‘Difficult truths wrought into profound, unsettling harmonies’: Alison Croggon explores the sorrow and light in Kamila Andini’s remarkable dance theatre work The Seen and Unseen at AsiaTOPA
AsiaTOPA 2020 – or, to give it its full name, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts – is one of the more exciting events to hit Melbourne in recent years. It’s most notable for what it’s not: this isn’t a kind of shop window for pan-Asian arts, tucked comfortably under some tired rubric of multiculturalism. Rather, it’s a carefully curated festival of contemporary performing arts, marked by some significant collaborations with Australian artists.
Indonesian artist Kamila Andini’s The Seen and Unseen, a new work commissioned by AsiaTOPA, is a case in point. It’s the kind of work that defies categorisation. Based on Andini’s celebrated 2018 film, it’s category-defying dance theatre that explores, with extraordinary delicacy of feeling, the experience of childhood grief.
‘Embracing life means embracing every element of dualism…the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, life and death, day and night’
Directed by Andini, with choreography by Ida Ayu Wayan Satyani, music by Japanese composer Yasuhiro Morinaga and some charming costumes by Hagai Pakan, it’s a genuinely cross-cultural work. The production team includes some well-known Australian names – Adena Jacobs (dramaturg), Eugyeene Teh (designer) and Jenny Hector (lighting designer). The result is a startlingly original contemporary work.
The cast includes several child dancers from the Komunitas Bumi Bajra in Bali. Some of them are very young, maybe about nine or ten, but they’re remarkably accomplished performers. As well as the twin protagonists, they perform various non-human spirits. Their presence on stage is, like the piece itself, at once powerful and fragile, and is a major reason for its emotional potency.
As the title suggests, The Seen and Unseen is about the relationships between the visible and invisible worlds. Andini draws from a Balinese philosophy, Sekala Niskala, in which, as she says in her director’s note, “embracing life means embracing every element of dualism…the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, life and death, day and night”.
I’m not familiar with the film, so the narrative unfolded itself to me with a strange mixture of clarity and mystery. The story concerns a 10 year old girl, Tantra, whose twin brother Tantri is dying, and how she finds meaning and consolation through the natural world through exploring her spiritual traditions. This is very clear in the dance, which takes us through six deeply absorbing movements that trace spiritual transformations from joy, to fear and pain, to grief, to a profoundly earned sense of strength and unity.
It opens in complete darkness – the darkness, we feel, of deep night. It’s particularly deep night: on the back wall we see the corona of a lunar eclipse. Bit by bit, we hear the cries of birds and animals – a rooster crowing, a pig, birds, a cat – but at the same time we can hear that they’re being voiced by children. It signals immediately that the human voice is a major player in this show – as well as the four songs, the performers vocalise much of the score.
‘This is one of those shows that has me stumped in how to write about it – it’s so much more than description can suggest’
The light comes up on a moon-coloured curtain of leaves or feathers in the corner of the stage, through which these animal spirits emerge, rolling out as if they’re eggs hatching. They summon a sense of unhuman, shy mischief, the innocent curiosity of the natural world. What follows is a duet between the siblings (I read in the program afterwards that it’s a dance in their mother’s womb) and a song from the mother figure, who moves on a raised platform backstage, synonymous with the moon.
The first scene introduces all the elements that play through the rest of the show. The movement is clearly based on traditional Balinese dance, but extends its minimalist formalism into the purview of contemporary dance. Every element is seamlessly integrated into the whole: for instance, Teh’s design, like the entire work, works on multiple levels, and as well as the recurring motifs – eggs, moons, feathers – brings echoes of the human body into its very architecture, such as a scene with a nest of human hair.
There are moments that are sheerly charming – the child chickens, for example, wittily costumed by Hagai Pakan, who bring moments of poignant comedy – but mostly it’s just extraordinarily beautiful. And by this I don’t mean some kind of anodyne prettiness: this is the beauty that emerges from a profound wrestling with form and meaning, when difficult truths are wrought into profound, unsettling harmonies.
This is one of those shows that has me stumped in how to write about it – it’s so much more than description can suggest. It’s profoundly sad – there are moments that made me catch my breath, that reminded me why phrases like “pierce the heart” exist – but it leaves you with the aftertaste of something much more than sorrow. I’m not sure what that is, though – a kind of acceptance, perhaps? – because it’s not about annealing sorrow, so much as integrating it with something much larger.
The Seen and Unseen also reminded me of how much of human meaning is formed through our relationships with the non-human – trees, animals, rivers, mountains, earth. And that immediately expanded into another emotion that I brought with me, the sorrow for our destruction of these worlds and their meanings, which feels particularly raw after this summer’s bushfires. Grief is multiple. But as this show reminds us, it can be about much more than lament: it’s a place where we can also find meaning and strength.
The Seen and Unseen, directed Kamila Andini , choreographed by Ida Ayu Wayan Arya Satyani (Dyu Ani), composed by Yasuhiro Morinaga. Designed by Eugyeene Teh, lighting design Jenny Hector, dramaturgy by Adena Jacobs, costume design by Hagai Pakan. Performed by Komunitas Bumi Bajra. Martyn Myer Arena at Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Until February 29. Bookings
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