Mutations in Crisis: Generic Engineering in Contemporary Southeast Asian Dance

Aparna R Nambiar*

Abstract

This article analyzes two recent works of contemporary Southeast Asian dance staged in Singapore: Indonesian dancer Rianto’s Medium (2018) and Behalf (2018) by Thai Dancer Pichet Klunchun and Taiwanese Dancer Chen-Wu Kang. I identify an emerging epoch of intense, cross-generic experimentation, as traditional cultural practices negotiate with lapsed identifications with the postcolonial nation as well as the overwhelming demands of the neoliberal art market. Highlighting the conditions of dance-making in the region, I offer “generic engineering” as a conceptual container for experiments that interweave traditional Asian dance forms with Western contemporary art practices to consolidate new, transnational spectatorial communities.
Keywords: Asian contemporary dance, anthropocene aesthetics, neoliberalism, creativity, affect, postcolonialism, interculturalism

Introduction: The Soft Machine of Asian Contemporary Dance

Soft Machine, Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai’s 2014 video performance series on Asian contemporary dance, draws its title from the American avant-garde writer William Burroughs’ “cut-up” novel of the same name. While Burroughs’ Soft Machine features his signature technique of postmodern authorship, stitching together strips of writing to create word collages (Jones 32), Choy’s Soft Machine features four documentary-performance films, selected from an archive of over 80 interviews with Asia-based dancemakers. Choy extends Burroughs’ notion of the body transcending social control through extreme psychedelic and sexual experience to the performing body of the contemporary dancer working within the constraints and opportunities for artists in Asia: “I see the body as a soft machine that cuts and pastes and becomes a new machine by itself” (qtd. in Meganck). Choy deliberately features artists who are marginal to their respective national cultural contexts, each striving to construct new movement idioms that convey the emergent emotional sensibilities and political contingencies particular to their position. 

Interview with Choy Ka Fai. Accessed 27 May 2021

While Soft Machine is invaluable as an archive of emerging Asian performance in the early 2010s, I suggest there are some serious limitations to Choy’s framing. Firstly, even as the intended audience for Choy’s work is global, each of the four artists featured in Soft Machine is presented as being hemmed in by their local political and cultural contexts. Choy’s expansive archive of interviews is, as Michelle Lim identifies, motivated by an ethnographic impulse to study “movements and moments in dance scenes” across Asia (216).

This ethnographic function that Lim identifies in Soft Machine is valuable, as the challenges faced by dance-makers in Asia are relatively unknown to audiences and patrons around the world. However, even as this documentary performance series fascinates and edifies cosmopolitan audiences,[1] I find that Soft Machine still fails to show that Asian contemporary dance emerges in a space of intense interaction between local arts clusters and the transnational arts network in which these works circulate.

Choy’s Soft Machine is itself a challenge to and therefore, in some ways, a product of this local-global entanglement. Conceived in response to viewing the “Out of Asia” series at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Soft Machine challenges the coherence of the genre of so-called “Asian contemporary dance” presented on Western stages, as well as the tendency for a few big-name dancers and companies, often led by visionary exponents of the Asian diaspora, to consolidate the salient narratives around this genre (qtd. in Meganck). In this article, I offer an analysis of contemporary Asian dance that troubles Choy’s localizing frame. Instead, I highlight how artistic and political projects created by dancers in Asia are disseminated across interlinked, global networks of arts and performance.

Second, as Soft Machine is a genre-bending work that defies strict classification as documentary theatre, dance film, video installation, or even expanded cinema, it is often programmed into dance presentation platforms. Choy has therefore earned the label of “choreographer,” even though he himself prefers to be described as a “performance-maker” (Lim 218). However, as a work of director-led, cut-and-paste film choreography, Choy’s metaphor of the soft machine does not add to our understanding of what kinds of choreographic techniques are at play in the varieties of Asian contemporary dance that proliferate today.

Thirdly, the video-performances still center on Choy’s own narrative of the Asian dancers’ bodies. Lim suggests that Choy’s video-performances showcase dancers as corporeal archives that “re-authenticate tradition through movement,” rather than presenting either traditional dances performed in the contemporary setting or new dance sequences under construction (218). However, the common impulse I observe among artists featured in the video interviews is not to re-authenticate tradition but to partially recover what is valuable in traditional forms of dance, while seeking to expand beyond the limitations of the traditional frame. In my understanding, the interviews of Soft Machine draw our attention to the rapidly shifting nature of cross-cultural experiments in Asian performance today, motivations for which are both specific to each artist and varied among them. In this article, I describe the different techniques and processes of problematizing, deconstructing, splicing and stitching traditional movement forms with a range of other genres of performance as “generic engineering.”

Rianto’s Medium. Photo source: Rianto

In the pages that follow, I eschew Choy’s mechanical metaphor, which is more apt to describe his style of multimedia documentary performance and less useful to characterize what it captures—ongoing, embodied, organic processes of cultural mutation in response to shifts in the ecologies of artmaking in Asia. In its place, I experiment with organic metaphors of Anthropocene discourse, primarily those indebted to Donna Harraway’s notion of “staying with the trouble,” to arrive at an appropriate description of the complex and transitional world of Asian contemporary dance. I use her method of “tentacular thinking” to enroll the structuring forces of globalization, postcolonial nationalism and the competing interests of arts and cultural institutions into my frame of analysis. In doing so, I argue that ongoing shifts in the conditions of cultural production in Asia necessitate intercultural and cross-generic choreographic experimentation.

I shall describe two recent works of experimental dance by Asian creators. The first is the collaborative work Behalf (2018) by Thai and Taiwanese choreographers Pichet Klunchun and Chen Wu-Kang. The second is Indonesian dancer Rianto’s Medium (2018). Like the four works featured on Soft Machine, these works emerge amid messy entanglements with the heritage, politics and social dynamics of performance in contexts where the local and global are interspersed. In response to the perpetually precarious state of these arts ecologies, artists featured in this article regenerate their practices through processes of breakdown and recombination, working to sustain continuity through change—in short, through processes of mutation under conditions of crisis.

Composting Contemporary Asian Performance

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the world of Asian contemporary dance emerges from the compost[2] of its pre-colonial folk, traditional and popular arts, which are now in an advanced state of decay. The word “decay” may be applied here in two senses. The first sense is biological—the cellular breakdown of something that was once alive and is now the humus for new forms of life. Contemporary dance in Asia emerges in the wake of the slow death of pre-modern folk and courtly performing art forms, as successive eras of colonialism, postcolonial nationalism and globalization have irretrievably disrupted a plethora of Asian life-worlds—moral paradigms, systems of patronage and communities of spectatorship—that once sustained these forms. This slow death in turn provokes its own narratives of man-made disasters and cultural climate change.

The second sense in which I apply the notion of decay is in the nuclear sense—unstable configurations under radioactive decay, radically altering the environment in the process of its extinction. As Asian contemporary dance-makers develop their work across performing arts institutions in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, their cross-generic and cross-cultural experiments critically intervene in and test the aesthetic and conceptual limits of intercultural performance on stages across the globe. While Klunchun, Chen and Rianto problematize the traditions within which they work, I suggest later in this article that Behalf and Medium also problematize the implicit expectations of the global stage. I therefore align these processes of decay and composting with Harraway’s hopeful notion of stirring up “potent response[s] to devastating events,” as well as “to settle troubled waters” (1) and engender “unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles” (4). As local cultural climates transition, the artists I discuss here harness the chaotic power of decay and the rich potential of this cultural humus to experiment in producing new works that can connect with contemporary audiences and build a transnational community of informed spectatorship.

Rianto’s Medium. Photo source: Rianto

Metaphors aside however, the troubles inherited by artists like Klunchun, Wukang and Rianto are historical, persistent and complex. In both Behalf and Medium, artists work at disentangling traditional dance from its perpetual identification with imagined and idealized pasts. Klunchun suggests that public interest in the traditional arts is suspended vaguely between nationalistic identification and mild curiosity. National agencies are the primary funders for traditional forms like the Thai classical mask dance Khon—the tradition espoused by Klunchun—using it as a metonym for Thai national and cultural identity. Yet, the bureaucratic nature of cultural management stunts the natural evolution of these forms, fossilizing them within overdetermined paradigms that no longer “communicate with audiences, don’t offer professional opportunities, and don’t sell tickets. So, no one thinks about its quality and meaning” (Klunchun qtd. in Muto).

Yet, traditional performing art forms continue to exist as cultural capital for the nation at the international level. This is apparent in contestations for the UNESCO description of Intangible Cultural Heritage, as both Thailand and Cambodia challenge the other’s claim that the closely related masked dance forms, Khon and Lkhon Khol,[3] are indigenous to Siamese and Khmer cultures respectively (Suvanatap). Technical precision and conventions of performance are thus aggressively defended within traditional communities of practice to establish authenticity, cultural distinction and heritage value.

The field of Indonesian dance is also rife with the cultural politics of postcolonial nationalism. Matthew Isaac Cohen states: “Indonesia’s entire performing arts complex [is] a modern invention produced in the context of local and extra-local forces of colonialism, nationalism and dictatorship (xx). Indonesian dancer Rianto resists the contentious opposition from religious and nationalistic factions to to the cross-gender folk dance lengger,[4] as I touch upon below in my analysis of Medium.

In seeking to detach from projects of nationalism and intangible heritage, networks of intercultural performance funded by international and state agencies have germinated in niches of experimentation that link various Asian cities—Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Solo and Yogyakarta among them.

In the last part of the article, I discuss an earlier phase of intercultural experimentation, beginning in the late 1990s, that seeded this transnational arts ecology, linking contemporary and traditional artists across South and Southeast Asia. The cultural and diplomatic efforts of state agencies in Japan and Taiwan had the effect of placing a handful of companies—most visibly Cloudgate Dance Theatre (Taiwan), Sankai Juku (Japan) and Dumb Type (Japan)—on the radar of venues in Europe and North America (Tang qtd. in Iwaki). These two movements in the latter third of the twentieth century—transnational intercultural engagement and international cultural diplomacy—have had the important effect of creating a globally dispersed, cosmopolitan spectatorship for Asian contemporary dance. Funding in the present-day context also often comes from cultural diplomatic institutions—the Japan Foundation, the Goethe Institut to name but two—while also trickling down from the cultural ministries of Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and so forth. These organizations fund small and large dance companies, festival platforms and residency projects.

The curatorial logic for these platforms flows from western intellectual and art circles, as programmers, producers and practitioners circulate in a transnational artistic community, brought together by large Biennales, performing arts conferences, symposia and festivals (Taylor). Broadly speaking, the Asian field of artistic production is therefore best understood within Collier and Ong’s conceptual frame of global assemblages, which sets local institutions, governments and individuals in shifting interrelations of power, capital and globally mobile forms of knowledge and practice (Collier and Ong 4). Contemporary performance emerging from Asia is thus processed at local, national and transnational level, emerging from messy entanglements of the local and global, of precolonial histories and neoliberal futures.

Gods, Spirits and Gorgons: In Search of Epochal Figures

Both Behalf and Medium have been produced as multi-year projects, transforming as they are repeated across multiple cities. As artists work to integrate the experience and wisdom of the past embedded in their respective forms with the emerging concerns of present and future generations, they run the risk of remaining unintelligible or unappealing to audiences in any one of these sites. The task at hand is to create work that is meaningful across multiple cultural contexts, so that Asian contemporary dance productions are often encounters between artists, stage, sound and light technicians, writers, academics and audiences from across the world who all carry their own forms of cultural knowledge and technical ability. The rhizomic network of contemporary Asian performance therefore facilitates such an “ecology of expertise,” which Aihwa Ong describes as a transnational, “high tension zone of constant cross-referral between recent pasts and projected futures, between rigidity and flexibility, between insiders and outsiders” (345).

Such an ecology of expertise is exemplified by the transnational production teams behind both Medium and Behalf. As the frequency and duration of these encounters are limited by factors controlled at the level of state policy and global capital flows—including unpredictable changes in visa regimes, shifting logics of state and private sponsorship, evolving audience tastes and the seasonal cycles of arts institutions—this ecology of creative production is unstable. To me, the results of these experiments often strike the register of the uncanny, the open-ended and the unfinished, which is resonant with Harraway’s Anthropocene narrative; the archetypal figure she invokes for the Anthropocene is the mythic Medusa. Departing from the mechanical figure of the cyborg woman of the 1970s, Harraway now introduces this more gorgon-like creature for the coming age, born of tragedy, who is somewhat vengeful (unless greeted politely) (54).

Singaporean curator Tang Fu Kuen, who has been dramaturg for both Behalf and Medium, suggests that this open-endedness offers rich critical potentialities not yet manifest in its wider social fields. While arts institutions in Asia and Europe alike frame and reframe the labor of the individual creators to fit seasonal aesthetic cycles—postcolonial, ethnographic, conceptual and performance “turns”—Tang argues that performance continues to carry its emancipatory potential in imagining new, alternate futures, regardless of its intsrumentalization by neoliberal reasoning:

Within critical arts discourse, I especially value experimental performance for its agency in proposing alterity; alterity [as opposed] to mimesis to represent bodies, forms and identities. Therein is the political will of performance. Not to represent known identities and ideologies, but to disrupt perceptions. To issue the reflexive possibility of identity change through action.

Tang, “Curatorial Practice in Asia”

Many dancers who experiment with the possibilities of altering their traditional forms strategically harness this disruptive potential of performance. Klunchun seeks to transform the Thai audience’s relationship with Khon dance, as they no longer identify with the moral paradigms that underlie local performance practices:

Culture that was originally established for kings cannot be relevant in our time. . . . They originally developed as rituals for Buddhism, royal families, or other things. In the past, people in Indonesia or India didn’t go to see “dance.” The dancers were playing the roles of gods, and people went there to meet the gods.

qtd. in Muto, “A Maverick Artist”

Klunchun therefore pushes for Khon dance to abandon the gods and accommodate the worldview of the rational, modern spectator. Similarly, as we will see in the case of Medium, Rianto adapts lengger and Kuda Kepang performances for cosmopolitan audiences around the world, as local perspectives register cross-gender and trance performances as transgressive to established religious and social values. Yet, in adapting folk dance for the contemporary world stage, Rianto and his team of collaborators must contend withthe presence (or absence) of ancestral spirits around which lengger and Kuda Kepang performances were once organized. The creative teams behind Behalf and Medium are therefore tasked with resolving the profound contradictions of intercultural performance within a nomadic[5] arts ecology of intense interactions. While Klunchun and Rianto find limited local audiences who enjoy viewing open-ended, experimental work, they are also able to attract small, loyal pockets of spectatorship for cosmopolitan, experimental performance in cities across the world. These works therefore carry a quality of being as-yet unfinished, as artists continue to reorder their traditional techniques into mutant hybrids of various, cross-linked genres across each performance. My analyses of these works are thus limited by their evolving nature, as these works shift in minor or major ways at every performance. 

Behalf: The Riddle of the Sphinx
Behalf featuring Pichet Klunchun. Photo: Etang Chen

In Behalf, produced between Taiwan and Thailand and sponsored by the National Culture and Arts Foundation of Taiwan, such a creature of odd kinship is a central feature. A large, gilded papier-mâché statue of a fully grown, headless stag stands under the stage light, its molded musculature gleaming. Framing and dividing the stage into two equal halves, three strips of black, crushed velvet curtains fall like columns from ceiling to floor, creating a double-window picture frame within the proscenium. Later, Chen explains that the curtains are a throw-back to traditional Chinese theatre sets, literally framing the Asian bodies of this work as being trapped within outdated, orientalist paradigms.

A string of vintage-style electric tungsten bulbs hang at various lengths, like rain drops frozen in midair. Downstage, on either side of this curtain frame, stand two small, rectangular boxes with an iPhone propped up on each of them. From stage left, Chen Wu-Kang walks in, wearing a tank top and bicycle shorts, in shades of olive and army-fatigue green. From behind the curtains, someone wearing an oversized mask peeps in cautiously. The mask is reminiscent of the traditional mask of Thai Khon dance but is remade into a likeness of the dancer Klunchun, who is evidently the mask-wearer. He is dressed in a long, deep-green hoodie and loose knee-length pants over runner’s leggings.

The piece follows a conversational format. We watch a wordless, danced conversation in five acts, which the audience is left free to decipher on their own. Each of the five segments is abruptly terminated by alarms emanating from the iPhones, chafing in their familiarity and rude in their interruption. Time between segments is punctuated by the flickering of the electric bulbs, twinkling soundlessly like stars. It is a casual atmosphere, devoid of the formality and convention that is widely expected of traditional Asian dance.

Alternately, Klunchun and Wu Kang perform freestyle segments while the other waits and watches. They stage a conversation on casting off the protective layers of classical ballet and traditional dance technique, as both dancers expertly manipulate and tussle with elements of their clothing. Early on, Klunchun tries to shake off the hoodie by wriggling his hands into and out of the sleeves and then pulling his body through the hoodie rather than the other way around. He drapes the hoodie on the statue of the headless quadruped; it is now a shroud. The mask comes off after an elaborate dance, and as the segment closes, it lies on the floor, glittering like a flat, bejeweled skull.

In one memorable moment, Klunchun picks up his mask and engages with it dramatically, like a lover, dragging the mask-face over the length of his body, nuzzling it against his neck, holding it over his shoulder as he moves around the stage in a delirious dance. Following this, in a sudden movement, he jabs it onto the neck-stump of the headless stag. As a Klunchun-headed, stag-bodied sphinx is born, Klunchun sits beside the creature and with maternal patience tries to make it say his name: “My name is Pichet Klunchun. Pichet. Klunchun. Say Pichet,” he pauses, as if listening to this “baby” repeating after him and continues: “. . . Klunchun.” The innuendo of sexual reproduction is deliberate, even if too literal; elsewhere, Klunchun has commented on the sterile relationship that classical dancers have with their forms: “it’s like they simply marry their dances and show them off as beautiful wives, rather than making love to them and having babies who may not completely resemble them” (qtd. in Mahasarinand).

When asked about the significance of the animal in the talk-back session with the audience, Klunchun relates it to his experiences in Thailand, where Khon dancers are invited to perform on special, ceremonial days. “The dancer, the production, all of it is support[ed] by the government—the royalty—sometimes, not all the time, I feel, I [am] like a pet, they keep me like in a zoo [sic]. They feed me and they like [to] spoil me. But I am still in a cage all the time. And that’s why the deer comes to me. And that’s why I put my mask on the deer—because it is me.” Unlike the riddle of the mythical Sphinx, which demands an answer, here the riddle lies in uncovering the question. The answer is supplied in advance by Klunchun himself, and it is his own name.

The riddle that is posed in Behalf is the future of Khon dance when reframed by the global stage and viewed under a critical lens. In Behalf, dramaturg Tang Fu Kuen redeploys the casual, dialogue format of Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself, the production for which both Tang and Klunchun are best known outside of Asia. Widely considered groundbreaking, this work remains provocative in its candid yet complex portrayal of the east/west, post-imperial/post-colonial politics of the performing art world (Kwan, “Even as We Keep Trying” 185–201). In Behalf, this dialogic structure is maintained, though the negotiation of cultural and political economy is markedly different.

In the talk-back session, Chen and Klunchun describe how the piece developed between residencies in Thailand and Taiwan, in and out of studios, getting to know each other as artists, as members of families and communities, and their ideas on faith and religion—both hail from cultures suffused by Buddhist thought. Fundamental to Behalf, therefore, is an abiding sense that the two performers are friends and equals, although Klunchun, as a master of classical Thai Khon dance, had to navigate a different set of challenges from the ballet-trained Chen, who was Principal Dancer in the New York-based choreographer Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech company. As fellow-Asians however, they have both exceeded their respective national, cultural and racial positions to achieve autonomy and relevance in an international dance world that remains dominated by Euro-Western practitioners, forms and paradigms.

After the talk-back session, Klunchun and Chen suddenly launch into an unexpected coda—a performance of classical Khon dance. From behind the curtains, the unseen musician Cheryl Ong simulates a full Khon orchestra with a hybrid instrumental set-up of modern drums, traditional percussion instruments, gongs and bells. To me, witnessing Klunchun’s mastery of Khon technique and performance was a lush, sensual feast. On stage, Chen walks around Klunchun with a mic and makes expert observations on the performance with the detached air of a zoologist observing an animal in its native habitat. He explains that this dance shows the God Rama in flight upon the mythical falcon Garuda, and he points to the intricacies of bodily technique that represent turbulence, movement, and emotion in the narrative. “The best way to experience this dance is not to watch it, but to try it out.” Yet, he says, tradition guards Khon practice closely; the choreography of this piece is a secret that is passed down the generations, from the master to a specially selected, worthy student. Yet who is the worthy student? Chen continues:

Last year in Bangkok, I met a Khon master. I asked him, what if you cannot find the right master to give this dance to? What would happen to tradition? What would happen to secret dance? He said, he would rather it be disappeared [sic].

Thus, to prevent this disappearance, Chen and Klunchun dismember and splice traditional Khon dance to reflexive, critical and conceptual performance.

Medium: Recovering Javanese Spirits on the Global Stage
Medium featuring Rianto. Photo source: Rianto

On a pitch-dark stage thick with theatrical fog, a moving body is barely visible. A weak yellow light filters through, softly illuminating the contours of this body, revealing deep golden skin, rippling shoulder muscles and an acutely arched lower back. Facing away from the audience and as yet unidentifiable as man or woman, the body moves powerfully and sinuously, without identifiable technique. It emerges slowly into the light, like a primordial creature from behind a cosmic veil, to reveal dancer Rianto’s lithe athletic body dressed in nothing but simple, black slacks. Atmospheric sound fills the theatre, as a low, whispering voice chants a mantra that begins with the words èling-èling—“remember, take heed,” in the Javanese dialect ngapakan, invoking the indang or ancestral spirit to possess the body of the performer.

Medium in its current form is a result of half a decade of experimentation in Indonesian, Indian, German, Belgian and Singaporean dance studios. Dancer-choreographer Rianto, who goes only by his first name, is today a member of British choreographer Akram Khan’s ensemble. Rianto is known for his technical virtuosity in several classical and folk styles of Javanese dance, as well as his own style of contemporary movement. His commitment, however, is to bring to the international stage a form of trance performance called Kuda Kepang, and the cross-gender style of lengger dance, native to his village of Banyumas, Indonesia. Rianto’s efforts suggest that acts of reframing folk dances on the global stage offer the possibility of its recuperation locally, in its native context, as current religious and political paradigms in Indonesia threaten the survival of these forms. He is not wrong; writing in 2001, the ethnomusicologist Lysloff stated that by the 1980s, the practice of lengger—a type of erotic female performance with variants all over Indonesia, associated with public and private celebrations—had become largely taboo in respectable Indonesian-Muslim society.

From the mid-1960s onwards, diktats emerging from President Suharto’s “New Order” Indonesia demanded that pre-Islamic, erotic, and animistic elements in Indonesia’s folk performing art forms be traded off for reformed, state-sanctioned, “authentic” tradition. Performances of lengger and related forms, Lysloff argued, were reduced to spectral showings, “a recollection of ‘what is not happening’” and “a memory of times past, prior to the ‘culture effect’ of the Suharto regime,” that is, before village customs were domesticated by postcolonial projects of invented traditions (19).

Medium was workshopped in multiple sites around the world between 2013 and 2015 before its fully-fledged production, premiering at the Darwin Festival 2016 (Minarti, “Rianto’s ‘Medium’”). During this multi-year process, the indang (ancestral spirit), it would seem, refused to become present before foreign spectators, failing to show up at residencies at the Attakalari Center in Bengaluru, at Staatstheater Darmstadt, Germany and deSingel in Antwerp, Belgium. This situation improved in 2016, with a chance meeting with the musician Cahwati in Singapore—childhood friend, fellow Banyumasian native, trained musician and lengger dancer. The two then reset the choreography to the classical Javanese musical format of teletur and brought in Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho as dramaturg. By the time of my viewing this performance in Singapore in 2018, Tang Fu Kuen and Japan’s Yasuhiro Morinaga had joined as second dramaturg and sound designer respectively.

Medium by Rianto. Trailer produced by Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay (2018)

Medium articulates a profound contradiction. It is rooted in and seeks to resuscitate lengger and kuda kepang, yet in reworking them for the contemporary global stage, many of its performance conventions and framing devices have been cast away. Medium can thus be described as a project of partial recuperation, “staying with the trouble of inheriting the damages and achievements of colonial and postcolonial naturalcultural [sic]histories” (Harraway 125). Indonesian performance scholar and curator Helly Minarti calls Rianto a transgressive figure, reviving lengger lanang (male lengger dancer who does female impersonation), a practice that had passed into obscurity by the mid-twentieth century (Minarti, “A Transgressive Body”). Recovering the essence of this tradition, it would seem, involves the kind of ‘tentacular thinking’ that Harraway attributes to the cross-generic, stitched-together string-figures of the post-Anthropocene age (5). In this case, the choreographer has mobilized the global network of contemporary performance, itself a tentacular formation, to salvage the remnants of obscure performance forms and grant them an afterlife on the world stage.

The most recent version of Medium in 2018 concludes a journey that began five years earlier as a project called “Body without Brain”—exploring the electric body of the dancer in trance. Workshopping it at the Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bengaluru, India, Rianto was interested in studying the corporeality of the lengger dancer as a spirit medium, suspended between consciousness and unconsciousness, controlled yet uncontrolled, their physical capacities magnified by the intervention of the indang (ancestral spirit).

Medium is an evolved version of Body without Brain. Forthe greater part of the hour-long performance, Rianto holds the audience in rapt attention, supported by inconspicuous, atmospheric lighting, Cahwati’s stirring voice, and the beat of the traditional gendang drum. Throughout the performance Rianto materializes an array of dance styles, centered on a play of in-betweenness, across dichotomies of Eastern and Western dance techniques, and of gender. Lengger technique may be identified by the observant spectator as evident in the sensually arched hips and lower back. Classical styles of Javanese dance are invoked when Rianto slides into a powerful wide-legged stance and articulates precise wrist movements and footwork. Contemporary western dance—as far as it can be named as such—becomes apparent in segments of pulsating and decentered movement. At all times, the highly expressive and energetic performance moves dizzyingly between slowness and speed, motion and stillness.

Medium featuring Rianto (L) and Cahwati (R). Photo: Vojtěch Brtnický

In one memorable segment Cahwati, who remains in the shadows for the most part, steps into the light, still playing a stringed instrument, and confronts Rianto in a forceful, almost combative, duet. I read Cahwati—or to be more precise the music she plays—as representing the ancestral spirit, in response to which Rianto slides into a trance-like state of chaotic, pulsating, still virtuosic movement. The spirits of central Javanese performance—the indang—thus become animate on the world stage. Or do they?

“Generic Engineering” Southeast Asian Performance

Rianto’s project to materialize the body in trance, overtaken by the indang, offers a limited case for considering the potential for a truly comprehensive intercultural experience. Can the average, twenty-first century spectator in Singapore, Antwerp or Bengaluru truly feel the presence of the indang? Watching Medium in 2018, I was struck by Rianto’s tremendous technical skill and exhilarated by the intense atmosphere of mystery and revelation generated by the production’s careful amalgamation of performance and stagecraft. Though I have witnessed and participated in rituals involving spirit possession in my ancestral village in Kerala, a pragmatic education within the neoliberal knowledge economies of India, Singapore and the United States has thoroughly wiped out my ability to sense disembodied spirits, even in the context of theatrical performance. Klunchun hints at a similar sense of alienation that young Thai audiences in Bangkok display with regard to their own cultural dance forms, remarking that far from expecting dancers to materialize the gods, asserting that “they had never looked at traditional dance as something that can be beautiful or interesting. They just thought it was dull and boring” (Muto). While I found neither Medium nor Behalf dull—both stimulated curiosity, wonder and occasionally, a sense of deep aesthetic fulfillment—my thoroughly rational modern subjectivity remained disenchanted. In my opinion, the indang continues to elude the theatrical stage.

To access the “secret” of Khon dance and to sense ancestral spirits of lost cultural worlds, the intercultural endeavor must enter the contested realm of imagination, cultural memory and belief—in short, the realm of affect. If Asian contemporary dancers aim to preserve what is valuable in tradition for cosmopolitan spectators around the world, then their work of experimentation remains incomplete; the religious and metaphysical elements that ground traditional Asian dance in the plane of the transcendental remain as yet incommunicable. Retaining these elements is a matter of technical complexity and careful negotiation, as shown by the collaboration of practitioners with varied, specialist skills seen in Behalf and Medium. It is in assembling a global team of performance, stage and visual design experts that Rianto’s body becomes an appropriate “medium” for the indang. It is in adopting reflexivity and openness to the critical paradigms of conceptual art practice that Klunchun is able to prime his new audiences to receive the secret of Khon dance. Yet, if my response is any indication, there are limits to the efficacy of this type of performance without a shared cultural frame of reference—and this is true even for spectators like me, who identify as cosmopolitan, contemporary Asian subjects.

Rianto in Medium. Photo source: Rianto

At this juncture I would like to locate the works mentioned in this article within an evolving continuum of intercultural performance emerging between the last two decades of the twentieth century and the present day. Singaporean director and curator Ong Keng Sen inaugurated what I consider an era of “generic engineering” in the region, to resolve problems of cultural translatability emerging from the encounters between disjunctive cultural paradigms. Ong initiated the Flying Circus Project (FCP), an Asian intercultural performance series that had several versions all over Asia between 1996 and 2013. In its first phase, between 1996 and 2003, the FCP tested several low-stakes intercultural works, with participants from all over Asia, applying Richard Schechner’s theory of performance as restored behavior and the notion that all social and cultural practices could be deconstructed into “strips of behavior”—as bits of coded information akin to DNA[6] (Schechner 35, 115).

I understand these workshops as attempts to generate performances that could affectively bridge the gap between divergent moral regimes—primarily the religious and the secular—that underpin traditional and contemporary practice. While the FCP has been criticised severely for its unequal hierarchies of power between third world and first world participants, and for Ong’s position as director and curator,[7] evolved versions of its methodologies and processes continue to inform contemporary Asian performance today.

Relevant to our discussion, both Tang and Klunchun were participants in FCP. in the 1996 and 2000 editions respectively. While I have not been privy to rehearsal sessions for either of the two works described here, in Medium’s talk-back session Tang offers a glimpse of the process of choreographic recombination from behind the scenes. Choreography here involved deconstructing Rianto’s embodiment of lengger, kuda kepang and various contemporary dance vocabularies into an assemblage of technical, formal and visual elements. For Medium, the team developed a score, visually mapping movements across space, coding the emotional content of movement phrases in secular terms—as intensities, sensations and properties. By rendering culturally specific movement phrases as abstract elements—as strips of behavior—the technique of traditional dance is repurposed and made available for consolidating affective spectatorship beyond specific cultural identifications.

Rianto in Medium. Photo source: Rianto

Another legacy of the FCP is the transnational network of funding and presentation that emerged as a result. Ong’s micro-grant funding organization, Arts Network Asia, germinated a rhizomic network of inter-Asian, as well as Euro-Asian capital flows, mobilizing international funding from the Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, as well as from national cultural agencies in Japan, Singapore, Cambodia and elsewhere (K.S. Ong xi–x, 9). While funding has now diversified to include smaller institutions and presenting centers in both Europe and Asia, Ong’s efforts activated nodes of an arts ecology that remains viable today. FCP successfully initiated a model of intercultural experimentation within the “international laboratory,” as Ong names it, for propagating and testing cross-generic forms of contemporary Asian performance (16). This model continues to remain salient, as evinced by the production histories of Medium and Behalf.

However, the logic by which these international agencies fund performers is contingent upon diverse political agendas that fluctuate unpredictably, intensifying the precarity faced by artists. Additionally, these short-term projects can do little to counter the waning of interest in Khon and lengger audiences in Bangkok or Banyumas. While these works and artists might gain international recognition, it is as yet unclear if these successes have remedial effects on the survival issues faced by their respective dance forms.

From my analysis of the two performers in this article, it is apparent that Klunchun and Rianto are suspended within the anticipatory logic of neoliberalism: they must calculate the risks involved in uprooting their traditional forms from local performance contexts, even as they test the potential for partially recovering these forms as cross-generic mutants that can survive as mobile, abstracted forms circulating globally. As regional cultural futures are shaped by institutions of state and market inflected with neoliberal reasoning, precolonial cultural practices continue to morph into unexpected, uncanny and gorgon-like string figures that retain little of their original coherence.

Medium. Photo source: Rianto
Conclusion

I began this article by taking issue with Choy’s adoption of the Burroughsian notion of the contemporary Asian dancing body as a “soft machine.” Burroughs’ body-as-soft-machine is the body of the white, male protagonist, who stands for a universalized human body, transforming and liberating himself through extreme sexual and chemical encounters (Jones 34). I argue that this characterization is misplaced when juxtaposed with the body of the Asian contemporary dancer.

In this article I suggest that Anthropocene thinking might be employed instead, to characterize the evolving field of Asian contemporary performance. Ecological paradigms are well suited to characterize artists’ adaptations of endangered dance forms—the dying arts of lengger performance espoused by Rianto and the courtly style of Thai Khon espoused by Klunchun—considered in this article. Rather than analyze Behalf or Medium as stand-alone pieces that characterize Asian contemporary dance, I suggest we view them as emerging amid crises of cultural change ignited by successive orders of colonialism, postcolonial nationalism and globalization. As structures of tradition and the affective hold of nationalist identifications collapse, experimental dancers in Asia are able to capitalize on transnational networks of knowledge and cultural exchange facilitated by an emergent, globalized arts ecology. While this does open up new spaces of opportunity for artists, neoliberal structures position artists within unstable and contingent networks of creative production. The performances analyzed in this article are thus experiments that seek to consolidate affective communities across the world for artists contending with socio-political change in their local context.

I have analyzed two projects involving choreographic processes of generic engineering, where artistic ensembles systematically engineer cross-generic performances for cosmopolitan audiences around the world. Both practitioners take on experimental recombination with an ethic of what Harraway calls “staying with the trouble” as they labor to preserve the liveness and dynamism of their traditional forms.

In Behalf, Chen and Klunchun string together a critique of Khon traditional dance within the loose, adaptable structure of contemporary conceptual dance. I also offer a reading of Behalf as a continuation of a complex conversation about the ideological foundation of the contemporary global stage, its power hierarchies and its inability to accommodate the traditional logic of Thai Khon.

Behalf by Pichet Klunchun X Wu-Kang Chen. Trailer Courtesy Horse 驫舞劇場 (2018)

Rianto on the other hand, in Medium, channels the “folk” into pure, electrifying kinesthetics and affect, eschewing any recourse to exotic signifiers to mark the work as traditional. However, the work struggles to preserve the spiritual and animistic roots that underlie Banyumasian folk forms. While these performances of mutations in crisis may appear unwieldy, monstrous or irreverent, they are works whose final, stable formations remain emergent. As the experiment of (post)modernity continues, these ongoing performances of mutation anticipate a new epoch of reflexive and critical contemporary Asian performance.


Endnotes

[1] See list of showings of Soft Machine around the world in Choy Ka Fai’s website. Accessed 30 April 2021.

[2] I refer to the notion of composting from Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Nemanis’s idea of composting feminisms (501).

[3] Lkhon Khol is also spelled as Lakhon Khol, however for consistency, I have retained the spelling used in the article I have cited.

[4] I have refrained from capitalizing the dance form lengger throughout this paper. This is in line with Indonesian dance writer Helly Minarti’s use of the term without capitalization in the two articles I have cited. Lysloff also refrains from capitalizing the term, though they use diacritics—lénggér—which I avoid here for the sake of simplicity.

[5] Here, I invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the term nomadic to characterize Asia’s arts network (21). I use this term to contrast the structured relationships between artists and state in many postcolonial Asian nations in the twentieth century, with the transnational, non-hierarchized, shifting network of arts institutions and individuals that exist today.

[6] See Helena Grehan’s article on the Flying Circus Project, where she discusses the FCP 2000 edition in which participants aimed to produce “the future of ritual”, referencing Richard Schechner’s book of the same name (579). Also see Ong’s dissertation where the author cites Schechner’s “strips of behavior” and describes some of the processes that emerged from this provocation (48).

[7] See Bharucha 2004.


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*Aparna R Nambiar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She has an MA in Performance Research from both the Universities of Amsterdam and Warwick. Aparna worked as a dancer in Singapore prior to her foray into academia, dancing with Bharatanatyam choreographer Santha Bhaskar and contemporary choreographer Raka Maitra with her ensemble, Chowk Productions. Aparna has also worked as a programmer with the National University of Singapore Center for the Arts, Center for Contemporary Arts and the National Museum of Singapore. Her dissertation project explores cultural and capital flows that sustain contemporary idioms of South and Southeast Asian dance in Singapore. Email: aparna.r.nambiar@berkeley.edu.

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