Sun, 16 Mar 2003

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Eksotika Karmawibhangga Indonesia (EKI) is one of the most prominent dance companies in the country. Despite the often weak story lines of its productions, the company's efforts to explore themes that reflect urban society are noteworthy.

Established in 1996 by dancer/choreographer Rusdi Rukmarata, 41, the company recently presented a critically acclaimed show called China Moon, which told the story of several urban Chinese- Indonesians.

The Jakarta Post recently sat down with Rusdi, who is also a Buddhist abbot, for an interview. The following is an excerpt of that interview.

Question: How did China Moon go?

Answer: The reception was quite good. Many said that the show was the best we have done so far. This was because we had more time to do it. We rehearsed every day, for six to seven hours a day, so any mistakes could be corrected quickly.

We can't do this if we have celebrities as guest stars because of their schedule.

Why did you pick a Chinese-related theme?

We actually wanted to emphasize the exclusivity of urban people. But to make it more universal, we focused on the ethnic Chinese. We also wanted to eliminate the stereotype that Chinese- Indonesians are either intellectuals or rich businesspeople. There are many of them who are uneducated and poor.

How did you become a dancer?

I was a late starter, I didn't start dancing until I was 18. Before that, I always thought that dance was only for girls. Then in high school, my friends asked me to join them in this dance performance. It turned out I liked it. So I started to take dance courses, jazz, modern, ballet, traditional.

How did you establish EKI?

Before I established EKI in 1996, I had already formed two dance groups but both failed.

I really wanted to establish a dance company because Malaysia and the Philippines, which have smaller populations than us, have at least five big dance companies, but we didn't even have one.

Then, as an abbot, I often encountered troubled youth, with problems like unwanted pregnancies and drug addiction. So my wife, Aiko, and I had the idea of forming a dance company with those kids.

Were these youths you encountered actually dancers?

Not at all. But the previous groups that I formed with professional dancers didn't work. So I thought why not try with people with zero experience.

Their dance skills were probably zero, but they were 100 percent committed. Because most of them had dropped out of school they had no real future, so what else would they do (laughs)?

So basic dance skill actually comes second in establishing a dance company?

I think Indonesia is an exceptional case. I don't know about other Asian countries. For Western people, however, it is difficult because their bodies are less agile.

Because of the climate, Indonesians often get out of their houses and do outside physical activities all year long. Therefore, their bodies become more versatile.

Isn't dealing with troubled youths difficult?

Indeed, but it also provides abundant inspiration. Many story ideas came from their experiences.

The problem is how to teach them proper manners and orderliness, traits crucial for performing artists. That's why we decided to house them in a dorm.

Why is it so difficult to establish a dance company here?

I think the problem is one of quality. Not that people are less interested in dance, but the quality has somehow decreased.

The problem, I guess, is that the artists do not train and develop themselves properly. Years ago, traditional dancers used to train really hard.

Does technology and living in the fast lane have something to do with this?

I guess so. Everything comes instantly now. Television can also manipulate things that are not really good.

And dance education is also institutionalized, but the discipline is questionable. You become a dancer just because you graduate from school. Whereas years ago, dancers first had to have a lot of experience performing before they could be called dancers.

Why did you choose Ken Dedes as the theme for the company's first show?

Because there are so many problems that arise from the perception of women and the changes in women themselves. Children are still taught how the father works in the office while the mother stays at home.

Ken Dedes is a figure who marries a man to realize her ambitions. I mean, women today don't have to do that. They just need to try their best if they want to achieve something.

EKI also often uses sex as a theme for its productions.

We find that problems like pregnancy out of wedlock and abortion are due to a lack of knowledge about sex. I don't mean technical knowledge, but more like the risks of sexual intercourse or the reason for having sex. These things have never been discussed openly. Whereas people, especially men, can lose everything they have because of sex.

We want to raise the issue so that people can relax and talk about sex, so that myths surrounding it no longer bother us.

What is the social problem in Indonesia that you find most troubling?

The change in the role of women. Women play a bigger role in society, which is very good, because a lesser role for women means more war.

The problem is that family structures haven't changed. Never in a family do you find the son being prepared to become a good husband for a successful wife. This becomes a problem because while women have progressed, families maintain patriarchal and feudal values.

This can cause confusion and, worse still, it's not being discussed.

What is the magnitude of the problem?

Let's look at my family. My mother always follows what my father says. He's happy with it and she's proud of it.

When I married Aiko, a modern woman who has a career, clashes occurred, which were worsened by comments by my sexist male colleagues. Luckily, we could talk things through despite the fights.

The problem is, it (the patriarchal attitude) will cause a higher number of divorces and result in a whole new generation of children from broken homes, with all the confusion that entails.

If we can't shift this patriarchal view, it could become a problem.

How did you come to this view?

When my first child was born, Aiko and I decided to be full- time parents, stay home, try to become our version of good parents for fear that something would happen to our baby.

But then my wife became fat and cranky (laughs) and we fought all the time. Then we remembered how we used to have lots of friends and had a lot of things to talk about. So we went back to work.

I mean, a wife is also a person with whom we can share ideas, excitement and all that. If the wife only stays at home, subjects are very limited.

What will be the next show for EKI?

Developing China Moon into another play called Dragon In Waiting. The dragon in Chinese culture is a symbol for mothers. Every mother wants her son to become a tiger, the king of the forest. But mothers never tell their sons how to become a spouse for women who are not like their mothers.

So instead of becoming tigers, they get frustrated and commit suicide. I have actually found many cases like this in real life.

As an ethnic Chinese man, how do you see Chinese-Indonesians today?

There is a wish, especially among young people, to get out of the exclusivity. Many young people, including me, do not want to be called Chinese, because they see Chinese families as old- fashioned and clinging to theirs traditions too much.

Chinese teenagers prefer Western idols, maybe because of MTV and all. But that's OK. Better to like a modern culture rather than a traditional one that is very feudal.

But people think this is one of the causes of the disappearance of traditional arts.

To appreciate classical arts, we have to get used to them. Whereas for over 30 years, we have been trained to appreciate money more.

If we push young people, they will hate it (classical arts). Let them do whatever they like. Later on they will think and start to appreciate the beauty of traditional arts.

I am only now starting to insert a little bit of the traditional arts in EKI, after six years.

People have praised EKI's management. Singer Syaharani especially admired the fact that everyone in EKI always seemed to go about their work happily.

That's because our ambition is not to make the company really big really fast. We don't want to jeopardize our idealism because of money.

Everyone is happy because we're very liberal. There's no such thing as high art and low art here. Therefore, there are no high people or low people. Even though they have no basics in dance, they have had such rich experiences in life. They can go deep into the emotion when they dance.

One of our members was once a plunderer, stealing timber from the forest. He is able to jump from trees and roll on the ground. Now, how many dancers can do that (laughs)?

How is the company's finances? Is the income good?

It is now. Now we can recruit professionals to be part of our management. As the quality increases, the income increases, too.