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Mak Yong Spiritual Dance Heritage: Seminar and Performances

Programme Category: Sacred Universe
Type: Workshop and Performance
Date: 20-21 September 2011
Venue: Sri Burapha Auditorium, Thammasat University, Bangkok


Mak Yong (also Makyung) is a folk theatre and ritual performance that has taken root in communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. As one of Southeast Asia’s age-old traditions, it “developed from animistic beliefs and shamanistic activity”, melding “rituals, song, dance, stories, and music” (Yousof 2004: 38). Through the years, however, its prominence has significantly waned because of economic and social reasons and inadequate community support. Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SEAMEO SPAFA) will hold a seminar on and performances of Mak Yong to support the research, conservation, and practice of this once vibrant art and ritual. The seminar will bring together researchers and professionals on folk performances in Southeast Asia to discuss Mak Yong; and the workshop will give a platform for Mak Yong artists and practitioners to share their art and techniques. Also, performances of troupes from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand will bring Mak Yong’s artistic, spiritual, and communal importance to a wider audience.

Background Information

Mak Yong is considered as the oldest living example of Malay dance theatre, with its form and substance barely changed over the last 100 years (ibid.) More than a form of folk theatre, however, “the complex nature of Makyung performance proves that it is truly a unique genre of performance arts… enveloped in an aura of mysticism” (Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia Berhad 2011: 3). As a ritual performance, it is combined with healing ceremonies (mainly Main Puteri) and trance sessions to establish contact with spirits (Yousof 2004: 62). The opening and closing rituals are integral aspects of Mak Yong performances to invoke spiritual cooperation and protection. As folk theatre, on the other hand, its stories, dances, songs, music, costumes, and slapstick make it a spectacular form of communal entertainment. Because it is an oral tradition, it has no written scores and lyrics. The entrancing music of a Mak Yong performance is produced by traditional instruments, chief of which is the rebab (a three-string fiddle). It also has a wide array of cast, including a prince, a princess, an astrologer, spirits, and clowns. The witty
banter, serving as a comedic interlude, between the clowns is mostly  improvised.

Over the generations the art and ritual of Mak Yong has thrived in villages in Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia, the Pattani region of southern Thailand, and parts of Indonesia where it has been influenced by animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Clearly, Mak Yong forms part of the valuable intangible heritage of these communities. In 2005, UNESCO awarded Malaysia’s Mak Yong the title “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. Despite the international acclaim for Mak Yong, its practice and performance is still rapidly declining. For one, it is transmitted orally and requires long years of training, thus a shortage of seasoned performers and artists. Also, social and economic pressures have pushed it beyond mainstream consciousness, further eroding the appreciation for its artistic and cultural value. The lack of support from the private and public sectors does not help either in boosting the preservation of Mak Yong for future generations. SEAMEO SPAFA, as a lead agency in promoting cultural heritage in Southeast Asia, realizes the importance of Mak Yong. Through this seminar and performances, the organization attempts to cultivate awareness of Mak Yong, one of Southeast Asia’s shared heritage, among a wider public.


1. To impart knowledge on and understanding of Mak Yong (e.g. its history, spiritual significance, ways of performance, contemporary challenges, community participation) to Southeast Asian researchers and professionals concerned with folk art and ritual performances;
2. To share the art and techniques Mak Yong, (e.g. musical instruments, dances, costumes,vocal styles, stories, etc.) and demonstrate how these are used in performances;
3. To provide a venue for performances of Mak Yong troupes from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.


Serminar and performance


1. Concepts, techniques and styles of Mak Yong are discussed and shared among performers
2. Knowledge of Mak Yong is better understood by traditional performers in Southeast Asia
3. Agreement on concrete ideas on how to preserve and promote Mak Yong
4. Establishment of a network of Mak Yong performers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand
5. Public awareness
6. Publication of seminar papers

Post-Activity Report

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