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Flash Review Journal, 2-24: Shimmer & Fling
Beyond Indonesian Tradition with Besur, Manring and Murgiyanto

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2005 Lisa Kraus

PHILADELPHIA -- Usually my hand is busy jotting notes when I'm watching a dance I plan to review. Not so for Bambang Besur Suryono's performance, the final segment of "Reinventing Tradition: New Dance in Indonesia," seen February 7 at the Community Education Center. Like a force of nature, Suryono exudes extreme focus and primal power, stilling my pen and my mind.

In "Perjalanan Tubuh" (Adventure of the Body), Besur is swathed in gold-brown batik cloths which, instead of being wrapped sarong style, are layered as though draped over a mountain. And, not unlike a mountain, he begins and ends cross-legged and still, rooted with every nerve and fiber, every cell present. We hear a deep raspy breathing before the light is bright enough to see, then from within the heap of cloth, out glide the gracefully arcing hands of the Javanese classical dancer.

A description of exactly what Besur does is much less compelling than the effect it all has which, mysteriously, is far more than the sum of its parts. He tips and shifts, unfurling fingers passing through multiple mudras (hand shapes, some with meanings). A loose waist-length mane gives him the edge of a wild yogi. His voice, complex as any gamelan, resembles a didgeridoo, resonating from way deep. Or it takes on the nasal harmonics of Tibetan overtone singing. His extreme slowness is broken once or twice by sharp cries. With arms flinging out he seems suddenly overtaken by a bird vision. He channels other animals, and seemingly gruff elders. We can't know the exact images that sweep through Besur's consciousness. But the quality of his engagement with them is never less than thunderously intense. Movements pass through his body like slow-moving seaweed.

At one point Besur places a delicate white-faced Javanese mask over his face, changing his appearance without much altering the movement quality. He chimes together small Tibetan cymbals. Besur struggles with unknown adversaries, or unspecified difficulties. Brow furrowing, he leans into his effort.

By the end Besur's gone through a process challenging to fully comprehend. But we can completely understand the quality of his engagement and his extreme corporeal embodiment. It leaves us wanting nothing more. It is revelatory, all-too-rarely seen, and memorable enough that one need take no notes.

Preceding Besur at the center of the evening, forming a perfect bridge between its two performances, is Sal Murgiyanto's lecture on new dance in Indonesia. Based in Jakarta and Taipei, Murgiyanto holds a doctorate in Performance Studies from New York University. (In the interest of disclosure, I'll mention here having studied Javanese dance with Endang Murgiyanto, his astonishingly accomplished wife.) As the founding director of the yearly Indonesian Dance Festival held in Java, Murgiyanto is uniquely positioned to offer commentary on the choreography of innovators from all over the Archipelago. Video clips of dances from Java, Sumatra and Bali reveal a widely varied body of work, especially in its degree of departure from traditional Indonesian idioms. Several works appear just slightly altered from the traditional forms, and some more clearly cross-pollinated, like the young Balinese dancer who creates a Loie Fuller-esque solo with an orb of white cloth rippling outward in symmetrical flowing pathways. We're told by Murgiyanto that the Balinese audience doesn't readily accept such innovation completely disconnected from familiar form. With other dances shown on video one can sense the spiritual roots of some of the group forms, like the line dance performed seated, from Aceh, making rhythmic use of rapid unison claps and slaps. The dancers move like hoofers in a trance, using only their upper bodies.

Murgiyanto's commentary ends by providing context for understanding Besur. We're told, for example, that his mentor is the influential Sardono Kusomo. A celebrated classical dancer, Kusomo mines deep investigations into the nature of the body to make dances that reveal a state 'before beauty' or before form.

Aryani Manring, who opened the program, embodies fusion within herself. The child of an American father and Javanese mother, Manring grew up in Jakarta, graduated from Swarthmore College, and now lives in Philadelphia. She offers us this information while speaking directly to the audience at the beginning of her "Introduction," the in-progress seed of what could grow into a lush and fascinating work. Her dance, modeled on a lecture-demonstration, limns differences between Indonesian and post-modern dance styles. "The floor is for feet, animals and trash, but I like the floor," she says, rolling luxuriantly. She talks about Javanese containment and how she, in contrast, loves 'flinging.'

Manring's delivery is unembellished and straightforward. The lecture tone slides into an inner dialogue of two contrasting voices, in debate over her intent. She shows the connection of a movement from one of her previous dances to a Balinese move. "What I love is shimmering" she says, demonstrating the Balinese hand action where with fingertips upright and palms facing the audience, the fingers 'shimmer' in a light tremble. It's as if the rest of the body is moving with such control that the continuing energy has to exit in a tiny fluttering displacement of the fingers. It's a way to show liveliness in the midst of quiet perfection. In Manring's own version of this, there's a larger, more circular tracing with arms held overhead, hands still facing outward, body tipped way sideways.

What's refreshing here is Manring's easy relationship to her cultural inheritance. She is like a teenager looking at her parents' cultures, able to pick and choose which aspects she wants to incorporate, and which rules are too stuffy. Any of it could be good, she seems to imply, we just have to use our discrimination and choose for ourselves.

Philadelphia's dance scene has been brimming with intercultural performance. January brought the "Dances of Our Ancestors" festival to Swarthmore College and Temple University, with Ghanaian choreographers and performers entering into dialogue with Philly-based African-American colleagues. The just-closed DanceBoom series focused on dances coming out of the African Diaspora, with work by Rennie Harris, St. Lucia-born Tania Isaac, Kulu Mele and Kariamu and Co., among others. The US/Japan Choreographers Exchange, hosted by Philadelphia Dance Projects and Temple University just brought two young Japanese and three East Coast dance artists to town to share a collaborative evening. On the heels of all this came "Reinventing Tradition." This week-long series of events, sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council in association with Philadelphia Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe, Swarthmore, and Dance Advance, was billed as a 'dance discursion,' with workshops, lectures, discussions and performances revealing the richness of new Indonesian dance mostly rooted in traditional practice. Noteworthy was Javanese dance's extreme slowness, in itself revelatory for many participants.

The elders in both "Reinventing Tradition" and "Dances of Our Ancestors" pointed repeatedly to the need to allow traditional dance to refresh itself by bringing in influences from outside. In sharing divergent approaches during studio sessions and in the cross-cultural dialogue they engendered, these events have provided inspiration all around, accomplishing just that.

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