By Sharmilla Ganesan
(754 words, 4-minute read)
As the five women onstage came silently together in a halt, spot lit and wrapped once more in the tenun textile they had first appeared in, there was an initial hush. Ironically, for all the dynamism of the movements and formations we had just witnessed, it was their voices that somehow continued to echo in the mind – their unvarnished, hypnotic singing of the traditional songs of the likurai dance, which originates from the island of Timor.
Perhaps this was because, in a performance that kept complicating the notion of ownership over storytelling, their voices alone felt truly their own. IBUIBU BELU: Bodies of Borders, by Indonesian dancer and choreographer Eko Supriyanto, staged at the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama 2020 (TPAM), is an accomplished piece of work, but it is also a polarising one that brings up more questions than it answers.
IBUIBU BELU continues the anthropological approach of Eko’s past works. His previous trilogy of Cry Jailolo (2014), Balabala (2016), and SALT (2019) drew on the dance traditions of the Jailolo region to comment on contemporary political and environmental issues.
Similarly, the likurai – a celebratory dance traditionally performed to welcome victors coming home from battle– is both introduced and deconstructed here to reflect on the fraught political realities of the Timor island, divided between the nation of Timor Leste and Indonesia (Timor-Leste was invaded and occupied by Indonesia for more than two decades before becoming an independent country in 2002).
The main question the performance grapples with is that of borders, more specifically, the impact of these imposed borders upon culture, memories, and stories. As reflected by the show’s subtitle, this question is literalised in the bodies of its five dancers: four from the Indonesian region of Belu in Nusa Tenggara Timur, and one who originates from Timor Leste. And like the first two of the Jailolo trilogy (SALT was a solo performed by Eko himself), the performers are not trained dancers, but rather, women from Belu for whom the likurai is tradition.
In this lies both IBUIBU BELU’s strengths and problems. There is no doubt that, despite the dancers’ tentativeness, they brought a sort of collective energy onto the stage. Their movements were deceptively simple and organic: each dancer touching her face and body as if getting to know it for the first time; meanwhile, they snaked across the stage in formations that evoked both everyday travels and journeys across space and time.
Percussion was produced by their bodies as well, by rapid beating of the traditional tihar drums they carried, as well as the beating of their own chests (and occasionally other parts of the body) with quick, visceral thumps. These, combined with the repetitive strains of singing, created an almost ritualistic atmosphere, a sense of us having walked in on a small part of a larger whole. It felt almost private.
And one couldn’t help but wonder, had we earned our right to be here, to be watching this? Because watching was what it felt like, in ways that felt uncomfortably similar to having “cultural performances” put on for an audience that consumes the exotic surface without necessarily needing to engage with the complexities below.
Little context is offered to us about the dancers or even about Timor itself – and many questions fill this vacuum. Who has control of this story? Is it the women, or is it Eko? If it is the latter, then where is the women’s agency in this performance? And what are the power dynamics when a renowned choreographer works with a community that isn’t his (Eko hails from Surakarta in Java) – a community often not given a space in the mainstream – and “presents” that community on an international stage?
To his credit, Eko spent two years researching the likurai in the Indonesian region of Belu on Timor island, and it showed in the care with which he retains and rearranges the visual language of the form – and how he uses it to tell a contemporary narrative of Timor.
However, in doing so, the women of IBUIBU BELU, Evie Anika Novita Nalle, Angela Lavenia Leki, Feliciana Soares, Marlince Ratu Dabbo, Adriyani Sindi Manisa Hale, to whom this form belongs, have become subsumed into the piece – in a sense, they weren’t much more than bodies onto which stories were being projected. If not for their clear, confident, almost defiant, singing – the one aspect of the performance that seemed to truly come from them – the performance might not seem to be about them at all.
IBUIBU BELU: Bodies of Borders was presented at Kanagawa Arts Theatre on 12 February as part of TPAM 2020.
For more ArtsEquator articles on TPAM, click here.
Sharmilla Ganesan is a radio presenter/producer with BFM 89.9, where she hosts shows on the arts, books, film, and current affairs. She is also a writer and critic, with in-depth experience covering and commenting on Malaysian arts and culture. She was a features journalist with The Star for over a decade, where she wrote on the arts, books, and film. Her articles appear in, among others, The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, NewNaratif, and Critics Republic.