Tonight will see a Javanese possession tradition, Kuda Lumping, performed in Australia for the first time, as part of the Supersense Festival at the Arts Centre Melbourne.
Kuda Lumping, or Jahtilan, is a trance dance that has its ancient roots in pre-Islamic Indonesia. Originally thought to be a re-enactment of wars long past, it is the artistic expression, in dance and music, of people from the kampung (village). In contrast to the highly disciplined and refined forms of Javanese dance, Kuda Lumping is fluid and raw, and is not performed by “professional” dancers. It is in every way a living culture and is embedded in contemporary life in Java. It is often performed to celebrate circumcisions and to mark personal and community achievements.
Kuda Lumping, literally “flat horse”, refers to the bamboo horses that performers ride in the ceremony. Performers are typically young men, who, as they are dancing, become immersed in the repetitive beat of accompanying music, and build towards a trance state. In this trance state, a door is opened to the spiritual world and the dead enter the bodies of the performers. As participants become possessed, they perform physical feats of strength, such as eating glass, walking on coals, or smashing roof tiles on one another. Spectators have also been known to enter a trance state through watching the performance.
The performance is being brought to Melbourne by Padepokan Gunung Ukir, a troupe from Batu, East Java, an area that is renowned for its deep trance and extreme interpretations of the Kuda Lumping tradition.
Padepokan Gunung Ukir will be collaborating with choreographer and stage and film director Gideon Obarzanek. The project is an interesting experiment between Asian expressions of the ecstatic, or transcendence, and those found in western contemporary art. It intends to find a commonality between the two approaches. As Obarzanek explains:
“It is a risky proposition to perform a traditional event away from its customary environment – in this case a clearing in a remote village – and place it indoors on a vast opera stage. Prior to travelling to far East Java, I was also concerned at the spectacle nature of strangers looking on at an animistic religious or spiritual event. But once surrounded by buzzing mopeds, snack vendors and curious family groups on mobile phones I realised this is indeed a show, a spectacle and a genuine communion with the spirits of the dead.
“Kuda Lumping is one of those exciting combinations unique to Indonesia and as the evening gains momentum we find ourselves witnesses to an ephemeral in-between space for the living and the dead to come and play, dance and dare.
“Rather than try to re-create elements of where this performance ritual normally happens, the performers and I have discussed a neutral empty space that begins to shift into a state of ‘other’ as the dancers become spirit vessels. This is a big experiment. The performance cannot be rehearsed and because the shifting colour environment responds to the sound of the live music, the lighting cannot be pre-programmed.”
The performance will involve closing the State Theatre stage to allow the audience to be up on stage with the performers. Conditioning the State Theatre space and using western methods of the ecstatic – in this case, interactive light and sound created with high-end technology – will provide the audience with a familiar visual language. This visual language works in concert with the Kuda Lumping performance to potentially create this unique “other” space.
This approach enhances the environment for the spirits to come and inhabit the dancers’ bodies, and may trigger new ways in which the spirits will manifest.
Kuda Lumping: Ritual Trance from Indonesia is being presented on Friday 7th August as part of the Supersense Festival at Arts Centre Melbourne.
To buy tickets for Kuda Lumping, you can purchase a Friday Night Festival pass here.