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: