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Javanese heritage illuminates dance

Opal Vapour
Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal. June 14−15. The Street Theatre.
Bookings 6247 1223, or thestreet.org.au

Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal has an intriguing background. She was born in Gosford on the New South Wales central coast and recalls an Australian childhood spent playing in rock pools and walking in the bush. Her mother is a seventh-generation white Australian. Her father, however, was born in Yogyakarta on the Indonesian island of Java.

Yogyakarta has for centuries been a centre of classical Javanese arts, from dance to drama, music to puppetry, and is the site of the royal palace, the kraton. Her father's family had strong connections with the kraton and with the world famous Buddhist temple, Borobudur.

It is not surprising Tyas Tunggal's current solo work, Opal Vapour, is built around themes of ancestry, lineage, place and ritual. Nor is it surprising that the work draws on many aspects of Javanese art.

In one section Tyas Tunngal seeks inspiration from the traditional shadow puppet play, the wayang kulit, where the puppeteer is a magician and the shadows represent the ancestors. In others she is motivated by the way in which Javanese dancers are able to embody a sense of harmony and balance as they move.

''I spent 2004 living in Yogyakarta,'' she says. ''I had a scholarship from the Indonesian government and I studied dance and music at the Yogyakarta University of the Arts. My experiences … started something agitating in my mind. I admired the way performers were able to transcend the ordinary and the way the Javanese dancers displayed such elegance and dignity.

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''For many years I was focused on being a dancer but the time in Yogyakarta sent me in the direction of making my own work. I became interested in the capacity of the body to show a sense of transformation and change."

Opal Vapour is a multifaceted work taking traditional forms of Javanese art and dance and putting them into a contemporary context. Just as the puppeteer of the Javanese shadow play, the dalang, takes his audience on an epic journey across time, Tyas Tunggal aims to do something similar, to take her audience on a journey across cultures.

While the work does not have a linear narrative, Tyas Tunggal believes there is a lot of scope for audiences to find a story within the work and have their own interpretations.

Her collaborators in Opal Vapour play a significant role. Ria Soemardjo, a musician who also has an Indonesian/Australian background, is an exponent of classical Javanese vocal style, which she studied in Java. In Opal Vapour she layers musical formats - recorded music, voice, viola and non-instrumental sounds of textiles and paper.

Soemardjo is also a textile artist and is responsible for Opal Vapour's costumes. One of her memorable contributions to the work is a yellow net, which Tyas Tunggal uses to suggest interweaving of cultures, women's business, and interconnectedness of thoughts and ideas.

Lighting is by Paula van Beek and her design is combined with projections to create a space inhabited by ghosts, echoes and shadows.

As for the title, Tyas Tunggal says: ''Opals are distinctively Australian. They are ancient precious stones with such amazing colour. They are like a map of history. Vapour is an ephemeral idea. It is transient and fragile, like dance. I also like the idea Opal Vapour is an abstract title that is poetic and evocative.''

Tyas Tunggal has studied and performed across Australia and around the globe, and has worked with a long list of renowned contemporary choreographers.