Together with my family, I visited the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali along with Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in February and April 2011. Wherever we went, the dance scholar and dramaturge in me went out to explore local dance cultures and scenes. The Goethe Institut in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur helped me a lot in my efforts to engage with the traditional and modern dance scenes. How is dance produced, taught, performed? I am equally interested in modern/contemporary dance and the conditions of its production and performance. In my research, I noticed that traditional and modern/contemporary dance each possess their own body of movement materials, but are still jointly produced and presented. Moreover, I came to recognize that there were parallels between the different dance themes and techniques on the one hand, and the mentalities and lifestyles of the people in each location on the other. Such parallels establish continuity rather than contradiction between tradition and modernity.
A social experiment for (dance) theatre as social criticism: EKI
At the municipal Theater Gedung Kesenian in Jakarta, a newly restored building from the Dutch colonial period, I watch on as local dance company EKI rehearse their piece Jakarta Love Riot. Stephanie, the group’s PR person, explains to me what is happening on stage. The musical is a critical parody of Jakarta’s aloof upper class, which keeps its distance from the rest of the city’s population. The piece uses an actual social-political situation; in this case the evolution of the pro-Western upper class into a destructive force in a society delicately balanced between tradition and modernity, and shows how this stirs up the local status quo and forces its members to act.
Stephanie explains that EKI does not just do (dance) theatre as social criticism, but is actually a social experiment in itself. The company lives and works together in a type of commune, where members do everything together and follow a democratic process in discussing and making decisions. In spite of a lack of public funding, the company only charges a modest admission price for its performances, enabling the EKI to reach the poorer social classes of Jakarta who otherwise would not be able to afford tickets. Their success shows that EKI has the right idea. During my visit, it became clear that their performances are regularly sold out.
I am in a theatre again, this time in Salihara, a newly constructed cultural centre on the south side of the city. Tony Prabowo, a composer and head of the dance music programme in Salihara, explains to me the criteria by which he selects the productions. He looks at methods, themes, especially for the traditional pieces, because Salihara often shows dances from regions of Indonesia where the dance techniques are threatened by extinction or have already been forgotten.
I ask him about examples of contemporary works that inspire him. His eyes light up. Do I know a female ensemble from Germany that did a piece on King Lear in which the fathers of the dancers performed? Tony is referring to She She Pop, the performance ensemble from Hamburg and Berlin and their production Testament. At a festival in Tokyo, he saw Ein Stück mit Vätern [A piece with fathers]. He wants to bring this performance to Jakarta if possible. In talking to him, I discover how ‘in’ and popular contemporary German theatre can be in what for me is such a foreign culture.
A gentle and resolute focus
After our stay in Jakarta, we continue on via Bandung and Pangandaran to Yogyakarta where we visit the Sultan’s palace. Our Sunday morning visit coincides with the court dance students’ performance of traditional Javenese dances for their teachers and the public. In the seat next to me, a man quietly begins to tell me what is being portrayed in each dance. Supri Yatno is an English teacher and learnt these dances as a child from his father, a soldier at the Sultan's court, where soldiers are traditionally required to attain a high level of expertise in the art of dance. My neighbour is an expert on Javanese court dances and gladly explains to me their movements, themes and costumes.
On this morning a group dance performed by four women makes an especially strong impression on me. The dancers move in sync, repeatedly circling their arms and legs and especially their hands and feet with intense concentration. Their movements are measured, graceful, and precise. The gentle and resolute inward focus which characterizes their performance is remarkable.
On the next part of our journey, I again experience such extreme moments of "looking inward", not in the traditional court dance, but rather in everyday situations such as in communicating with our hotel manager or in observing how Indonesian families interact with their children. Here, too, one feels this gentle and resolute calm, a clear and unshakeable “at peace with one’s self” that the people show in dealing with me, themselves or with each other.
Annual student performance at ASWARA
After our stay in northern Bali, we go to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where I visit the national arts academy, ASWARA, and meet Joseph Gonzales, the director of the dance department. We attend their annual dance evening, featuring ten short works from students who are obviously influenced by the genres of comedy and musicals. The performances present technically ambitious, cleanly executed movement material, drawing on slapstick, traditional modern and contemporary dance as well as acrobatic elements, either as separate techniques or in a colourful mix. I recognize quotes from music stations such as MTV and from advertising. A young dancer in a brilliant male duet on the dichotomies of strong/weak and hard/soft catches my eye with his ability to alternate between tension and softness. His intense focus allows him to open himself both to his partner and the audience.
Later I make his acquaintance by chance. His name is Naim Syahrazad (photo, left), and I learn that he has been invited to come to Berlin to work with choreographer Riki von Falken. She met Naim during her guest professorship at ASWARA and really liked the quality of his movement. In September 2012, Riki von Falken and ASWARA Arts Academy will perform their ECHO installation at the Radialsytem V and Dock 11 (both in Berlin). The installation will explore how the different physical, temporal and spatial experiences of the German choreographer and the Malaysian dancers interact with one another.
In summary, the relationship between tradition and modernity in Indonesian and Malaysian dance, as I experienced it during my travels, is one of coexistence and engagement. They exist alongside and with each other, intermingled and separate, yet always in an equality ‒ something which surprised me over and over as a (western) European.
Is a dance scholar and dance dramaturge based in Berlin. In 2008 she founded the initiative DanceScoutBerlin focussing on mediation work between dance and audience.