Gamelan Sekar Jaya: Practicing the Art of Community Engagement

By Vivian Chu

November 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

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.

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of In Dance.

Vivian T. Chu believes in the capabilities of expression in movement and is currently a staff member at World Arts West.