Internationally renowned dancer-choreographer Eko Supriyanto is originally from Solo, Central Java. His credits run from The Lion King on Broadway and Madonna’s World Tour to Peter Sellar’s Le Grand Macabre and John Adam’s Flowering Tree. Over four nights at Sydney Festival next month, EkosDance Company will present the companion pieces Cry Jailolo and Balabala, both of which were conceived in the small coastal town of Jailolo, on the island of Halmahera, Maluku. We spoke to the extremely eloquent Eko about this little-known region of Indonesia, and the power of dance vocabularies to encompass both tradition and contemporary realities.

What was it about Halmahera and Jailolo that compelled you to create Cry Jailolo and Balabala?

I like challenges – it’s part of the way I work. When I returned from the US to Solo I was continuously working with Solonese dancers, Javanese themes, etc. By 2011 I was looking for new challenges, new ways of thinking, new ways of creating work beyond the context of Java. It was at this point that the regent of West Halmahera extended this great invitation to create a piece for Jailolo Bay Festival in May 2013. I was grateful and privileged to be given time to research and work with 350 local youth in Jailolo between 2012-2013 for the Festival. It was during this time that I discovered the new world of diving. From this time, research and the subsequent connections, Cry Jailolo was born in 2013 and in 2016, Balabala. These works are new contemporary dance pieces based on local movement vocabulary arts. The works and processes have formed my discourse of Silent Tourism.

Cry Jailolo. Photo: BNG Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade Theatre on the Bay

Dynamite fishing is a common problem in Eastern Indonesia, a region which is relatively neglected in terms of infrastructure development and legal regulation. How does Cry Jailolo explore the problem?

Cry Jailolo is partly my reflection on the destruction of the underwater world in West Halmahera, including dynamite fishing. It is also about the military history and social conflict between Muslims and Christians in the area. Perhaps it’s something of a social reconciliation that focuses on youth and the community. I believe it is time now for the Indonesian government to look towards a holistic approach to the development of Eastern Indonesia.

How does your love of diving influence your choreography?

Diving is now part of my dance vision and exploration. For the last two years I have been researching this new world. The state of anti-gravity, a new space for intelligence of body movement. A space for new exploration and challenges. This will be reflected in my new solo dance – to conclude the trilogy of dancing Jailolo – titled SALT, which will be premiered in Europe at the end of 2017.

While the Cry Jailolo ensemble is male, the Balabala ensemble is female. How did your working practices differ between the two groups, and the two works? What is most different about the companion pieces, and how do they complement each other?

Cry Jailolo is more community-based, the social encounter of the underwater world, the communal rave and the optimism of Jailolo youth. Balabala is more individual. It is a gender-based work and has a more philosophical approach. The piece addresses the space held by women in Eastern Indonesia; the young girls take on the dominantly male war dance of the Cakelele – deconstructing gendered hierarchies.

How are the multiple roles of women in Indonesia explored in Balabala?

The piece addresses belief in the nine directions of life for women: husband, kids, kitchen, bed, community, mountain, ocean, religion and self. This philosophy is combined with the Pencak Silat approach to nine directions – both the roles and directions are combined to explore what strength means for these young women. I ‘dis-construct’ the male war dancers of West Halmahera dances as a physical approach to movement.

Balabala. Photo: David Fajar

While the traditional dances of Java and Bali are familiar to many Australians, those of Eastern Indonesia are not. How do the traditional dances of Maluku differ to what audiences may be familiar with?

Indonesian culture and arts are so diverse; there are so many dances and traditions to be explored and introduced to the outside world. It’s not so much about introducing Australian audiences to that which they are unfamiliar with, but more about offering an experience through the youth of Jailolo, who embody the history of the region and pave the path for the future. I believe dance is a universal language with thousands of vocabularies – I believe that dance can speak of context, history, tradition and contemporary relations – it creates direct experiences and connections. Thus, traditional dance or movement can be brought into the contemporary context, with understanding of history and traditional practices within a new way of looking – beyond the form itself – opening the ideas and dialogues of understanding.

What are you hoping to stimulate in Sydney Festival audiences? What are you hoping the companion pieces will tell them about the people of Jailolo, about Eastern Indonesia, and about the melding of traditional culture with contemporary realities?

I hope to stimulate a deep discussion on Indonesian contemporary dance and its relation to tradition. To argue that Indonesian contemporary dance is always based on its traditions. What is important is how we define the meaning of tradition. Traditions that encompass a deep conversation on the diversity of Indonesian arts and culture, which includes maritime culture. Not only the classical court dances of Java and Bali and the agricultural societies, but also the world of the ocean and fisherman. I wish to express my views that dance is about movement and physicality. It’s not ornamental nor purely conceptual. For me, body movement is entwined with deep connections to history, tradition and contemporary contexts. It is an expression of lived experience. I hope that with this great opportunity to present at Sydney Festival, my works will stimulate dialogue on Indonesian contemporary dance and the diversity of arts and cultures.

EkosDance Company present Cry Jailolo and Balabala at the Sydney Festival from 7-10 January. For more information and for ticket bookings call 1300 856 876, or head to the Sydney Festival website. For the EkosDance Company’s site, click here