Reviewed by Patrick van den Berghe
Citation: P. van den Berghe, Review of Larasati, 2014, "The Dance That Makes You Vanish: Cultural Reconstruction in Post-Genocide Indonesia". New Asia Books, November 2015 (www.newbooks.asia)
Some time ago I had the chance to talk to Arnaud Kokosky Deforchaux, the Artistic Director of the Dutch Tong Tong Festival. Discussing the state of Indonesian dance in and outside Indonesia, Arnaud explained to me how difficult it was to engage non-conventional groups and dancers for performances and festivals. Especially when one tries to invite them through official go-betweens such as cultural missions, embassies or the Indonesian ministries of tourism or culture, one is always offered groups performing the same classical Javanese and Balinese dances. These groups travel around as exponents of Indonesia’s Arts Missions, or the state-administered performances of traditional arts.
His remark tailors Indonesian-born Rachmi Diyah Larasati's 'The dance that makes you vanish'. In this book the author, herself dancer and researcher alike, shows how the Indonesian state has tried to use dance performances in order to create an image of a peaceful, harmonious and homogenous society. This book focuses on Indonesian dance practice within Indonesia and outside after the 1965-coup, usually referred to as 'G30S/PKI' in which six army generals and one high-ranking officer were kidnapped and murdered, a feat that unleashed terror of unseen dimensions against those that were supposed to have connections to the leftist PKI – among them many artists belonging to LEKRA, the literary and social movement associated with the Indonesian Communist Party.
In the aftermath of these attacks many dance performers (most of them female) were either killed or removed from their positions and replaced by state-supported dancers, the so-called replicas. Rachmi Diyah Larasati investigates the continual erasure of the stories of those who were killed or who disappeared. For those readers, however, who are looking for descriptions or biographies of these performers, the book might prove rather disappointing, since the first half deals with this problem within a sociological and theoretical framework. Only in the second half does the author change the scope of her book and does she show how dances like Jejer and Barong functioned within Suharto's New Order. Another drawback of the book is that it does not include data about the number of people affected, which means that the reader interested to know more about this issue must rely on footnotes in the book or references to other publications.
Rachmi Diyah Larasati starts with pointing out that much of the knowledge held by dancers from the pre-Suharto period has been lost since many of them were replaced. Fortunately some of these dancers survived and managed to maintain their forbidden artistic practices. Rachmi Diyah Larasati seems to have been a lucky witness of these, since encounters of former dancers were held in her grandmother's garden. As such, these practices have survived and maintained their forbidden practice in the face of oppression. At the same time, through their secret character, these gatherings may have had the effect of undermining the New Order's attempt to remove cultural practice from conditions of resistance and opposition. Under the Suharto administration the efforts to ban and vilify certain dance forms while promoting and supporting others deemed more in line with national doctrine sculpted the nation's new identity of a peaceful and harmonious state. In order to create this image the state not only replaced unwanted dancers with more 'reliable' performers, it also created a set of 'safe' cultural performances, which it drew mainly from Balinese and Javanese court culture. These dances were considered fit, clean and politically acceptable, because of their form and the values they expressed. Javanese court dances are often seen as representing the straight and symbolic line between mythical rulers from the past and Suharto. By staging these dances the State confirmed Suharto's unique position within the Indonesian story. In addition to these old, but re-choreographed dances, the New Order also commissioned new performances, but always demanded that these that were danced in a courtly style. The result of all this is of course that tourists in Indonesia, and audiences (including foreign officials and functionaries) outside the country, have been presented with idealized performances whose main goal was to cover up the (memory of the) genocide committed in 1965-1966.
As Larasati shows, audiences familiar with this painful period in Indonesian history might see the resemblances in the Barong Dance whose central story of the fight between a witch and kris-wielding soldiers not only presents the visitor with an authentic imitation of ritual temple stabbing, but also reminds us of the violence during the aftermath of the 30 September coup. It is very regretful that international organisations such as Unesco have never pinpointed this misuse of dancing when officially applauding its significance for mankind!
The state-supported dances featuring refined female dancers are at odds with the picture of crazy, bloodthirsty women dancing on the bodies of the assassinated generals, a picture that was used in the New Order's propaganda movies. Their dancing symbolizes the gruesome, demoralized character of women said to be members of the repulsive Indonesian communist party or its affiliate movements. It is one of the examples of a cultural expression, in this case dancing, that is recategorised by a no-less aggressive administration that was Soeharto's New Order.
During her career as a state dancer, Larasati travelled to many countries. Quite logically, Cambodia's recent history reminded her of her own country – in her book she uses Cambodia as a 'cultural mirror'. Unlike Indonesia, Cambodia showed a much greater openness to the genocide that raged through the country in the late Seventies. The Cambodian state uses dance performances and dancing bodies as a kind of recovery from damage done by the Khmer Rouge. This display, showing recent horror alongside the beauty of a mythical past, conflicts with the Indonesian approach, where recent history is 'restaged'. Larasati fails to show examples of how Cambodia has come to this symbiosis.
After more than half a century, victims of the New Order have tried to integrate their experiences into the official history. The value that has been placed by the Indonesian state on dance practices creates an excellent opportunity for female performers to comment on recent history (most of the state performances are carried out by female artists). While their identities are oppressed and sold on local and global (cultural) markets, their role as exhibits of the idealized cultural heritage and diversity of Indonesia proves their paramount position within this discourse. If only some of them could find cracks in the walls that surround these performances, and could make alliances with unchecked artists locally and internationally, this could lead to a questioning of the existing channels of power and an exploration of the possibilities for resistance. It may in the end lead to investigations concerning the past of dancers.
However, Larasati's main concern is to show how those most affected by the crimes of dictatorship carry in them the potential to become seeds of counter-memorialisation. At least this is her claim at the beginning of the book. As far as my reading of the book goes, this promise is not really fulfilled. Larasati gets stuck in theoretical discourse, often caused by lengthy and rather obscure sentences. Although this book has many merits (such as motivating me to re-read ‘The Dancer’, the book by Ahmad Tohari about a Ronggeng-dancer in the 1965-1966 turmoil), it calls for more information about the lives and experiences of the dancers who 'vanished'.
Patrick van den Berghe, independent researcher (email@example.com)