Senior Artist Juliet Burnett travels to Indonesia in search of her heritage, and brings back a new understanding of movement, stagecraft and the culture that has shaped her.
I have always felt a very special connection with the Indonesian (or, more correctly, Javanese-Indonesian) half of my identity, despite having been born and bred in Australia. I could put this down to Mum and Dad’s at-least-annual visits with my sister Jasmine and I, instilling that connection from childhood with the country and our sprawling family network over there. But that’s not entirely it. There is something that runs thick in my blood, beyond explanation by genetics or family pilgrimages. And I only really became aware of it when I started my career in dance.
During my years as a student aspiring to be a professional dancer, I never thought much about why I wanted a career in dance. I just knew that I needed to dance and couldn’t imagine life without it. Being in a select group as a student in The Australian Ballet School, it wasn’t until I was accepted into the company, where suddenly I was one of nearly 70 dancers performing around 200 shows a year, that I began to feel overwhelmed and was forced to confront the question of why. I was lucky that a huge part of my answer would not only help drive me to achieve the heights I hoped for, but also give me a strong sense of individuality – which is difficult when you feel like one fish swimming in a school of corps de ballet dancers. I had realised that my point of difference stemmed from my Javanese heritage, namely the artistic legacy of my grandmother, Raden Ayu Catherina Ismadillah, who had been the Sultan’s principal dancer in the Jogjakarta court, and of my uncle, Indonesia’s most prolific poet/playwright/performing artist, the pioneer of modern Indonesian theatre and radical human rights activist W.S. Rendra.
Rendra with his little sister, Juliet's mother
As a child I grew up knowing my Mum’s eldest brother Rendra as my “famous uncle”. I absolutely idolised him. He took great pride in having an abundance of artists in the family, including my Mum who was an actress in his groundbreaking Bengkel Teater company. I think the fact that I became a dancer, following in the footsteps of my grandmother (who died when I was barely two), pleased him immensely. Her life and artistic philosophies had a huge impact on Rendra. When he put on his deep-and-meaningful cap in our conversations, it would often be about my grandmother and what she taught him about the traditional principles of Javanese dancing. One that has guided me the most is the principle of energy channels: that physical expression comes from the soul and that energy emanates through six distinct points of the body – the centre of the belly, the top of the head, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. He was adamant about reminding me of my grandmother’s legacy, and it is this reminder that is a constant source of strength and inspiration for me. Dancing is, simply, in my blood.
For a long time I had wanted to set aside a couple of months – easier said than done with our hectic schedule – to stay in Indonesia and take formal lessons with my uncle in his unique craft of dialogue-free acting, which draws upon traditional Javanese meditation and dance as well as his dance training with Martha Graham in New York. I had also hoped to spend some of this time taking some lessons in the classical Javanese dance in which my grandmother had excelled. I was devastated when, in 2009, Rendra passed away. He had influenced my approach to my art in such a profound way and I had learnt so much from him, but there was still so much more that I hadn’t.
When I received the Hirai Khitercs Travelling Scholarship last year, I knew immediately that I wanted to use part of it to fulfil this journey into understanding my heritage. Of course a couple of months wasn’t possible, so a couple of weeks over my Christmas break had to do.
Though my uncle was no longer with us, he had entrusted a select few to carry on his art. One of these esteemed artists is my aunt’s husband, Adi Kurdi, who was an actor in Bengkel as well as one of Indonesia’s most highly regarded film and TV actors. I asked him to pass on his understanding of his mentor’s knowledge to me in an intensive three-hour private acting lesson at his home in Jakarta.
Adi started by laying down some foundations, explaining the purest fundamentals of expression. One particular point that resonated with me was the acknowledgement of the difference between emotion and sensation. Often in dance we talk about “emoting through movement”, and I have always felt a bit troubled by this phrase. To me, emoting implies theatricality more than anything else. Sure, when I’m performing my acting has to be “bigger” than real-life expression in order to reach the audience in the back of the balcony, so theatricality is an element worth embracing. But merely emoting can only lead to a superficial result. Sensation, on the other hand, implies a perception of feelings, an awareness of people, happenings, the space around you, and foremost an awareness of your self. To demonstrate this idea, Adi used an analogy for expressing anger: if you were to use emotion you might shout at your audience – presenting or dictating your intention. If you were to use sensation, you would let that anger register within yourself and react to that urge, communicating with your audience as though you were putting your anger inside them. As a dancer, with all our mirror-scrutiny and carry-on with technical trickery, it’s alarmingly easy to forget about the simplest principle of ballet: that it’s an expressive art form. Our role is to make the audience believe what we are doing onstage, as intimately as though they were onstage themselves. If we can’t reach out and communicate with our audience, even in an abstract piece, the beauty of dance can become dangerously reduced to a display of showy narcissism.
Putting these fundamentals into practice, Adi put me through a series of exercises that built on a simple scenario, for instance entering into a room full of people having just been unnerved by a surreal presence in another room – one time using dialogue, the next time none at all, then the third time without dialogue and with heightened awareness of and interaction with the space and objects around me. It was a fascinating experiment. I’d never invested so much consideration in how I would approach and sit down in a chair! Obviously the most useful extraction for me is communication without dialogue. I could see now, more than ever, how vital it is to involve every molecule in your body with the intent when you don’t have the aid of words. It’s one of the challenges that I relish more than anything about being a dancer, and that lesson with Adi was an affirmation of this. I now felt closer to understanding Rendra’s art, but knew that I would have to return, with more time, to deepen it.
Most of my family now lives in Jakarta, but I have always had a special place in my heart for Jogjakarta, where much of the remainder of the contingent reside. After a twelve-year hiatus, I was itching to return and explore this bastion of Javanese arts and culture and retrace my steps around the village on its outskirts in which my eldest aunt’s house stands. I was still getting my head around the excitement of being back in Indonesia as something more than seeing relatives and eating my favourite food. This time, more than anything else, I was here to learn more about the heritage that so shapes my dancing.
Juliet arrives in Jogjakarta
The journey continued with my classical Javanese dance training. My cousin Naomi Srikandi is Rendra’s third daughter and has forged her own path as a well-known playwright and actress. I knew Naomi would be the right person to seek out a classical Javanese dance teacher who sympathised with my need – which was to learn what my grandmother had danced despite my having never had the training. Bu Rusini, the teacher she found, is not only regarded as one of the best classical Javanese dance teachers, but is also the daughter of one of its most famous dancers, Rosman. She took a little bit of convincing before she took me on: numerous assurances that I was Javanese and not a tourist (backed up by an introductory visit with a modest entourage of family) and presentation of programs from The Australian Ballet and media clippings to prove that I was a professional dancer. We also told her who my grandmother and uncle were. So I was honoured when she agreed to take me for private lessons. However, she said that unfortunately she couldn’t teach me the Bedoyo Ketawang, which my grandmother danced. She explained that it was a sacred dance that was only bestowed upon a very special dancer who was chosen by the Sultan and had grown up and trained in the palace. Mum had told me my grandmother’s story about dancing the Bedoyo and its spiritual gravitas. Although I wasn’t able to learn this particularly coveted dance, I could still sense my grandmother’s spirit alive within me, guiding me through this training in her art.
Bu Rusini is based in Solo, my mother’s hometown and another centre of Javanese arts, which is about a two-hour drive from our home base in Jogjakarta – in good traffic. The first day she led us into her studio, set high amongst frangipani trees and soundtracked by frequent megaphone chants from the local mosque. The first thing she did was help me tie a long wide chiffon scarf – called a sampur – around my waist, while telling me a bit about the dance I was about to learn. I should point out now that she doesn’t speak English and I would call myself half-fluent in Indonesian, so everything she told me was filtered somewhat by my understanding of the language. Called Golek, it is a solo for a young woman that contains a variety of Javanese dance elements, so it would give me the best overall impression of things. Although she was dressed in track pants and a t-shirt, with her hair pulled back in a bun, Bu Rusini had an air of glamour about her that I found mesmerising. I knew I would have to concentrate hard when she started to demonstrate, or else be distracted by her beautiful movement.
Bu Rusini ties the batik kain around Juliet
Once I was tied into my sampur, Bu Rusini asked me to show what I translated as “a ballet run”, but when I started to make off with toes stretched out in front she stopped me and, whilst shuffling rapidly with legs pulled up together on demi-pointe, said “no, like this”. Ah, a bourrée! That kind of ballet run! I showed her my best bourrée with legs parallel, as she was doing, to which she smiled broadly. This, she explained, was one of the basic movements in Javanese dance, called sirig. She then explained the stance of the legs: rotated outwards with heels forward. This feels familiar, I thought. But the similarity to ballet, in a technical sense, ended there. Although the legs were rotated, I had to maintain a deep plié – bearing in mind that my legs would be wound in a batik sarong. So instead of using a plié as a preparation, a landing, or a pathway between stretched movements, it became a constant foundation for the upper body, lending a hypnotically luxurious lilt to the movement. The legs, after all, couldn’t really do a huge amount when they were so constricted. No grand battements in Javanese dance!
Then there was the arm-and-hand technique. The two major arm placements in classical ballet – curved or straight, with elbows soft and upper arms rotated inward and lower arms rotated outward in opposition, hands mainly serving the purpose of extending the line – are of course a departure point for variations and flourishes. Now I was being asked to do almost the exact reverse: to over-extend my elbows so that their insides faced the ceiling, and maintain this when I bent the elbow, which meant I had to rotate my upper arm outward and lower arm inward. The hands didn’t just serve as an extension of line, but instead became a focal point as the wrists and fingers bent backwards and then articulated through curled fingers to a position with thumb and middle finger touching, the rest of the fingers unfurled – a motion reminiscent of a flower blooming in fast-motion.
The head movements and their coordination with those foreign arms were to prove the most challenging aspect, however. In classical ballet the eyes and head predominantly focus slightly above eye level, whereas in Javanese dance the eyes focus downward, usually looking at a point around five metres away on the floor. The head moves from one side to the other in a figure-eight pathway that is initiated by the chin, while in classical ballet I was taught that head movement is led by the centre of the face – the nose. Finally, in classical ballet our shoulders follow the movement of the arms and head in different planes. In Javanese dance, the shoulders remain straight and still. All the movement comes from the torso bending, always with a straight back, from the hips.
After a quick tutorial about using the sampur – which, when picked up and manoeuvred just so, should be obedient and flick up or twist around my arms in an elegant manner, I was deemed ready to start learning the dance. I was eager to see how I would be able to tackle the challenge of coordinating all these new elements. I loved straight away how the combination of them, particularly the downward focus, lent a quality of graceful modesty and feminine demureness. Javanese culture is very much based on respect and dignity, so the way the dance captured this stylistically struck a chord. Old photos of my grandmother in full costume for her performance, regally beautiful and exuding calm confidence, flashed into my consciousness. After my first lesson, I was beginning to feel closer to her already.
Dancing the Golek
By the middle of my third lesson I had learnt the entire Golek routine. It was a nine-minute solo set to traditional gamelan music with that beautiful singing that always sounds just a bit like home. Movement phrases were repeated three or four times, and the music in this solo is counted in eights, just like in a classical ballet solo. There were changes of rhythm and tempo, which were echoed in the choreography, which escalated from lyrical and meditative movements to playful flicks of the sampur, percussive head movements and subtle bobbing of the knees. With each lesson I had been feeling increasingly comfortable in the movement. After being corrected repeatedly for moving my shoulders or my coordination of the head with the arms, Bu Rusini seemed to consider that I had consolidated the basics of technique soundly enough to encourage me to interpret the choreography and let the influence of classical ballet merge with the Javanese movement.
Bu Rusini loved my hyper-extended elbows and fingers: “These are true Javanese arms!” she exclaimed. During moments like these, I began to wish that I had learnt this dancing when I was younger – it would have been fascinating to see how it informed my ballet as I evolved in my training. I guess now is not too late. There are many similarities between the two dance styles. Both had their beginnings in the court, so possess qualities of grace, elegance and carriage. They also share a narrative basis to performance and a repertoire of movements that can be imbued with motifs to fulfil delivery of that narrative. At this stage in my life and career, and after this wonderfully enlightening and fulfilling couple of weeks, both Javanese dance and classical ballet feel equally innate and harmonious within me.
"True Javanese arms"
Until this trip back to my other home country, I had felt an almost sickening regret about not persisting in spending that time training with Rendra. It was as though his death left me with an enormous unconquerable canyon, where on the other side were wisdom and truth and meaning, and I was left famished on the side of disillusionment and emptiness. It took me a while to gracefully acknowledge the great fortune I had to receive the wisdom that I did from him. But an artist is always yearning for more, and must be strong-willed. That’s what instilled the urge within me to return, with chin up and open heart, to continue the pursuit of understanding. If dance is the expression of the self, continuing my career without seeking this out would be more than a disservice – it would be like lying to myself and my audience. I can sense nodding and approval from above. I think I’ve begun to conquer that canyon.