Conversations on Performance Event: Andrea Fraser & Simon Leung, Tuesday, May 28

Breathtaking: Decolonizing Mastery

Wayan Sumahardika at Mulawali Institute
May 14, 2024
By Ariana Chaivaranon


Sitting cross-legged in the 90-degree heat at Bali’s Mulawali Institute, a multi-disciplinary performance art platform, I was among the entranced spectators who watched as sweat flung from dancer Tri Ray Dewantara’s (Mang Tri’s) body. As I perspired throughout the 50-minute-long performance, my pulse quickened with the same rare love I feel for preeminent art museums. Here was a display of dedication, endurance, and discipline. Here was someone in the act of mastery.

The documentary performance, “The (Famous) Squatting Dance,” opened with performers Mang Tri, Jacko Kaneko, and Agus Wiratama re-enacting abrupt, gif-like movements excerpted from colonial-era footage of squatting Indonesian workers, servants, farmers, and prisoners that were projected on a screen behind them. The performance’s initiator, artist Wayan Sumahardika (Suma), selected this footage from the Bali 1928 Archives.

Tri Ray Dewantara, Jacko Kaneko, and Agus Wiratama re-imagine the squatting movements of Indonesians captured in colonial-era photographs. Courtesy Mulawali Institute.

The second phase of the performance saw Mang Tri perform his virtuosic Igel Jongkok (Kebyar Duduk) dance. Mang Tri first mirrored the pose of Igel Jongkok’s originator, I Ketut Marya (I Mario), photographed by Walter Spies circa 1936 and projected behind him. He danced along with a projection of I Sampih, I Mario’s protege, captured by musicologist Colin McPhee circa 1932-1935. At times, they were perfectly synchronized: Mang Tri had schooled himself into a simulacrum of Sampih.

After this segment, the classically trained Mang Tri played the role of a harsh instructor, correcting the dance form of Jacko Kaneko and Agus Wiratama. Then, all three dancers turned to interact with the audience, attempting to teach us the basic squatting pose. We cried out and teetered over with newfound respect for Mang Tri’s mastery.

For Suma and the performers, bodies are archives, and dance repertoires are palimpsests of stories.1For further reading on embodied archives, see Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. Mang Tri’s dynamic activation of a century-old library of embodied knowledge testified to this.

Tri Ray Dewantara interacts with the audience, emulating a filmed Igel Jongkok performance of I Sampih captured by musicologist Colin McPhee circa 1932-1935. Courtesy Mulawali Institute.

Igel Jongkok originated around 1920, during Bali’s transition into a colonial tourist destination. The originator, I Mario, improvised Igel Jongkok, drawing from his training in traditional Gandrung and Baris dance to author a radical contemporary dance that would mark his performative mastery. By embodying the movements of both protégé Sampih and master Mario, Mang Tri’s repertoire illustrates how inheriting embodied knowledge across generations can transform a student into their own master. In the past decade, however, efforts to “conserve” Mario’s form have paradoxically codified his experimental invention, upholding only his style as “authentic.”

The colonial gaze freezes the temporality of a people in one prolonged moment: “backward.” The colonizer becomes the keeper of the future, whereas indigenous peoples’ traditions become a savage form of “authenticity” fixed in the past.2For a discussion of colonial temporal discrimination that fixes the colonized in the past in contrast to a modern present, see Rolando Vazquez, “Modernity Coloniality and Visibility: The Politics of Time,” Sociological Research Online 14 (September 2009). In this way, the colonial gaze holds up a trick mirror to tradition, always looking at it, Suma said, through “an orientalist frame.”3Wayan Sumahardika, Email to Author Re: Performance Art Review of The (Famous) Squatting Dance, March 29, 2024. Today, the so-called “authentic” Balinese dance marketed on tourist circuits adheres to pakem, a set of standards that characterize traditional dance. In The (Famous) Squatting Dance, however, Suma proposes an alternative approach to pakem that situates it in the contemporary.

Tri Ray Dewantara dances before a projection of I Ketut Marya (I Mario) dancing Igel Jongkok, photographed by Walter Spies circa 1936. Courtesy the author.

For Suma, pakem uses dance repertoire to “freeze knowledge” in the body. But unlike the colonial freezing of authenticity in the past, Suma sees tradition and the archive in pakem as activated through the flow of a contemporary practitioner. The dancer’s flow ‘melts’ a frozen pakem, a state shift that conjures multiple temporalities within a single movement. This freeze-flow simultaneity is instantiated in The (Famous) Squatting Dance through the prominent use of projections of documentary footage behind, onto, and before, the performers’ bodies. Suma reinterprets pakem not as static rules but as a practice of melting the past to flow simultaneously into or with the present. This practice refutes the modern colonial myth of time as a linear march toward progress, where the past is yoked to the indigenous “other,” and the future is (with)held by the enlightened colonizer.

The coexistence of multiple temporalities is embodied in ngunda bayu, a pakem principle of breath regulation. According to ngunda bayupula, the dancer must move with awareness and control of their energy flow as they transition between poses.4TATKALA.CO, “‘Ngunda Bayu’, Rahasia Bernapas Dalam Menari Bali [‘Ngunda Bayu’, The Secret of Breathing in Balinese Dancing],” November 13, 2022. Mang Tri appears to hold his breath as he moves from one pose to the next, wielding a vibrating tension in his body to propel the dance forward. To coordinate this disciplined and sustained fluidity, he distributes precise rations of energy to each micro-movement—from his curled toes to his batting eyelashes. Mang Tri integrates freeze, flow, hold, release, where he has been and where he is going, in his body and mind all at once. Orchestrating what curator Helen Molesworth calls “a masterful plan”5For further reading on masterfully planned deployment of anachronistic styles to challenge modern logics of linear time, see Helen Molesworth, “Thinking of a Mastr Plan: Kerry James Marshall and the Museum,” in Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. Chicago: New York: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Skira Rizzoli Publications, 2016. in relation to the interplay of history and contemporaneity, Mang Tri maintains his energy through the long, athletic dance. Mastering his breath, he takes the audience’s breath away.

The (Famous) Squatting Dance subverts a colonial gaze that sees “authenticity” as locked in the past and experimental contemporary performers as “rule breakers” of tradition rather than as progenitors of future cultures. By mixing documentary with an embodied counter-archive, The (Famous) Squatting Dance rejects myths of unidirectional control and progress: We are not backward, but here, now. You are neither the keepers of our past, nor the arbiters of the future. I squat before you not in submission, but as my own Master.