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Dance the World from Java, Connecting with People――EKO SUPRITANTO Interview

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Dance the World from Java, Connecting with People

Your latest work, Cry Jailolo, is going to be presented in Japan soon. This work was created based on the traditional dances in a region called Jailolo*1 on Halmahera Island in the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. Commissioned by the Jailolo City, you created a show performed by local junior and senior high school students, Sasadu on the Sea, for Festival Teluk Jailolo (Jailolo Bay Festival) in 2013. Did that lead to Cry Jailolo?

*1 A city in the west part of Halmahera Island in the Maluku Islands (or the Moluccas) in East Indonesia. In terms of administration, it is the capital of West Halmahera Regency, North Maluku Province. It has the Jailolo Bay, and its beautiful water, coral reef and diving attract tourists. The Maluku Islands had long been known for the spice trade, became the battlefield for hegemony among Portugal and other Western powers in the 16th century, and had been ruled by the Netherlands until transferred to Indonesia in 1949. The residents comprise Muslims and Christians. There have been ethnic conflicts across the region since 1999, and in Halmahera, thousands were killed in a conflict.

Eko Supriyanto (hereinafter Eko): Yes. Jailolo Bay Festival is a large annual event that has been organized by the tourist office of West Halmahera since 2007 to promote tourism, to which tourists come even from overseas.
Several ethnic groups reside in Jailolo, and in the previous festivals, the traditional dance of each ethnic group was shown one after another on a big special stage on the sea. When the regent gave me the offer, I said that I wouldn't do that but would approach the local traditions in a different way and connect the ethnic groups. I am from Java, which has "colonized" various areas of Indonesia, so I thought my role wouldn't be about teaching people in Jailolo but connecting the peoples, while having them stay where they are supposed be.

I visited Jailolo for the first time at the end of 2011, and the regent invited me to diving first. Diving, which was my first experience, let me discover the underwater beauty and a new dance zone against gravity. And then I researched on traditional dances, traditional cuisines and other various things for about one month. I became a frequent visitor of the place; I have even stayed there for five months. In the performers of the show, who were junior and senior high school students in Jailolo, there were four ethnicities: Sahu, Tobaru, Gamkonora and Jailolo. Gamkonora and Jailolo are Muslim, and Sahu and Tobaru are Christian. I visited all the schools in Jailolo and had a series of workshops, since there were as many as 450 students.

That resulted in Sasadu on the Sea. Sasadu is a house built in a traditional style of Sahu, which we built on a special stage on the sea. We involved each ethnic group's traditional dance, and it cannot be said that there was no conflict about that. For example, Sahus have a ritual dance called "legu salai" that little boys perform on the roof when a sasadu is reroofed - though there has remained only one person who can perform the dance. While employing legu salai as an important element, I wanted to place a war dancing called "cakalele" from the Tobaru tradition. I told that to the head of Tobaru, and he said that it was out of the question to perform cakalele on the roof of a Sahu sasadu. So we quickly built a sasadu on the stage and had a dancer perform cakalele on the roof to show it to him, and he understood the beauty. We were allowed to have a 10-year old Tobaru boy perform it there.
Through the work with the communities and children, though Jailolo had been a place of ethnic conflicts, I think we were able to show that they can be together by understanding their own arts and using them.

A photo of Mr. Eko during the Asia Hundreds interview
Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

The main tourist attractions of Jailolo are diving and the coral reef, but you were faced with the issue of the destruction of the reef during your research. The theme of environmental destruction should involve the interests of regional communities. Didn't the research and creation trigger political arguments?

Eko: It was a project for promotion of tourism in the first place, so I didn't intend to work on political issues. However, when I visited Jailolo, the coral reef had already died, and the regent actually wanted the local fishers to stop the blast fishing (practice of using explosives to stun schools of fish for easy collection), since its impact on the coral was tremendous. Also, there were a lot of sharks in the Jailolo Bay, and a number of fishers had killed sharks to sell the fins to China and Australia, which had been a big issue until recently. The regent established a regulation that bans the blast fishing and shark fishing. In Indonesia, the central government rarely recognizes a regional regulation, so the fact that a local city has established this kind of unique regulation can be considered a political issue.
The regulation was a matter of life and death for the fishers, so the regent conceived the idea of forming a koperasi, an Indonesian style co-op, where fishers share a fishery, they can fish anything there, and what they have fished are distributed equally. I heard that the fishers gradually understood, though in the beginning some of them were frustrated. I think it was wonderful that they created a co-op to support each other, let alone the conservation of nature.

I Want to Give Back Cry Jailolo to Jailolo

Then you created Cry Jailolo developing on legu salai, the Sahu dance that you employed in Sasadu on the Sea. The piece was premiered in the international dance festival "Tari '13 – Dancing Across Borders" held at ASWARA (Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan / National Academy of Arts, Culture & Heritage) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in July 2013. Next year in November, it was presented in "Indonesian Dance Festival" in Jakarta, which received a huge response. Could you please talk about this piece?

Eko: Jailolo has shown me a lot of beautiful things, not only traditional dances. On the other hand, the regent not only changed the fishing custom by establishing the regulation but also had the idea of inviting divers from across the country to have them plant coral. So I thought I would create a piece, based on a traditional dance in Jailolo, with the theme of the environmental destruction expressing the lamentation of the sea and hope for regeneration. I selected six high school students from the performers of Sasadu on the Sea. No one had experience in dance except one of them who had performed ritual dance in his village.

A large audience came to the show at ASWARA, and it was very well received. I was surprised because I didn't expect that good response at all. That encouraged me to think of the next show in Jakarta.

Arco Renz*2 was involved in the show in Jakarta as dramaturge.

*2 A German choreographer, dancer, director and dramaturge. Leading a dance company "Kobalt Works" based in Brussels, he works on a number of commissions from theaters around the world in addition to his own productions. Actively involving himself in collaborations with Asian artists, he has created solid.states and KRIS IS in Indonesia, Hanoi Stardust in Vietnam, COKE in the Philippines and ALPHA in Singapore and the Philippines since 2013. He has also been organizing "Monsoon," a research/exchange project by European and Asian artists, in various locations.

Eko: Yes. I had worked with him for a piece called solid.states when I was visiting Jailolo frequently. After the show in Kuala Lumpur, I wanted someone that knows me well and would raise objective questions and discuss with me to make the piece more profound. One day I told about my first experience of diving in Jailolo to Arco. He was interested in it so much, and we talked about various things. I decided to have him as dramaturge, and in June 2014, he came to Jailolo from Vietnam, where he worked at that time, and joined us.

He not only raised objective questions about the choreography and other elements that were directly related to the piece but also tried the new, zero gravity realm of dance together with me - I, of course, went diving with him - and tried to get out from the safe gravitational field of Javanese dance. He also observed the dancers' daily life and deeply engaged with them. Consequently, the elements of a Ternate traditional dance "soya soya" as well as more expression of young people's dreams and hope were added to the piece, and it became longer, from 22 minutes to one hour.

There was one more dancer in the show in Jakarta.

Eko: A dancer Geri Kisdianto joined. He is a successful show business man who dances and choreographs for pop singers in Jakarta, and my assistant in my TV work. I involved the man who had no attachment to contemporary dance because I expected that he, who has a position in the huge market called pop culture, would disseminate the project widely. As I expected, he told everyone, "You've got to check out Indonesian tradition, not only hip-hop!"

A photo of one scene of the CRY JAILOLO 1
Photo: Pandji VascoDagam

How was the show in Jakarta received? Both in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, the piece was detached from the original context. Did that affect the meaning of the piece?

Eko: The regent of Jailolo invited all the 92 staff members who worked for the festival with us to the show in Jakarta. They knew that I was making the piece, but hadn't seen the rehearsals and this was the first time they saw it. They became fond of the piece, wondering in surprise, "Is this really from Jailolo?"
The meaning of the piece didn't change by detaching from the local context of Jailolo, but I put importance on dissemination of the fact that Indonesia doesn't consist only of Java, Bali, Sumatra and Papua to the whole Indonesia and the world. Thanks to the show in Jakarta, Jailolo, about which even Indonesians knew very little, became a popular topic. I am so happy that we successfully introduced Jailolo as a place of culture and the arts that has to be explored. I want to bring back the piece to the festival in Jailolo this year. If the six dancers teach 50 people, it will become Cry Jailolo with 300 performers. I want to tell them that Cry Jailolo was created out of their own things, so it is their property that should be handed down from generation to generation. Then, the reason why I created Sasadu on the Sea will be understood too.

The Indonesian tourism is always like "Jailolo is a beautiful place, please come, please come." But what I aim for is "silent tourism" where people actually visit Jailolo and quietly see Cry Jailolo.

A photo of one scene of the CRY JAILOLO 2
Photo: Pandji VascoDagama

What in Jailolo moves you so much?

Eko: I had experienced projects with local people, but most of them were about workshopping for one month or so and create a piece. But in Jailolo I didn't have any temporal or thematic limitation. It's a special place for me.
My parents died right after I came back from the United States, where I studied. I have one younger sister, but she got married and left Solo. So, it's almost like I don't have a family. When I visit Jailolo and meet children and the regent, I feel as if they are my family. Because of the conflict, Maluku people are thought to be aggressive, but that is not true. They are very gentle people. I fell in love with the place and the project.

Each of the six dancers had a family problem. One's parents didn't want him to be born, his father would hit him everyday, and he works at a construction site to pay the school fees. Another's parents disappeared when he was little, and neighbors raised him. Another was born from a gang-raped mother, and he was raised by his grandmother because the mother died. Another saw his parents, brother and sister killed in front of him in the riot in Maluku. Maluku is beautiful, but it is also a tragic place, which might captivate me.

What do they do now?

Eko: The one whose parents disappeared and was raised by neighbors has been studying at ISI*3 in Solo. The regent of Jailolo pays the school fee. Four more will enter ISI next year. I hope they will come back as leaders to Jailolo Bay Festival.

*3 Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of the Art) is an art college known as ISI. It has campuses and branches in Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo) in Central Java, Bandung in West Java, Padang Panjang in Sumatra, and Denpasar in Bali. The Surakarta campus was established in 1965 as STSI Surakarta (Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia Surakarta / High School of Art Indonesia Surakarta) and was called so until 2006. While serving as the center of Indonesian traditional dance and music education, it has been producing a lot of prominent contemporary dancers and choreographers including Eko Supriyanto, Sardono Kusumo who is mentioned in this interview, Martinus Miroto and Mugiyono Kasido.