Author Archive | Vivian Chu

Gamelan Sekar Jaya: Practicing the Art of Community Engagement

Sitting in a quiet room, I waited for the Commonwealth Club panel titled “The World is Dancing” an evening discussion on the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, to commence. Panelists included several well-known Bay Area artists like Emiko Saraswati Susilo, perennial Festival performer and the current company director of Gamelan Sekar Jaya. I met Susilo a few times before this, but had not yet had the occasion to hear her speak in depth about her experiences as an artist or in detail about the work of Gamelan Sekar Jaya, an established Bay Area-based performing arts company specializing in Balinese music and dance. When asked by the panel moderator what she would otherwise like to be doing if she were not an artist, Susilo answered, “I had trouble thinking of anything else I would rather be doing. This is the greatest gift, to have this as my life.”

The earnestness in her statement intrigued me. Wanting to hear more about what inspired such a sentiment, I met with Susilo over coffee at a cafe near Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s new headquarters in Berkeley.

Susilo, Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s company director through June 2012, originally began her involvement with the company as a student in 1991. The daughter of artist parents, Susilo has studied Balinese and Javanese dance and music since childhood. Her respect for the art form is palpable when she explains some of the fundamental principles behind the gamelan in Balinese music.

“The gamelan is considered one entity. It comprises many instruments functioning as a whole. This reflects a fundamental understanding in Balinese life. People see themselves connected as part of a community, part of a whole, connected [to one another]. A gamelan can be as small as two people or as large as 50 people. There is a richness in the styles of music produced in Bali, and gamelan music flourishes because [of how] individual strengths contribute to make the whole. Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s music ensembles are similar to those based in central Bali. Gamelans from other regions have a different sound and voice, a different aesthetic. They are distinctive from one another and they are tuned differently.”

She adds that often personality determines the type of instrument an individual plays. Casting is done by matching a person’s personality to the role of the instrument within the gamelan. Dancers are cast in a similar manner: a dancer may be cast as a soloist, in a duet, or as part of a supporting ensemble depending on their temperament.

“That is the brilliance of Balinese music,” Susilo says smiling, “taking the mental and emotional strengths of a person and incorporating it into the music and dance.”

Deeply integrated together, Balinese music and dance necessitate a strong integration between musicians and dancers. As Susilo explains, “There is a creative relationship between the dancer and the musician. Sometimes the dancer asks the musician to compose a piece for the dancer. Sometimes there is simultaneous talking about styles and the type of gamelan. In this conversation, different ideas are brought to the table. When experienced composers and dancers work together, anyone can come up with a concept. Then we improvise and adjust the creative process to fit the others’ ideas, adding rhythms, adjusting the dancers to the music or adjusting the music to fit the dance. It’s really a conversation, like fitting puzzle pieces together.”

When I asked her what she finds intriguing in Indonesian art currently being performed, she replies, “The most interesting work to me is still very connected to being a Balinese person in the community, engaged with people, pushing where the music is going without losing the roots of Balinese traditions. It comes through traditional work, deeply understanding it, and then moving to push it.”

Susilo explains that traditionally, “Balinese music is very structured in its rhythms. The contemporary work goes outside of these boundaries and challenges what’s accepted in gamelan by using untraditional structures. The early, fundamental kind of Balinese dance and music was conducted in temples and sacred spaces with groups of people singing and dancing.”

Over many years, the complexity of the performing arts grew with government support and the introduction of metal instruments such as the gong. “Music and dance blossomed,” says Susilo. “By the early 20th century, Bali was producing virtuosic, exciting dance.”

She laughs when she describes some of the complications in creating new work. “There is that moment of ‘Oh no, how are we going to do this?’ but that means that we’re pushing beyond what we’re comfortable with, and that’s when the most meaningful work comes out. Sometimes it takes a full year of concept and rehearsal for one tour, and months for the stages of development, but it can be really powerful when it all comes together.”

Gamelan Sekar Jaya, now entering its 33rd year, is composed of five performing ensembles, one dance ensemble and four music ensembles. They have toured in New York and throughout California as well as in Bali. The company also conducts classes and workshops open to the public and regularly brings master artists from Bali for Bay Area residencies lasting anywhere from one month to one year.

“We have guest teachers with very creative energy and we are interested in going beyond where we’ve been before. Having guest artists from Bali allows us to continue to trust and be open to multiple visions and aesthetics. Our guest artists are very special people,” she emphasizes. “They must love teaching, since they will be living in a very different environment away from Bali for an extended period of time. We receive referrals from current resident artists, and we look at [the potential guest artists’] performance history, but we also look at their teaching history. We try to understand them not only as artists but as people. Are they open minded, flexible people?”

Susilo recalls a collaboration between Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Destiny Youth with the mission of teaching emotional wisdom through the arts. She admits that at first, she was nervous about how the collaboration would turn out, considering the generational, linguistic and cultural differences between the Balinese master artist and teenagers with no previous experience in Balinese music or dance.

But the collaboration proved to be successful, as the teacher and students seemed to connect easily across those boundaries. “We worked for one season and taught vocal improvisation and movement. Balinese nurture youthful energy to make music through that, with the essential elements of humanity. Young people who are trained dancers and performers are full of energy and strength. Gamelan Sekar Jaya wants to strengthen the role of youth performance to show that it is an asset to our society. It is also a way of supporting the youth in our community.”

Gamelan Sekar Jaya has also led a workshop for hearing-impaired children. Susilo describes being awed by the ease with which the students connected to the teachers and music. “Rhythm does not have as much to do with hearing as we think. The hearing impaired can read expression and have other ways of communicating with teachers. We learned so much from the children. These were third graders, but they speak the same language that we do.”

What is evident to me in listening to Susilo’s descriptions of Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s past projects and future goals is the emphasis placed on community-building. “There are many ways of connecting with people,” she says excitedly. “As a community of Indonesian artists, we have the responsibility and the joy to be able to help people see Indonesian culture in a light that’s beautiful. As I see it, there are concentric circles. There is the inner circle that is comprised of us as an organization. We have a new facility, and now we are all together in one space, connecting to one another.

The next circle is the large Indonesian performing arts community we have here [in the Bay Area]. We are engaging with other local Indonesian cultural groups and appreciating that diversity. The outer circle is the general public. We want to utilize the knowledge of local artists to teach and develop programs to encourage the public to learn more about Indonesian arts. We also hope to start a formation of structure to engage youth and help develop an engaged community.”

With over 60 company members and numerous free or low cost performances throughout the Bay Area, including a free noontime performance at San Francisco’s City Hall Rotunda on November 4th, Gamelan Sekar Jaya continually practices the art of community engagement, and perhaps that is what is so gratifying for Susilo. Music and dance create invaluable opportunities for us to connect with one another.

Parangal Passes It On

“We want to learn and grow artistically with a group of people who are passionate about Philippine dance. We dance for one another and the community, while giving tribute to our heritage. That’s why we named our group Parangal–[it] means ‘tribute’,” says Eric Espartinez Solano, the artistic director of the San Francisco-based Parangal Dance Company. Although a relatively new company at three years old, Parangal’s presence already feels established with ongoing weekly Philippine folk dance workshops at Alonzo King Lines Dance Center, performances at events such as the annual Pistahan Parade and Festival in San Francisco, and creative collaborations with cultural presenters such as Kularts. Solano describes this as part of the mission of the group. To him, Parangal is much more than a dance company.

“We aim to serve as a bridge, inspiring and connecting Filipino Americans to their roots to give them a sense of pride and identity, while educating diverse communities and fostering awareness and appreciation of Philippine culture. As much as possible, we extend invitations to other groups to perform with us so we can truly represent, showcase, and expose the general public to Philippine culture.”

Born in the Philippines, Solano came to the United States when he was eleven years old and started studying Philippine dance with Barangay Dance Company in San Francisco at fifteen. He describes his early dance experience as truly transformative. “I never knew how beautiful and rich my culture was until I started learning Philippine music and dance. It gives me a great sense of pride being Filipino, and I want to share what I have learned.”

As artistic director of a forty-three member Philippine dance and culture group, Solano, in his early thirties, embraces his responsibility to the community, both here and in the Philippines. “I feel that this is my calling to learn and share what I and the Parangal family know. It is one way to give honor to the indigenous people of the Philippines, to give thanks [to them] for sharing their culture and traditions, and to give back to the community here in the Bay Area.”

Solano also has the role of finding opportunities for Parangal to share its cultural knowledge through presentations and workshops. In May, Parangal performed on the field at AT&T Park for the San Francisco Giants Filipino Heritage Night, and in June, the group performed inside a theater on a proscenium stage in the 33rd Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Both events required very different things from the company, but the members of Parangal used these occasions to showcase their versatility. Both events also tend to draw diverse and very different audiences. Solano sees this as another asset in his goal of trying to reach as many people as possible with the intention of building awareness of the depth of his cultural heritage.

Solano and Parangal, like many dance/culture presenters, are part of a greater diaspora of communities who are promoting and preserving their heritage and knowledge through dance and music outside of the places in which the dance and music originate. Solano acknowledges that this can pose challenges for a dance company based in the United States, so he does extensive research and works with master artists from the Philippines in order to develop prsentations that are both true to their origins and accessible to general audiences.

“Many dances and rituals take place over the course of many days and take place on a specific day or month. Our task, (and the best part of the experience), is to figure out how we can create a piece in 10 minutes and still be able to tell the story.”

Solano says that most of the feedback he’s received from audiences leads him to believe that, so far, Parangal has been successful in accomplishing this task, allowing him to expand the artistic direction of the company. At the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Parangal presented Subanen, a suite of dances portraying ritual music and dance by the Subanen people (People of the River), an indigenous group from Lapuyan, Zamboanga del Sur on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

Part of Parangal’s performance at the Festival featured a dancer on a sinalimba, or swing, which was carried on stage by several other dancers. Day turned into night and the Balian (shaman) conducted the Shelayan ritual on stage inside a crowded theater, healing the sick on the swaying sinalimba against a backdrop of moonlight provided by the production’s skilled lighting designer. With close to thirty dancers and musicians in the piece, Subanen evoked the presence of a community’s traditions from across the Pacific Ocean to meet a Bay Area community, most of which will never travel to Lapuyan.

“These rituals and dances are still practiced today by the Subanen,” says Solano. “Our goal in presenting this piece is to show how a community gathers to ensure a ritual specific to them is passed on to the younger generation, since there is only one elderly Balian left that has knowledge of the ritual. Our ongoing effort is to then keep and take care of the relationships we have with different indigenous groups that have shared with us. We were blessed to have been connected with a Subanen Master Artist, Gauden Sindod Sireg, directly from Lapuyan, Zamboanga del Sur! He is a member of the National Commission of the Arts and Culture of the Philippines and serves as our main source in Subanen culture/tradition, dances, rituals, chant and prayer, attire, and implements we used in the piece. He is currently also maintaining the Subanen School of Living Traditions, which we hope to be a part of in the near future.”

Himself a member of the younger generation that is helping to sustain living traditions, Solano works towards his goal of educating the local community by teaching dance with Parangal at Philippine Culture Nights at Bay Area colleges and universities. Solano says many of his company members joined Parangal from these events and others like it. Through a grant from the Living Cultures Grants Program of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Parangal is also able to offer free workshops to the public, which assists in providing the group with further exposure and opportunities to teach.

The effects of Parangal’s efforts are not easily measured; representing community diversity and passing on cultural knowledge (Pamana, also the title of Parangal’s annual show in the fall of 2011) are refreshingly intangible commitments. What is evident is that Parangal and its members very tangibly foster and develop meaningful relationships through collaborative, creative work such as Subanen and through sincere gestures of generosity to their peers. (It is rumored that Parangal has, more than once, brought a roast pig to share backstage at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.) But what’s more, is that Solano expresses a gratefulness to the broader Bay Area community, his peers and fellow artists, and educators.

“We take advantage of the accessibility to Master Artists in the Philippines and in the Bay Area. We listen and learn from our elders, including those in other dance companies. We try to focus on the ‘heart’ of a group/people, not just on their movements or rituals.”

A Breath Of Fresh Air: Emerging Within Tradition

Tell Aaron Sencil, the artistic director of Tahitian dance company, Hui Tama Nui, that his group is going to be profiled in a dance publication and his response is, “Cool!” He’s enthusiastic and to the point. At 28 years old, Sencil is one of the youngest ra’atira–teacher of Tahitian culture and dance–in the United States and director of a 100+ member company based in Vallejo. His energy and creative drive can be seen partly in the numerous roles he takes on in Hui Tama Nui’s latest production, Rumia, premiering at the 2011 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in June. He is credited as the director, co-writer, music arranger, choreographer, and visual and costume designer. Add to this list graphic artist, entrepreneur and world traveler, and it becomes easy to wonder how he finds the time to put together the elaborate productions Hui Tama Nui is known for.

Last year’s production at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Pepe Hau, garnered Hui Tama Nui two Isadora Duncan Dance Award nominations–one for Outstanding Achievement in Performance by a Company and one for Outstanding Achievement in Visual Design–for which Sencil is understandably proud. But shortly after the 2010 Festival concluded, Sencil was already thinking about his next project.

Rumia, developed in collaboration with the renowned Tahitian dance group Les Grands Ballets de Tahiti promises to be another impressive production. Like other Hui Tama Nui presentations, Rumia exemplifies Ori Rau (contemporary Tahitian dance). It begins as a creation story, in which Taaroa, the Tahitian creation figure sits inside an egg, or rumia. The egg encompasses Ta’aroa in darkness, and he seeks to break through the shell. From here, the production progresses in five acts. There are multiple costume changes and transitions, and amazingly, it includes an original score, not to mention over 80 dancers and musicians. Sencil incorporates untraditional elements in the piece: electronic music, neon-colored synthetic fabrics, unusual props, and choreography drawn from other genres–with more traditional Tahitian percussion, costuming materials, and dance movements. The synthesis of these elements in Hui Tama Nui’s audition of Rumia for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival elicited a standing ovation from the attending audience.

However, not everyone is a fan of Ori Rau, particularly other practitioners of Ori Tahiti, (Tahitian dance), who claim the new genre degrades the traditional form. To this Sencil argues that, “Ori Rau encourages creativity of Tahitian dance fusion. Perhaps part of the beauty of Tahitian dance is that it has accepted innovation and creativity, as opposed to staying frozen in time. This is why defining truly ‘traditional’ Tahitian dance is a challenge to Tahitian dance groups both in and outside of Tahiti.”

There are few Tahitian dance companies practicing Ori Rau with as much prominence as Hui Tama Nui. It was one of the first groups to perform Ori Rau at dance competitions, garnering awards for its entries. “Sound effects, masks and confetti were never seen during a traditional performance. It was very bizarre, too modern, way too showy, not traditional, but the judges loved it. One year, we entered both an Ori Rau performance and a traditional one, just to show that we can do both. We won first place.”

In addition to incorporating contemporary music, dance and costuming, Rumia addresses some very contemporary issues, from religion and economics to sexual orientation. Says Sencil, “We were inspired to explore the many shells and personal struggles that divide us. In the end we hope for acceptance of our individualities.”

This is perhaps what gives Ori Rau its strongest justification. In Ori Rau, the unusual is accepted and innovation is expected. It allows artistic directors, choreographers, musicians and dancers the ability to experiment, to explore and push established boundaries. Sencil elaborates, “The younger generation in Tahiti is slowly losing interest in “traditional” Tahitian dance. They are more interested in technology, fashion, and more modern things. Ori Rau is a way to keep the Tahitian culture alive.”

Sencil, still in his twenties, should know. At 7 years old, Sencil began drumming with his cousins in a percussion group near his childhood home in Vallejo. He remembers being smaller than the drums he was playing. Sencil’s family helped to develop his participation in percussion and dance. “My older sister and Mom were dancing long before I could remember, so the music was always in my head. I had no interest in the dance or anything else. I kind of had to go to practice because the rest of my family was there.”

Afterward, Sencil began studying with Hui Tama Nui, founded by the well-known percussionist, Sam Almira. “He introduced me to real drummers from Tahiti,” says Sencil. “My sisters and a few other girls were the only dancers. I think there were only about 6 or 8 girls max. A few years later, Hui Tama Nui was the house band for many competitions and drumming for other groups.”

In 2000, Sencil received one of the biggest surprises of his youth. “Sam decided to pass the group over to me. I had just turned 16 years old,” Sencil explains. He had had no previous indication of Almira’s plans. “Apparently, my mom knew that I was going to be the director because Sam was telling her about his plans to hand the company over to me. I was in complete surprise, but I had been the one that was designing most of the costumes and had a million ideas. I obviously had a larger vision for the group, but to be in charge? To this day, I don’t know why or what made him believe in me.”

Transitioning into the role of artistic director of Hui Tama Nui posed very real challenges at the time for the young Sencil. “At first, a lot of parents in the group didn’t trust me or doubted me. For a long time, we only mentioned my name on group applications and never showed my face in a picture so people would not think this was a joke. When we first performed in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 2001, all of the artistic directors were to come up, and while the other directors were well over 40, here walked up this teenager in jeans. I got a lot of raised eyebrows.”

But when the young artistic director was introduced to more Tahitian teachers and shows, he could not help but be in awe. He found inspiration in Ori Rau and in the work of other Tahitian cultural groups. “There was one group directed by a duo named Teiki and Lorenzo that trulyinspired me. They performed mainly traditional dance, but they incorporated many modern flairs within their performance. They were definitely responsible for the great changes in Tahitian dance in the 1990’s. It was like a breath of fresh air, and I realized how far off the California style of dance was.”

Today, Sencil has no trouble embracing his role as artistic director. Sencil’s admiration for Teiki and Lorenzo, currently the directors of Les Grands Ballet de Tahiti, has grown into an artistic collaboration in Rumia. They composed the original songs and lyrics for the production and worked together to create the five-acts of choreography.

Hui Tama Nui (which translates to “the next generation”) is currently hard at work in rehearsals for the aptly themed Rumia and has recently returned from a tour in Mexico City. The once teenage director has certainly emerged from his shell. “It’s been a rough road learning from our past through trial and error,” says Sencil, “but it’s a lot easier now.”

Hui Tama Nui performs May 6 in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda at noon as part of the free Rotunda Dance Series presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, in partnership with San Francisco Grants for the Arts.

See them perform June 11-12 at Zellerbach Hall as part of the 2011 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. More info at: sfethnicdancefestival.org

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