Through the Ngajat: why “I” am important

I am a UK-based theatre director, producer – and now reluctant performer. I’ve always had a interest in identity and space, and try to explore those ideas visually, textually, and through performance. My latest exploration has been a research project that has lead to a new piece of theatre, which debuted in May.

Weaving and currying making

I’m half Iban (an indigenous tribe in Borneo, based mainly in Sarawak, the largest state of Malaysia) and half white New Zealander, and have been living in London for over 10 years. Migration is huge part of my personal story, and concepts of identity and space are wrapped around stories of migration.

To me, performance art and theatre are all about story telling. Over the last few years I have been researching women’s stories of migration, and I have been doing that through the performance styles of Iban women, and their performance poetry (pantun) and dance (ngajat) The ngajat is a dance originally performed at ceremonies, it is repetitive, involves flexed feet, soft hands and mainly circular movements. It is not dissimilar to Balinese dance, but softer shapes.

When looking at stories of migration, through performance, you spend a lot of time with the performers and that has been part of the research, hearing, gathering, telling stories of migration from women performers. Therefore it’s not only women’s stories of migration, but also the migration of the Iban performance styles that have interested me – what happens to the identities of the women and the performance as their location changes?

I have battled with the right to tell my story

During this journey, I have run the gauntlet of academic and critical theory – post-colonialism, nationhood, concepts of home, gender identity, meanings of space and of course the f word – feminism. Telling stories – mine, yours, others – always raises the question of agency and ownership: the right to have a voice and the ability to have that voice heard.

Throughout this research I have battled with the right to tell my story. I have listened and heard of stories, which have so engaged me, I have seen performances that have moved me, and I have not felt that my story has ever lived up to them.

This struggle is a combination of a number of things. One of them being my position of privilege. I am hugely aware that my education, my social position within Sarawak, the fact I live in the UK where I have access to things like free contraception, and that my New Zealand passport means I need fewer visas to travel than even Australians. All this means that I am in a position of privilege. Full stop. Am I privileging myself, again, by telling my story? Is it vanity and ego at work here?

Another issue is that my conception of a researcher is that of observation. Having grown up amongst anthropologists, I seem to have learnt a doctrine that a ‘proper’ researcher does not interfere with their subjects.

Storytelling and curry eating

But also, I have learnt that I am not important. That myself as an individual is not as important as the picture I am trying to paint. This, I think, links to ideas of creating home and in turn, creating a nation, through looking at some of the language that gets used with in post-colonial states.

There is no mistaking the feminised language of nationhood; we talk more commonaly about the motherland (as opposed to the fatherland). Nations have been build on the bodies of women for a long time. The narrative suggests: look at us, our nation is ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’, our women are allowed to vote! Or, alternatively, look at us, our nation is ‘good’ because our women are ‘traditional’ holders or teaches of ‘national spiritual essence’ in opposition to the ‘materialist West’, as Uma Narayan points out in Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions and Third World Feminism.

The role of women and the identity that gets created in the formation of a new nation is often an effect of larger political agendas. ‘National identity’ is “always about the control of women, but never only about the control of women… the control of women is often a means to a larger, though connected, ends,” as Narayan puts it. This places the woman’s job as being to serve her family, her nation and the greater good. She, as an individual does not exist, is not important. This notion, I believe, permeates all levels of society.

I have found a space to belong, and it feels like a location based on everyone coming from somewhere else

But, I am not here to discuss that in too much depth right now. What I do want to talk about is how I discovered that by placing myself at the center of my research I was able to really explore the notions of home and belonging. By making myself important, I was able to honour the stories and performances I have heard over the last few years. I was not being ‘the voice’ for other women and their stories, but I was able to give space to voices, narratives and identities of the many women involved in this research. I feel I was able to do this by sharing stories, by sharing the telling of each other’s stories, by letting everyone involved participate in the creative development of the story telling. I was not just recording stories to be told on paper, in verbatim style theatre, but we were all entering the workshop to explore each others stories.

“Sex and sweat, the sound and taste of summer…”

My research into migration and identity began from a personal place. As a director and performer, I have always been interested in stories of identity, exploring ways to tell and re-tell narratives of belonging and the space people live in.

I came to London because I needed to find a space to belong. I am half Iban and I spent the majority of my childhood in Auckland, New Zealand. Living in Malaysia and New Zealand, I was always reminded that I was not from there, I was always from ‘the other’ place. London seemed a romantic destination, on the other side of the world, where various groups of people converged, from many different places. It symbolised a place where you could get lost amongst the difference.

I have found a space to belong, and it feels like a location based on everyone coming from somewhere else. This inspired me to research the performative nature of creating identity, of creating a space to belong, of creating home.

I was able to engage with the more visceral elements of home – sights, sounds, smells

To do this I looked back into my past, my understandings of home and, as Sara Ahmed says in her book Uprooting/Regroudings: Questions of Home and Migration, “nostalgia plays a crucial part in [this] imagining”; so my nostalgia was the movements and sounds of the Iban dance, the ngajat.

Through embodying the ideas of creating home and belonging, and identity, and by placing myself and my personal experiences at the centre, I was able to engage with the more visceral elements of home – sights, sounds, smells.

By physically placing myself in different spaces, and locations, in front of different people/spectators (as one does when they migrate) telling my life story, I was able to understand a clear sense of the relationship between audience and self.

My audience is those who come and watch my performances, but also the people I’ve met in the spaces and locations I’ve been in, from Borneo, to New Zealand, to the UK. As migration means meeting different audiences, how you choose to present your identity, and what parts of your identity, depends on who the audience are.

Being on stage, telling someone else’s story, I was able to distance myself from the experience. I felt this limited the exploration of creating home and the action of making home, performance is about ‘doing’, and so is creating ‘home’. Therefore I felt that if I was going to research the idea of creating ‘home’ I had to ‘do’, be part of the performance, be part of the story telling, be active.

“So many people everywhere…”


Being on stage I am under the gaze of the audience. Part of that gaze makes you aware of your differences. It is, in a sense, othering – being up on stage in front of a group of people means I am putting myself in a position outside that group.

When you have multiple identities, multiple racial influences and cultural references, you do become aware of the concept of the normative, the discourse surrounding the Other. You begin to see a ‘norm’ – people who share common points of cultural and social references, like when I was a kid in NZ, everyone knew what Star Wars was! And then you see yourself outside of that, the ‘other’. Therefore, by experiencing the gaze of an audience I am exploring and embodying those othering experiences.

The practice-based side of the research involved performing and some of those performances involved me undressing to various levels of nakedness. Othering is also a gendered experience and my female body on stage is highly charged; a disembodied voice over, sexualised undertones of the text and the slowly taking off of clothes, to reveal naked, vulnerable, skin.

By undressing on stage I am exposing my physical gender, by displaying my breasts, the curve of my hips… By letting the audience gaze, emphasised by not engaging with them, I am further distancing myself from the audience, I am other to them because they are dressed and sitting down. I am placing myself outside of the prestige system that has been subconsciously created by the clothed masses. And although I am not being viewed with less respect, after all I am performing the skilled task of dancing the ngajat, I am still ‘in opposition’.

But what happened when I start to engage with the audience? I became aware of my nakedness and my impulse was to get dressed. During various workshops I played with the idea of performing in just my underwear, but once I got on stage, often, I didn’t feel comfortable. I desperately wanted to be covered. I became so acutely aware of my state of undress once I had engaged eye contact. I wanted to be like the people in front of me. I wanted to fit in.

By being me on stage, by placing my story at the centre, I am letting the audience take a journey with me

But, this gave me agency, this was my choice, as a performer and as an individual. By addressing the audience, breaking the fourth wall, I changed the relationship with the audience. The voyeuristic nature of audiences was flipped on its head and now as a performer, I could take away the power of watching and the gaze of the spectator. I can begin to feel the power of being able to change my space, re-creating my identity. I can get dressed. I can, even, not undress in the first place.

“Why am I here?”

Migration and meeting different audience is about a negotiation of space, location, individuals and groups. By connecting the internal struggle of a performer with a practice, and the external activity of a spectator, watching, I can begin to build a language and communication between the two.

Through exploring ways of engaging I began to understand the relationships between migration and audience in different locations.

Another Iban performing practice that I took inspiration was performance poetry, the pantun. Like Iban music and the ngajat, the pantun is very rhythmical and repetitive. The pantun is very descriptive, metaphoric, and often uses words more for the purpose of rhyme than for meaning and uses “deep Iban” (an expression used in Sarawak to describe Iban that is no longer used, and that a lot of contemporary Iban don’t understand anymore).

A pantun is traditionally adlibbed, but in practice is a mix of pre-written and adlibbed. It changes every time it is performed, depending on the individuals and the situation. Pantun is performed, seated on the floor, in close proximity of the audience and can be directed at someone, facing that person. Although the language is very formal and lyrical, the performance of this practice is not.

There is an exchange between audience and performer when the pantun is performed. The audience encourages and performer plays up to that encouragement. The laughter at a funny pantun can encourage the performer to be more sexually explicit in their storytelling, for example.

The performance practices of the Iban are related to the religious element of their culture, and even though there is humour and a seemingly lack of structure at times, Iban anthropologist, James Masing points out, in his book Coming of the Gods, the “lack of solemnity” within the rituals belies the seriousness and dedication the Iban have to their religion. Because of this, it is problematic to dismiss the contemporary performance practice as not ritual, or remembering it is ritually based, which is what gets forgotten when a practice changes location as with the ngajat. What I find interesting with the pantun, is that the separation is not so easy, which makes the practice so engaging, within any space.

Part of belonging is being allowed to belong. This can be difficult when you are constantly being asked “where are you from?”

On a longhouse veranda in the middle of a gawai (harvest festival) celebration, the voice of a pantun singer is embodied by the woman, she is speaking from her standpoint as a woman, an individual, who is also part of a community. She can break in and out of her performance. She can tap her foot. She can keep still. She can ignore the audience. She can direct her pantun to a specific person. The decisions are up to her. The audience can talk, walk away or listen. This explores the idea of engaging with the audience, that develops ideas of individual identity within a performance.

This idea influenced how I wanted to tell my story, how I wanted other stories to be heard. The connection and engagement of the audience, the negotiating and being able to adapt and change depending on the reaction of the audience to my performance, my mostly naked body, my trying to tell them a story and make them believe in the smells I am smelling and the sights I am seeing.

By being me on stage, by placing my story at the centre, I am letting the audience take a journey with me, I am letting them laugh at the near-nakedness of myself. But I am also showing reality, the tangible realness of me, of self. The telling and re-telling of self becomes a ritual, religiously undertaken in each new space. A serious exercise of self.

“Pulled back into reality, from my own little space”

Academic Gloria Anzaldua, in Borderlands/La Frontera, talks about a new consciousness. She talks of belonging and identity not through a linear process, but rather as a state of mind, through multiple languages and time and space, which she refers to as being “cross-pollenisation”.

“Diaspora space is the intersectionality of diaspora, borders and dis/location as a point of confluence of economic, political, cultural and psychic process,” Avtar Brah points out in Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities. These new spaces that are encountered within migration are created from points of reference, from intersections of your difference, my difference and the reasons we are in the same space.

There are conflicts and contradictions in creating a space and a place to belong within diaspora spaces. The wanting to belong and hating being different and then the relishing in difference, knowing and experiences and loving being outside of the norm.

With migration, with each new audience, you have a moment to re-name yourself

And, part of belonging, is being allowed to belong. This can be difficult when you are constantly being asked “where are you from?” I always have to choose where “I am from”, where I align my looks, my accent, my culture. I have to decide. It is very rare that I am able to choose multiple locations of origin.

Language confines identity. Through defining identity people are boxing in concepts and creating discourse that doesn’t allow for change and difference, relating to the concept of ‘other’ – if you are this, you are not that. The construction of gender is related to this idea, as is the construction of race. “Naming is part of the human rituals of incorporation,” says academic and film-maker Trinh T. Minh-ha in her book Woman, Native, Other. Writing, “but to create a label and a name is to show that something is not like you; it is defining its difference.”

When choosing to live in a society that wants to know where I am from, I do have to find a way to deal with that. And so, I find a label, a definition, to describe me, so others can place my existence and I can place myself within their existence. But, I can play with these ideas of being from somewhere else. I chose when I say I am from New Zealand and when I say I am Iban. I chose when I want to be ‘exotic’, and dress up the story of being from the jungle, or when I want to be unnoticed in a western world. (It’s more difficult when in Sarawak, where I look ‘Iban’, but I don’t speak the language. That is a space where I feel less in control of my identity.)

With migration, with each new audience, you have a moment to re-name yourself. There is freedom in being able to re-design my boundaries of self to suit my location, “instead of thinking about places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings,” as Dorren Massey says in Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change. I can view specific locations and spaces as places that I can re-negotiate my identity depending on the social relationships I encounter. With each new performance of this piece, I can and have changed it, re-invented it, to suit the relationship I have with the audience, with the space and with the location – “changes in audience lead to change in the performance” says theatre director Richard Schechner in his book Between Theatre & Anthropology.

A real luxury and moment of realising self, was when I bought a new bookshelf and filled it entirely with my handbags and shoes

By placing myself at the centre of this research, by placing myself on stage, I have had to experience and understand what parts I negotiate of my story. What parts I am willing to change and adapt for each audience, and what parts I am not. With each new performance, with each new space the decisions are highlighted and embodied, under the relentless gaze of an audience. And I always have to face the question – what parts of my story are non-negotiable?

“Like the missionaries who came to the jungle…”

When performing I can define space, I am able to claim it as my own, giving me a sense of power. I construct a space that I can belong in, so much so that I am able to disrobed. It is only when I noticed I was actually sharing space, that I become conscious of my physical being, and therefore feel self-conscious. This idea of space being somewhat imagined, creates a notion that it is fluid. Space changes when the acknowledgment of spectators happens. As a performer I imagine a personal space on stage, the audience acknowledges this space of mine through the voyeuristic nature of their gaze. But this changes when I bring them into my space by addressing them directly.

I change the space by my actions, and they change it by acknowledging me. I am curious how far I can push this, how much I can get them to engage. Can I establish a relationship that engages physically? Or maybe I won’t want to share that much of my space and sense of belonging in it!

For me it has always been about clothes and accessories, that’s the way that I have been able to create and re-create myself and my identity in different locations, this is how I have created my ‘space’. For me the fact that as a child my mother shopped at second hand shops was great. They were places of wonderment, places that I could find gems that I could work and re-work as time went on, to create new outfits from one piece of cloth; a dress that over years became a short dress, a t-shirt and then finally a vest.

The ngajat is very repetitive, the movements don’t have a meaning, in the sense the dance doesn’t tell a linear story, but rather reflects the Iban identity

When I moved to the flat I am now in, having split up from my husband, it was really important for me to create a place that was mine, belonged to me. A real luxury and moment of realising self, was when I bought a new bookshelf and filled it entirely with my handbags and shoes! Clothing to me is, in the words of Iris Marion Young in House and Home: Feminist Variations on a Theme, “a making of identity through arranging objects in space as an extension of bodily habits and as support to embodied routines”.

Clothing is a part of the Iban culture that I have hung on to. I take my Iban costume to every country where I live.

By recognising my story as a story of migration, I am able to develop questions of why objects and embodied routines are important. By investigating my relationship with my space I have a point of reference when I begin to look at other migration stories.

“And so I donned my loincloth, like they all do, Topshop jewelry and vintage boots”

In her book, Uprooting/regrounding, Sara Ahmed talks about home, and finding or creating a place to belong, as being made and re-made, that we produce and reproduce the idea of home. It’s not a repetitive task but rather tasks that produce and create and define a sense of self and place within spaces.


As I mentioned before, the ngajat is very repetitive, the movements don’t have a meaning, in the sense the dance doesn’t tell a linear story, but rather reflects the Iban identity. And through these repetitive movements something new happens, a different move is created. The movements are very grounded, and by repeating the movements you end up feeling grounded, an idea associated with home.

It is this through the physicality of the ngajat I re-learnt the dance of my childhood. Through this learning and re-learning of the ngajat I am experiencing the different journeys and development of telling and re-telling my story, through my body as it remembers and learns.

The ngajat is repeated, the same choreography, for more than 20 years at the Sarawak Cultural Village, which is a ‘living museum’/tourist attraction. This practice helps to build an idea of ‘tradition’, one that places tradition as static. One that places [Iban] women responsible for keeping that tradition, just so.

Twice a day, seven days a week, the women dance the ngajat in front of an audience of tourists, silent and in the background, all dressed the same, right down to the shade of eye shadow (Monday is green, Tuesday is blue, etc). The same moves, the same rhythms, while the men dance, whoop and acknowledge the audience, seeking their approval, reacting to their responses. They perform alone, as individuals in their own right, in front of a bevy of ‘back up dancers’. The women are the constant behind the ‘performing’ male.

Tourists come with a notion of the East or Borneo, or with an exotic idea of people from the jungle

This contemporary image of Iban women is at odds to the roles and status of Iban women within their own communities, and how they were historically seen, through performance. It was a practice for Iban women to dance alone, like the men, within the longhouse for ritual and ceremonial occasions. This does still happen, but it is changing, with the influence of the performance styles developed at the SVC. As this structure of performance is constructed, choreographed and canonised by the SCV and the Dayak Cultural Foundation (Dayak is the native word for indigenous people of Sarawak), the notions of ‘tradition’, which are being kept a live are a version of a truth, a constructed idea that is becoming the accepted norm. They are daily repeating their story of cultural identity through their bodies.

“You never know where you could wake up tomorrow…”

This idea of Iban identity is one that is constructed within a post-colonial state. This sense of tradition and identity is related to a state, a ‘home’. But what happens when it is taken outside of its confinements? What happens to the meaning of these traditions? The ngajat has migrated from the jungle and the ruai (veranda) of an Iban longhouse where the meaning is linked to gods and celebration, to a stage in the capital city, where the notions of the ngajat are linked to commercialism and tourists, and now to the UK, where there is no reference for it to work against or with. Or is there?

On the ruai, the dancer dances to the beat of a gong, to a rhythm she is familiar with, to an audience who is familiar with the dance. The ngajat becomes something danced for the individual as much as to entertain. Once this dance moves to the stage at the SCV it begins to become exoticist, but it is still relative to its surroundings. Tourists come with a notion of the East or Borneo, or with an exotic idea of people from the jungle. They relate what they see as story of who they are seeing. The dancer becomes a symbol, not an individual.

I am negotiating the spaces I find myself in. I am performing my identity to different audiences

When a UK audience enters a room to see a static woman, me, dressed in clothing they have never seen before, what are they thinking? Are they looking at the clothing? Are they relating me to their world? Are they placing themselves as outside of my space, my identity and their norm? What do I symbolise?

All these questions are running through my mind as I wait for the audience to sit. I wait so that I can begin to tell my story, begin to justify why I am standing in front of them looking so different. I have a captive audience wanting to know “where do you come from?”

Again, I would like to use a quote from Sarah Ahmed’s Uprooting/regrounding, that “home is a destination rather than an origin” and it is that concept, that idea of journey and development that I am interested in. Home is not re-producing sameness but producing and re-creating ideas picked up from the journey of migration, from the different cultures, from the difference identities, the various encounters and making those multiple experiences part of yourself and part of who you are and who you become.

Therefore, I feel that placing self in the centre of research is beneficial in exploring ideas of migration, embodying the aspects of home-making, vulnerability, audience meeting and being on either side of the gaze.

By exploring the ngajat and being influenced by the ngajat and the pantun, which is obviously part of my story, I am trying to explore these ideas of creating and re-creating identity, home and belonging. Through telling my story I am producing and re-producing my sense of self, which is a constantly fluid concept. I am adapting my story to the audience in front of me. I am learning, embodying and opening a conversation about these experiences. I am negotiating the spaces I find myself in. I am performing my identity to different audiences.

Director Peter Brook says in The Empty Space; “A man walks across the empty space whilst someone else is watching, and this is… an act of theatre.”

By placing myself within this research I am not the photojournalist behind a row of cameras constructing a version of the story for the newspaper reader; I am not an anthropologist observing, trying to “see with a native eye” and maybe even “feel with a native heart” as Richard Schechner labels anthropologists in Between Theatre & Anthropology. I am acknowledging my presence within the process; in Richard Schechner’s words – I “invite others to see me and my culture with their eyes. We are then in a position to exchange or views.”

And from there I began to write From the Jungle…

Section headings are taken from one of the performances. To listen to the piece or read the text click here.

Photos used with permission. Last two images by Katherine Leedale