‘Perhaps we, like Rianto, await our own metamorphoses’: Ben Brooker on Rianto’s Medium at Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art in Sydney
Among its various definitions of “medium”, the Oxford dictionary gives “the intervening substance through which sensory impressions are conveyed or physical forces are transmitted” and “a person claiming to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the dead and the living”. In Medium, the first full-length solo work by Lengger-trained Indonesian dancer Rianto, the body becomes a channel for multiple agencies from without, occupying a liminal space between male and female, human and non-human, conscious control and trance. Its main mode is a kind of shamanic delirium, leavened with a wry playfulness, which reaches for the ecstatic.
In Lengger – a sensual Central Javanese folk dance based in fertility ritual and often performed by men dressed as women – the performer is said to be possessed by the ancestral spirit indang, capable of imbuing supernatural strength. In Medium, the form’s choreographic vocabulary is entwined with contemporary movement. It resists the conceptualism of Western contemporary dance to remain thoroughly of the body (the work’s early title was “Body without Brain”).
In SoftMachine (2015), a performance series by Singaporean director and performer Choy Ka Fai that showcased the lives and practices of notable dancers and choreographers from across Asia, Rianto’s idiosyncratic take on Lengger deconstructed the binaries of male and female, traditional and contemporary. In Medium neither the body, nor its expression of classical dance, feel fixed. Rianto’s fluidity frames both as sites of endless reinterpretation and transformation.
It begins in darkness. We hear before we see: a string of long exhalations of breath (a foretaste of the centrality of the human voice, abstracted from language, in the work’s score). Slowly Rianto becomes visible, a remote figure a long way upstage, his back turned to us. He begins to pulse on the balls of his feet, a subtle action that turns into running on the spot, his bare feet slapping audibly on the space’s white linoleum floor (the effectively minimalistic scenography and lighting design is by Iskandar K. Loedin). He crosses downstage, almost imperceptibly at first, revolving. His naked, muscular torso glistens with sweat. All the while, his body remains sharply vertical, his arms, hands, and wrists reaching and twisting with a formal elegance. Yasuhiro Morinaga’s sound design, comprising an ominous, wind-like drone and, later, recorded percussion, loops in and out of audibility.
In firm accord with vocalist and percussionist Cahwati, who is seated downstage left, Rianto transfigures himself, both with his whole body and via shapes made with his hands, into ducks, birds and a cat. He vocalises each animal, sliding further into abstraction with a rapid series of tongue clicks and frenzied, sometimes nonverbal, exchanges with unseen interlocutors (no subtitles are provided for the Indonesian language dialogue or song lyrics).
Cahwati’s vocals are by turns ethereally beautiful, drawing on the classical Javanese tradition of tembang, or unsettlingly animalistic. She plays a variety of instruments, including a bonang gong and something like a woodblock, both often struck synchronously with Rianto’s movements. Cahwati assumes a variety of roles in relation to Rianto, creating shifting power dynamics that at different times suggest an intimate partner or perhaps a family member. At one point she squares up to him like an overbearing parent, drawing the bow of her rebab back and forth across his arm as though his body itself were an instrument. In a way it is. Rianto’s virtuosic command of gesture and exactness of movement – qualities that saw him substitute for renowned English-Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer Akram Khan in Until the Lions (2016) – is utterly compelling.
There is something deliciously knowing about the way Rianto melds the traditional and the contemporary. It is as if he is purposely inviting us, his Western audience, to exoticise him, only to challenge and disrupt our way of seeing. Ultimately Rianto opens up a space for us to make connections between the old and the new, and to delight in the erotics of hybridity and transgression.
Finally, having layered the movements of classical Javanese and contemporary dance onto each other, Rianto strips it all back, returning to the pupa-like state in which he began. In this moment the houselights briefly illuminate us. Perhaps we, like Rianto, await our own metamorphoses.
Medium, created and performed by Rianto. Design and lighting by Iskandar K. Loedin, music by Cahwati, sound design by Yasuhiro Morinaga. Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Carriageworks, Sydney.