By Nirmala Seshadri
(990 words, four-minute read)
Total darkness. The sound of sleep. Sleep of an eternal sort.
Slowly the light reveals a solitary human body conveying a sense of sleep or is it semi-consciousness? Now, the entry of layers and strands of sound. Gentle clink of cymbals. Do I now hear the sound of waves lashing the shore? The lilting sound of a human voice comes wafting in. A female voice. And all of a sudden, we are made conscious of the gender binary – what appears like a male body on stage (barely visible) moving and responding gently to a female voice.
Contemporary Indonesian dance artist Rianto’s choreographic work Medium opened at the Esplanade’s da:ns festival on October 16. Performed fundamentally as a solo by Rianto and dramaturged by Garin Nugroho and Tang Fu Kuen, the work combines folk ritual, contemporary dance and classical Javanese dance as well as lengger, a traditional cross-gender dance form from Central Java. The influence of classical Indian dance is also palpable.
This captivating and thought-provoking piece incorporates a powerful dialogue with sound – both internal and external. Sound design by Yasuhiro Morinaga and lighting design by Iskandar Loedin were both sensitive and evocative.
It might be tempting to view Medium as a duet, for it features the live presence, voice, rhythm, sound and music of the enchanting Cahwati – the dancer’s childhood friend and musician from his hometown Banyumas in Central Java – who plays multiple roles as partner, lover, friend and mother. However, in its essence, concept and portrayal, Medium comes across as a celebration of the solo dancer’s body and its fascinating, intricate relationship with its inner and outer selves, to encompass all that exists in its extended space – including its own intangible connection to an infinite Cosmos.
The Theatre Studio at the Esplanade seemed ideal for this intimate and personal work, for it supported the stark minimalism of a work that places a complete and daring emphasis on the dancer’s corporeality.
Soon, the light fades again…
We see and yet we don’t, we hear but somehow we don’t. We are led to this surreal in-between place. It is an intimate space. A twilight zone where geographies and cultures intersect. Senja. Sandhya. Ma?
Medium holds this space for the viewer to witness and experience Rianto’s body as a pivotal point, in conversation – with itself, with its immediate external layers, its own extremities, with space, with the other body seated at the corner of the stage, and also, with us – its viewers. At times the key body in our shared space seems to be talking to itself internally. We are privy to the whispers, murmurs, utterances and what sounds like the syllables of mantras.
Is he talking to beings from another world? Who is he, really? By association, who am I?
The dancer’s hands strike particular gestures from his polymorphic engagement with dance, each hand in intriguing communication with the other. As the two clap, they seem to strike a conversation with the tapping feet of the musician, seated on the ground at a dimly lit corner of the stage. In that moment of rhythmic dialogue, the various dualities become bridged, providing the impression of a single body in space. Hand gestures are used creatively – sometimes coming across as extensions to the dancer’s body, at other times as separate entities. The hands support the accentuations of expression and the transitions. At times they are representational while at other times they lend to the transformational quality of the work, where the dancer’s body is in a continuous state of “becoming”.
The conscious and sensitive play of rhythm becomes a playful invitation for the binary as well as fluidity of gender to enter into the space. As he moves, the dancer’s arm held in dola mudra along with the hip position of the Odissi tribhanga creates the softness and languidity of lasya (graceful feminine movement). Firm striking of the feet and strong body postures convey the dynamism of the tandava (vigrorous masculine dance).
Here the different dance forms within the dancer’s body start to make their distinct presence felt. For this brief moment, the ethereal spell is broken.
As a classical Indian dancer, my ears tune in to what sounds like rhythmic syllables or jathis, the strains of which seem to be juxtaposed with everyday sounds. Gradually the body is taken to a point of madness, playing with that boundary of controlled expression and over-the-top craziness. The concentrated gaze of the audience correspondingly breaks into involuntary sounds of laughter.
At one point, the dancer’s body, touching a state of trance, seems to represent and embody everything, all else either dissolving into it or into insignificance. I am led into a space of non-gender where the female voice seemed to exist within the dancer’s body.
When is sound internal, when is it external? The lines seem blurred.
Medium is a classic example of art as a means of easing rigid moral frameworks. We are charmed into first seeing our own fluidity, then struck by how natural it is.
In a poignant moment, Cahwati’s haunting voice fills the air as Rianto’s body moves into stillness and silence. Slowly and quietly, he seats himself on stage, back facing the audience, as if in total surrender to the powerful emotionality of the human body.
The repetition of movement gives a sense of life that is cyclical. Rianto’s striking presence, his clear stances, his ease with diverse movement vocabularies, his simplicity, honesty and spiritual understanding, converge to convey the transient and yet eternal quality of the human body, one that could comfortably straddle the human world and the spirit world, powerfully absorbing infinitesimal details of its own presence.
Through the myriad relationships that were explored and experienced that evening, the dancer appeared finally to symbolise the Ardhanarinateshvara, the androgynous Hindu Lord of Dance.
Rianto has ensured that the work, that carries the leitmotifs of journeys and transformations, is personal not only for him, but can be so for his viewers too.
Guest Contributor Nirmala Seshadri is a choreographer, movement educator, researcher and writer. Trained in Bharatanatyam both in Singapore and India, her social justice perspective leads her to use the body and performance space to interrogate existing inequalities, problematising boundaries of time, place, gender, and caste, among other social constructs. Her research interests include kinesthesia and corporeality, gender, tradition and transition, site specificity, cultural hybridisation and the politics of identity. She graduated with a Masters degree in Dance Anthropology (with distinction) from the University of Roehampton, London and works at developing her movement approach Antarika as a tool for healing, introspection and improvisation.