Are people more human or animal in their nature? Are we more capable of logic and compassion or senseless cruelty?
In December 2010, three Southeast Asian choreographers came together to discuss these questions, and sought to articulate their conclusions through contemporary dance. The exchange, which involved Eko Supriyanto of Indonesia, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro of Cambodia and Pichet Klunchun of Thailand, was initiated by Goethe-Institut, the German cultural center.
The three choreographers decided to each create a new performance on the same topic: Sita’s fire trial, a popular episode in the epic Ramayana. After Sita is rescued by Rama, he finds that he cannot trust her anymore, and is filled with doubt that she has remained truly faithful to him.
“In the story, Sita then walks through fire and doesn’t get burned. That proved that she was still a virgin, and finally Rama and Sita are together and have a happy ending,” Eko said.
“We chose the story because we are all familiar with it,” he added, explaining that it was also their objective to go beyond a mere adaptation of this particular story, and put a personal twist on it, as well as putting into focus both traditional and modern dance.
Eko’s take on Sita’s trial, which he has called “Flame on You,” will be performed on Saturday at the Goethe-Institut in Menteng.
It is the premiere for the 70-minute performance, which features nine male and female dancers on stage, with one of the women also providing vocals.
“In my opinion, contemporary dance is not so much about the form, visuals or technique,” he said. “It’s more about making a statement.”
Eko, who began training in Javanese classical court dance and pencak silat (Indonesian martial arts) at the age of 6, said that in his work, he tried to revisit and reinterpret the traditions he learned, be it the story, the dance moves or the concept. “Anything that can be a starting point for me.”
In this case, Eko carefully studied the Ramayana again to try to transport the story from then to today.
“As a contemporary artist, I always ask myself, is this still legit now?” he said. “If Sita were alive today, would she still agree to walk through fire?”
Eko started to have discussions with his Solo-based dance troupe. The conclusion, which became the essence of “Flame on You,” was that both Rama and Sita had lost their humanity in this scenario — Rama by distrusting and allowing her to walk through fire, and Sita by actually going through with it.
“Their actions and reactions show that they were following their animal instincts rather than human logic,” Eko said. “I believe that every human being has these two sides, human and animal.”
Eko’s piece highlights the coexistence and, at times, battle between these sides. He said sometimes it was not clear if humans were actually animals, or if animals had more human traits than humans themselves.
“When I was in Cambodia, I heard many stories that made me sad — about prostitution, or families that sell their children to tourists for money,” he said. “Where is the human side here?”
Conversely, Eko was moved by an image showed to him by a friend involved in a campaign to save orangutans in Kalimantan. A mother orangutan with a baby had been shot, and with the last of her strength, Eko recalled, she put her baby on the ground and breast-fed it one last time, before she died of the gunshot wound.
“Again, this led me to the question: Who is the animal, who is the human being?”
Translating this question into dance moves has not been easy. “The technique of the monkey movement has been quite challenging for my dancers,” Eko said.
“Normally, they are using their whole bodies, but this time it’s more subtle, with a lot of emphasis on using only the legs and the arms, sort of like a gorilla movement.”
Eko said he found it easy to get in touch with his own animal side, since he grew up in Kalimantan and has been accustomed to animals since a very early age. “I also watch Animal Planet on TV all the time,” he added. “I shared a lot of that with my dancers, to find the feeling and the form, to find the identity of the piece.”
Eko said that the other two choreographers have taken a very different approach to the theme. While Pichet focused on Sita, transforming the princess into a Thai prostitute, Sophiline remained quite loyal to the original narrative.
“As for myself, I don’t really offer a conclusion or suggestion,” he said. “Instead, my piece intends to show that there should be an equal balance of the human and animal side in everyone.”
A more focused version of “Flame on You” — which emphasizes the human-animal theme rather than Rama and Sita — will premiere in Singapore in May.
Flame on You
By Eko Supriyanto
Saturday, April 7, from 7:30 p.m.
Jalan Sam Ratulangi 9-15
Tel. 021 2355 0208