Round Table on Performance in Southeast Asia

At the Centre for Creative Collaboration, London, 27 February 2011


To celebrate the launch of Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance: Transnational Perspectives, Laura Noszlopy and Matthew Isaac Cohen, eds. (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, December, 2010) and Matthew Isaac Cohen, Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International Stages, 1905-1952 (Palgrave Macmillan, October, 2010), the Asian Performing Arts Forum sponsored a Round Table on Southeast Asian Performance at the Centre for Creative Collaboration in London on 27 February 2011.

The panel featured Dr Matthew Isaac Cohen, author of Performing Otherness and co-editor of Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance; Dr Laura Noszlopy, co-editor of Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance; Dr Felicia Hughes-Freeland, contributor to Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance; and Dr Ashley Thompson, also a contributor to Contemporary Southeast Asian Performance; with Dr Shzr Ee Tan of the Royal Holloway, University of London’s Department of Music as moderator. (See below for biographies.)

Southeast Asia, defined in the past by colonialism and the ‘theatre of war’, is being redefined as a geopolitical unit, despite the existence of ASEAN; for some purposes, some Southeast Asian countries are classified as ‘East Asian’, for others ‘Southeast Asian’.  Southeast Asia itself is riven by alliances and splits – for example the rhetoric of ‘brotherhood’ between Laos and Cambodia is a means to fend off Thailand. Yet panelists proposed certain trends impacting all Southeast Asian performing arts, with caution.

Matthew Cohen’s Performing Otherness addresssed an early moment of Southeast Asian performing arts’ modernization. He observed in the panel discussion a disconnect between aesthetic change in Indonesia and the outside world. Bridges were individual rather than institutional, personality-driven, fragile and ephemeral, and not well recognised. Southeast Asia, today, is fully part of the world system.  There were once clear sociological distinctions in what James Brandon described in Theatre in Southeast Asia (1967) as folk, classical, popular and modern. These formed distinct cultural scenes. Today, with the emergence, for example, of post-traditional performance, these are more difficult to distinguish. The arts, once core to religious values and communal solidarity, are now perhaps more related to identity.

Felicia Hughes-Freeland referenced ongoing processes of classicisation and professionalisation, alternations of patronage, diversifying audiences (with many in Java not understanding Javanese-language theatre, with concerns about how to make classical forms ‘relevant’ to kids going back to the 1980s), changes in the ways that performances are consumed and produced as the result of mass media.

In Cambodia, Ashley Thompson argued, most people don’t have a transnational platform, they don’t use internet. Even the performers who travel internationally are limited in access. Cambodia is a disintegrated country- due in part to neo-liberal and neo-colonial forces. Education in the arts is largely privatised, and discourse on the arts is not shared. In urban settings, there are cleavages between the young who are technically savvy and disenfranchised politically and the goverment bureaucracy. In rural areas, everyone is disenfranchised, as a rule.

Tradition is taking on new meanings. Tradition does not preclude creativity, nor has it ever, said Felicia Hughes-Freeland. But with today’s post-traditional performers, Matthew Cohen reported, it is available to be played with. Interestingly, said Laura Noszlopy, it is Japanese students of the art who tend to be most rigid in their understandings and performances of Balinese tradition. They wish to preserve the style they study, and are massively loyal to their teachers.

International travel promises artists the possibility of clout and influence on their return, and the support of important patrons, opportunities for work, said Laura Noszlopy. But, added Ashely Thompson, in Cambodia sometimes this strategy backfires. Artists can be tainted by their travels, and face difficulties in Cambodia subsequently. Matthew Cohen that this runs parallel to the case of Javanese dancer Raden Mas Jodjana, who was celebrated in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s but branded a colonial stooge in postcolonial Indonesia.

Ashley Thorpe, speaking from the audience, posed the example of China, where institutional training provides contemporary performers with authority and a platform to create hybrid styles by mixing traditional performance with other, pre-existing styles. Panelists agreed that this is characteristic of Southeast Asia as well. Institutional affiliation and training remain significant, but can be layered with new elements.  

Panelist biographies

Matthew Isaac Cohen is an American-born anthropologist and historian of performance who lectures in theatre studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Among his publications are Demon Abduction: A Wayang Ritual Drama from West Java (Lontar, 1998), The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891-1903 (Ohio University Press and KITLV Press, 2006; winner of the Benda Prize from the Association for Asian Studies), The Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Drama, Volume 1: Plays for the Popular Stage (Lontar, 2010) and Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International States, 1905-1952 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). A student of wayang kulit shadow puppetry since 1988, he performs and delivers workshops internationally. In 2009, he received the royal title of Ki Ngabehi from the royal court of Kacirebonan (Cirebon, West Java) for services to Cirebonese culture and traditional puppetry. His current research focuses on tradition in modernity in Indonesia and post-traditional puppet theatres worldwide.

Felicia Hughes-Freeland is Reader in Anthropology in the Geography Department, Swansea University.  She has researched culture and society in Indonesia for thirty years, with a focus on cultural politics in relation to performance, dance and media. She has a BA and MA in English from Cambridge University, and a PhD in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She has published widely in edited books and international journals, and her own books include Ritual, Performance, Media (Routledge, 1998), Recasting Ritual (Routledge, 1998), and Embodied Communities: Dance Traditions and Change in Java (Berghahn Books, 2008). A trained documentary filmmaker, her ethnographic films on dance include The Dancer and the Dance (1988) and Tayuban: Dancing the Spirit in Java (1996), both distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Her current research projects include ritual performance, performance, heritage and ownership in Southeast Asia, and women filmmakers in post-Suharto Indonesia. She is currently editing a special issue of Indonesia and the Malay World  on ‘Gender and Creativity’.

Laura Noszlopy is an anthropologist and writer specializing in contemporary Indonesian society, performance and cultural politics, as well as youth and street arts. She has published widely in all these fields and has also worked for several years as a writer, editor and translator in Jakarta and Bali. She currently holds the position of Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is working on the biography of John Coast, an English impresario with a long entanglement in Southeast Asia. She also has an on-going research project on masculinity, tradition and public space, which focuses on competitive arts forms produced and performed by youth groups in urban Bali.

Ashley Thompson lectures in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies of the University of Leeds and is a specialist in Cambodian Cultural History. The Cambodian case is informed by forays into the larger Asian context, with a view to theorising Asian politico-cultural formations. Her work also explores avenues for comparison of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ metaphysical traditions, and the limits of the comparative endeavour. Her research is informed by deconstruction and psychoanalysis, and revolves around questions of memory, political and cultural transition, sexual difference and subjectivity. Objects of analysis include Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, cult or ritual practices and texts, as well as other forms of fine and performing arts. She is currently involved in a Cambodian production of Hélène Cixous’ epic play, The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk King of Cambodia, which will tour Europe in 2011. Her monograph Engendering the Buddhist State: Reconstructions of Cambodian History is to appear with Routledge (Critical Buddhist Studies) in 2012.

Summary by Matthew Isaac Cohen.

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