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Dancing against war

Last updated: 31 July, 2010
Kamayani Bali Mahabal

''My choreography lays out the complex relationship between dance as a form of cultural practice and its significance as created through negotiations with structures of power. It focuses on Indonesia, which has a history of colonialism, dictatorship, genocide and global tourism.'' This is how Dr Rachmi Diyah Larasati, dance scholar, choreographer and cultural theorist, describes her work.

Dr Rachmi Diyah Larasati is choreographing hope for women.

Dr Rachmi Diyah Larasati is choreographing hope for women.She sets out to explore the visibility/invisibility of the female dancing body in post-conflict situations or in war zones. 

Indonesia has been witness to severe forms of violence for several years. During the 1950s, many cultural practitioners were accused of promoting Communist ideas, especially those suspected to be in alliance with the Gerwani, a women's movement that had come into its own in the 1960s.

The organisation was closely affiliated to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), but was an independent entity concerned with a variety of socialist and feminist issues, including marriage law reform, labour rights, and Indonesian nationalism. After the coup of September 30, 1965, led by Suharto, Gerwani was banned and many of its members killed.

Under President Suharto, the organisation became commonly cited as an example of the immorality and disorder of the pre-1965 era.

Through her work, Larasati has been initiating discussions at public forums about how the post-1965 cultural reconstruction in Indonesia functioned as a form of domination. The idea was to maintain control over women's cultural identity and the country's performing arts. 

A dancer and scholar born and raised in Indonesia, Larasati - who holds doctorate in Dance History and Theory from the University of California - says that an integral piece of her research delved into the effects of Indonesia's state-sponsored cultural reconstruction after the 1965-68 massacres.

“Through both research and experience, I have observed the embedded nature of artists and creative projects within structures of power,” she says.

A recipient of the AAUW (American Association University of Women) Home Country Project Award in the summer of 2004, Larasati, who is based in Minneapolis, USA, has produced a series of performances and conferences in Indonesia focusing on ‘Women, Performing Arts and Interpretation.’

Larasati incidentally has also collaborated with Indonesian choreographer, Setyastuti, to design performances based on the oral history of Indonesian female dancers who are former political prisoners. 

Her childhood memories have of course played a pivotal role in shaping Larsati's work today. “As a child I wondered why all my neighbours were orphans. But I got no answers. During the massacres of 1965-1966 people were jailed because they were Communists. Even today their children are not able to lead a normal life. Many fled Indonesia and sought refuge in other countries. I am using my performances to discuss the unvoiced concern and the rarely heard stories, especially about the disappearances and the murders of many of those who were also dancers and artists,” she explains.
According to Larasati, the Suharto regime, “carefully and forcibly wiped out artists who were thought to be aligned to the Communists from public memory.” 

Larasati's current research project examines the ways in which post-independence cultural representation in Indonesia has been informed by Dutch colonial-era strategies to create a national identity based around the status of a “possessed”colony. Her work has enabled her to explore continuity and change in  both colonial and dictatorial structures of power.

She has also focused her attention on more recent landscapes of violence, such as Cambodia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

By critically examining the incorporation of dance and the performing arts in post-conflict economies outside of Indonesia, her research deals with the history of globalisation and the mechanisms of remembering and forgetting employed by these neighbouring nation-states. 

Larasati dance works are invariably provocative. For instance, last year she choreographed a well-received film, ‘Dancing the Violent Body of Sound’, which reflects the militarisation of the dance technique.

The project was done in collaboration with Guerino Mazzola, a free-jazz pianist/composer and mathematician. Together the duo created an experimental piece that combines and manipulates the concepts of sound, history and time in a unique way.

With movements selected and adapted from Indonesian folk dance forms in order to “demonstrate” the Fourier theory of sound - the basis for frequency analysis in science and engineering used to find the frequencies in sound - the piece used wireless circuit boards and sensors that were attached to the bodies of six dancers, whose spinning, rotational movements were transmitted and subsequently translated into numerical values. 

In May this year Larasati performed the ‘Terbangan’ (meaning flight), a piece that reflects the idea of the changing body, creeping regulation in Muslim society, the patriarchal system of conservative Islam, as well as the false western stereotypes of Islam.
As an observer of the world, Larasati is as passionate about constructing unusual dance pieces as she is in presenting thought provoking work. In the process, she gives voice to rarely heard stories of women who have lived with conflict or continue to do so.


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