Critical Choreography: Embodying a safe, democratic space

Issue #10: The Many & The Few - Assembling the political

"After all, in dance as in life, timing is paramount."

Email to someonePin on PinterestTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponshare on TumblrBuffer this pagePrint this pageShare on FacebookShare on LinkedIn

This moment of reflection could not be more appropriate, as right now, I am in the midst of a 4-month research fellowship in New York. The issue of patriarchal culture and its impact on the arts has been given great exposure here, initially via the Weinstein case (reported in the New York Times last year) and in the subsequent formation of the #MeToo campaign/movement, which has in turn led to more discussions and revelations of the same phenomenon in politics, business, and eventually, in the contemporary dance scene here in the US. (There is an upcoming discussion on sexual harassment in the dance industry at Gibney Dance, one of the dance centres in New York City).

We all know and recognise the pattern: strong alpha male in powerful position vis-a-vis a young female just stepping into the scene, hoping to carve a path of her own. My investigation into this delicate issue addresses a specific context – Indonesian contemporary dance practice – and asks to what extent is this disturbing misconduct conducted in the name of – and embedded within – current forms of choreographic practice?

The dominance of male choreographers has been apparent from the beginnings of Indonesia’s modern dance history, which arguably began the mid-1950s. Female choreographers working outside their traditional confines did not emerge in Indonesia until later, towards the late 1960s or even the early 1970s. How best to address these changes?

As an art form, the origins of contemporary Indonesian dance do not lie in Western modernity. Here, as in many Asian contexts, the form can be traced back to an ancient lineage that transcends not only time but also the social and cultural changes that ride along with its ongoing iteration. Early modern dancers often departed from the traditional with respect to its complex cultural baggage. This process is still going on, taking on the form of a struggle which includes forms of bodily writing (in terms of finding a choreographic language) and writing about the body (in terms of historiography and other critical writing on the experience and the form itself).

This is partly because memories are fleeting. The changing context within which dance is practised tends to be forgotten alongside the importance of building an historical awareness around it. The record of dance history – or should I say, the plurality of histories, which includes acts of writing about the body – is not yet widely distributed, even among the practitioners themselves. For instance, the fact that the classical Javanese dance Srimpi, a female form, was not taught outside the court (kraton) until 1918 – when Prince Tedjokusumo of Yogyakarta Sultanate in Central Java opened Kridha Beksa Wirama (KBW) – is easily forgotten. We take for granted that the dance has always been there, able to be accessed and learnt. We forget that it was only 100 years ago that the first dance school to give access to the public to learn the court form was established. Even then, only the daughters of the privileged few could enter this school – daughters either of Dutch high-ranking officers or of Indonesian upper-class families. Srimpi is probably also the first classical dance form which people outside the court could learn from a book; published in 1925 and written in Dutch (Helsdingen-Schroever, 1925).

The Kridha Beksa Wirama school began a process whereby privileged commoners could learn a court dance form formerly reserved for the aristocracy. Nowadays, anybody can learn Srimpi at various schools, community studios or the national arts institute. Although the transmission of Javanese classical dance has changed rather dramatically over a hundred years or so, its core, I would argue, has not. It remains a thoroughly patriarchal mode of practice – one that is centred upon the court dance master, who is usually male.

Then, there is a question of those other privileges which are attached to this practice. Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, Javanese and Balinese classical dance became the preferred forms to be promoted in the pavilion of colonial exhibitions, possibly due to its visibility from within the colonial administration, as well as the most educated colonial subjects who were the patrons of those forms. Java and Bali were the most developed/prominent artistic centres in colonial times. The use of gamelan orchestra accompaniment and its attachment to the court’s ‘high art’ culture probably has more affinity to the colonial Western sensibility in comparison to, say, a more tribal-based culture of other islands whose dances are much less stylised. Both forms, thus, are profoundly, and inevitably rooted in the feudalistic social-cultural structure. In this socio-cultural context, the court dance master was revered as a guru whom you should not question or demand accountability from, and this cultural and aesthetic mode of power affected how dance was created, taught and transmitted.

The transformation – or rupture? – from court dance master into the modern figure of the choreographer whose dance-making is based on experimentation or modes of questioning did not take place until after the birth of the nation-state of Indonesia. As some research attests (among them by Lindsay and Liem, 2012), it was not until the 1950s – under the curation of President Sukarno himself (the first president of the modern nation-state of Indonesia) – that the diversity of Indonesian dancing bodies was represented in terms of a singular Indonesian cultural identity. Lindsay and Liem note that from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Sukarno selected dancers from all over the archipelago and pooled them in a so-called training centre in preparation for performing at various international platforms – from the stage of the presidential palace to entertain honoured international guests, to world fairs – the post-war reincarnation of earlier colonial exhibitions – in the US and beyond.

Despite its purported promotion of diversity, Javanese classical dance occupied a dominantly visible form in Indonesia for quite a long time, understandably because the first national academy for the performing arts was after all founded in Java (later in Bali, and not until 1967 did the academy open in Padangpanjang, West Sumatra). At this ‘national’ performing arts academy, the teaching of Javanese court dance remained central and the first Indonesian modern choreographers were male and Javanese.

Outside the arts world, Javanese culture was privileged for over the course of 30 years during the New Order era (1966-1998). Continuing the Dutch colonial policy, Java became the centre for economic development for a long time and the Javanese dominated the national leadership – both in politics and the military. During this so-called Suharto era, there was an anecdote that to be president in Indonesia, one should be male, Javanese and Muslim – not always in that particular order. After Suharto fell from power in 1998, Indonesians did break the myth by having one male, Muslim but non-Javanese president and one female, Muslim from mixed ethnic parentage, before the pattern returned to the last two being male, Javanese and Muslim. But these two anomalies were more a product of haphazard history rather than a conscious collective choice.

These examples are featured here to show how deeply ingrained the Javanese culture in Indonesian social-politics-economy is, and to suggest that this is mirrored in its contemporary dance. This is partly enhanced by the fact that Java is also the most resourceful island where artists can most easily access the best formal education and connection to government or other patrons for possible support in the form of grants and other opportunities. Javanisation penetrates not only the artistic and aesthetic sphere but also modern dance pedagogy and more subtly, the daily social hierarchy.

As an anomaly who does not have a typical Indonesian dance trajectory – a self-taught curator who never went through any traditional or academic training as a dancer in one of those national arts academies – I have been exposed to and encountered this complex cultural mechanics on too many occasions. It has changed my own practice and ways of dealing with it over the years. As a woman, it is disturbing to witness the prevalent misogynist practice in dance, or even simply the lesser but deeper layer of patriarchal hierarchy operating in the scene as manifest in daily conversation.

If choreography is a site for discourse – and knowledge production – a way of practising criticality in my view – the process and modes of production matter as much as the outcome (the ‘work’) itself. In the name of research, I interviewed a talented female dancer/choreographer in her mid 30s about her experience as a young dancer. She presented a personal case study in which she was recruited to dance in a piece by a prominent choreographer. After a rehearsal in which she went through a disturbing form of bodily contact with the choreographer, she summoned the courage to confront this senior, powerful, male choreographer, demanding an explanation whether such exercise was a necessarily part of the choreographic process. When he insisted it was, she duly resigned from the project. I salute her bravery but also lament for such rarity of action since many would tend to just oblige, and worse, to accept that it is a common practice, a price to pay.

Many of these young women have already faced such challenges even during their study. Such misconduct takes place within the confines of higher education. And yet, things subtler than this rogue surface lie and are intricately hidden in the overall patriarchal language deployed on a daily basis – even if the powerful artist is a woman. The idea of the artist as the revered court master lingers on, somehow so persistently. I once observed a rehearsal of a well-known artist who proudly tells me that she recruited a young actor from a traditional theatre for her contemporary piece. I then noticed how she talked to him in coarse Javanese whilst he talked back in the most refined form of the language – and although I don’t speak even a rudimentary form of the language, I understood the imposed hierarchy and immediately felt a sense of unease and implication by way of witnessing the event. Of course, there was no way for the young actor to act differently: the cultural code commands him to act so. But as an emancipated contemporary artist, I put my hope on her to challenge herself by levelling the space to become more democratic and less hierarchical – an issue I know she is also interested to talk about in her work. Perhaps I am over-simplifying the complexities inherent in embodying the politics one aims to challenge.

It is one of the reasons why in my own practice, I have carefully aligned myself with certain collaborators which share this principle. One of them is Suprapto Suryodarmo, a movement teacher whose practice is rooted in Javanese culture and its philosophical realm and yet reaches out to engage it with a wider discussion in the world. By inviting him to a Choreolab I have co-curated as well as to a dance/choreography workshop I co-devised, I hope to expose the young dancers and choreographers to a wise being who facilitates an open, democratic and safe space, in which everyone is encouraged to share thoughts and experiences; to question things and oneself and simply set out themselves to explore whatever they feel compelled to. I know it is a small act of intervention, a tiny step in a long journey as an attempt to unpack the unfavourable cultural baggage I have ruminated about above. But it is a tiny one worth-taking.