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I Wayan Dibia: His Traditions and Experiments

Words / Liu Xiaoyi (oral account)Translate / Wei ShiminPhotography / Liu Xiaoyi

I first met Dibia in 2013, when we participated in the second Toki Arts Festival together. Dibia is from Bali, and he and his wife are outstanding traditional dancers, regarded as Indonesia’s national treasures. Their workshop and performance in Shanghai are testament to their solid foundation. Over a span of two weeks, we developed a firm friendship through our numerous interactions.

At that time, during the Toki Arts Festival, Dibia was invited to work with three Nanjing Kunqu actors, and they created a performance in the format of One Table Two Chairs. Throughout the process, I witnessed the sparkling collision of two different traditional arts and two different body types, as they sought to break down the boundaries between each other, and of themselves. I saw how Dibia was always receptive to new things, and did not confine himself to his own traditional art.  

Later on, I realised that dance is a part of religious faith in Bali. From a young age, Dibia has been learning from several teachers, including his own father. Moving from village to village, he was exposed to many different styles of traditional dance. From the 1970s onwards, Dibia started weaving together the elements of traditional arts in his attempts to choreograph new dance performances. He once said: “If I only position dance as a part of religion, we would never be able to make any changes. However, we may also infuse a contemporary and influential component, and still preserve the classical dance spirit of Bali.”

I am in awe of his visions and spirit.

Hence, when I was in Bali in end-2014, I naturally wanted to look for him and take a look at how he did his performances in Bali. He invited me to his home. Since 2007, Dibia has been organising an annual four-day arts festival for the purpose of providing a platform for young dancers to showcase their creations. My visit nicely coincided with this very festival.

His home is situated in a traditional village in Singapadu area, central Bali. Upon reaching his home, I received my first jolt: I was mesmerised by the beautiful and mysterious traditional Bali architecture. I also experienced local rituals – there were different houses for disparate groups, such as the audiences who were waiting, altar for worship, and porch for receiving guests. Everything was well organised. I was fortunate to have been invited to chat with him in the porch for receiving important guests.

The second thing that stunned me was the fact that there was a small theatre within the backyard of this traditional house. Dibia said that he was inspired to build the space based on a particular modern theatre venue. However, he used expensive local traditional wood to build it. The theatre’s name is GEOKS, and I could spy several flags proclaiming the word GEOKS in the neighbouring streets.

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(Picture: Gate of GEOKS Theatre)

Thirdly, I was expecting to watch traditional religious dance performances upon the touristy island of Bali. I was instead taken aback by how the arts festival presented extremely contemporary works by young dancers. Most of the dancers had bodies that spoke of rigorous traditional training, yet they used such bodies, in such a contemporary format, to showcase their own ideals. On one hand, this revealed their contemplations towards their own art forms, and it was a form of ideological revolution towards their teachers. On the other hand, this was also their journey in self-exploration.

The performance that left the deepest impression on me was by a full-figured male dancer. When he walked out, I was still doubtful of his dancing ability. But once he started moving, I was pleasantly surprised by his powerful technique and solid focus, evidently the result of a strong foundation in traditional training. However, his piece was very contemporary and full of creative ideals. This shows an interesting contrast – to present new content via a traditional body. The creations were not only about passing on and preserving a legacy; they took on an experimental spirit, in an attempt of self-expression. From this, I see many new possibilities in the traditional arts.

From these three aspects, I realised that the arts, especially traditional arts, is not a stagnated or self-confined object. There is actually much more that we can explore and try out in terms of style and content. We need only possess an open mind and an experimental spirit.

This also led me to reflect on my own numerous crossover experiments that involve the traditional arts. I have always felt that there is a trove of rich content and depth within the bodies of those who have received traditional training, and their well-versed ability in a specific style. There are many interactive possibilities with that of contemporary theatre. When we immerse the traditional within the contemporary theatre, the most traditional transforms into the most experimental.

Theatre actors of today can learn from traditional performers in terms of the latter’s body training and expression, and using these as a set of tools or method. And traditional performers could find inspiration within contemporary theatre, and strive to be ever more courageous in expressing oneself. These are the possibilities for mutual learning and interaction.

When we inculcate ourselves with a certain form, we establish a set of vocabulary that has taken a long time to be systemised, and this enables us to attain a level of mastery. In the end, however, what is most important is how you utilise these techniques for your own creative work, to give voice to what you wish to express. The greatest meaning lies in how you break down boundaries, delve into the essence of humanity, and contemplate in response to ever-changing styles. I always say that neither tradition nor the contemporary are stagnant. The traditions of today could well have been formulated after years of experiment. And is tradition that of ten, a hundred, or a thousand years ago? They are vastly different, and continue to challenge our sence of self as time elapses. Hence, we need not rigidly preserve what we deem as the traditions of today. We should instead continue to experiment, evaluate, and question ourselves, in hope of discovering more exciting forms and content.

From Dibia, his theatre and his artistic endeavours, I see how the traditional and contemporary – usually viewed as binary opposites – continually and mutually push forward and evolve, thus redefining what it means to be traditional and contemporary.   

My actors’ training as part of Practice Lab also has a methodology in its organisation, and part of it came from the exploration of a traditional actor’s body. The idea, however, is to use these methods as foundation, in order to ignite an actor’s own potential and ideas, giving them the capacity to develop as an artist, and to not limit themselves to the mere expression as an actor or craftsman. I believe that if one has a passion for the arts, one would not merely regurgitate the works of others, or simply imbibe a particular technique. It is more earnestly about wanting to express and explore. Up to a certain level, there is a methodology to the Practice Lab training process, beyond which there would come a need to question, deliberate, and even overthrow the original methods for a reorganisation. This enables attainment of technique mastery, and also development of independent thinking and an inquisitive spirit to view oneself and one’s own creations. This is how we truly become actors, artists and human beings, as we seek continuous self-improvement.

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(Picture: Liu Xiaoyi was having conversation with Mr. Dibia)


arrow  Continue reading on Issue 6 / March 2015:Living in the Present, Not Forgetting the Past