Lela Mayang’ and countless others. Through her tenacity and sheer love for Malaysian theatre, she went on to establish The Actors Studio in 1989 with her husband Joe Hasham OAM. Later in 2005, out of seeming tragedy, they both co-founded The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) which has produced many world-renowned talents. To recognise her immense contributions, she was presented the BOH Cameronian Lifetime Achievement Award for 2004. Today, at 75 years old, Faridah continues her work as Executive Producer at KLPAC and is actively involved in Malaysian theatre.
Jo Kukathas wastes no time in pursuing issues that matter through Malaysian theatre and international theatre collaborations. In 1989, Jo started one of Malaysia’s most successful theatre company – the Instant Café Theatre (ICT) – with friends Andrew Leci, Jit Murad and Zahim Albakri. When many were convinced ICT wouldn’t last long in such dark days of Malaysia’s political climate, Jo and her co-founders worked hard to advance their black comedy proving that Malaysian theatre was open to a brave, new voice. A writer, actor and director, Jo has taken her work to Tokyo, New York, Australia, Singapore and more. Some of her accolades include the Asian Public Intellectual (API) fellowship from the Nippon Foundation, Melbourne USA State Government Directors’ Awards as well as many BOH Cameronian Arts Awards.
Veteran choreographer, producer and artistic director Farah Sulaiman first made her mark in Malaysian musical theatre in 1975. Through her debut in RTM and as Principal of the Sayang Academy of Dancing that she created, Farah is synonymous with Malaysian dance and have tutored many stars of Malaysia’s dance landscape. From ballet, traditional dance, tap dance to modern dance, Farah’s repertoire of talents could be seen in broadway musicals, television, music videos and commercial appearances both locally and abroad. In 1982, Farah represented Malaysia at the World Freestyle Disco Championship in London and have since been consultant and choreographers for various reality dance shows. In 2014, she was awarded Best Choreographer at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards for Musical Theatre.
Datin Jane Lew
She was only 21 when she set up her first dance school, Dance Space, in Klang, Selangor. Prior to that, Datin Jane Lew had begun dancing when she was nine and toured the world during her teenage years with the Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Kwang Si Dance Troupe. After returning from studying and performing in the United States, Dance Space was created in 1992. Today, Dance Space has expanded to six schools with over 1,000 students. In 2013, Lew founded the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC), a new space for local art lovers aimed at being a platform for aspiring artists to continue exploring and developing their art. As the CEO of DPAC, she has been instrumental in teaching and nurturing many young dancers in the performing arts industry.
All her world’s a stage, as Sandra Sodhy’s involvement for over 35 years in theatre would prove. Her extensive career goes beyond theatre to film, television, video, music and the advertising and recording industries. She was a member of the International Writing Program 2006 in the U.S. and has had her plays staged there. Some of her popular stage and TV appearances include ‘Those Four Sisters Fernandez’ (Beatrice), ‘The Sound of Music’ (Mother Abbess), ‘Lat Kampung Boy’ (Mrs Hew), ‘Spanar Jaya’, ‘Kopitiam’, ‘Phua Chu Kang’, ‘Life’s A Pitch!’ and more. Sandra was also one of the founding members of the Instant Café Theatre. Sandra teaches theatre and musical theatre, and continues to take the stage whenever she can.
Roselina Johari Md Khir
Universiti Malaya Performing Arts lecturer Roselina Johari Md Khir is no stranger to the performing arts industry since graduating with her M.A. in Theatre and Drama from Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S.A. Beyond her years of teaching subjects such as acting, directing, drama production, playwriting and the like, Roselina has hands-on experience in theatre through directing Euripedes’ Medea, Aristophanes’ Birds, Plautus’ Menachemi, Shakespeare’s The Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jean Genet’s The Maids, Brecht’s The Three-Penny Opera, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman among others. More than that, Roselina wrote and published her own play, The People of the Forest, a Rainforest Musical. The multi-talented playwright and lecturer has also done many translations of plays from English to Malay.
Fiona-Jane Gomez wanted to dance since she was six, and turned her passion into a successful career. Through more than two decades of dancing experience, Fiona is well-versed with a variety of dance styles and genre, specifically Latin American and Ballroom Dancing. In 2005, together with her best-friend-cum-business-partner, they founded Talent Hub, a multi-arts centre that offers a wide range of dance, drama, music and martial arts classes. Since then, Talent Hub has been the platform for Fiona to pass on her love and expertise in arts to her students and many corporate companies – receiving several awards and accolades in the process. Some of her achievements include the Cleo Young Achiever Award 2006, being one of the speakers at the Youth ’09 National Entrepreneur Convention as well as being on the panel of dance judges for the Kakiseni’s BOH Cameronian Arts Awards since 2011.
Cheryl Teh is quite the multitasker as she juggles her day job as a Knowledge Management practitioner and a multitude of hats in the performing arts industry. For more than six years, Cheryl has been serving The Philharmonic Society of Selangor as its Chairperson and Choir Director since 2008. She was the key person in leading the choir in their maiden overseas tour to Western Australia in 2011, where they performed a total of six showcases including Perth, Mandurah and Bunbury and recently, on their tour to Chennai, India. The multi-talented choir director is also a violinist, violist and pianist. During her university days in Melbourne, Cheryl was a founding violinist at the New Monash Orchestra and involved herself with her school’s music programmes and with many community music groups including the Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra, Camberwell Theatre Company, the Dandenong Light Opera Company and more. She recently co-founded Harmony Hall, a multi-use performance and event space in Petaling Jaya. Cheryl has also been chosen as an Eisenhower Fellow for 2015.
Ann Salina Peter
Although soprano singer Ann Salina Peter graduated summa cum laude in classical singing, her repertoire has expanded to include contemporary pop, classical and musical theatre. With her unmistakable passion for music, Ann has participated in many performances and concerts as the previous member of The National Choir of Malaysia and The Choristers. Ann was a judge for Kakiseni’s BOH Cameronian Arts Awards for the Music category from 2004 to 2005. In 2012, she founded an all-women acapella ensemble, The Vochale Project, where she is the music director and arranger. Currently, Ann heads the Vocal Division in Cempaka Schools and is the Assistant Head of Performing Arts for the Damansara campus, where she trains the main cast for the school’s musical productions.
Despite her high-profile portfolio, theatre and voiceover actor Marina Tan is passionate in practicising theatre for children and young people. She co-founded Anak Chintan Theatre and Box of Delights Family Theatre which aim to entertain, educate and inspire young audiences. Some of her critically-acclaimed performances and productions include Chanel in Shear Madness where she received the Best Supporting Actor nomination in the 2015 BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa – An Epic Swashbuckling Adventure! which she created and helmed, The Merchant of Venice (Portia), Julius Caesar (Narrator), and many more. Her voiceover talent is regularly used in high-profile and original characters. She was also involved in motion capture acting in the international Emmy-nominated Saladin the Animated Series which was produced by the Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel.