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Acknowledging the roots of contemporary dance practice in Southeast Asia

This article was commissioned by the Goethe Institut-Asia Pacific TanzConnexions.

TanzConnexions is a programme initiated by the Goethe Institut Asia-Pacific under the leadership of Franz Xaver Augustin. Launched in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2009, it aims to stimulate the exchange of knowledge and experiences in the diverse dance and choreographic traditions.  The initial year of TanzConnexions saw the gathering of dance professionals from choreographers/performers to critics; curators to cultural managers from Southeast Asia, New Zealand, Australia and Germany, as its organisers were in the process of establishing the parameters for its work. It likewise opened an online community channel as it attempts to enliven and sustain the contemporary dance discourse in the region.  At that time, the exchange touched on a rather broad spectrum involving Asian and European artists.   The following year, TanzConnexions defined and focused its efforts by engaging contemporary choreographers from Southeast Asia whose dance vocabulary and choreographic language are deeply rooted in classical tradition.  It has since hosted a series of meetings both in the physical and virtual world actively arousing questions about classical tradition and contemporary dance.

In December 2011, partnering with the Khmer Arts Ensemble, the third edition of the TanzConnexions took place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  To follow through its actions, the German initiators made a conscious approach of investing on three of the most prominent Southeast Asian choreographers: Sophiline Cheam Saphiro, Eko Supriyanto and Pichet Klunchun.

(L-R) Choreographers Sophiline Cheam Saphiro, Pichet Klunchun and Eko Supriyanto converse at the home of Khmer Arts Ensemble, Cambodia, December 2011. ⓒ John Saphiro

The same choreographers participated in the programme a year earlier, coming with only two dancers to present their works to each other for four days.  This time, the trio was joined by six of their company members in exploring the theme of the Indian epic Ramayana’s “Trial by Fire.”  Having artistic leaders trained in Khmer, Javanese and Thai classical dance traditions, as well as Western contemporary ideology and practice, the ten-day programme addressed a range of issues tapping on the realities within their immediate and external environment, from political to socio-cultural, artistic to philosophical.

In exploring the theme that inevitably crossed classical tradition and contemporary dance practice, Sophiline articulated her wish to `try something that has not been done before and take a new approach with the old form.’  To an untrained eye, Sophiline’s works may appear traditionally bound, as it usually comes with stunning female dancers taking on the roles of the male and female characters, extending and bending their hands and feet like they were rubber puppets in elaborate costumes, accompanied by live traditional musicians, the choreographer revealed that she usually takes a big leap towards contemporary interpretation.  She explained that augmentation of classical movements such as tilting of the head, changing the positioning of the male and female characters on stage and use of conversational language are among the non-conformist steps, she adapts for contemporary dance interpretation.

Sophiline Cheam Saphiro’s “Slat Nam Adit”, Cambodia, December 2011 ⓒLim Sokchanlina

Fellow choreographers, Eko and Pichet also raised the significance of positioning of the woman and man on stage in their respective traditions.  Whether front or back, left or right, there seem to be extensive rules to follow in the classical dance tradition. Meanings and interpretations change with a simple movement and placement of people. Pichet articulated, “This is problematic since there is a lot of meaning with one’s body position on stage in classical tradition.  Thus, presenting a conflict with the woman in front of the man – as it demonstrates power.”

Working on the choreographic study for less than a month, Pichet Klunchun Dance Company presented 3 ascending snippets illustrating the trial process that evolved from classical imagery to the rawness of contemporary questioning.  The independent artist who received classical “khon” training recanted their process saying, “After we copy, we looked at each other and realised that it was too difficult. Then we decided to put the traditional into the museum. We started taking what is the main concept of this theme.”  The search required them to collectively examine analogies in their society today. Alongside, addressing the merging of these concepts with classical-contemporary dance interpretation required them to question the understanding of space and time. According to Pichet the talk went on for days, a methodology that is not done in classical dance tradition. He also encourages the dancers to work by themselves – a rather unknown practice in the classical relationship between the dance master and the student.

Pichet structured the choreographic studies with his dancers on the basis of two issues:  looking at tradition in the present time and how to move further from tradition. With such specific rules to follow and break at the same time, Pichet highlighted the parallel worlds between the traditional and contemporary dance gesticulating how “Traditional dancer is beautiful all the time: the use of fingers is very prominent with the legs kept bent. Then Contemporary/Western is always presenting oneself.” With his contemporary work deeply rooted in classical Thai practice, the concept of sharing energy keeps it tradition bound in comparison to the Western concept of throwing it.  Nonetheless, he does not discount the fact that by sticking with tradition can result into closing in one self.  Pichet declared, “ I believe I should I represent my society (Thai).  We think we are very strong in tradition yet we do a lot of stupid things. This is my career. And it is essential for me to support my society.”

Indonesian choreographer, Eko Supriyanto set the stage by articulating his position that “Contemporary dance is a place to question your tradition, present and the future. “

Born in Borneo and raised in Java, Eko like two of his fellow choreographers holds a solid footing in classical tradition.  Similarly, he received a Master’s degree in World Arts and Culture from UCLA, another common tie with his Cambodian and Thai counterparts. With his dancers having strong Javanese court dance background, Eko sees the importance of keeping it (traditional energy) in the body.  His company called Solo Dance Studio is characterised by soloist performance in the large group. Philosophically referring to dancing solo, a single body as a truly honest performer, Eko transformed his dance sketches into contemporary issues troubling Indonesian society, inscribed in the far-reaching dance vocabulary of his six dancers. Eko’s outstanding composition of thoughts, movement and music easily echoes a generic yet powerful language that has the strength to speak to any type of audience.

Dedicatedly study a range of dances techniques: traditional, folk, contact improvisation, release technique, Limon, Trisha Brown and even astanga yoga,

Eko Supriyanto’s dance sketch for TanzConnexions, “Flame on You”, Cambodia, December 2011. ⓒ Lim Sokchanlina

the dance process and body movement are to reach a better understanding of both dance and human life.   This practice complements the core of Solo Dance Studio as a professional dance company eager to search in all Indonesian traditions and establish the connection of the source. Eko clarified that the choreographic study plays on the emotional impact, human emotion with man and woman having the animal side. Eko wished to put forward the questions in his choreography: What makes you human? What makes you an animal?” He affirmed, “Javanese dance philosophy is like water in the river that flows.”

Leveraging on the artistic resources and energy collectively pooled from Khmer Arts, Solo Dance Studio and Pichet Klunchun Dance Company, the organisers could not have made a better choice with this exceptional combination of artists. Kudos to the German institute’s staff who acts as the producing and curatorial team, the exchange provided ample legroom for inspiring conversations and substantive reflections on the Asian contemporary dance practice. Alas, institutional awakening about the strength and potential of Southeast Asian artists is gained. The balanced curatorial treatment provides evidence that artistic collaboration is shunning away from the top-down approach.  Moreover, this programme illustrates the waning down of the conventional imperialist approach of West coming to teach in the East.

About the Writer:

Vanini Belarmino is a producer, curator and cultural journalist. She is the Managing Director of Belarmino & Partners, a company set-up in Berlin, Germany in March 2008 and Singapore in April 2011 that aims to realise cross-border and interdisciplinary collaborations.  Vanini received academic training in theatre arts, art history, European cultural policy and management.



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Pichet Klunchun Dance Company<

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