2020 Festival Report: Case Study

The Planet – A Lament

AUSTRALIA / INDONESIA

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The Planet – A Lament was conceived by visionary Indonesian film director, Garin Nugroho, in response to experiencing 2004’s devastating tsunami in Aceh, north-west Sumatra.  Structured around an original song cycle, the work incorporates film, music and live dance to tell the story of a community rocked by environmental catastrophe. The sea, wind and fire wipe out humanity, a lone survivor remains on earth and is tasked to carry an egg of new beginning to give birth to new life on earth. 

Before the global events that have characterised 2020 came in to focus, Nugroho foresaw that “these issues will be very prominently discussed in 2020, and we will be presenting them in the form of a lament, as it is a form of prayer for disaster victims but also for a renewed hope for a sense of togetherness and positivity”.

Arts Centre Melbourne’s commission for Asia TOPA 2020, The Planet – A Lament drew from diverse cultures across the Indonesian Archipelago;

  • music and movement of Melanesia,
  • hip hop street dance of Jayapura (Papua),
  • choral singing of East Nusua Tenggara,
  • Javanese dance and
  • lament songs of the Papuan hinterland and the island of Flores.



Creative team

Director Garin Nugroho
Composer / Soloist Septina Rosalina Layan
Dramaturg Michael Kantor
Set & Costume Designer Anna Tregloan
Lighting Designer Iskandar K Loedin
Choir Mazmur Chorale, Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

Dancers and Creators
Rianto
Serraimere Boogie
Heinbertho J. B. D. Koirewoa (Douglas)
Pricillia Elisabeth Monica (Elis)
Paul Amandus Dwaa (Becham)

Choreographer Joy Alpuerto Ritter
Assistant Director Otniel Tasman
Composers Septina Layan, Taufik Adam & Nursalim Yadi Anugerah
Stage Manager Alim Jeni
Production Assistant Reny Suci
Project Manager Rina Damayanti
Executive Producer Jala Adolphus for Turning World

Creation

The second major Nugroho work commissioned by Asia TOPA, The Planet – A Lament followed international success of Satan Jawa (2017), a silent film set to live orchestral and gamelan score, premiering in Melbourne before touring Europe, North America and Asia.

“Satan Jawa was very successful for us artistically and the final product was amazing.” said Asia TOPA Associate Director, Kate Ben-Tovim: “It was exactly what we hoped to achieve in terms of providing major artists in the region with the resources and opportunity to create works of scale - and then go on to present the work at all the best venues in the world.”

The success of Satan Jawa and the strong relationship that formed meant on-going conversations soon turned to a discussion about creating a new work for 2020. “It felt like we had this very special relationship, Garin is a major artist that we wanted to keep in a dialogue with.” said Ben-Tovim.

Turning to the stage, The Planet – A Lament was to be Nugroho’s first large-scale theatrical work. Previously having worked primarily in the medium of film, Nugroho was supported to take greater creative risks by the Australian theatre-specialist creative team in collaboration with composers, visual artists and choreographers from across Indonesia.

The vision was again to create a work of scale led by artists from Indonesia, focusing this time, on Melanesian culture.

Through their foundational collaborative relationship, Asia TOPA was able to encourage Nugroho to also explore the concept of incorporating an Indonesian choir into the work, and connect him with Australian theatre luminary Michael Kantor, and leading Australian theatre designer Anna Tregloan.

The Australian collaborators enhanced expertise in dramaturgy and stage production, as well as experience with choirs, musicians and non-professional performers. The international networks of the wider Asia TOPA team made possible the scope and scale of the work.

With commitment from Asia TOPA and additional investment secured from the Australian Government through the Australia-Indonesia Institute (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), the work attracted co-commissioning support from Theater der Welt (Germany) and Holland Festival, both of whom were familiar with Satan Jawa and on that basis, committed to re-stage the work following Asia TOPA.

Over a two-year period, Nugroho, Kantor, Tregloan and members of the producing team undertook research trips across Eastern Indonesia, participating in periods of intensive creative development.

Central to the vision was the Papuan lament tradition – a centuries-old practice among Christian communities of East Nusa Tenggara in which stories of life, death, war and disaster are set to pentatonic music (of five notes), and sung at religious events and funerals.

“For me, lamentation is a story of experiencing the pain of humanity to find the path of love and wakening” said Nugroho, who said that much of the creative process was spent exploring the right laments. 

In November 2018, Tregloan and Kantor joined Nugroho in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, where they met the Mazmur Chorale, a semi-professional gospel choir who eventually featured throughout the final work.

Papuan composer and vocal soloist Septina Layan was also brought on board along with two contemporary Indonesian composers, Taufik Adam and Nursalim Yadi Anugerah, and commissioned to create 70 minutes of original choral music based on traditional laments. “From there, picking the songs was also an extended process" said Nugroho, “as was transforming them from traditional songs to choir numbers.”

The Asia TOPA team sought appropriate ways to support Layan on her journey of assuming a central artistic role, even though she had not performed internationally before, and was taking a great step personally and professionally to carry the weight of such a substantial work.

Jala Adolphus, Executive Producer for The Planet, and long-time collaborative partner of Asia TOPA and Nugroho noted that, “A female Papuan composer is rarely supported as a key creative voice in large international projects, to facilitate collaboration at this level of international practice is something I hope will seed important opportunities in her career and the pathway for others.”

Supporting Layan, Asia TOPA recruited a female production team, and worked to accommodate commitments to her young family. The casting of a female street dancer to feature in the work, who was discovered and auditioned following a beach-side dance battle in Jayapura, was a further departure from gender stereotypes of masculinity prevalent in Indonesia’s urban culture.

Watch rehearsal of choir

In November 2019, a week-long development workshop in Kupang saw the various elements of the work come together for the first time. For Ben-Tovim who attended the workshop, “along with the usual challenges that come with developing ambitious work in short time frames with a large team, there was the added complexity of cross-cultural collaboration- there are multiple languages on the go, multiple WhatsApp groups, contrasting working methods.... it’s exciting, but really hard."

The scale and ambition of Nugroho’s vision brought with it significant obstacles – particularly with the creative team split across two countries, as well as many artists brought together on the project being from remote areas of Indonesia. The complexity of the production tested cross-cultural communications and established ways of working, from very structured, formal processes in Australia, to a more informal, organic practice of creating in Indonesia.

Tregloan described Nugroho’s creative process as a “collector” open to the many contributors that made the production “He stays open to ideas and plans his process and concept to reflect the strengths of those he has assembled. For this to work he had to trust talented contributors that didn’t necessarily possess stage experience.”

Nugroho had ultimate responsibility to bring the many production elements together. Adolphus described his process as “a horizontal ecosystem” approaching the team, project and relationships equally with a macro-perspective towards each individual’s growth, while also keeping a view towards “the development of the greater landscape of Indonesian performing arts and the necessary rigorous dialogue with international practice and partners”.

In January 2020, the production moved to Jakarta where the full cast assembled for the first time. A week-long intensive rehearsal was hosted at the Taman Ismail Marzuki (Jakata), at the end of which a preview performance was hosted for Indonesian media and public audience.

“This created important momentum for the creative team” as Ben-Tovim explained, “for many Indonesian artists, it doesn’t get real until it gets on to a stage, and we had a show by the end of that week”.

On reflection, Tregloan said that week was vital to pulling the production together and meant they could fine-tune several elements before travelling to Melbourne.

The preview was incredibly beneficial to coverage of the work both in Australia and Indonesia. A large turnout of 80 journalists attended the presentation, and Ben-Tovim noted “Presenting a sophisticated production of Melanesian culture on stage in Jakarta is unusual, it doesn’t feature on the main stage much in Indonesia.” Adolphus said “To have this work supported to come to life is such a huge opportunity.”

The preview was set against a backdrop of the catastrophic Australian bushfire season and devastating floods in Indonesia, meaning the central theme of mourning man’s effect on the environment carried even more resonance.

The subject matter and timing drew strong media attention, a headline-making lens through which to view the work. Amanda Hodge of The Australian said, “As eastern Australia is buffeted by competing furies of deluges and bushfires, Indonesia faced some of the worst floods in decades. Both countries are counting the cost of catastrophes.”




Presentation

The Planet – A Lament opened Asia TOPA 2020 at Arts Centre Melbourne, with two well-attended performances for 1224 people. The focus on Melanesian culture was a welcome shift from the largely Javanese-centric depiction of Indonesian culture usually seen in Australia.

The work’s narrative was driven by the Mazmur Chorale, through 10 original laments composed by Septina Layan, supported by Taufik Adam and Nursalim Yadi Anugerah. The striking set, by Anna Tregloan, was a patchwork of discarded clothing sourced from markets of Kupang.

The 75-minute work featured an extensive cast of 28 performers and 15 creatives.

Watch the trailer for The Planet – A Lament

Watch The Planet – A Lament full performance

Watch

Please note this video is not available for viewing in Europe due to licensing.


The timing was not lost on Nugroho who said “It’s a good time to lament in Australia, it is a time when the country is mourning what it has lost. A lament naturally appears when it is required.”

Dancer and choreographer Rianto said performing in Asia TOPA was “an extraordinary moment” and “it was a very professional work, with great people. It is not easy to make a large work by uniting the differences across so many elements.”

Another performer described it as “One of the most satisfying, expansive and well-curated events I’ve been privileged to partake of.”

Media responded emotionally to the environmental context in which the work was presented, with many reviews expressing sympathy between Australia and Indonesia for our shared environmental concerns. One review said “We are grieving together with the hope of renewal” (Theatre People).

Overall, audiences were impacted by the universal themes of suffering and environmental degradation that were raised by the production. One audience member said “The performance was very moving about contemporary events in the world. It drew attention to suffering but there was rebirth with laments, and a story of people surviving.”

“To have this work supported to come to life is such a huge opportunity. It's the first time a Melanesian work of this scale has been presented on major international stages.” said Adolphus.




Legacy

Developed over a two-year period of cultural exchanges across the Indonesian archipelago and Melbourne, The Planet – A Lament created lasting relationships between an internationally-regarded creative leadership team.

The journey undertaken by the artists from Indonesia was considerable, particularly those from Jayapura and Kupang, who were not professional performers, and had never taken part in a project of this scale or complexity.

The Australian creative team gained new skills, knowledge and networks. Even for those who had worked in Indonesia before, focusing on more remote parts of the archipelago introduced them to new artistic forms and different cultural traditions and a breadth.

The Melbourne premiere was recorded for broadcast, and has been made available for public streaming by Arts Centre Melbourne as part of an online season of recordings, talks and specially commissioned documentaries featuring the commissioned works from the 2020 festival. With such a strong artistic outcome being made available to a global audience, it is anticipated that the Indonesian artists in particular, will be increasingly sought after, both in Indonesia as well as internationally, contributing to the acceleratation and sustainability of their careers.

Repeat performances scheduled for Germany, Holland and Singapore have been postponed as a result of the global pandemic, although the initial commitment reinforces that a global market exists for large-scale new works that represent a 21st Century view of the Asia-Pacific region.

Reflecting on the work, Ben-Tovim noted “Asia TOPA’s strength is that it is a commissioning festival, presenting new, original works from the region, that don’t often get a chance to be presented on the world stage. We want to continue making strong artistic work led by artists from Indonesia, produced at scale. Indonesia is one of our closest neighbours, and it is part of our responsibility as neighbours for our audiences to see these works.”

Asia TOPA’s second major work commissioned from Garin Nugroho has resulted in a deep trusting relationship. Nugroho and Anna Tregloan are already in discussion on further collaborative projects, and Tregloan hopes to continue working with the Indonesian artists she became close with during the process.

Overall, the ambition and scale pushed all artists to new levels of artistry and professionalism – particularly those who had less experience. To see the Australian and Indonesian artists strive for such a high standard together was thrilling for all involved.


Images credits:
Gregory Lorenzutti – Main image, Gallery images