Dancing in the 'Contact Zone'

Monica Wulff


In October 2002 I performed and exhibited Troppo Obscura: A Peepshow of Historical Perversity at the Performance Space as part of the multicultural Arts festival, Carnivale, in Sydney, Australia. Troppo Obscura is a multimedia installation that explores some aspects of the complex relationships between the West and Asia. The work looks at a large range of possibilities, from the colonial gaze through to personal relationships forged through artistic endeavor. This paper—the first of two extended mediations on the topic—focuses on one such personal relationship addressed in the installation, namely that between traditional master mask dancer Ibu Sawitri from Cirebon on the West coast of Java, Indonesia and myself, a Sydney based contemporary dancer and performance artist. Between 1992 and 1999, the year Ibu Sawitri passed away, I spent many long-term visits learning dance and living in Ibu Sawitri’s house in Losari. This essay focuses on Ibu Sawitri’s family and dance background and how she, the younger generation of dancers, the dance context, and the dance itself, have been transformed over time as a result of rapidly changing socio-historical conditions. In the second half of this paper I move the discussion to the broader issues of cross-cultural encounters in what Pratt terms the ‘contact zone’ (1992). This includes looking at dance as an embodied practice and its function in the ‘contact zone’ as well as dealing with Spivak’s debates about the subaltern voice in reference to my telling of Ibu Sawitri’s story, both in the installation and in text. A closer analysis of the dynamics of my dance with Ibu Sawitri in the ‘contact zone’ is addressed here.


Indonesia; dance; Australia; performance; postcolonialism

Full Text:



Bellei, S.L.P. 1998, Cannibalism and the New World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Chambers, I. 1996, 'Signs of Silence, Lines of Listening', in I. Chambers and L. Curti (eds), The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, Routledge, London, New York, 47-65. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780203297865

Foley, K. 1985, 'The Dancer and the Danced: Trance Dance and Traditional Performance in West Java', Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 2, 128-149. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1124505

Fusco, C. 2001, The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings, Routledge, London and New York.

Foulcher, K. 1986, Social Commitment in Literature and the Arts: the Indonesian 'Institute of People's Culture', 1950-1965, Centre of Southeast Asian Studies Monash University, Clayton, Vic.

Geertz, C. 1976, The Religion of Java, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Hage, G. 2003, 'The Anatomy of Anti-Arab Racism, ' The Australian Financial Review, 15 August, 9.

Holt, C. 1967, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Masunah, J. 2000, Sawitri Penari Topeng Losari, Tarawang, Yogyakarta.

Pioquinto, C.E. 1995, Dangdut: Indonesian Popular Music: Gender and Performance, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Sydney.

Pratt, M.L. 1992, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Routledge, London and New York.

Ricklefs, M.C. 2001, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1200, 3rd edn, Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Said, E. 1996, 'From Orientalism', in P. Mongia (ed.), Contemporary Post Colonial Theory, Arnold, New York.

Sawitri 1993, Interview with the author, Losari/Cirebon (Indonesia).

Sawitri 1996, Interview with the author, Losari/Cirebon (Indonesia).

Sawitri 1998, Interview with the author, Losari/Cirebon (Indonesia).

Sawitri 1999, Interview with the author, Losari/Cirebon (Indonesia).

Sawitri and Gamelan players 1996, Interview with the author, Losari/Cirebon (Indonesia).

Schechner, R. 1991, 'Intercultural Themes', in B. Marranca and G. Dasgupta (eds), Interculturalism and Performance, PAJ Publications, New York.

Sears, L.J. 1996, Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, Duke University Press, Durham and London.

Sen, K. 1994, Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order, Zed Books, London.

Sen, K. and Hill, D.T. 2000, Media, Culture and Politics in Indonesia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Spivak, G. 1988, 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' in G. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, MacMillan, London, 271-313.

Suanda, E. 1983, Topeng Cirebon: In its Social Context, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT.

Suanda, E. 1988, 'Dancing the Cirebonese Topeng', Journal of the American Gamelan Institute, vol. 3, no. 3, 7-15.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/portal.v3i2.168