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Indonesian contemporary works, sacred dances enrich Europalia

Keshie Hernitaningtyas
Keshie Hernitaningtyas

The Jakarta Post

Münster, Germany & Liège, Belgium | Sat, December 16, 2017 | 12:27 pm
Indonesian contemporary works, sacred dances enrich Europalia

Powerful message: Male dancers perform Cry Jailolo, at the Theater im Pumpenhaus in M√ľnster, Germany, on Nov. 25. All the dancers, who hailed from Jailolo district in West Halmahera regency and were aged between 18 and 23 years old, delivered a powerful message of silent optimism. (Europalia Arts Festival Indonesia/Feri Latief)

The audience at Theater im Pumpenhaus in Münster, Germany, slowly fell silent as the lights went down, leaving nothing but complete darkness and the thrilling anticipation of Cry Jailolo being performed on stage.

A consistent sound of rigorous foot tapping opened the performance. 

When the stage lights slowly came back, they revealed a young male dancer wearing only red shorts. The audience became transfixed, looking at his determined face while he constantly tapped his left heel, waiting for more to come.

Six other male dancers later appeared on stage, creating a more powerful tapping sound, and soon, the group swayed rhythmically.

In a discussion after the show on Nov. 25, 47-year-old dancer-choreographer Eko Supriyanto said he previously knew nothing of Jailolo, a district in West Halmahera regency in North Maluku. 

Following an offer to join a tourism project back in 2011, Eko later conducted around two years’ research on the region’s culture, exploring the island and found it was blessed with many tribes, dances and music. 

“I have never seen dances like the ones I saw in West Halmahera,” said Eko, who rose to stardom after working as one of Madonna’s dancers during her 2001 Drowned World tour.

Eko saw how the dances, music and rituals in the region were always performed by children under 12 and adults above 30. Hence, he chose to work with youths to fill the generation gap.

“I later had 450 kids to work with,” he said.

Jailolo used to be a Christian-Muslim conflict area and some of Eko’s dancers, who were as young as 15 years old back in 2012, had witnessed their own families suffering from the violence. 

It took two and a half years for Eko’s students to learn the choreography of Cry Jailolo, which was inspired by a local harvest ritual dance named Legu Salai and a war dance called Soya-soya.

“I’ve deconstructed the movement of these [traditional] dances,” said Eko, adding that a local dance teacher whom he consulted on Cry Jailolo said that although the dance was different, the spirit was there.

Other than Cry Jailolo, the first of a trilogy, two other works in the trilogy,Balabala and Salt, are also being performed at the Europalia Arts Festival Indonesia — all reportedly to sold-out audiences.

Held for four months from Oct. 10 to Jan. 21 in several cities across seven European countries, the biannual Europalia has practically crammed Indonesia’s vastly complex and diverse culture and heritage into amusing and insightful displays of expos, performing arts, music, literature and conferences and cinema.

Representing no fewer than 3,000 different dance styles influenced by the Asian, Arabic and European presence down the centuries, the performing arts program are among the festival’s highlights. 

Apart from contemporary choreographies like Cry Jailolo and Medium (the last piece was dancer-choreographer Rianto’s development of his Body without Brain performance), traditional dances are also being presented in Europalia, with one of them taking place at Thé'tre de Liège in Liège, Belgium, on Nov. 22.

The dance — the masked dance of Nani Topeng Losari from Cirebon in West Java — was originally created by Prince Angkawijaya, also known as Panembahan Losari, the great-grandson of Sunan Gunung Jati — one of the Wali Songo, or nine propagators of Islam in Java. 

“The Topeng Losari is more of a sacred ritual, unlike the Topeng Cirebon dance that’s more into philosophy,” explained Nur Anani “Nani” M. Irman, a seventh-generation mask dancer who is the granddaughter of Dewi Sawitri, the maestro of the Losari Mask dance, after the show. 

It is said that only the family’s descendants are allowed to become a dalang topeng (mask master), and even then they have to conduct a fasting ritual for 15 years first.

Since the masks have no eye-holes, the dancers basically have to perform blind the entire time while biting them to keep them on their faces. 

“Other than practicing a ritual prior to the dance, we also pray during the entire performance. When on stage, we were being given directions to go here, there,” said Nani.

Performed with one of her 19-year-old students who had been in her dance studio since elementary school, Nani said the Tari Topeng Losari, which has been performed abroad 27 times since 1993, does not allow modification or changes in any aspects. 

“Even our costumes are passed down from my grandmother. Whether it will go extinct because of this depends on our efforts. What we can do to preserve it is simply by performing the dance as best as we can.”

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The Education and Culture Ministry invited Indonesian journalists, including The Jakarta Post’s Keshie Hernitaningtyas, to explore and attend some of the programs featured at Europalia Arts Festival Indonesia, held across Belgium and Germany on Nov. 20-25. This is one of her reports.

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