With just one look, one probably wouldn’t be able to tell that Mohamed Noor Sarman—or Md Noor as his friends call him—is a ballet master. He’s careful with his movements and has a certain grace that experienced dancers tend to have, owing to years of understanding their bodies and how they move. But for a male ballet practitioner, Md Noor doesn’t visually fit the bill; at least in the traditional sense.
“My height is the minimum height requirement for a female ballet dancer,” he says, without any hint of shame or pride. It’s a fact he has accepted but one that has never once put him down.
I first met Md Noor at the Singapore Dance Theatre for a casual chat a few days before the shoot. He had just finished teaching a class and we sat in a spacious conference room with the master at the head of the table. If he was tired after a long day, he didn’t show it at all. We spoke unfiltered (and off-the-record) for about half an hour about his life and experiences before he said: “I’m game. I’m up for anything you guys want me to do.”
On a Saturday afternoon, once again after teaching a class, we meet for this interview and shoot at the Esquire office. Md Noor sits up straight during the entire interview, posture as perfect as can be while he files his nails and talks. I find myself straightening up whenever I feel my back curling forwards as we speak. “I’m looking at the way you’re talking and the way you’re moving. Have you always been this poised and mature? Or has ballet polished those qualities that have always been there?” our photographer Ronald Leong asks at the end of the interview. Md Noor seems a bit puzzled but replies: “Maybe. Maybe, to begin with, I’m a little bit soft [in mannerisms]. I don’t know exactly how but dance has definitely helped me in a lot of ways and that’s how I am now.”
Md Noor’s first introduction to dance was through his younger sister’s participation in a Malay cultural group, which he later joined. It became a hobby he enjoyed and led him to pursue a scholarship with Dance Club Singapore where he learnt ballet and jazz for free. He remembers having to ask his mother to buy ballet shoes, tights and other dance paraphernalia but without telling her or his father what he was into. Md Noor’s parents only fully grasped that their son was a dancer when they first saw his televised performance, dancing in the background for acts under the previously named Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
Even then, there was never a conversation about it. Were they ashamed?
“After many years, my mum recounted this incident that happened between my dad and his relatives who are quite staunch Muslims. They said: ‘What is your son doing? He’s earning sinful money.’ To which my dad replied: ‘My son is not earning sinful money. He earns his own hard-earned money; sweating and working hard for it.’” Md Noor recalls, smiling at the memory. “I was very touched.”
He was part of SDT’s pioneer batch when it was established in 1988 and Md Noor owes a lot of his finest experiences and opportunities to the company. At 29, he travelled to Paris on a scholarship by the French government to further his dance studies at IFEDEM Paris. Despite the language barrier, especially during afternoon lectures, it was an eye-opening experience for him. He realised that he wasn’t placed to dance at IFEDEM Paris because he was considered too old. Md Noor also heard of harrowing stories of some friends who ventured out of Singapore to pursue ballet. “And there I was; a national ballet company right under my nose and within my grasp,” Md Noor says.
He was appointed as ballet master in 2009, guiding the younger dancers as he had been guided by his previous mentors throughout his professional career. Did he miss taking on a more prominent presence onstage? “No because I already made up my mind to hang up my ballet shoes. A few things happened in my life during that period that I felt were signs for me to take on the role. In fact, I feel privileged and lucky to be able to do character roles when needed,” Md Noor shares. The only regret—if there was ever one—was that he didn’t start dancing earlier.
We proceed with the shoot. There is silence as we first start out without music, enthralled by the varied body movements Md Noor is making to the music in his head. It is as though he had choreographed this beforehand; there is no disconnectedness. This choreography isn’t restricted to just ballet. He takes on different characters based on the styling choices—disco dancing in a Dolce&Gabbana suit and seamlessly switching from contemporary to his Malay dance roots while wearing a skirt.
He laughs when I ask if he has ever thought that he had hit his physical threshold. “If I can walk, I’d still do it,” he says. With that vast knowledge of dance under his belt, Md Noor confesses that he used to frequent clubs a lot back in the day. “Just normal dancing lah. Just because I’m a dancer, I don’t go all out; I’m not that kind of person,” he quips. And he doesn’t have to. It is obvious that he can easily turn it on and off like a well-oiled dancing machine.
Styling by Eugene Lim.
Grooming by Sha Shamsi using Kiehl’s and Keune.
Styling assisted by Asri Jasman.
This story was originally published in the June/July issue of Esquire Singapore.