Jakarta. "Split," an award-winning dance by Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin, can be interpreted as a piece about what happens to ourselves as the space around us – personal, living, the world itself – keeps getting smaller. The dance was performed at the Salihara International Performing Arts Festival (SIPFest) on Saturday and Sunday (04-05/08) to rapturous applause from the audience.
In Split, two female dancers, one clad in a simple grey dress (Melanie Lane – the daughter of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's English translator Max Lane) and the other completely nude (Lilian Steiner), started in a burst of energetic, precise choreography.
After about 15 minutes, the dancers stepped aside, out of character. They put a line of white tape on the black stage, dividing it into two.
They resumed dancing on one side of the divided stage. Their movements showed more aggression this time and the harmony we saw earlier was disrupted.
Sometimes both dancers moved like a mime, suggesting a conflict between the two. Each tried to overpower the other, but at the same time they looked desperate to get closer.
As the dancers kept dividing the stage space with more white tape, then keeping themselves within the new space that's half the size of the one before it, their moves became more and more erratic.
Salihara's black box theater felt a little claustrophobic as the dancers stepped further and further away from the audience until in the end they nestled in the only space remaining for them in the back corner of the stage.
As Guerin said in the press conference, the dance can be interpreted in many ways: as a battle between the public and private selves, or as two people struggling to live as earth’s resources keep declining.
Split premiered in March 2017, but for Sunday’s stellar performance, the dancers only had days to rehearse.
After the performance, Lane and Steiner said they hadn’t performed the piece in three months.
But that didn’t stop the dancers from getting a standing ovation. Many in the audience also stayed for the Q&A session after the show.
Guerin, whose company Lucy Guerin Inc is based in Melbourne, said she created the dance in eight weeks after working on some very large projects.
"I was really missing the intimacy of my usual way of working. I had been overseas a lot... in London, and I sort of felt that I needed to refocus my energy and my interest in a small, more intimate work," she told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.
Her choice of Steiner and Lane has proven to be a masterstroke, with the duo winning several awards including the 2018 Green Room Award for Ensemble, Duo or Trio.
"I’ve worked with Lilian quite a lot in the past five years and I think she’s a really exceptional dancer. One of my favorites that I've worked with. I'd never worked with Melanie before but I’d seen her choreography and I’d seen her dance. I felt that she had this particular, unusual quality that would work well with Lilian, and that I really connected with as a choreographer," Guerin said.
The choreographer, who spent seven years dancing professionally in New York in the 1990s, said she experimented with many ideas for Split, including dancing in big plastic bags and copying cartoon movements.
"One of the ideas was to do these mesmerizing, looping, repetitive movements. I wanted to give them a context and I had this idea of dividing the stage and also of creating this very visceral, physical but very precise choreography," Guerin said.
Guerin said she wanted to put the dancers in "almost different worlds" in Split. Since the piece seems to suggest a conflict between the public versus the private selves, having one dancer in costume and one sans costume seems to be the logical choice.
Guerin said Lilian's state of undress is meant to show that nudity is normal and a big part of ourselves.
"It’s plain. You can see her body. There’s nothing scary about it. There’s nothing confronting about it in the least, and she [Lilian] is very comfortable. In a way, I felt like it was a different way of using nudity, that wasn’t about vulnerability. It wasn’t about sexuality or sexualizing of women. It was just saying a woman’s body is fine. It’s okay. And comfortable. She’s doing exactly what the other woman’s doing but you can actually see the way the body works and you see the skill and the detail," Guerin said.
The choreographer admitted she was a bit worried the nudity would attract unwelcome attention in Indonesia, since she'd heard that public performances in revealing costumes – let alone nudity – often draw a public outcry.
"I was a little worried. I'd heard there’s some conservatism toward nudity but Salihara reassured me they've had this type of work before and that in the context of the Salihara theater and this festival, it would be fine. But I also took a lot of precautions. They made people give them their phones so nobody could take photos or films between the piece and they have very good security, so I felt very reassured," Guerin said.
The audience was informed of the nudity before the show. Those who felt uncomfortable were allowed to leave and given refunds for their tickets, but everyone chose to stay and no one seemed perturbed by the full frontal nudity.
The Jakarta performance was Split's first international showcase. The dance is now touring all over the world. Full dates and venues are available on Lucy Guerin Inc’s official website.