Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Rianto, a transgressive body

Breaking cultural barriers and social class through dance.


Published: 11 Oct 2018

Time taken : >15mins

What turns one into a prolific dancer and what self-transformation does it take for him to master choreographing?

Rianto's story is one of sheer determination that transgresses not only cultural barriers but also social class. Now embracing a peripatetic dancing life, traveling across continents, Rianto reflects on and retraces a life's trajectory that brought him unto this moment.

It all started in Banyumas, a regency city in the southwestern part of Java, far from the regalia of its court arts, whose Javanese dialect ngapakan is considered one of the coarsest; and a humble beginning.

Rianto comes from a peasant family. None of his siblings or relatives was an artist. His father divided his time between being a becak driver (a three-wheeled rickshaw), working on someone's paddy field with half of the harvest as his pay, and collecting sand from the riverbank, which he identified as the hardest labour.

As a child, Rianto loved to dance although nobody taught him to. There was no sanggar (community dance studio) in his village, Kaliori (meaning ‘a river lined with bamboo’). He danced his life away every time he heard the neighbours play music from the radio, which typically broadcast live wayang (shadow puppet) shows.

His friends bullied him for being rather effeminate. When they played roles from the then popular local folklore TV-drama Brama Kumbara, they assigned him the female characters Mantili or Laksmini.

Being the fourth of six children, Rianto was expected to drop out of school early so he could help his parents earn some money in the paddy field or the sand-pit. But he was determined that he would continue his schooling, thus refusing to do any such hard labour. He only agreed to herd the family's goats (nine or ten of them) when he was promised a new mattress, since at the time he only slept on a hard bench, and before that on the floor.

But after two weeks of sleeping on it, he gave up the mattress after witnessing and literally single-handedly helping his sister give birth to his nephew on it, in the process soaking the new mattress and changing its shape. The experience was indeed otherwordly, comic and yet of another life.

It took him some time before Rianto heard about the lengger dancers of his hometown although his mother actually brought him to one of the then primadonnas, Adminah, when he was just a baby.

Being a simple but spiritual villager, his mother was concerned about the bluish sign on her baby's forehead, fearing that the Betara Kala—the god of the underworld in Javanese mythology—would steal his good luck or do something harmful.

Adminah then touched, kissed his forehead and wished him well, possibly also whispering to him some mantra.

Later, when Rianto asked his mother—who remains rather perplexed of her son becoming a dancer of such stature now—where he got his dancing talent from, she referred to the story as a possible explanation.

Rianto performing lengger in the performance series of Choy Ka Fai's SoftMachine, presented at da:ns festival in 2015. SoftMachine was Singapore artist Choy's monumental research project on 88 Asian dancemakers.

Encountering lengger: in and out of Banyumas

Lengger refers to both a local (female) dance form that can be danced by both female or male (lengger lanang), and a dancing figure in itself.

Traditionally, a lengger dances in village rituals and social occasions, such as weddings, circumcisions, the village's cleansing ceremony, harvest celebration and others. However, someone can only be a lengger if s/he is perceived to have been anointed by indang – the village's ancestor through a ceremony.

Rianto learnt how to dance lengger—the form—when he enrolled at the local SMKI (High School of the Arts) that he was discouraged from entering. His family was too poor to pay the Rp 15,000 monthly tuition in 2000 (just over US$1). Luckily, some teachers recognised his good grades and looked for a sponsor on his behalf. The head of the district himself stepped in, and paid Rianto's tuition for the whole three years before he passed away.

He looks back fondly on his time in school. By the third year, Rianto became the only male student who took the dancing class. The rest dropped out or joined the karawitan (music) class instead. During these three years, he formed a group of lenggeran with some other students, and soon they were hired to dance in many village events. He often skipped school but somehow kept up his grades. From his earnings off dance, Rianto could buy a 1975 motor bike, which he sold when he graduated. His instinct led him to move to Surakarta (Solo), enrolling at the Indonesia's Institute of the Arts (ISI), and the money—supplemented by some loans from a neighbour—was just enough to fund the trip, the tuition and living expenses to tide him over a few months.

Stepping into choreography

At ISI, he first chose to major in dance, learning there and then how different the Javanese classical forms in Surakarta were from what he learnt back home. For a while, Rianto pondered whether to continue mastering these traditional forms (learning both the refined styles of female and male forms), or start creating something new. He opted for the latter while continuing to master those forms, and after three semesters, switched majors to choreography. Rianto says,

I knew I was most interested in the process, in creating new works that are based on my own body, my own physicality.

However, he soon found the choreography classes he had to take restrictive. He defined it as a method of arranging bodies as if they were blocks and, more often than not, applying similar movements taken from certain Western-inflected dance vocabularies.

In between performing for commercial purposes—mostly weddings—he watched a lot of performances outside the school, and started to perform himself in other local platforms. One that he remembered fondly was when he performed at Padepokan Lemah Putih, an interdisciplinary arts institution founded by Suprapto Suryodarmo, an influential figure in the global somatic movement. The movement guru commented that his style of dancing was so distinct that he could not pinpoint its lineage, as in which particular dancer's persona came before him.

In search of platforms to test out his choreographic idea, he did a lot of improvisation. For a piece he prepared for a competition in Riau, Rianto devised a frame for a series of improvisations but one of his teachers at the school rebuked him. He could no longer remember his teacher's exact aversion to what he did, but now in retrospect, he recognises his lack of knowledge. "I was new, just learning". Working all the time and supported by three different scholarships, he completed his undergraduate studies in 2004.

At home in the world

In 2001, he met his wife, Mirai Kawashima, who spent two years in Surakarta to learn Indonesian and Javanese dances. He married her two years later, but the couple had to wait for another two years before they could reunite in Tokyo. They founded Dewandaru Dance Company where they teach and perform Javanese dances of Surakartan and Banyumasan styles, including lengger.

At first, Rianto shuttled between Surakarta and Tokyo, but slowly settled in the latter and juggled odd jobs, from waiting tables to providing cleaning services – whatever could fit in his teaching and performing schedule. While developing the company in Tokyo, he set his eyes on honing his choreographic skills by applying for residencies – one that became a turning point was at the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bangalore (2013).

It was in this residency he developed the embryo of Medium (2016)—his first solo work that was an international co-production—and met choreographer Choy Kai Fai whom he later collaborated with for Soft Machine (2015). It was on tour with Soft Machine that he was spotted by London-based choreographer Akram Khan, that led to him stepping into Khan's role in Until the Lions (2016).

A gruelling schedule is now the norm. Although he now spends less time in Tokyo, he feels connected to the city which he said makes him focused and relaxed at the same time. He hops back to the archipelago whenever his schedule allows, but mostly for self-initiated research and the festival he organises annually in Banyumas.

Production image from Medium by Rianto.

Re/discovering lengger

Although Rianto learnt and danced lengger for so many years, it was not until 2007 that he found out about Dariah (1920-2018), the last living lengger lanang (male lengger who does female impersonation).

By then, Dariah had long retired from the stage and few people in Banyumas knew her animated dancing past1. Yusman, a local historian, mentioned Dariah to Rianto, which led to a meeting and they became close.

That year too, Rianto started a community dance festival in another village since he could not find support from his own until much later. He then returned every year to organise the festival, now bringing his students from Japan to perform there too. He also engaged Otniel Tasman, a fellow Banyumasan, a younger choreographer whose work too deals with the lengger tradition.

Meeting Dariah made Rianto delve deeper into the history of lengger, weaving the local lore and folklore that goes beyond what is locally known as the awang uwung era – to refer to the period before any external cultures entered Banyumas, including Islam.

He compiled stories from local experts, from ulemmas to shamans. He contented that the original indang actually refers back to Dewi Sri herself, the goddess of fertility, who then is embodied by the ancestors who were lengger dancers.

As for the etymology of the word lengger, contrary to popular belief which suggests that lengger is from leng-ger, which means a male who has a 'hole' like a woman, he became anchored to the understanding that being profoundly agricultural, the word lengger might refer to the old, local custom when a group of men sit around just before harvesting the field, and start moving their heads in rhythm (leng from geleng or ‘shake your head’). Then this was when the men ended up dancing as lengger before the women took over.

In search of a distinct choreographic language

Rianto grounds himself in lengger realms—its whole physicality and surrounding myth—to find his articulation of the contemporary.

He decided to study the lengger body through the axis where his own body meets those other lengger bodies in Banyumas. He observed that the rhythm of lengger performance resembles water flowing in between rocks. It is a complex thing since the dancer's body is united with nature as reflected in the movement. The 'eweran' movement, he cited an example, is like a swimming fish.

From those lengger master dancers, both male and female, he learnt their different performavity. The female ones such as the likes of Kampi and Kami who are very popular in Banyumas, or Narsih, another master, express the feminine through movement and gesture whilst the late Dariah did not even smile, hers was more of a ritual.

In his choreographic practice, Rianto tries to always look into the inner realm of a dancer since this inner landscape differs from one individual to another.

To him, there is a perspective that only touches the visual, but as choreographer, one should look deeper inside.

Now, after much travelling, he is acutely aware of the importance of instilling criticality in choreographing, and how pertinent it is to read widely – something he admitted the need to catch up on.

He certainly sees his body as some kind of text but his travels have exposed him to various encounters that made him realise it is as important to also able to articulate his ideas.

Cultural responsibility

Banyumas, his hometown, remains a source of inspiration and gradually, self-rediscovery. Rianto tries to give back, first to his own family whose livelihood he has improved, then to the community. Apart from initiating an annual lengger festival and investing in it, he has been cultivating some lengger lanang practitioners. He wishes for Banyumas to respect the history of its lengger which span many generations, so he started with Dariah's legacy after she passed away earlier in 2018.

In September 2018, he returned to his village and organised another edition of Kendalisada Art Festival which focused on a tribute to the legend. He displayed Dariah's props and costumes in the dancer's former house so the young dancers could learn something about their own forgotten history that Dariah once carried. Rianto also brought the world into his village, inviting his international contacts—be it his students or other intercultural practitioners—to also perform in the festival.

Across all these efforts, Rianto is most acutely aware of the modernisation that changes the life of his village, as well as the rise of conservative politics. He is often pained about the loss of certain local rituals due to these changes.

In Medium, Rianto departs from questioning a trance-dancing body to chart his personal artistic journey through his physical body that reconnects him with the inner lengger-self as much as with the wider world. The journey traversed a complex cultural contour – from the humble Kaliori village to the global cosmopolitan cities, and desires to engage the two.

He is now working on a group piece entitled Hijra (Arabic for ‘moving/migration’), a work-in-progress he will be sharing at the Indonesian Dance Festival in November 2018. Both works mirror the complex, intricate journey that Rianto has been treading – from his once obscure village to the world stage.


1 Dariah was a transgender who identified herself as a woman.

Contributed by:

Helly Minarti

Helly Minarti works as independent dance curator/scholar/writer and has just relocated from Jakarta to Yogyakarta where she will initiate a choreographic hub in early 2019 in form of a collaborative research platform that evolves from the idea of choreography as critical practice.

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