Cry Jailolo can only be described as exceptional. Featuring men from the fishing community of Jailolo in Indonesia, these “untrained” performers brought a combination of precision and raw energy that I had yet to encounter on stage and that I could not take my eyes off. The most striking element was the use of actions reminiscent of warriors interpolated with more fluid movements conducted in seamless unison. The range of body shapes and sizes seen on stage was also refreshing, and the fact they could perform such coordinated movements when each carries such a unique presence on stage is a testament to their skill and commitment.

While I found the slow pacing of the start and elongated pause in the middle of the piece to be disconcerting, viewed within the context of the entire work these more intimate moments made for an interesting journey that was bookended nicely with the presence of a solo dancer at the conclusion. That being said I feel the work could have benefitted from being 5-10 minutes shorter overall.

Struck by the intense physicality of the work and the rhythms made by the performers themselves, my response manifested somatically as I sat forward – hands on my knees – absorbing the undeniable force of the piece. In addition, I found the sound design to be a unique and well-considered blend of traditional sounds that hinted at the coastal origins of the piece and dissonant noises evocative of technological interference, a central theme of the work. My friend Adinda who accompanied me and who hails from Java informed me that the mother language uttered throughout signified a need to “push on” and “move forward” in the face of destructive industrialisation, correlating with the aural cues provided.

While the lighting may have been quite dim -which at times felt enveloping –  it did not allay my appreciation of this arresting work to any great extent. While there was no set – and no need for one – costuming was kept to a minimum and this enhanced the performers’ vitality. Though moments provided comparisons to Irish dancing, unlike their European counterparts these artists do not need intricate designs and specialised footwear to amplify their talent. It needs no dressing-up. If I could offer one piece of advice to Melbourne audiences, it would be “see it now.”

cry 2

Re-entering the theatre to see Balabala after Cry Jailolo, my expectations were high. Featuring women from the Jailolo community I was looking forward to seeing an all-female representation of rural life delivered with the intensity I had just encountered: this zealous feminist was excited. However, the pacing and mercilessly repetitive sound design rendered the experience a deeply unenjoyable one that no amount of stark lighting changes could distract me from. While the story behind the work and its influences should be explored, I was left unengaged by what was presented on stage with the exception of Yimna Meylia Meylan Runggamusi whose ferocious female energy was the work’s biggest strength. Indeed, I would love to see her again in future, particularly as a choreographer, because her charisma is pervasive

I hope with more development and more finely-tuned moments of uniformity– which in their current state are plagued by timing discrepancies – Balabala will come to offer a female equivalent which matches the raw power of Cry Jailolo. Given both works are choreographed by the brilliant and socially conscious Eko Supriyanto, this is certainly achievable. While my appraisal of the work was tainted by my hopes for it, the varied reactions I was privy to from my position further away from the stage were indicative of a divisive piece, for better or worse.

Despite my strong reactions to each work, I must give credit to Eko Supriyanto for creating both them and giving the performers an opportunity that would likely have been unavailable otherwise. In doing so he has enabled these men who would have otherwise remained in the area or joined the army, and women who would have undertaken roles dictated by a patriarchal society, to reclaim their histories and express their culture through first-hand perspectives.

As part of my Master of Arts and Cultural Management course at university a focus on Asia TOPA has led class discussions, particularly in regards to programming and the impact the festival will have on Melbourne’s artistic community. Witnessing Cry Jailolo and Balabala at Arts Centre Melbourne made it abundantly clear that to maintain a vibrant cultural atmosphere in our city including voices from the Asian region on our stages is not only necessary but longed for.