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The body as medium

Helly Minarti speaks to Indonesian dancemaker Rianto about trances and his first choreographic work.


Published: 4 Oct 2018

Time taken : ~10mins

Having travelled the world touring with the likes of Britain’s Akram Khan Company and developed work in cities from Bangalore to Tokyo, Rianto grounds himself in his Banyumasan dance roots for his first choreographic work, Medium.

In the solo piece, he delves into the journey of his body and his connection with his hometown Banyumas in central Java, woven into the gendang (musical composition of the gamelan) and telutur (song).

How was Medium conceived and developed?

Rianto: It started from a project I was developing during a two-month residency at Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bangalore, back in 2013. I got the idea from my time there, observing the physical habits of the locals, and simply reading the social in India.

I was particularly interested in their gestures—how their heads and hands move when they talk—and started looking into their classical dances such as bharatanatyam, kathak and odissi. I noticed similarities between the gestures used in those dances and everyday life.

There were certain physical expressions that captured my attention. Why do their head and hand movements have to go through certain lines and trajectories? How was the brain actually involved in acting out those gestures?

It made me reflect on my own practice as a dancer whose background is rooted in traditions such as lengger (a female dance form from Java performed by both genders, in which the dancer is believed to be possessed by indang, or the ancestral spirit), or kuda kepang (a performance that involves a shaman reciting mantras to make a dancer—usually male—enter a state of trance, acting like a crazy horse or performing impossible acts like chewing a whole coconut or broken glass; transforming himself to sound or behave like certain animals), and whether this trance body is still controlled by the brain. I intended to develop a work around this idea in which I am 'body without brain'—basically about a body in trance.

Where did you go with this idea?

Returning from this residency, I tried out the idea of 'body without brain' by performing a short piece with Airi Suzuki in Japan, where I am partly based, with recorded music by Ryuichi Sakamoto. I performed it at Padang Bagalanggang festival in West Sumatra, where I met Jala (Adolphus).

Jala and I promised to meet again at the Indonesian Dance Festival (IDF) in 2014 . A group of international presenters watched my performance there, and I shared my concept of 'body without brain' with some of them since I planned to continue with the work. There and then, Jala agreed to be my producer.

At IDF 2014, two visiting presenters, Bruno Heynderickx from Staatstheater Darmstadt and Karlin Megank from DeSingel (Antwerp), offered me a residency in Darmstadt and Antwerp as part of a co-production framework to present the piece in 2016.

When did you do the residency and how did it go?

I had the opportunity to do a two-week residency in Darmstadt in October 2015, about five months after I managed to take my idea further at Lanjong Festival in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

I focused on sound design during this residency. I very much wanted to work with the sounds produced by the human body in a trance state, like the heartbeat, the sounds of the stomach and breath. Bruno introduced me to Gisle Martens Meyer, a Norwegian electronic composer based in Berlin, who recorded these sounds from my own body.

He also sampled sounds from other medical sources. We worked intensively for 10 full days in the studio. Obviously, we didn’t manage to get the sounds from a body while in trance, but we did this as an experiment. We also made a trip to a graveyard to simply understand the sonic atmosphere of such places.

What about the choreography?

At the core of the choreography is the telutur or tembang (classical Javanese tune or lyrics, respectively) from Banyumas. Telutur usually illustrate different journeys, so I use these tunes to describe the journey of my body, not unlike those people who mbarang (busk).

I returned to Banyumas to establish a community performance as part of the research process. I invited Andrew Ross from Darwin Festival and filmmaker Garin Nugroho (to observe). There, I did some improvisation with a local traditional gendang (drum) player, Rumpoko Setyoaji, my junior at SMKI (High School of the Arts).

I went back to using traditional music because somehow my body couldn’t find a connection with electronic music. I can feel deeply connected to a gendang player though. In the Banyumasan traditional music, the gendang player and the dancer are like husband and wife; they’re connected. Andrew then agreed to support and present the work in 2016 while Garin joined as dramaturg.

Then I went to DeSingel in Antwerp for a two-week residency in early 2016 where I fine-tuned this idea, now working intensively with Rumpoko. I gave him some direction but it seemed he found it hard to improvise beyond the traditional pakem (convention). During this residency, I started working with the structure, taking inspiration from how the indang (ancestral spirit) enters [me in lengger], and the voices I heard when I was little. Earlier, when I was back at my hometown, I had heard a recurring drum pattern ('dang dung dang dung') in my sleep. It kept coming back and became material for my piece. I worked around it when I was in Antwerp.

When did it change from "body without brain" to Medium?

When I did a presentation to a limited audience in Antwerp (as a way) to get some feedback, I thought of the word "medium", and they seemed to like it much more than "body without brain".

Indeed, I got questioned and criticised a lot about 'body without brain' right from the Attakkalari residency days. Fellow artists and curator friends were far from convinced, probably because it can be confused with the idea of the brain-dead body in medical terms. At first I insisted, but in Antwerp, I began thinking about disabled people and how they need a tool or a "medium" to make up for their disability, to help them express themselves. Somehow, it struck me that a trance body is also a medium.

Back in Indonesia, I involved Cahwati, my former schoolmate from Banyumas (pictured below), to sing the telutur in the piece. When the plan to work with another gendang player fell through, Cahwati offered to play it herself, something that she is familiar with, being immersed in the genre.

Medium premiered at the Darwin Festival in August 2016 with six performances. The piece travelled to Darmstadt in October 2016 for two days, and another two at DeSingel that same month. It was also performed at Salihara, Jakarta in June 2017, and had further developments to the composition before it went on Europalia tours (Indonesian festival in Europe) that same year.

What about the version of Medium that you're going to perform at Esplanade?

This version is co-produced by Esplanade, Lifeworks (Sydney) and National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Taiwan). I really want to rework the sound since that was how this piece started, from the sounds (of the body).

When I was dancing for Akram Khan, I was so impressed with the sound design—with the effects and stereo quality, especially—and the way the elements build up the atmosphere. I wanted to accentuate Cahwati's singing this way. That was among other things that I focused on during a 10-day residency in Kaohsiung this summer.

What else has changed?

This time, I invited (Singapore’s) Tang Fu Kuen and (Japan's) Yasuhiro Morinaga on board as my second dramaturg and sound designer, respectively. Both have known my practice well for years. Fu Kuen reminded me that he has been following my journey for the last 10 years since we met in a dramaturgy workshop organised by the Jakarta Arts Council in 2008, which he helped facilitate. I met Yasuhiro when I danced for Akiko Kitamura in 2013. Garin is still there to ground me in the basic idea. It was great working with two dramaturgs, they complement each other.

Rianto presented Medium on 16 & 17 Oct 2018 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of da:ns festival

Contributed by:

Helly Minarti

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

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