Indonesia's Ambassador of dance
Indonesia’s got original talent – so why do many acts mimic Western pop?
Why has the plump South Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style You Tube video garnered more that 620 million hits (and rising) while the indigenous Poco Poco gets scant attention?
(An Indonesian version has attracted only 200,000 viewers –a Swedish clip with women in overalls trying to imitate the Indonesian moves almost six times more.)
These questions puzzle choreographer and dancer Yohanes Nyoman Suko Utomo (below) as he tries to decode the international entertainment industry.
Unless the media-manipulated appetite for hype over substance is reversed, Nyoman will remain bemused long after his supple limbs succumb to cramp.
In the meantime he throws up his hands and laughs: “Itulah Indonesia.” (Well, that’s Indonesia.)
However there may be another explanation for his Blitar Rose Dancers not getting the publicity they deserve. Nyoman dances not just for dollars but to delight.
“I’m not money oriented,” he said. “Money must not be first. Art cannot be measured by money. Art is to provide satisfaction.”
These sound like the words of a virgin dilettante yet to be bruised by a world more interested in profit than supplying soul food.
Yet Nyoman is no ingénue. He has performed in Turkey, Switzerland, France, Holland (three times), South Korea (eight times), New Zealand (where he spoke to The Jakarta Post), Britain (twice) …
The list must stop somewhere but a phone call halted the flow. Enough to say he has danced through desert sheikdoms and robust republics, showcasing Indonesian culture for much of his adult life.
Now 42 he’s old enough to be sour and cynical about a business that chews up and spits out the good, the bad and the luckless.
That he’s not says more about his sunny outlook than torrents of words. Like many artists Nyoman prefers to communicate through his medium, often referring to himself in the third person, a distracting trait for the interviewer.
A favorite punctuation involves drawing his hands up from his stomach, expanding the palms, and then thrusting outwards.
It’s a gesture that embraces a flowering of expression from a deep inner source, and it illustrates advice given by his teacher Guruh Soekarnoputra: “Let it flow – don’t expect anything too much. Trust.”
Although a member of his sister Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, Guruh is best known as a performer than a politician.
The youngest son of the late president Soekarno ran a dance studio in Jakarta. Here the multi-talented Nyoman (he can play several instruments), studied for two years before turning professional.
Nyoman’s first group formed in 1995 was called Suryo Linuwih (see more light). Two years later the title shifted from Javanese to English and became Blitar Rose.
What’s in this name? Best consult Shakespeare: ‘That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.’
“Many people love roses,” said Nyoman. “The name attracts. It’s different and I love Blitar. It’s where my grandfather performed in the kuda lumping.” (A traditional Javanese dance featuring mock horses.)
The East Java city and last resting place of Soekarno was also home to Nyoman during his formative years. Although he says his affinity for art encountered few obstacles at school it hit a hurdle that’s tripped many other creative kids from conservative families.
As the son of a policeman who believed only a public service career could provide security, young Nyoman didn’t glide into his chosen career.
The situation might have been different if the family maid hadn’t taken her charge to a concert of classical dancing. He was just four and remembers it clearly. The door to the magic had been unlocked.
Later after Nyoman had visited Holland and seen modern dance he declared: “This is the real me.” His father relented and the gifted lad skipped out of a future of khaki-clad boredom and onto the stage.
Much of Blitar Rose’s international work comes through Kemenparekraf (the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Energy) to promote Indonesian culture abroad. It’s currently touring four works featuring five women and two men, including Nyoman.
The dances originated in West Java, Bali, Aceh and Sumatra and include the mesmerising Tari Piring (plate dance) where the swirling artists perform with large pieces of crockery ready to spin away and shatter should concentration lapse.
Nyoman has adapted the dances, shortened them to suit modern audiences and fit the locations where Blitar Rose performs. These are often diplomatic and trade events where culture is a warm up, not the principal purpose. Cavernous convention centers aren’t ideal venues.
Getting and holding the attention of an unfocussed audience is a tough gig. Nervous presenters shuffle notes; distracted delegates adjust nametags hoping they’ll be spotted by VIPs.
So Nyoman’s technique is to present short, dynamic, high-energy dances that shout ‘stop and watch’. That’s because they’re clearly professional and refreshingly different from the shuffle-and-twist TV routines.
When the dances end the audience is left wanting more, not thankful they’ve done culture and can now do commerce.
“I watch modern and traditional dance from elsewhere and I like some of Michael Jackson’s movements, but I don’t borrow from other choreographers,” Nyoman said. “Everything is from my head. I design the costumes and steps, combining the traditional and modern.
“I select dancers from the 60 students at my Jakarta academy. I choose them for their attitude and ability to bring out their inner beauty. Their skills must be professional. I prefer dancers who are tall and slim. I use my instinct and I’m usually 99 per cent right.”
Nyoman laughed a little at the suggestion he’s an ambassador of Indonesian culture.
“I prefer to take a low profile,” he said. “We are here to entertain. It’s difficult to change people’s perceptions about Indonesia but we try through art.
“I love my country and our culture and showing it around the world. I don’t want it discarded by the younger generation.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 November 2012)