Dance review: Jagad

Inner worlds merge with the outer universe in this mystical work of contemporary dance.

We walk into the dark Arts House auditorium and are guided to sit on either side of a translucent screen, upon which a video of Rianto, tonight’s critically acclaimed Indonesian dancer, is projected. We watch as he applies makeup slowly and meditatively to his sculptural face, paints, false lashes and glittering eyeshadow. This sets the scene for the performance, which holds the attention similarly, with wonderment.

The mood shifts as Indonesian is spoken in voiceover by Rianto, with the words projected in English. A sequence of words stand out: piety, humility, pleasure, ambition. These will become linchpins for the performance, and referred to repeatedly in the movement phrases, expressions and mise-en-scène. 

Jagad leans into the concept of chaos. What is striking is the bold acceptance of chaos, something which in rationalist Western understanding has often had negative connotations with loss of control and lawlessness. Moments in Jagad see the dancers (Lilian Steiner, Surekha Krishnan, Mason Kelly, Samuel Harnett-Welk) writhing and screaming. Other moments see the pianist and composer (Monica Lim) climbing all over the piano and playing it upside down.

In the final scene, Rianto runs around the stage with a bull headdress, to low growling, traffic noises and birds squawking. These moments are the strength of the performance, where we are invited into these realms or universes (jagad translates as ‘universe’ in English) where beauty and terror live cheek by jowl and that ‘chaos’ is embraced. 

There is something so abjectly human yet absolutely divine about Melanie Lane’s choreography and how it is embodied by the dancers. Their bodies twist, curve and tumble with supple beauty. Monica Lim’s score at the beginning sounds like bubbling lava or melting candle wax as the dancers, painted scarlet and wearing minimal chrome-hued costumes flow around the central projections, partly visible on either side of the screen.

Rianto’s form enters the stage from several angles and at various moments throughout the performance. Floating on the balls of his feet and holding himself with utter grace, he appears to be levitating in the low lighting. Lilian Steiner does a beautiful solo, thrusting her hips skyward with ruminant poise.

This reminds me of a workshop in postgraduate dance studies where we learned that the pelvis was the ‘powerhouse of the body’ from whence all movement and intention emanates. Her agonised screams later on perhaps allude to the strength and beauty of childbirth, echoing the opening sequence of dialogue: ‘I am mother of all things in the universe’.

The rapid technical precision of the dancers at various points in Jagad cannot be understated as the roll over each other and dart past each other, alternately like waves and minnows. The fluidity of movement and how it worked with Lim’s score featuring nature sounds, piano, city sounds and chimes was really outstanding. 

Read: Exhibition review: Tyama

The final scene, where the dancers and Lim roll off stage on the piano is an appropriate ending to a piece that seemed to speak to the way we get ‘carried away’ in our chaotic microcosms and remind us that there is a whole (maybe many) universe(s) out there. 

Arts House, Melbourne

Producer: Monica Lim
Creative Concept: Monica Lim
Choreographers: Rianto, Melanie Lane
Dancers: Rianto, Lilian Steiner, Surekha Krishnan, Mason Kelly, Samuel Harnett-Welk
Sound Design: Monica Lim
Live Camera Design: Sean Healy, James Wright
Live Camera Operators: Sean Healy, Bob Jarvis
Lighting Designer: Nick Moloney
Stage Manager: Kaite Head
Tickets: $10-$35

Jagad will be performed until 7 August 2022 

Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada by Southerly Journal, LA Review of Books, Honey Literary Journal, Right Now, Delving Into Dance and more.