Saturday, 15 August 2015

connection

photo by Jo Duck


After years of dreaming, and months of real preparation, I am finally in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the inaugural Indonesian Ballet Gala, to be held at Ciputra Atrpreneur Theatre on August 22nd. In addition to the Gala performances of Maina Gielgud's Giselle Act 2 pas de deux, I will be teaching a community outreach workshop to underprivileged children in Ciliwung, on the outskirts of Jakarta, as well as a series of masterclasses to a group of ten promising young ballet students. The culmination of the masterclasses will be a short performance for the children of Ciliwung, which will not only be a means of introducing the art of ballet to them, but will also enhance the young ballet students' social awareness. On Friday August 14th, there was a press conference at the beautiful Tugu Kunstkring Paleis in Jakarta (which hosted Anna Pavlova on her tour of Indonesia in the 1920s), to promote the Gala and these initiatives. I was asked to make a speech to illustrate my connection with Indonesia, and I want to share it with you as an insight into the journey that has brought me to this hugely personal and significant moment.

I am very proud to be standing here right now. It has been a long held dream to dance in my second home, my mother’s country, Indonesia, and after visiting our family here for most years of my life, it feels surreal to finally be dancing here.

Perhaps even more than my wish to dance in Indonesia, I have wanted to share the art of classical ballet dancing with Indonesian people, in particular those who are marginalised in society. I have always believed that dance is a universal language – it has the unique ability to transcend cultural division, and to communicate the very essence of human nature. No one should be excluded from that experience. We can all connect through the dialogue of movement, no matter what form of dance it may be. In 2012, I travelled to Solo to study my grandmother’s art of Javanese classical dance. She was the Sultan of Jogjakarta’s star dancer in his court. When learning Tari Jawa, I sensed my body settling in to the movements as though they were already familiar to me. It incited this incredible connection to my Indonesian heritage, but it also made me realise just how similar the art of classical ballet is to Javanese dance. Both have their origins in the royal court, and as such there is a particular regal carriage of the body. There are other shared details, too, in the technique of both dance styles – the feet are rotated outwards, because this is the most attractive part of the foot to show to the Royal audience. The movements are characterised by grace, elegance and simplicity, and they are the departure point for variations in dynamics and storytelling. After having danced professionally for 10 years at the time of these Tari Jawa lessons, it finally made sense to me why I had become a ballet dancer – it was in my blood. With this cultural epiphany, I had found the missing link in my dancing, and it transformed me. It gave me renewed purpose – that is, the true realisation of the perennial discovery through dance of identity, and the confluence of that with the people and the world in which we live.

My uncle, W.S. Rendra, taught me so much. He took great pride in my being a ballet dancer, and was forever pulling me aside at family gatherings to have in-depth discussions about Javanese art principles, as his mother, my grandmother, had taught him. I only met my grandmother as an infant, and so Oom Willy, as we kids called him, took it upon himself to be my earthly connection with her. One of these teachings was the Tari Jawa principle of energies running through the body, which I then applied to be the very foundation of my dancing. Meditation before performance, use of the eyes, movement response to sensation … these are all principles I apply to my dancing. I only wish that Oom Willy had been around longer to teach me more, and of course to see me dance in Indonesia. Of all his great wisdom, there was one prevailing lesson that has become a life mantra: that the role of the artist is to be the voice for the people.

a conversation begins: teaching the art of ballet to ten promising young students in Jakarta. photo by Kyle Burnett


And it is with this in mind, that I have for a long time wanted to bring my experience of dance to the less fortunate in Indonesia, in particular the children of the poor communities. As a society we have a terrible habit of conditioning ourselves to bypass the darker realities of life. There is a vast difference between having a rose-tinted outlook and putting on blinkers. In the news every day, I am continually saddened by the wilful ignorance of political leaders about major issues, from climate change to poverty to human rights. The role of the public is to call them to account, and the artists, as the most effective communicators of the true human psyche, are integral in this communication and provocation, to galvanise change and action. I hope that in sharing the magic of classical ballet with the children of the marginalised community at Ciliwung, I can brighten their lives, and also draw attention to the problem of poverty and the massive socioeconomic divide in Indonesia, and indeed demonstrate a way in which we can action change at a grassroots level. During talks about the Gala, I presented the idea of a workshop with such a community to the team at Ballet.id, and I am so pleased that they too shared this vision of dance as a medium of connection and inspiration. This will not be a token visit, either – children that show a potential for dance will be selected to have their dance tuition aided by Ballet.id. This is an incredible initiative that deserves the attention of the dance world at large, because this is what is at the very heart of the art form of dance – communication and connection. Touching hearts, and moving minds. In addition to this workshop in Ciliwung, I will take a series of master classes for a select group of ballet students in Jakarta, in order to pass on my knowledge and experience in the hugely demanding profession of dancing.

I want to thank Ballet.id for making these initiatives possible, and also for inviting me to dance at the inaugural Indonesian Ballet Gala – an honour I will truly cherish forever. This is the first time my vast family in Indonesia will have the opportunity to see me dance – well, apart from one time that Mum and Dad made my younger sister and I perform our dance competition solos for our family, on the tiled floor of a bedroom at Oom Willy’s house at Cipayung. I remember being so reluctant and kicking up a fuss because I didn’t have my ballet shoes, costume or music! Well, this time I will be on the grand Ciputra Theatre stage, dancing one of my favourite roles, Giselle, with Christopher Hill, dancer from the West Australian Ballet. And I will definitely have my shoes, costume AND music! Thank you also to the Australian Embassy in Indonesia for sponsoring Christopher’s and my visit, and for their support of this important cultural connection between our nations.

reconnecting: rehearsing Giselle with Christopher Hill at WAB. We haven't danced together for 11 years.


I would also like to publicly acknowledge Maina Gielgud for allowing Christopher and I to dance her staging of the Giselle Act 2 pas de deux. I danced the full ballet at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year, and it was to be my final performance after 12 and a half years at The Australian Ballet. Giselle will always be a ballet close to my heart and I am so grateful that I could close that chapter of my dancing in such a magical way, before I set out to discover new horizons as I continue my career overseas. I also want to thank Darren Spowart for coaching me so meticulously for this Gala performance, and Aurelien Scanella of West Australian Ballet for allowing me to rehearse at the beautiful studios in Perth with Christopher. Also thank you to Michael Williams at The Australian Ballet’s production department for organising our costumes.

Last but absolutely not least, I want to thank my husband, Nick, not only for organising the music recording but also for unending love and support, which also comes from my sister, Jasmine and her husband Andy, and of course my parents, who are here today. Nick and Jasmine will be here in time to see the Gala. They know that a dream is about to become a reality, and they wouldn’t miss it for the world! My parents are also responsible for keeping the connection with Indonesia strong in both Jasmine’s and my lives, through our annual family visits, Dad’s bedtime reading of the Mahabarata, and of course Mum’s delicious traditional masakan Indonesia. All our childhood friends wanted to come to our house for dinner, and they still do!


I hope you will join in my excitement about the possibilities that the sharing of the art form of classical ballet can do to further enrich the already bounteous culture of Indonesia, and the lives of Indonesian people.

For more about this journey, please read my blog piece about my heritage.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

restless

photo by Jo Duck


My body and mind are restless.

The restlessness is only at ease when I’m on the edge; of where I’m comfortable and satisfied, of what I thought I knew – ah, discovery! The edge and beyond - full of boundless possibility.

I’ve been dancing in The Australian Ballet, my original nest, for just over 12 years. Time, time … the mean, surreptitious sidling past of that clock. At this stage of my career, the momentum of continual growth and stimulation is crucial to thrive, therefore imperative in my fulfilment and happiness. Dancing the coveted role of Giselle on my hometown stage at the Sydney Opera House - where my ballet dreams began all those years ago - in front of my family, husband, both ballet teachers and friends, felt like an ideal time to end this chapter. For me, good things come in pairs - my first immersion as Odette in the Swan Lake of Graeme Murphy’s imagining, also in Sydney, was earlier this year. I had been waiting 11 years to dance that role. Encouraged by the promise of the glorious reward of delayed gratification, I had no idea that both dances would be quite so overwhelmingly magical.

So here I was, invigorated by two treasured experiences and a period of immense growth. Could it get any better than this? Yes, I knew it could. Could it get better for me here, at The Australian Ballet? I felt in my heart that it may not; that I valued different things in the art form. I asked for answers to find that out for sure, and thus transpired the final catalyst for my departure.

My heart’s compass is inextricably attuned to my restless body and mind. Feeling comfortable in creative work breeds homogeneity and complacency, and without enough outlet to incite the bold push away from that, is in danger of warping into a poisonous manifestation of negativity. And so, the survival mechanism kicks in, and we go through the motions - unquestioning cogs. Existing, not living. A sensitive person can fight that looming force only so much. My heart, open upwards, tells me that it is time to dare. Life in art is propelled by questioning, not safety.


Much to treasure, much gained, much yet to learn.

Monday, 23 March 2015

light years

photo by Jo Duck


Years whoosh past, and my, those flying months and disappearing minutes, and escape from my desperately clinging fingers like a teasing whisper. In my dancing, and in the writing that helps me decipher its endless intricacies and mysteries, I had been seeking clarity of vision. But as usual, I expected more. I wanted every last detail in my outpouring to be just right, in the hope that I could provoke, challenge, or perhaps even be profound. I was trying to eke out an art work of masterpiece proportions in every breath and comma. Aim high, I told myself, don’t settle on mediocrity, be persistent. 

But it was a little too much.

There came the inevitable crisis of confidence, and the perennial pull of resistance within, when you know you’re so far behind that you just … give up. For months, I felt that I was in a holding pattern. Circling ‘round and ‘round and ‘round, awaiting further instruction. Conditions outside were fine, but cloudy. There was almost a breakdown.

Then … flickers of light, in the form of a disparate constellation of a-million-and-one sparkling provocations; light years away from each other and seemingly many more light years away from me. Here on Earth, they’re a widely dispersed and flickering sea of semi-dimmed lamps. I could make out shapes in their blur-forming glow ... ideas crystallizing ... but I longed for a device that didn’t have such a widespread range of energy. I needed a searchlight, which clearly illuminates the path to its focal point.

Instead, I was handed - or, I venture to perhaps, I’d earned - a spotlight, and it was shining directly on me. It was so piercingly bright that I could barely see beyond its sharp edges. I could have felt like a specimen in a glass dome, stunned into static submission, but somehow the constricted environment forced me to find a light source within myself. With no sense of what lay outside, there was nothing to do but respond to within. Perceived entrapment became an opportunity for freedom. Channelled energy creates electricity, which generates sparkling wonders that science cannot explain.

To act on an idea requires conviction. Conviction requires confidence (or one begets the other), and this becomes lucid expression. Every human needs it, creative or not. Lacking courage in one's own thoughts, or worrying too much about approval, compromises expression – it becomes unsure, self-conscious, apologetic even. External motivators are the nemesis of integrity. This truth-seeker had rediscovered herself in a spotlight onstage, under the gaze of thousands of other searchers. They say that if you believe in what you’re saying and are brave enough to communicate it, others will believe you. Right there in that glass dome - a created, artificial environment - is where one can be freest to bare our most truthful, real selves, and dare to confront the most taboo questions and innermost fears. It is where we grow, faces earnestly reaching towards the light like a flower to the sun. We've no control except for the willing surrender of what comes from inside us. Such a naked, personal offering makes us so much more vulnerable to scrutiny - it can hurt in our deepest depths - and to unknown consequence. We've even less control over when that spotlight might be on us again.

The magical, beautiful, illuminated moment had passed.

The powerful, visceral truth of an opened-up soul requires emotional force of great magnitude, and it's surging forth at such a rate that it needs to continue its momentum. One too many bumps on that glowing path and all the sweet promise of growth and fulfilment escapes towards a stronger life-giving light source, away, away, away ... our light inside whimpers, crackles with a push of energy in vain, and then fades.

Friday, 12 December 2014

the survival instinct




I often ponder the blissfully ignorant life of our house rabbit, Sadie, with not a care or concern in the world apart from: “where’s my food?” or “where are you, humans?” Life is sweet, lounging on the couch with delicious parsley on the dinner menu; easily forgotten that rabbits in the wild are resilient and thriving survivors. In this luxurious existence, it’s not until poor health becomes a concern that the prey animal’s evolutionary instincts become apparent – that rabbits in the wild must conceal their ailments, because it’s the weak that a predator will target. Rabbit companions are instructed to seek medical attention immediately should a rabbit show signs of poor health, because an outward display of symptoms indicates that the ailment has reached a critical point. The rabbit so toughly persists through the pain until it may be too late.

Is the human animal so different?

The dichotomy of vulnerability and stoicism in dealing with pain or threat; there is a biological basis for this phenomenon in all animals, including us. It stems from the primal instinct for survival, with each species uniquely programmed with a genetically dictated, instinctive reaction to stimuli – such as the “fight or flight” response to a threat. Beyond these instincts, more intelligent animals have also developed traits and, due to a certain level of consciousness, learned certain behaviours that have been conditioned by their unique survival needs, environs and social structures. There’s the mentality of ambition; the innate desire to succeed, or even to be the best. Then, in the most intelligent animals, there’s the conscious ability to alter those genetically dictated instincts – they’ve adapted their behaviours to optimise the outcome of the circumstance. Animals exist within their species’ social structure, which I imagine to be like a ladder, each rung representative of varying degrees of survival success. With the juiciest fruits of the best life at the top of the ladder, we are all instinctively driven to climb there. Obstacles, such as pain and threat from predators, impede our progress along the way. Yet we clamber on. How often have you put on that brave face and gone to work, despite a raging head cold perhaps, because you wanted to prove yourself strong and worthy to a superior; or singularly persisted through a presentation despite debilitating, heartbreaking news about a loved one? Don’t show your weakness, lest you become the targeted prey.


I glance around the studio during class at the other dancers; lithe bodies of ready and robust musculature elongating and articulating with apparent ease. There is intent focus, but not a skerrick of exertion detectable on their finely formed faces. There is something akin to anticipation permanently hanging in the air – a sort of restless energy, a conglomerate of twitching minds and eager souls, always on alert, though calmly composed in their environment. I perform the same exercise that my colleagues have just completed, and only now do I comprehend the hard work that belies the outward composure. Calm faces take on an edge of noble bravery; they belie a rampant internal monologue of minute cognitive cues, the exertion of muscles being pushed to their utmost limit, and the silent protest of aches from the show the night before. I wipe my sweat-sodden brow and observe others doing the same. Some knead their knotted limbs on torturous rollers, with alternate sighs of relief and grimaces of agony. Others lean on the barre with their heads buried in their crossed arms, stretching out their spines as their ribcages heave with gasps for air. And yet when the next exercise is set, we continue.

A herd of deer, having just fled from a pack of wolves, has searched out a bounteous green pasture. There is a quivering buzz of freshly-frantic heartbeats, gradually decelerating to a normal pulse as they cautiously begin to graze upon the grass. Delicately sculpted faces are counterpointed by deepest dark but keen eyes – from afar the eyes appear sweetly at ease, but up close they nervously dart about. Graceful necks arch alternately between the ground, for food, and high in the air, to keep watch. Some are wounded, but that is only subtly apparent in the oddness of a gait, or the discreet nursing of an abrasion. They can’t rest indefinitely, but if they don’t feast now, they won’t have the energy to flee the next predator. They would not survive. There is something akin to anticipation permanently hanging in the air…

For us, it’s obviously not a life-or-death matter, no matter how melodramatic you are. Our survival mechanisms are evident in many aspects of our approach and response in our daily life, even though there is no real predator - at least in a literal sense. There are, however, threats to our progress, if we allow it, that may transpire in our responses to stimuli: the external - our superiors’ expectations, or the audience’s expectations; and the internal – our expectations of ourselves. The ballet world is an environment in which the pursuit for perfection heightens those expectations, in which the disciplined and relentless nature of the profession magnifies those demands, in which, at our worst, we find ourselves pushing through pain in order to prove our worth. To stay alive, in hope to thrive, we must learn to sense the first signs of the predator’s surreptitious stalk and demonic gaze, and flee from it. And if the predator already has you cornered, you must fight, sometimes with every last vestige of that artillery called Self-Belief that you have.




It’s well known that a professional dancer’s pain threshold is considerably higher than the average person’s (my awareness of this is renewed whenever I straight-faced tell people how pointe shoes feel like house slippers to me), but not so well-documented is the unrelenting challenge in accepting human weakness in the quest for perfection ideals and desire for the top positions, and how that relates to pain perception. Could brave faces just be foolish faces? No, but there comes a point of exhaustion at which sheer guts and grit has to yield to intelligent strategies for successful survival. A smart professional dancer has learnt, with the help of medical professionals, how to distinguish between different types of pain and navigate the grey areas in between. These professionals will also guide the dancer back to full strength in a tailored recovery program, designed to correct the off-kilter biomechanics that may have caused the injury, in a safe and nurturing manner. Dancers often remark that their heightened physical awareness as a result of this rehabilitation enriches their dancing. There is the obvious character-building aspect, too. Here is an example of how, as highly intelligent animals capable of altering our natural responses to stimuli, we can make the pain experience one of courage and growth rather than a perception of succumbing to weakness. This isn’t just the terrain of a professional dancer, nor is this evolutionary intelligence applicable only to physical pain.

The pressure of attaining and maintaining our position at the top of that ladder is an anomaly in that it constantly drives us to better ourselves, to reach for that fruit, but can also potentially destroy us. In a prestigious ballet company we are expected to be amongst the best dancers in the world, and this is extraordinarily difficult to live up to on a daily basis, and in every performance. We are always on edge – anticipation hanging permanently in the air - the day after a season opens, we are in the studio the next morning rehearsing the upcoming season that likely opens only a few days after the current one has closed. There is little time for kudos. And we are rarely satisfied. Ever onwards, sometimes persisting through ailments, often persisting through self-doubt, impelled by the primal urge to succeed, not just survive. The evolutionary instinct to conceal pain isn't exclusive to prey animals like rabbits. One of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, shares more than just DNA with humans. The alpha male chimpanzee will hide any signs of illness or injury, because if he doesn’t, he may be ousted from his position at the top by a feisty young male, who sees the illness as an opportune time to challenge the alpha to a fight for superiority. Then all the perks of being at the top: a harem of mates, royal treatment, the best food, are all granted to him. The most ambitious of animals achieve dominance through physical fitness, special skills, intelligence and aggression. They maintain it by wearing a mask. Powerful and composed, belying an ever-ringing cacophony of fears and weaknesses.

Keep calm and carry on.




The madness-inducing monotony of constantly keeping face and maintaining the status quo. If we are so vastly superior to other species, what has so stunted our evolution and progress as to suppress the essence of being a happy and productive human: to liberate oneself from the shackles of expectation, to be comfortable in our own skin, to have the freedom to honestly express - even pain - without inhibition (with compassion or at least consideration for others of course), to feel with passion, to live without fear? To let our hearts guide us, with vigour and love for what we do, for others and for ourselves – that is courage, and, used with intelligent and decisive strategies, leads to progress. Accepting the easy solution even though it's a compromise, being guarded, deceitful or duplicitous, acting with agenda, lacking perception – this is weakness and indecision that only leads to friction and disillusionment for others. We become static, and no one dares to disturb. 

Are we so blinded by ambition that this conformist, pack mentality is seen as the only viable path to success? Conditioned by societal pressures, the yearning for the top can surreptitiously morph into singularity and greed all too easily. That greedy ambition has escalated in our results-driven, consumerist age: success equals power, and power can be addictive. There is nothing inherently wrong with pure ambition, but pursued with an imbalance of response to the external, rather than the internal, could surely only lead to superficial and transient happiness, and given its often unrealistic pressures, is potentially damaging for our souls. 

So perhaps wearing a mask is a necessity, to keep everything in life "nice". No one wants to see someone who is placed upon a pedestal show weakness. They are placed there because everyone looks to them for inspiration, as a beacon of their ideals. And yet ruthlessness, or even cruelty, is also an innate animal behaviour. We can willingly tear these people apart - this one's too strong, this one too soft, this one was just right until their vulnerability superseded their heroism. Tall poppy syndrome, celebrity bashing, bullying, backstabbing gossip, sexism, calculating manipulation ... anyone and everyone can be fair game. There is no way to avoid it - everyone is fighting to survive and succeed in their own way, some more evolved in their behaviour than others.

The most successful of us humans, and of all animals, are the ones who have best adapted their intrinsic and learned behaviours to their advantage. Unfortunately, whether their intentions are noble and decent, or conniving and corrupted, is inconsequential in the grand scheme of that metaphorical ladder. This is the nature of the pursuit of power and survival in the modern world, one that is driven by the incessantly beating heart of our primal urges. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and it’s up to us to decide whether we want to emerge from the battlefield with a clear conscience. Life’s trials, and threats, shape our progress and identity, and if humans have the ability to exploit that, why wouldn’t we evolve to coexist more harmoniously with and at the aid of others, and indeed the other animals with whom we share such common traits? Let’s not forget that feeling love and compassion are also instinctive behaviours. We can still achieve the prestigious top rung with grace and humility, along with stoicism and the occasional healthy acknowledgement of our human and animal flaws. We could be unstoppable in pursuit and in flight. The hunted might not become the hunter, but they’d cease to be merely easy prey. A resilient, thriving and successful survivor.


A big thank you to Dr Cybele Heddle, who helped me maintain the scientific integrity in this emotional piece, and for always inspiring me to delve further into my curiosity about animal behaviour. Thank you also to Hiro 'Two One' Tsuri for allowing me to use his beautiful art work to illustrate my writing. His art really speaks to me, and I'm sure you can understand why after reading this.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

feeling something

photo by Jo Duck


Tumbling into dark places. It's easy. It's not wrong to continually hunger for stimulation, challenge and satiation. A career in which one's success hangs on the precarious scale of subjectivity continually taunts the dancer's heart strings. Patience. Remember the glorious reward of delayed gratification. The dancing career ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs and we have to learn to dance in time with this unforgiving rhythm, so that when those long-awaited crescendos and climaxes arrive, we haven't missed a beat, and we are ready to take off in perfectly harmonious rapture. 

I've been listening to The Ronettes a lot recently. One lyric that has stuck in my head: "I wish I never saw the sunshine/'Cause if I never saw the sunshine baby/then maybe I wouldn't mind the rain" . Shrouded in my cloud, stinging and low, shafts of light have to force their way through the foggy ether - memories and summons of sunshine. The cloud lifts eventually. 

It's not that we have to be weatherproof (umbrellas are unwieldy instruments). There is a certain beauty in hardship and pain - an inevitable component of the life cycle, just as complete freedom and joy are. I want to feel the pungent plummet of rain as much as I want to revel in the golden sun caressing my skin, reassuring and full of promise. The darkness is there to make the light even brighter. I'd rather exist within this contrasting drama, even with the transient cataclysm of a storm, than the drab monotony of half-sung grey. 

I want to feel something, to gain something, to mean something. I shout it inside. Sometimes it's a shrill scream. I keep it in. If I let it out, I wouldn't be able to listen out for my music. Poco a poco. But keep listening ... it may be gathering momentum for a magnificent crescendo.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

heritage


my grandmother, Raden Ayu Catherine Ismadillah, in costume for the Bedoyo
Ketawang dance. The Sultan chose her for this sacred dance at the court of
Jogjakarta. I always stick this photo up at my dressing table in the theatre - a
constant reminder of a family legacy.

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.


learning my grandmother's art with respected Javanese classical dance teacher Bu Rusini at her studio in Solo, 2012

my sister and I with our 'famous uncle' W.S. Rendra, in Jakarta around 1993


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.

... read more of this article that I wrote for Behind Ballet in 2012, in which I learn traditional Javanese classical dance, the acting techniques that my uncle pioneered, and reconnect with the culture that has shaped me.


reenacting childhood adventures on the slope of Mt Merapi, Jogjakarta


Thursday, 30 October 2014

at the barre

me, aged around 10, with my teacher Valerie Jenkins


In this series I want to take you into my mind as I work through the dancer’s daily ritual of morning ballet class. Much like a swimmer’s morning laps, it’s a training essential for professional dancers in all ballet companies and also many contemporary dance companies. When we are in rehearsal periods, it’s for fine-tuning technique, developing artistry, increasing stamina, exercising mental intelligence, and warming up for the day’s rehearsals. When we are performing, while we are still working on those aspects, class becomes a more varied undertaking: a way of checking the body back in after the show the night before, for ironing and evening out a body addled by perhaps one-sided choreography, warming up for the day’s rehearsals; all with measured exertion so that there’s enough energy left for the show that night. Even though we have a different teacher and pianist each day, and the exercises that are set (on the spot) vary, it’s one of the only constant factors in a profession full of inconstants. It’s a daily chance to discover your body and its expressive possibilities. It can be confronting. It can be a meditation. It can be the highlight of your day, a confidence booster, or it can be frustrating and send you off on a low note. But it’s still our oxygen.


Today, the best word to describe my body was ‘discombobulated’. My right hip feels like it’s up by my ear, my ankles feel like they need a good spritz of WD40, and the entire left side of my torso appears to have been left behind in the USA, from where we have just returned after an outrageously successful tour of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake.  I’ve long resigned myself to the reality that a constant sensation of complete symmetry is elusive, but the pursuit of it and the expression of it is fundamental in classical ballet. To me, trying to achieve that equilibrium in the body is more about trying to find a neutrality, a connection from the core so that all movement and dynamics can emanate from the centre rather than the extremities. While it’s important to find a sort of ‘squareness’ and alignment of the torso and hips, this is for the purpose of being able to use it as a home base, a departure point for full movement, not to dance with a rigid frame in a rigid manner. One of our guest teachers, Johnny Eliasen, often uses the visual cue of Da Vinci’s great depiction of the symmetry and proportion of the human body, the Vitruvian Man. Classical ballet should be about purity of form and expression, and too often today, caught up in this obsession with quantity over quality, this purity is forgotten. Many of classical ballet’s pathways move in circles, so the encircled Vitruvian Man provides a perfect reference when executing a simple port de bras, the tips of the fingers reaching and drawing the shape of the circle around the body; or a rond de jambe, which, if you were to execute one at the beach, would leave the trace of a perfect semi-circle in the sand.


Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man


My appreciation for the purity of classical ballet can be accredited to my training in the Cecchetti method. Enrico Cecchetti was famously Anna Pavlova’s personal teacher, and ballet master of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. His syllabus (I completed all the exams from Grade One to Advanced) was designed to develop expression and sensitivity but with a hallmark simplicity of style. There is no affectation of port de bras that so taints some other training methods. It’s honest dancing. Valrene Tweedie, who taught my teacher Valerie Jenkins and who also took me for special coaching, instilled in me a mantra that is still of foremost pertinence for me: “simplicity and sincerity”. I apply it to all my work, from class to rehearsal to performance. I think it has also become a bit of a life mantra.


Maestro Cecchetti and Anna Pavlova


So when, like today, my body feels like a slackly strung marionette, I go back to basics. More Pilates in my warm-up to reawaken the core and strengthen and lengthen the muscles. If the choreography favours one leg (Graeme’s choreography tends to favour the right leg), then I try to even out the load on the body by repeating the exercise twice on the unfavoured side. I start at the barre with more subtle movements and carefully measured exertion, to find the connection in the joints and gently ease the points of tension. In all the exercises, the focus is on placing the energies back into the centre of the torso, as though my body were a hive and I was summoning the bees, buzzing nearby but somewhat haphazardly, back home. After the long flight from LA, my neck was unbelievably stiff and my left shoulder seemed to only want to roll forward instead of rotating backward and gliding downwards, as is the ideal classical ballet posture. Even after a series of scapula placement exercises before class and a wariness of that placement and release of neck tension throughout class, any rotation of my head was restricted – kind of made spotting for pirouettes a frustrating ordeal. And so it was off to the physio room to book myself in for what seems to be transpiring to be a routine post-flight neck and upper back release.


It will take a few more days before the body reacquaints itself with its connections. This may be aided by the repertoire we are rehearsing: La Bayadére, with its stylised but still very classical ballet technique. When we perform classical ballets, whilst exhausting, they do help the body to feel 'more ballet' - pulled up and with an established equilibrium - in class. It is then that class will be about ensuring that my movement doesn't get too stiff, too precious or worst of all, contrived. But we have to travel to Sydney – yes, barely a week after our return from the US – first.