Continuing an ancient friendship

11 July 2017

A project supported by the Australia Indonesia Institute (AII) is enhancing understanding between Indonesia and Australia by reviving the ancient friendship that exists between the two nations through dance.

Titled ‘Reconnecting Our Connection’, the project involves members of the Suara Indonesia Dance company visiting and conducting dance workshops in Aboriginal communities and schools in North East Arnhem Land.

‘We wanted to reconnect the ancient ties between Australia and Indonesia through the universal languages of music and dance and build educational opportunities through the workshops and performances, building confidence in the students and interest in Indonesia as a country full of unique cultures,’ says project coordinator, Alfira O’Sullivan.

Dancers performaing a traditional dance.
Dedy Satya Amijaya from Ponorogo, East Java, performing Topeng Klana mask dance on the outdoor stage at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre for Reconnecting Our Connection Project 2015. Photo credit: Putri Karina.

In 2015, the Suara Indonesian Dance Company travelled to the community of Yirrkala and surrounding township schools in North East Arnhem Land for a series of workshops and performances involving Indonesian dancers and Indigenous Australian students and artists.

This unique meeting and exchange of cultures was set in motion by Rosealee Pearson, a Yolngu dance artist from Yirrkala who had joined Suara several years previously and brought to their attention the similarities between Yolngu and Indonesian dance.

In 2016, the project returned to Arnhem Land, this time bringing Javanese dancer Rianto, originally from Banyumas, and his wife Mirai, also a Javanese dancer, along with Rosealee Pearson, Murtala, and Alfira O’Sullivan, all of whom participated in the 2015 tour.

In 2016, the project focused on the Yirrkala community, Laynhapuy Homeland schools, and Nhulunbuy township. Workshops in communities involved around 60 students per day while in the towns up to 300 students a day got the opportunity to learn about Indonesian dance and culture.

Similarities between Indonesian and Yolngu dance involve rhythm, body percussion, and singing and dancing simultaneously.

‘From a community perspective, there were so many similarities between Yolgnu and Indonesian culture, both cultures love to get together to celebrate community and culture,’ says Alfira.

‘Dance and culture play a significant part of Yolgnu culture, it is more than a performance, it is a manifestation of life, just as Indonesia's songs, language and dance across the archipelago are diverse, so are traditional dances from different Indigenous cultures across Australia, each have their own song line and distinct expression.’

School kids watching a performer on stage wearing traditional Indonesian dress.
Murtala and Alfira lead a workshop on the outdoor stage at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre to kids from Nhulunbuy High School 2015. Photo credit: Lincoln McKellar Photography.

Activities that occurred during the project included practical body percussion workshops from Aceh and Randai (West Sumatra) as well as workshops with traditional Indonesian instrument the Angklung, which is made from bamboo tubes.

The project now hopes cross-cultural ties will continue to grow through the exchange.

‘Before white settlement in Australia, the Yirrkala community and Indonesian fishermen engaged in trade and many settled there, marrying locals and becoming part of the community,’ says Alfira, underscoring the long historic ties that exist between the two nations.

‘Even though we are neighbours, Australian and Indonesia do lack understanding about one another, and we hope that the Reconnecting Our connection project will increase understanding of Indonesia in Australia, not only in the remote communities of East Arnhem Land, but the wider Australian community.’

Reconnecting Our Connection is supported by the Australian Indonesia Institute (AII).

Grant rounds open in February 2017 for projects deepening connections between Australian and Indonesia.

Last Updated: 11 July 2017