Javanese roots in new dance work

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OPALS, so dancer Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal says, “are ancient stones created as the last remnants of water are drained from the land.”

That idea was the inspiration for a dance, sound and light show to be called “Opal Vapour,” created by Tunggal with lighting designer Paula van Beek and traditional Javanese singer Ria Soemardjo, coming to The Street Theatre tomorrow for two nights only.

Tunggal with textile piece, photo by Ponch Hawkes
Tunggal with textile piece, photo by Ponch Hawkes
Tunggal is the entrancing dancer and choreographer we’ve been seeing for years in Elizabeth Dalman’s dance works by Mirramu Dance Company for which she has both performed and created works. As well, just over a year ago she choreographed a complex work for young dancers in QL2’s program, “Me Right Now.”

What makes this particular collaboration unusual is that Tunggal and Soemardjo share Javanese ancestry, so while they see the opal as distinctively Australian, some of the facets we will see come from ancient Indonesian roots.

Explained simply, Tunggal dances to live vocals, viola and percussion by Soemardjo, while Van Beek operates a live-feed camera and projects the images upstage.

Intrigued to learn that there was a Javanese singer in Australia, I caught up with Soemardjo recently by phone from Melbourne.

Born in Australia, but with a Javanese father forced to emigrate during the Suharto regime, she learnt about traditional music from Java at a young age, later following up with lessons in classical Javanese singing and playing instruments with the Melbourne Community Gamelan.

“I’m the youngest in my family and the most interested in Javanese culture,” she told me, adding “Jade [Tunggal] and I are similarly fascinated with Javanese culture.

The new production tomorrow reveals their mixed Australian – Javanese roots  in a unique way.

Soemardjo has travelled to Java several times and studied with teachers in the culturally rich region of central java around Surakarta, Yogyakarta and Solo. In that region she got the chance to play in a gamelan, sometimes with the shadow theatre, the ‘Wayang Kulit,’ where ancient heroic tales are enacted on a large screen by puppets made from carved buffalo leather.

In the ‘wayang’ narrative, there is a very strong focus on the female singer, one of the great attractions of the form, she says. Additionally, when Tunggal joined her on a visit to Java, a more spiritual basis became clear. “Both of us really find the shadow puppet tradition fascinating, because of the music, the story, the movement and the dance rituals,” Soemardjo says. “We were really interested in how ritual can become relevant in a contemporary context.”

Another attraction was the way in which in a ‘wayang’ story, there’s always a point where it all gets resolved.

The idea of turning all this into a theatrical piece was Tunggal’s, whose movement is strongly influenced by study of the Javanese court dance, although she, exactly like Soemardjo, is a contemporary artist too.

Though Tunggal was initially the director of the piece, it ended up being been a three-way collaboration between her, Soemardjo and Van Beek.

It took three years to develop this work, she says. At an early stage all three collaborators took a residency in Port Macquarie, where, in a dedicated space, they played with light and shadow, using a live-feed camera.

Then Soemardjo and Tunggal travelled to Yogya to absorb themselves in the dance, the singing, and the shadow theatre. They saw the puppets come to life in shadow but like Javanese connoisseurs, also got behind the screen to watch the master puppeteer, the ‘dalang,’ bring them to life. Sometimes they stayed all night through performances, though she admits they went to sleep occasionally.

Soemardjo plays the viola, photo by Paula Van Beek
Soemardjo plays the viola, photo by Paula Van Beek
“It wasn’t hidden, we saw the mechanics of the performance… we were really inspired by that such an interesting performance model,” she says. “it made us want to explore how we could give audiences a different perspective.”

Back in Australia working towards the production, it occurred to her that dance, imagery, lighting and live performance of music were being ‘woven’ together. By chance, Soemardjo is also a weaver, so she’s included some beautiful textile pieces as part of the piece, “designed to invite people in to a very particular world.”

“One of my interests is making textiles so I’ve incorporated a piece I’ve made, the first time I’ve done that, it’s very interesting.” She’s noticed that in the puppet theatre texture and colour are very important symbols of transformation, and it’s the same with ritual music and textiles in rituals.

As part of ‘inviting’ people into a different world, much of her singing is in an old form of Javanese, a very difficult but very poetic language that she wishes she knew better. “My grandfather in Java used to sing unaccompanied, so it’s quite a special feeling of connection to him,” Soemardjo says.

There’s not much text in “Opal Vapour,” which she describes as abstract, noting however that contemporary dance audiences are quite accustomed to that. But Van Beek’s lighting projections and live-feed will give people different ways into the work.

Even so, she says, “to try and a performance invite people into a ritual is quite a challenge…we’re not bombarding them with noise and entertainment, more Inviting people to enter into a state.”

“Opal Vapour,” at The Street Theatre, 8pm, June 14-15, bookings to 6247 1223 or

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