Ade Suharto – Embracing Heritage Through Dance

By Grace Edwards.

Indonesian-Australian dancer Ade Suharto hopes to take us with her on a journey of self-discovery in her latest work, In Lieu. First encouraged to study Indonesian dance whilst studying dance at the University of Adelaide, Ade’s interest soon blossomed and ultimately led to two years spent studying classical Javanese dance in Solo, working with prominent choreographer Boi Sakti in Jakarta and reconnecting with her family’s cultural heritage.

Ade has since worked with numerous other artists and companies including Hartati, Eko Supriyanto, Julia Mage’au Gray, theatre director WS Rendra, Lemi Ponifasio’s MAU dance company and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Earlier this year, Ade was the Artistic Director of INDOfest 2011 – Adelaide’s 4th Indonesian festival of arts, food and culture and will assume the same role in 2012.

Currently performing In Lieu at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s 2011 OzAsia Festival, Ade spoke to Dance Informa’s Grace Edwards about the joys and challenges of embracing her dual heritage through dance.

Ade, can you tell us in your own words what your latest work, In Lieu, is all about?
This piece draws on my experiences studying dance in Indonesia and my memories of trying to fit in, but it is also about making those experiences important to my life in Australia. It reflects on how I reference being Indonesian whilst still living here, through dance.

In Lieu, photo by Suharto Kotlowy

Have you ever found it difficult to reconcile your contemporary training with the more traditional movements of classical Javanese dance?
What has intrigued me over the past year is looking at classical dance and thinking about what parts I can translate or explore through the choreographic techniques I was taught at uni.

I don’t wear a traditional costume on stage; I’m not fully dressed in ‘Javanese bling’ so to speak! [laughs]. But I am wearing a kain, which is the same style you would use if you were performing Javanese classical dance in Indonesia. I do one section which is pure Javanese dance in the beginning so that people can look at the form, but then I actually explore the costume, using the costume in a different way. This is a metaphor for my experiences negotiating culture.

Traditionally in Javanese dance the compositions are about an hour long. It is a very slow and restrained dance and they repeat whole phrases of movement in four directions representative of north, south, east and west. I use the idea of repetition to see what it says, but I use different movement dynamics to explore this idea.

There are many dance styles within the broader world of Indonesian dance. Do you work in a particular style?
Yes. In classical Javanese dance there are three styles; there’s one style for females which is a refined style called tari putri. For males there are two styles; there’s a refined style, but also a more unrefined style which sometimes involves characters that are evil, and they do much larger movements.

When I was in Indonesia I only focused on the female style.  There are a number of dances in the classical Javanese tradition that females study. I took classes in those various dances.

Are there any unique challenges involved in being a classical Javanese dancer working in Adelaide?
If I perform Indonesian dances, generally it is usually just for the Indonesian community, perhaps for their Independence Day celebrations or an Indonesian community’s annual dinner. I find that there haven’t been a lot of opportunities or scope to perform outside of a cultural context for a more contemporary dance audience. I’m really happy to have had this opportunity to create In Lieu, to create a sort of ‘proper’ work in order to share this dance language and take the audience on a journey which contextualises the movement and the culture I am exploring.

Which aspect of classical Javanese dance appeals to you the most?
I guess it’s the fact that one can really enjoy moving at a speed that is quite slow and paced, to just feel at one with the music and have a complete experience as a dancer.

One of the major themes of the OzAsia festival is the idea of cross-cultural dialogue. Why do you think this is important to encourage in the arts?|
Because there are lots of ways to dance. What we learn in university is largely influenced by what’s happening here in Australia, in Europe and the States. Whenever you do dance history or dance criticism you’re generally looking at dance pioneers from those various regions, but really, it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how you can dance. I feel lucky to have kept my eyes open to see who is interesting, particularly in Asia, and lucky to have spent time working with those people. Being part of their community has taught me that there are a lot of ways to dance. I hope to share that in In Lieu.

What feeds your personal fascination with the themes you explore in In Lieu?
I would say its personal experience, but I don’t think they are experiences that are exclusive to me. They apply generally to anyone who has a second culture or whose parents come from overseas somewhere – the journey of discovering or rediscovering your parent’s heritage, which isn’t inherently part of you.

What was it like to learn an entirely new way of dancing? What were your major challenges?
They don’t teach you in front of a mirror in Indonesia, so it’s completely different to classical ballet where you’re always looking at your lines. It’s probably quicker to correct yourself if you can see what it’s supposed to look like. It’s all about internalising it. It’s a longer process to actually get things right, but perhaps you get it on a deeper level if you can sort of feel your way through?

Even the music was a challenge. The tempo changes and varies and the idea of listening to the drum was difficult. It is still counted in eights, just like it is in western dance, but the musicality of it took a while to get used to, particularly as you always dance with a sampur in classical Javanese dance. A sampur is like a scarf that’s tied around the waist. You are always dancing with this prop. The use of the sampur is such that you flick it at different times in sync with the gong. There’s usually a musical connection. Just learning how to manipulate the sampur presented a continual challenge.

It looks very easy but classical Javanese dance is in fact, at least for me, quite complex!

In Lieu
Date: 6 – 7 September, 7.30pm

Venue: Space Theatre,  Adelaide Festival Centre
For more information or to book, visit

Top photo: Sam Oster

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