This weekend, the Esplanade’s annual Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of the Arts returns to present a finely curated selection of performing arts from the Malay Archipelago, ranging from well-known regional singers, children’s plays, and of course, theatre and dance. Of these, they will be premiering Indonesian artist Kamila Andini’s The Seen and Unseen, a theatrical/dance performance inspired by her film of the same name, as performed by an all-child cast. A cross-cultural collaboration between artists from Indonesia, Japan and Australia, the work follows Tantri, a young girl who realises she will not have much more time with her bedridden twin brother Tantra, who is losing his senses one by one.
As she experiences a magical and emotional journey into womanhood, we watch as this visual feast unfolds, incorporating dance, live music and song, and features an electronic score, where traditional Balinese dance movement is blended with a contemporary approach to theatre. Taking its name from the Balinese philosophy of Sekala Niskala (“the seen and unseen”), The Seen and Unseen then is driven by the philosophy’s roots as a fundamentally dualist spiritual structure that describes what we cannot see as having equal value to what is seen in the world. We spoke to director Kamila Andini and choreographer Ida Ayu, along with Pesta Raya programmer Hanie Nadia Hamzah, and found out a little more about the project’s origins and what we can expect from it when it premieres later this week.
Director Kamila Andini
Bakchormeeboy: How does your primary role as a filmmaker inform or affect the way you chose to direct this live adaptation of your work?
Kamila: Since the very beginning, I knew this piece would be a way for me to get to know more about who I am as a creator. As a filmmaker, I primarily rely on narratives and story, character relationships, and also cinematography, imagery and framing. I realise it’s important to still maintain these approaches as a filmmaker, but also to explore more ways of expressing my vision in order to respect this medium that I have barely worked with before.
Bakchormeeboy: Why did you feel there was a need to adapt your film into a live theatre performance, and what does this new adaptation add that the film does not?
Kamila: I was very excited to adapt my film into performance, because when I made the film, I worked very closely with the community where I filmed, from the choreographers to the children. To get another chance to expand on that process and to once again get into their world is truly amazing.
A key thing the film explores is, in the context of its title, issues of realism and surrealism, an interesting issue when most cinema is supposed to portray reality. But when we got to the theatre, that’s when it’s a 180 degree change, where reality is represented as surreal within a black box. There were also plenty of other movement-based works and choreographies that I couldn’t do as much in the film, but have explored more here.
Bakchormeeboy: How does it feel to be premiering this work in Singapore, knowing that your father (Garin Nugroho) is also presenting a new work here at the same time?
Kamila: It is such a pity that Fatih would be the only work from my father that I will never see because of scheduling, yet I am also excited because it is such a different work, and for both of us to be able to work with a venue like the Esplanade and be part of festival like Pesta Raya is perfect.
Bakchormeeboy: You’re working with an all child cast, as well as a cross cultural creative team. What were some of the biggest challenges in approaching this work, and how did you overcome them?
Kamila: With the kids, the only problem is scheduling. For myself and my choreographer Ida Ayu, we’ve always been working with kids in previous works, and really love it. And these kids have been working together with me since the film, so we already know each other quite well
On the other hand, the collaboration was a challenge. The traditional roots and context of the piece is very deep, and it was not easy to get everyone on the team to understand the context, and figuring out how to apply a contemporary approach to something that is already very rich. But our biggest challenge of all is actually how to remain respectful in representing everything – the medium, the culture, the diverse perspective, one that has taught us a lot on this wonderful journey.
Bakchormeeboy: Why should audiences come to watch The Seen and Unseen?
Kamila: The Seen and Unseen was something that was created overnight. There is a long process behind it, not just in terms of the idea that was in development for 9 years, but if you see the way the kids dance, there is just something that has been built within the community over 30 years. The dance is not just a performance – it is our way to connect with life and the whole universe, it is the way we preserve our culture within our body and mind. There is nothing we feel more grateful for than being able to give audiences a means experiencing our processes and our beliefs.
Choreographer Ida Ayu
Bakchormeeboy: What were your reactions upon first seeing the film version of The Seen and Unseen, and how did you come on board this project?
Ida: Kamila Andini first expressed her desire to make a film with motion or dance as a medium of communication, which was followed by her research, and I watched how the script developed and was renewed many times up to the filming process; it was all a long journey full of struggles. When the editing process took place, I was not involved much. I just watched some scenes that needed help with the subtitling. When I was offered to see the rough edits by my younger siblings, who happened to be assigned with translating the dialogue from Balinese into Indonesian, I said no. I wanted to keep my anticipation to watch the full version of the film. In the end it felt like watching a childbirth; I was deeply moved and happy.
How I came on board was a long process too. I had been mentored by Garin Nugroho [Kamila’s father and renowned Indonesian artist] when I was involved in the making of his film Under the Tree. Long before that, the artistic activities in my family were also documented in the Visi Anak Bangsa series, particularly the episode focused on Bali titled Cerita Gek dan Gus in 1998. That creative process brought us closer.
Bakchormeeboy: Describe your process of conceptualising the choreography for The Seen & Unseen.
Ida: It just flowed. Kamila was fascinated by one of my choreographies about cockfighting at an event in 2011. We agreed that the nature of the dance that would be presented in her film and dance theatre would resemble that. At that time, Kamila dug into the creative process behind my work then we had a discussion on the nature, rice fields, and what kind of animals whose movements could be turned into choreographies for the film.
What is contained in a choreography is certainly inseparable from the maker’s aesthetic experience, and I find that the bases of this choreography are asanas, breath, and life (nature, environment, and human beings individually). The rest of the choreography was designed based on the film’s plot.
Bakchormeeboy: Why was it important that traditional Balinese dance forms were incorporated into The Seen and Unseen, as opposed to ‘contemporary/modern’ movements?
Ida: I don’t view the contemporary or modern as an opponent. Each body has its own experience that will be read in the work of expression (dance). Every body also needs to grow, encountering newness, freedom, and independence. If the embedded experience is a tradition, then contemporary to me is a journey or a learning process of encountering the future’s tradition. Bali has always been very flexible in terms of renewal in desa, kala, and patra (space, time, and circumstances). What we do in this choreography is actually not like traditional Balinese dances which have their own pakem (standards) such as pendet, legong, or kebyar. But all those have become the spirit in my [artistic] exploration.
Pesta Raya Programmer Hanie Nadia Hamzah
Bakchormeeboy: It is interesting that both directors of Seen & Unseen and Fatih are related as father and daughter – was this a deliberate move on your part, and do you think there are links between the two works?
Hanie: It was truly something that happened by chance. We had been in talks with Kamila Andini (Director, The Seen and Unseen) about staging her work since late 2017 when she first pitched the idea to us. When we were in discussion with NADI Singapura on who to get on board for Fatih – The Prince & The Drum, we wanted someone who had a strong background and understanding of the arts in the region and someone who could be a mentor to the group. It was then that Garin Nugroho’s name was tabled and agreed upon. We also wanted to build upon our working relationship with Garin whose work Setan Jawa was presented at Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2017.
It was a coincidence that both programmes were scheduled to be presented at Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts in the same year.
The Seen and Unseen and Fatih – The Prince & The Drum are very different presentations, however they both seek inspiration from the Nusantara (Malay Archipelago). One (The Seen and Unseen) focuses on a Balinese belief while the other (Fatih – The Prince & The Drum) features one of the oldest art forms—Malay percussion.
Bakchormeeboy: Do you feel there is an overarching theme to this year’s Pesta Raya, or is it more of a case of a variety of works to appeal to different groups of audiences?
Hanie: I think what unites the entire festival is its roots, as most of these presentations take root from the same core traditions and over time evolved in their respective regions through influences and inspirations, shaping them to what it is today. There is a wide variety of works in the festival—from the traditional to the contemporary, for the young to the young at heart—there is something for everyone here. A family can spend an entire day at the festival and find performances that would suit everyone.
Bakchormeeboy: What is the artistic thrust or direction that Pesta Raya sees itself going in in the years to come? Is there a kind of end goal or message that Pesta Raya (in general, not just for this edition) wants to impress on its audiences?
Hanie: Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts is one of the first festivals that Esplanade conceived, with the first edition of the festival taking place in 2002. This year would be the 18th edition of Pesta Raya.
Esplanade presents four cultural festivals annually (Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts, Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts, Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts, Moonfest – A Mid-Autumn Celebration) which coincide with major periods of celebration for each community. The objective of our cultural festivals are threefold, which are still relevant today.
Firstly, the festivals insert and profile the arts in our national calendar of celebrations, so that the arts are always a part of how we gather and celebrate as a society during our key cultural occasions like Hari Raya, Deepavali, Chinese lunar new year and Mid-Autumn. Our audiences then know what they can look forward to at Esplanade at different times of the year and we hope this makes it easier for people to include arts-going in their lives.
Secondly, the festivals allow us to throw the spotlight, not only on certain traditional arts, but also the contemporary practices of our local and regional artists, including how certain traditional forms, cultures or stories have inspired contemporary expressions today. Of course, many of these artists are not only presented at our cultural festivals, but also in the respective genre festivals.
Last but definitely not least, the festivals also actively reach out to audiences of different cultural backgrounds, starting from the free performances and workshops. Our cultural festivals are attended by 10% to 30% of audiences from other ethnic communities.
Specifically for Pesta Raya, we have been consciously engaging audiences beyond the Malay community, through accessible programmes such as Message from a Medicine Man (Pesta Raya 2016), Setan Jawa (Pesta Raya 2017), Hikayat Gundik Berirama – The Venopian Solitude (Pesta Raya 2017), Transcendence – The Legend of Ryu Wuri (Pesta Raya 2018) and now Fatih – The Prince & the Drum. The festival not only celebrates those whom we see as icons of tomorrow, but also artists who inspire other artists to look towards the Nusantara as a source of inspiration.
Over the years we have seen a growing number of audiences from other communities attending the festivals as the programming is geared towards being inclusive as well. This includes having English surtitles for all our non-English programmes, videos or text which are flashed on screens before performances begin, and preambles by emcees to give audiences an introduction or summary as to what they are about to watch. We see this as an important avenue to raise greater awareness and understanding of different cultures. With our changing society, it is even more important that we build this understanding and appreciation through the arts.
The Seen and Unseen plays from 28th to 29th June 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here
Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of the Arts 2019 runs from 27th to 30th June 2019 at the Esplanade. For a full list of programmes and tickets, visit their website here