I am a world choreographer originally from Indonesia and trained in the classical and traditional forms of Java, Sunda, and Bali from when I was a child. The essence of the esthetics of Indonesian dance, and that particularly from the islands of Java and Bali, can be explained through three words: wirama, and wirasa. Wirama means the harmony and internal rhythm of the movement. Wiraga is the intensity and fullness of the movement not in term of its external power, but more along the lines of being filled with chi (in Chinese) or prana (Sanskrit). Soft and delicate movement can be wiraga while movement that is seemingly strong and powerful can lack it altogether. Wirasa is the feeling of the movement. The word “feeling” here is used not in sense of emotion or passion, but in term of the sensation when emotion and mental construct are set aside.
My interests, however, go beyond the set traditional and classical pieces to developing new choreography using traditional and classical technique to explore issues of concern to the community. This interest forms a natural continuum with my native tradition. For example, in my original culture, narratives from the Mahabharata have long been adapted in Wayang (shadow puppet theater, for example) to explore issues of family planning, tolerance, and democracy.
Part of the challenge for traditional art forms is to remain fresh and relevant while at the same time remaining true to their roots but not simply repeating the classics and relegating the art form to dry, museum pieces. In my view the way to meet and overcome this challenge is not to reject new technology or methods as necessarily “corrupting,” but to think clearly about the core, underlying esthetics principles in the tradition.
Of course, a challenge is that for audiences that are not familiar with the tradition, they do understand the structure of the tradition and so anything that has elements of the tradition cannot be innovative. Or, sometimes promoters and producers of traditional dance do not want anything that has a tinge of innovation in it. As a result, many world choreographers I know sell the same piece as both squarely traditional (for those who want it to be so), and also sell the piece as modern/post-modern (for others who want that).
A number of years ago I was backstage with my dancers at a dance festival putting on costumes and getting ready for our performance of my choreography, Remembering. As we were doing this, a dancer from another troupe came up to us and asked, “So, are you doing that ethnic thing?” I was a little surprised by the question, but realized later that all sorts of genres were performed at that festival: ballet, post-modern, jazz, and so on. The dancer who asked the question was being friendly enough and perhaps just trying to figure where we fit in. The next year, I was invited to perform at a second, different dance festival. I sent a video of Remembering to the second festival’s committee, to show them what I was going to perform. A week later I got a call from a nice, but nervous artistic director who said that while she liked the piece, “it wasn’t ethnic enough.” Same piece, ethnic and not ethnic enough.
My experience in this isn’t unique, of course. Dancers from all sorts of traditions that are not necessarily well known get pigeon-holed as ethnic because of their technique. At the same time, however, as “ethnic” or “world” dancers the expectation is often that they work in “preservation” mode, repeating their classics over and over again. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with preservation. Preservation as such is important, but it is a starting point. It is a starting point so that dancers and choreographers can master technique that takes years to learn, and technique is the departure point for expression. Many choreographers such as myself do perform “classical” dance, but their own choreography is not classical as preservationists would understand it. Nor is it “modern” or “post-modern” as people generally understand the terms and the meaning of modernity.