Lee Mun Wai wasn’t that wild about Black Sun in his review for ST. He’s a thoroughly trained dancer, so he knows what he’s talking about.
Me? I loved it. I was spellbound. First by the massive cloth hanging featuring the image of an eclipse, filmy figures writhing in the grey smog of a sky.
And then by the dancers who scuttled in like roaches under their carapaces: massive wajans, or Indonesian woks. Eleven of them, arranged in a rough grid, nervously hiding from some force above, until eventually one of them overturns, revealing an ancient bearded man.
He’s wild-eyed, wild-haired and moonstruck, his face as senseless as a troglodyte’s. With great difficulty, he manages to grip his feet against the inside walls of the wajan, reaching up towards the heavens with staggered arms.
And then one by one, the other wajans overturn. At first, the dancers nestle in them like fetal oysters, but then they too rise, and begin testing the possibilities of the vessels, swiveling them around the floor as if they’re hemispherical surfboards.
They’re six young Papua men, topless but in wildly coloured leggings, and four young non-Papua women, in ripped skin-coloured rags and metallic glitter. Some move tentatively, others violently with flailing arms, so violently that they actually progress across the floor and the old man retreats back into his shell…
(This must be one hell of a core workout!)
And a soundscape of crashing waves. It occurs to me that just as in Live Painting, I can see the Javanese dance influences in the movements of the women, but no corresponding influences in the movements of the men. But then all I know about Papua dance is a few playful, rambunctious numbers from Jecko Siompo…
But finally it comes: the men finally leap out of their wajans and begin crashing into one another, yelling out in Bahasa and pidgin, colliding and collapsing, constructing towers of their bodies, or are they ships, then abandoning them and rushing to another corner for another fleshly erection…
The women and the old man have been extending rope to one another at this time, and they get caught up in the chaos, pulled this way and that. They spin, they fall to the ground, and the soundscape is one of a turbulent storm…
And then they fall to the ground, and the sound technician waltzes on stage. I’d noticed he was topless earlier, but this is the first time I see he’s wearing a koteka, a traditional Papuan penis sheath. He’s also carrying toy laser guns which sparkle neon and play sci-fi soundtracks as he gallivants across the space like a faun in spring re-enacting Mission: Impossible, all this overlaid with Al Jazeera news reports in Arabic and Bahasa…
Then two shamans come in, a man and a woman, chanting away the evil. They’re not Papua: my Indon friend who was with me recognised the woman as the Acehnese diva Nyak Ina Raseuki. But they restore calm and order to the world.
And when they leave, the dancers are hidden under their shells again. But the old man emerges, the rope strung around his neck. And once more, he begins to rise.
I think I’m leaving some bits out of this hour-long performance. But you get the gist of it: there’s a clear narrative of a rise and fall and regeneration.
Though I only watched the dress rehearsal of Dimitris Papaioannou’s Still Life, I’d venture to say it’s very similar: it’s also a creation myth, told through the lens of crisis and desperation—the Greek economic situation on one hand, and West Papua’s environmental and cultural devastation on the other.
And both are dances hinging on the interactions of humans with inanimate objects. And why shouldn’t they be? Many myths say that humans arose from the inanimate, whether it was from mud or from a cave in the belly of the earth.
So in each performance, mankind breaks forth from shells and engages in absurd travails which expend great effort and result in very little, all sound and fury, signifying nothing…
But after a descent into barbarism, there is some redemption. In Still Life, everyone sits down to eat at the table the dancers have borne in on their heads, as normalcy and community are restored.
In Black Sun, the scenario is grimmer. Civilisation really has to fall into absolute primitivism in order for any hope to be reborn.
There are other differences, of course. Relations between the sexes are different in each: there is gender fluidity in Still Life, as men become women and vice versa, while in Black Sun men’s role in making wild mischief is quite clearly contrasted by the women’s essential conservatism in staying in their shells.
And of course, while Still Life is pretty egalitarian, Black Sun centres around the image of the sage: the ancient man who is the harbinger and the keeper of wisdom, however doddering and compromised he may appear. Which is not very strange, considering that Sardono is 71 years old—nothing cultivates a belief in the importance of the old than being old oneself.
Interestingly, a chat with the costume designer (credited as Olive and Her Narciss Bandit) reveals that there are differences between an earlier version of Black Sun and what was shown in Singapore. She claims the premiere in Solo/Surakarta had sexier costumes: all the men wore kotekas, all the women showed considerably more skin.
Did SIFA, a supposed bastion of cultural liberalism in a sea of conservatism, end up with a censored version of this show? Or were there safety concerns that the men would impale themselves on their penis sheaths?
And come to think of it, isn’t it a teensy bit problematic that the chaos of civilisation is represented through Papua dance, when it’s actually Javanese-led exploitation that’s causing devastation?
I guess there’s a lot to unpack in terms of cultural power relations here. Ong Keng Sen, a Chinese Singaporean, commissioning Sardono W. Kusumo, a Javanese Indonesian, who in turn employs Papuan performers. Does this work empower the disempowered, or does it simply replicate and reinforce existing hierarchies for the pleasure of a bourgeois audience?
As arts practitioners, we want to believe that we’re forces of good: the shamans, singing the devastated world back into a state of health.
But sometimes we’re just wild dancers, scrambling about, making towers of ourselves that topple over too soon.
Which is OK, really. That, too, is a kind of beauty.