Here&’s an interesting fact: Traffic jams in Jakarta are not a recent thing. One record of the city&’s chronic headache dates from 1929, when ballet enthusiasts drove to see a performance from visiting ballerina Anna Pavlova.
This tidbit is among the findings of ballet.id, or Bina Ballet Indonesia Foundation, a group of five ballet dancers and enthusiasts, who dug into the history of the Italian originated court dance and its development in Indonesia.
In contrast to public perceptions of ballet as belonging to a “foreign” culture, Indonesia was home to renowned dancers—and the host for prestigious dance performances from all over the world between the 1920s and 1950s.
In the 1920s under the Dutch, Indonesia—then known as the Dutch East Indies—was a venue for educational and cultural events, thanks to the reciprocity politics exerted by the legislature to compensate for the more than three centuries of colonial occupation.
Dutch art societies, or kunstkring, were created even in small towns, such as Cepu in Central Java and Jombang in East Java, besides Jakarta, Bandung, Medan and Surabaya.
The art societies also worked at the national level, holding annual conferences and joining to bring in world performers, such as US contemporary dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn with their troupe of 20 dancers, the Denishawn Dancers Company.
They travelled for a month, performing in Surabaya on July 1926 and stopping in Malang, Madiun, Surakarta, Yogyakarta, Semarang and Bandung before closing the tour in Jakarta.
During their short stay, they learned the Javanese Serimpi dance and several Balinese dances. What they found was Javanese dance, which fascinated the Western world at that time.
The next guest was none other than Pavlova herself.
With an entourage of 65 people, Pavlova toured for a month in Bandung, Surakarta, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Malang and Surabaya after opening performances in Jakarta for six nights.
The performance took place at the Zoo Hall, an estate that used to belong to painter Raden Saleh—currently the Taman Ismail Marzuki art center on Cikini Raya Road, Central Jakarta.
After independence, the mother of contemporary dance, the American Martha Graham, came.
The pupil of St. Denis and Shawn came under the anti-communist soft diplomacy approach of the US, giving a performance-and-lecture tour with her troupe of 15 dancers.
“We haven’t seen such performances here these days,” said Meutia Chaerani, the co-founder of ballet.id, when presenting the research.
The event, titled “For the Love of Ballet”, was held at Farida Oetoyo Concert Hall in South Jakarta. Co-founders Anindya Krisna, Mariska Febriyani and Wenny Halim also presented pas de deux pieces from Swan Lake, Talisman and Le Corsaire with their original choreographies by Russian Marius Petipa.
During their research, they found that Pavlova&’s main dancer, Ruth French, later became the mentor of Maya Tamara and Dina Karina—from the Namarina ballet school—while in London.
In the early 1950s, Graham was mentor to three Indonesian dancers: Esther van der Hoeven, Seti-Arti Kailola and Melie Kawilarang from Jakarta&’s Blok de Neve dance school.
There was also Vienna-born Herta Ruth Brod who moved to Bandung in 1935 and founded the Instituut fur Modern Korperbildung on rhythmic gymnastics and plastic dancing.
She was the mentor of Wilhemina (Willy), Adele and Charlotte Blok—the Blok de Neve sisters, the most prolific teachers bringing in gymnastics and modern dance to Indonesia in the 1940s.
Willy opened the Art of Movement Academy in Singapore, where Farida Feisol found her love for dance and became the dance partner of Willy&’s daughter Christillot Boylen Hanson, who later became an Olympic equestrian athlete.
Puck Meijer, who was a member of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing back in London, settled in Bandung in 1940 with her husband and took over Brod&’s school.
During the Japanese occupation she was taken to a concentration camp, but continued teaching secretly in a pig sty. She taught Namarina&’s founder Nanny Lubis after independence and suggested she open her own dance school.
A renowned dancer in Germany and Hungary, Magdolna Zahler collaborated with rumba maestro Georg Sebök and founded the Cultuur Academy for Ballet, Dance and Gymnastics in Surabaya in 1939.
Sebök went missing as Japan entered Indonesia and Zahler reopened the school in late 1940s.
The school was mentioned in dance artist Marlupi Sijangga&’s biography as the place that ignited her interest in ballet.
“We’re obviously not set far apart from the masters,” said Meuthia, adding that the research would still go on to give a complete picture of ballet development in Indonesia.
In a goal to revive the old days, the foundation that comprises dancers of all different schools had engaged the country&’s dancers and dance students nationwide through dance courses involving international mentors since its establishment in 2013.
“We’re aiming at filling in the gap in developing ballet in Indonesia and contributing to raise Indonesian ballet standards together with the larger ballet community in the country,” said Anindya, who shortly joined the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia.
The foundation also planned to raise funds for dance scholarships as well as public awareness of ballet as an art form through a series of recitals and public performances.
“I’ve had enough of listening to arguments that ballet is not a part of Indonesia&’s culture and therefore there is no room for its development in the country. It has been proved wrong,” said Mariska, who learned ballet in Australia.
“For a long time we have been put aside to our own devices and have to find our way to join world competitions. If the government closes its eyes on us, then the ballet community itself has to work on it together.”
— By Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak