SPEAK By Sri Susilowati

By Sri Susilowati


When first I moved to The States years ago, my artistic mission/intention was to introduce Indonesian dance to Americans and to preserve the Indonesian arts. However, over this time, I changed my perspective on the action of preserving. I found that Americans who have studied Indonesian dance tend to be even more conservative than Indonesians. For example, they study, choreograph/work, and perform only the classical repertoires, while in Indonesia there are many artists who have already crossed the boundaries between the classical and contemporary works. One of the ironies here is that many who insist they want only classical or traditional cannot tell the difference between what is contemporary and what is not.

Much work from the classical or traditional Indonesian dance repertoire has themes drawn from Hindu epic mythology, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and myths or legends more local to various areas of Indonesia. While I strongly believe that the these stories and narrative structures have great value, I have felt a tension between remaining in this framework and being able to address themes that are not traditionally in these texts. On the one hand, remaining within this context has great appeal; I know these stories and love them. These are the myths that I grew up with and the dances I learned were contextualized within their framework. But even within the context of Indonesian culture these stories have lost some of their currency. The invasion of television and movies has started to change the cultural references that people have. With the exception of artistic or academic communities, the mainstream population in urban centers have started to forget these narrative structures or stories. Charlie’s Angels has replaced Srikandi, and the Terminator has replaced Gatotkaca. Now that the audience is not familiar with these texts it is more difficult to create a performance that plays off their existing structures, or incorporates new themes. It is not a given that the audience will understand the embedded context. What is most frustrating is that many of the narratives contain great relevance for some issues today. For instance, in the Ramayana, Kumbakarna, the brother of the king, Rahwana, agonizes over whether to support his brother in a war he thinks is unjust; parallels can be drawn to the way many Americans in the United States have agonized over the politics of various wars, most recently in Iraq, but wanted to support those fighting the wars. Nevertheless, for some themes that have emerged in my work, a directly correlating theme was not to be found in these texts.

On the third hand (I realize the formulation here is “On the one hand…on the other hand.” But in many cultures there are gods and goddesses with 4 or 6 or 8 or more arms, representing to my thinking the many possibilities that we consider.), from my point of view there are objectionable features in many of the traditional texts. For instance, the feudal structure is depicted as being beneficial to those at the bottom of it. In another example, the patriarchal gender structure is taken for granted. Of course, this does not de-legitimate the texts, but calls into question how they should be used. Does one neglect Hamlet because of the feudal setting, or feel compelled to rewrite it in a different context without the disagreeable social structures? For me, the precise and expressive Indonesian dance technique that has grown out of a rich and specific cultural history, which includes themes that may not carry as much currency as they once did, should not yet be abandoned; I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

In late 1970s, early 1980s wayang golek, a Sundanese traditional wooden puppet performance from West Java was almost lost to its audience. The people preferred to see a movie or watch TV instead of attending a puppet performance. During one such performance Abah Sunarya, a famous puppet master or dalang, overheard an audience member say that he would rather sleep than watch the boring performance. Indeed, a slang expression developed to describe someone who was sleepy was lalajo wayang, or watching wayang. As a result he endeavored to teach his sons, Ade and Asep, to become famous and creative dalangs that would bring back the peoples’ interest in wayang. According to legend, Abah Sunarya performed a ritual and then blew into the mouth of Ade to give him the story making ability, and then blew on the hands of Asep, to give him the dexterity to make puppets with these new special effects. Ade Sunarya became a dalang with a strong story telling creativity that touched on everyday life, and Asep Sunarya created wooden puppets with special effects (projectile vomiting, heads flying off, dancing ability). Their efforts have revived the popularity of wayang golek and made his art more interesting to contemporary audiences.

All this is to say that I come from a culture in which traditionally the arts play a role in peoples’ everyday lives, and most people actively participate in some artistic endeavor even if they are not professionals. Due to industrialization, urbanization, and increasing influence from the West through TV and music, my culture has changed and with it the central place of the arts. I believe that while much can be gained from classical Indonesian dance, art must change and grow with the society, shaping it, while also being shaped by it.

Sri will be performing in this year’s San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Weekend 3, June 19-20.

This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of In Dance.

Sri Susilowati is a choreographer from Indonesia whose work has been deeply influenced by post-modern technique. She has choreographed extensively in the U.S. and Indonesia establishing dance groups and teaching students.