cultural infusion: indonesia in australia

douglas leonard & indija mahjoeddin at festival nusantara in brisbane

Butet Kartaredjasa, Death of a Critic

Butet Kartaredjasa, Death of a Critic

FESTIVAL NUSANTARA (FROM ARCHAIC JAVANESE FOR ‘THE ISLANDS IN BETWEEN’ AND NOW INVOKING THE ENTIRE INDONESIAN ARCHIPELAGO) SHOWCASED MORE THAN INDONESIAN CONTEMPORARY THEATRE, DANCE AND MUSIC AT THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE. IT NEATLY TIED IN WITH INDONESIAN INDEPENDENCE DAY, PROVIDING A FORUM FOR A VARIETY OF CULTURAL ACTIVITIES, WHILE PRESENTING ARTISTICALLY AND POLITICALLY CHALLENGING WORKS THAT MIGHT NOT OTHERWISE HAVE APPEALED SO BROADLY. BY INCLUDING THE INDONESIAN COMMUNITY, THE POWERHOUSE ATTRACTED A UNIQUELY RESPONSIVE AUDIENCE INCLUDING FAMILIES, INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS, LANGUAGE TEACHERS, SCHOLARS AND INDONESIAN ARTS AFICIONADOS. AT THE SAME TIME, THE EVENT ENGENDERED RICHLY COMPLEX LEVELS OF INTERROGATION OF POLITICAL, CULTURAL AND ARTISTIC ISSUES. THERE WAS THE RARE SENSE OF A SHARED PEOPLE’S FESTIVAL AND, BY INTRODUCING THE SPIRIT OF THE CARNIVALESQUE, IT TEMPERED WHAT MIGHT OTHERWISE HAVE BEEN EXPERIENCED AS UNRECONCILED PERSPECTIVES.

The event has been a long term aspiration of Brisbane Powerhouse artistic director, Andrew Ross, whose team included assistant director Fauzi from the Surabaya Arts Festival. The program ranged from a retrospective of provocative images by both Indonesian and Australian photo-journalists to the cheesy pop of zany, youth oriented band Project Pop. The big crowd pleaser was Djaduk Ferianto’s big brassy show band, Kua Etnika, which like Karakatau’s more sophisticated fusion, blends jazz and swing with instrumentation and riffs from around the Nusantara archipelago. It was more easy listening than high art but featured a range of accoustically impressive compositions by members of the Kua Etnika collective appearing, incidentally, under the umbrella of the Bagong Kussudiardjo Foundation. Kussudiardjo was a former student of Martha Graham and a crucial disseminator of American modern dance ideas since the 1950s.

nan jombang dance company

Nan Jombang Dance Company’s most striking image in War of the Plates, a program of three Euro-Minangkabau etudes, was the opening solo. Out of the darkness a bell canto voice intoned its lament, “hati ini… this heart…”, transfixed us for a moment, then suddenly Angga Djamar’s head dived for the floor, liquid red dress cascading down her back as muscular legs rose, reached powerfully into the space, a headless creature searching blindly, articulately with feet on the end of arms. Barely touching down, featherlight, she rebounded, arching airborne into a supine ‘sault. Self accompanied by voice and minimalist percussion, choreographer Ery Mefri’s dancers weave expressionistic suggestions of interiority together with explorations of the folkloric—notably plate dance and the pants-slapping rhythms of ‘randai’, signature motifs of Minangkabau cultural identity. Other traditional artforms referenced, such as the percussive use of brass trays used in the sufi art of ‘selawat dulang’, were played not by musicians but by the dancers themselves. The hand clapping and pants slapping choreography of the final study played dramatically with dynamic contrasts—pianissimo to forte, butoh-slow to exploding with the folk form’s usual momentary gusto and complexity.

Although moving away from the simple repetition of tradition, Mefri only just began to exploit its choreographic potential. Based in the Sumatran capital of Padang, this company has bravely sought a contemporary language for expressing their region’s traditional ethos. There is a self-conscious element that pays homage to Martha Graham, butoh, even Bausch, directly or indirectly, but the indigenous martial art form ‘pencak silat’ yields a rich physical vocabulary of its own. They all combined in this soulful tryptich.

teater payung hitam

While stylistically Mefri seems to explore community, self and identity, Teater Payung Hitam (Black Umbrella Theatre) digs deeper in an attempt to express some primal truth about the alienation of Indonesian society from the mother principle in their work, Merah Bolong Putih Bolong (Red Hole White Hole in the program but better translated as Ruptured Red Ruptured White), written and directed by Rachman Sabur. This reading, occluded behind the more immediate political narratives of the last 50 years, was however not readily accessible to Brisbane audiences.

In a dramatic setting of perilously swinging boulders, carefully laid out rocks of red and white (the national flag, blood and purity, left and right, or… what?) were endlessly manipulated in gestures that spoke of the futility of small acts of resistance against the powerful and patriarchal onslaught of state power, the muscle of dominant ideologies. In another homage to expressionism, men half clad as labourers ducked the granite pendulums, rattled metal pails of grey gravel, gathered like monkeys or clowns and, in groups, assailed the relentless time machine of history. Or alone made valiant attempts to pick up the pieces, to recover order. Such a man, with a pail on his head, his body frail with age, bends to pick up one red stone at a time, but each time he bends, the one already in the pail drops out. Occasionally a saronged wild-haired figure—madman? madwoman?—reels out across the increasing chaos of stones that play a percussive symphony as they thud and roll, clack or rattle. At one point he/she is doused in a shower of red gravel (symbolising menstrual blood, we learn after the show) but nothing seems to change.

When this stricken soul is finally buried against a sound track of buzzing flies, it seems the narrative has just begun. This nation has been built on patriarchal strategies, explained Fauzi. Labour, war, Islam, economic development…Masculine power has dominated the story, and the Goddess has gone underground. The Ur Mother is Dead, and so struggles in vain to reunite with her children. But as her arm rises in silence, fist clenched, from the burial mound, there is no finality but a symbol of hope, “Merdeka!”, the revolutionary cry of freedom.

Teater Payung Hitam are a small, valiant artistic community based in the creative hotbed of Bandung, pushing boundaries politically and artistically, committed to visionary theatre in the avant-garde mould. More installation than dramatic art, their work assaulted our senses with a visceral physicality on the threshold of pain and danger.

butet kartaredjasa

Against these emerging companies Butet Kartaredjasa’s Death of A Critic by Agus Noor was more self assured on all fronts. Seasoned comic artist and founder of Teater Koma, Butet examines the role of the social commentator throughout history. Time moves forth and occasionally back. We check in on Socrates at one point, Napoleon at another: “I was Napoleon’s left hand”, says the critic. There’s an ambivalence to this critic, a grasping for power and recognition that underpins him as the constant shadow of demagoguery but the framing action really implicates the present until, arriving at a prospective Utopia in the Third Millenium, he dwindles away because he is no longer needed. We follow his ranting with colleagues who sold out, his refusal to abandon his vocation, and his vain belief that his service will one day—one day—be acknowledged. This is a two man show cleverly managed by one actor (and a bundle of blankets when the affable serving man, Bambang, a characteristically Javanese-style Sancho Panza to this Don Quixote appears) with video projection (interactive, whimsical and theatrically relevant) and an off-stage chorus-cum-band whose verbal interjections were as apropos as their live sound effects and instrumental accompaniment. By way of translation, the English surtitles were only the tip of the iceberg, but Butet was such an authoritatively engaging presence and so vocally and physically expressive that he took us along with him despite the language difference.

making connections

Though perhaps out of sync with Australia’s declining interest in Asian culture, Brisbane Powerhouse has boldly presented a small but potent festival of Indonesia’s contemporary arts, making a point about the usual overflying of the Indonesian islands in search of world festival fodder. Nor is it another wayang puppet show on a potted palm fringed stage. Instead Andrew Ross presents a selection of contemporary work that is socially and politically engaged, made by Indonesian artists in Indonesia for their own communities. What is pleasing is that this program deliberately avoids the self reflexive business of inter-cultural collaboration that is often producer driven and unevenly credited. But if collaborations are not a high priority for Ross, artistic connections are nevertheless valuable. It was gratifying then that a collaboration between Queensland’s music ensemble Topology, Djaduk Ferianto and Surabaya Arts Festival was also facilitated by this event.

Ross’s objectives are far reaching and include setting up Festival Nusantara as a vehicle for nurturing and marketing the young companies of the region. Ideally however, Ross’s overall vision might benefit if complemented by major festival players in a position to invite mature companies at the level of Bessie-award winning dance company Gumarang Sakti or Bengkel Teater Rendra who have never been seen here despite decades of international European and American attention. Such examples of excellence may be required, in conjunction with the already frequent individual exchanges and collaborations, to turn around our arts sector’s general ambivalence.

Ross appears to reject the wisdom of possibly linking with like minded events such as Queensland Art Gallery’s Australian Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. However, given the close relationship between contemporary performing arts and performance art in Indonesia it would seem to make sense to exploit such an alternative conduit to broader Australian interest. This relationship (exemplified, say, by Heri Dono, performance installation artist first introduced here in the 1993 APT) is as rooted in tradition (where there is less separation between disciplines—one often finds that traditional painters also dance and play dalang/puppeteer) as much as it follows on from the contemporary art movement in Jakarta and Bandung, where the notion of the ideologically progressive auteur found a fine arts following in ITB (Institut Teknology Bandung) long before public theatre became its medium.

Festival Nusantara: Nan Jombang Dance Company, War of The Plates, choreographer Ery Mefri, lighting Jo Currey; Teater Payung Hitam, Red Hole White Hole, writer, director Rachman Sabur; Death of a Critic, performer Butet Kartaredjasa, writer Agus Noor, director Whani Dharmawan, music Djaduk Ferianto; Brisbane Powerhouse, August 8-12

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 11

© Douglas Leonard & Indija Mahjoeddin; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2007