indonesian contemporary dance: multiple personalities

melissa quek: idf closing program

From Betamax to DVD

From Betamax to DVD

From Betamax to DVD

FROZEN IN TIME, FIVE DANCERS, IN PLAIN WHITE T-SHIRTS AND BLACK TRACK PANTS STAND IN A NARROW LANE OF LIGHT IN JECKO SIOMPO’S FROM BETAMAX TO DVD. A DIZZYING ELECTRONIC SOUND-SCORE REVERBERATES AROUND THEM. A QUICK TWITCH, HOP AND HIT FROM SITI AJENG SOLAEMEN AT ONE END GALVANIZES ANDARA FIRMAN MOEIS AND THEN JECKO SIOMPO (ALSO THE CHOREOGRAPHER) INTO MOVEMENT AT THE OTHER. SIOMPO JERKS OUT OF LINE AND MOEIS FOLLOWS ONLY TO BE HERDED BACK INTO PLACE.

With a loud yelp the dancers break into a litany of isolated movements: arm tuck, leg stamp, head jerk. At one count per movement, they dance at a bracing if predictable speed. The dynamic energy, vigorous dancing and clarity of movement in each shape is virtuosic and exciting, at first. But it continues in this vein for the rest of the piece, quickly shifting shapes at a fast and even rhythm, developing in a high impact but monotonous line—there is no climax, only abrupt stops and starts. It’s a long run-on sentence, barely punctuated by stillness and often underlined by yips and barks.

Yes, the dancers change formation and move in and out of the lane of light, but it’s basically different combinations of the same thing. However Siompo’s tackling a big topic: “the advancement of technology is a message from tradition” (program note), which is something you probably wouldn’t have understood if not for this one line synopsis. If the advance of technology is the move from one system to another, Siompo’s movements similarly change little to fit his theme. His movement language is a pronounced mixture of Papuan dance and hip hop, with the shapes inspired by Papuan animals (mainly the small kangaroo) and the rhythm consistently fast.

The driving force of Siompo’s movement dynamics and his use of universally recognizable sounds are part of his appeal to a global audience. These concrete sounds are also a major vehicle of communication in his work. The beep of electronics, the roar of traffic and the performers’ voices form a medley of the organic and synthetic. In this case the persistent switching of sounds is closely reflected in the changing dance formations, but the consistency of movement seems to indicate that although the world is constantly changing it remains essentially the same.

Home: Ungratifying Life

Home: Ungratifying Life

Home: Ungratifying Life

In contrast Eko Supriyanto’s Home: Ungratifying Life comprises startling images. Most of the music may be sung in traditional Javanese, a language that even in Indonesia few understand, but is overlaid with a high pitched, painful, piercing whine. The choreographer has cleverly blended east and west in his symbolism. Wearing a batik shirt and clunky boots, a long pony tail trailing down his back, Supriyanto walks very slowly across the forestage in a narrow beam of light. When he reaches the centre, he’s directly in front of a large suspended rectangular wooden frame. His arms move meditatively, fingers briefly flickering before his face. Then with his eyes looking straight through the frame, he backs towards the edge of the stage and falls into the dark auditorium.

In the blackness two white figures slowly appear to take shape, but they are one—a man in black with a pair of large, white feathered wings, perhaps a depiction of the angel of death, slowly walking to the frame. Here he stands for along time, his few moves a gradually morphing picture as he looks out into the audience—or is he framing himself? He retreats and two young men, wearing only jock-straps, bound into the light. Long arms flaying the air, they energise the previously quiet stage. Even in sculptural moments behind the frame and in rectangles of light their sinuous forms appear primal and strong, while their continual gazing upwards or long reaches down to the floor suggest an unseen spiritual realm.

The men are replaced by a woman walking quietly with her dog, displaying the strong bond between human and animal. They are accompanied by a man who, with his short cropped hair, thin moustache and gaunt body dressed in a neon orange tutu with frilly straps, makes a curious picture that is initially surprising but soon taken for granted. He sings but stops abruptly to provoke the audience, shouting through the frame “What are you looking at?” After which he calmly resumes his song and moves away into the darkness, the dog’s eyes following him, while the girl stands staring out of the frame into the distance, inexplicably serene. The dog seated by her side, without artifice, a symbol of domestication, is perhaps intended to remind us of our relationship with nature.

Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe, Barena “Chiefs”

South African Vincent Sekwati Koko Matsoe’s Barena ‘Chiefs’ asks if power comes from the possession of symbols, like his ragged cape and stick, or if it’s inherent. Judging from the immense dynamism that he holds in check but releases at will it’s inherent in his case. His Afro-fusion (African and contemporary dance) style is emotionally expressive and physically demanding. Matsoe talks as he moves and the sounds of animals hooting and howling is underpinned by a strong beat that drowns out his voice, but the power in his furrowed brows and wide glaring eyes is clear. Later he droops as if defeated and drained, only to then grin widely as his feet and head move at a blur. Emotionally exhausted with him, I welcome Eric Satie’s soaring refrains that float over the stage, but instead of dancing to the melody, Matsoe confounds expectations by continuing with his own energetically rhythmic phrases. By ignoring the change in music he has kept the power and control firmly within his own body.

These three choreographers delivered humanistic and existential messages, each in an individualistic and surprisingly self-conscious manner. Each appears as the central figure in their own works, their bodies enabling the narrative. Siompo is the odd figure in From Beta Max to DVD, facing away from the rest of the group, a lag to his movements pulling him out of synch, exhibiting a rare awareness of the difference between himself and his younger counterparts. Supriyanto’s is the first body to peer through the frame at the pictures that slowly take shape on stage in his Home: Ungratifying life. His leap into the blackened auditorium aligns him with the audience and invites us to see through his eyes, which is also the function of his choreography. The crux of Beran ‘Chiefs’ is encapsulated in Matsoe’s on-stage figure, his body containing both symbolic and inherent power, his physical journey the vehicle with which the audience navigates the work.

In this closing performance for the 10th Indonesian Dance Festival—with its “powering the future” motto—these mature choreographers can be seen as representative of the ‘now’ of contemporary dance, examples for future generations of Indonesian choreographers to follow.

Excluding Boi Sakti, who last year announced his intention to stop choreographing, Siompo and Supriyanto are currently Indonesia’s biggest contemporary dance exports (the titles of both their works were in English and not culturally specific). If the selection of emerging choreographers for the festival is anything to judge by, young dancers and choreographers are getting the message loud and clear, showing marked tendencies towards high-art symbolism delivered at an elaborately slow pace or making an impact with a plethora of movement. But that’s to be understood, since learning often starts with mimicry. The real question is should there be more of it?

12 July 2010