The town of Rainbow in Victoria’s Wimmera region is looking north for inspiration – about 4500km north, to be precise. A group of students from the Sampang Agung Centre for Performing Arts in Indonesia will visit for four days in early 2018 as part of The Oasis Small Town Transformations project. We spoke to project manager Adelle Rohrsheim and lead artist Dianne Dickson about this unlikely connection to one of our closest neighbours, and what the students will get up to on the edge of the Big Desert.
Will McRostie: Dianne – when did you first visit Indonesia and what’s the history behind this connection to Java?
Dianne Dickson: I met Agung [Ganawan] and Desi [Deaslina da Ary] as a dancer in Malaysia when I was in the Melaka Arts Festival. I took some work over and saw them perform, and I became very interested in what they were doing. They invited me to come to the Pelem Festival the first time they were going to hold it at Agung and Desi’s performing arts school in the village of Pelem, a very remote location in East Java.
DD: I went with Tony [Yap] and Taka [Takashi Takiguchi], and that was a real eye-opener because I saw the parallels with Rainbow – it’s a rural area, it’s isolated. Because I’d grown up in Rainbow, it reminded me of the town when I was younger – it was a bit more simplistic when I was younger.
It was the community that built the performing space with the help of Tony. The work they did was not quite the traditional Javanese performing arts – it was based on some of the historical dance, but it was interpreted in a more modern context which addressed the changes in our lifestyle. So I was pretty impressed!
When I was asked if I could help with some ideas for the [Small Town Transformations] grant, I talked to Tony and said “Wouldn’t it be great if they could somehow come over here and we could have that shared experience?”
Even though it was a totally different culture I could see there was a lot of similarities in the way they were connected to land. In a Western society we don’t do a lot of the same sort of dance, but I thought of the [Wotjobaluk] Indigenous dancers – I wondered how they would connect with another culture that has a long history, and if they have parallels in the storytelling, the narration, and whether there could be a connection.
I talked to Agung, and they were really excited by the opportunity.
WM: How long have you known Tony? Did that relationship exist before you headed over to Indonesia or was it a result of the connection there?
DD: I’ve known him for nearly 40 years.
DD: Tony and I danced together in the contemporary arts group in Horsham. His family came over to Australia – his mother and father. I’ve known him since then, and I’ve seen his career develop. He went on to dance and I went on to visual art, but we’ve had that close relationship for a long time. Because he’d come from Asia to Australia, we’ve discussed those connections a lot. He knows Agung very well, and they’re trying to work together more, so I thought it would be very interesting to try and work within those ideas.
WM: When you approached Tony with the idea, did he need convincing or was he on board straight away?
DD: Tony and I know each other that well – I only have to say “whaddya think?”
I went over there, and we’ve talked over the last 12 months. With Taka too. I go to see their work quite regularly, and Taka goes over there quite regularly – he’s been trying to teach the students a bit of English, and supporting them. We all put our heads together and we’ve come up with ways of approaching it. It’s been quite easy.
Because I went over there and experienced how they operate, I could see that it would work. Well, I think it can. I really don’t know what the outcome is, but it’s such a great opportunity.
WM: What is it going to look like? I know that it starts with a residency with Tony in Rainbow. What’s the outcome of that, and where do the students come in?
DD: Agung and Desi, who run this school in Pelem, they will come out and bring the eight student dancers and four musicians – they’ll stay in Rainbow, and Tony and Taka will come up from Melbourne.
We thought that we would have a “show and tell” where the students will go down to The Oasis with local students from the high school and primary school, and maybe the school from Nhill that studies Indonesian. Hopefully they can make the young dancers feel more welcome because they can talk to them on a simple level and make them feel at home.
Adelle Rohrsheim: I think when Tony and Taka were here to plan it, it was about making the students feel as comfortable as they can. It’s not about trying to nut out a brand new performance in the four or five days they’re here. It’s more of a show and tell of what they already do; for them to put on a couple of performances for the Rainbow community, and then the Wotjobaluk dancers will also do some performances.
Whether that organically can be combined somehow, or whether they learn off each other – it’s a show and tell.
It takes all the pressure off – not having to do something all whizz-bang in the days that they’re here. It’s more about the cultural exchange – what their culture means to them, and how they go about everything and vice versa.
DD: We may do a performance out in the landscape as well as in The Oasis. If we did something in the landscape we would film it and have it as a record because it could be problematic to set up in the landscape with a lot of people.
They’re the little things we’ve got to nut out, but we’ve got good performance space around the town. We’ll make it like a little festival.
We’re going to hire the musical instruments from Bendigo, from the Gamelan group, because they can’t bring the instruments with them. They won’t be in traditional costumes – they’ve got material, they make things out of found objects. There is room for responding to the environment and what’s here.
WM: How many students will be in town and for how long?
DD: There’ll be eight dancers, four musicians, Desi and Agung for a week in Rainbow, then they want to go on to Melbourne. Taka’s trying to set up some performances in Melbourne, maybe at Federation Square, so we give them the opportunity to not only come to Rainbow but also show what they can do in the city.
They’ll probably have a couple of nights with a host family – if they’re comfortable doing that – to give them the experience of life in a local family and give local families a chance to connect with them.
I have faith having seen the way they interact over there. I think it’ll be pretty easy, to be quite honest.
WM: Adelle, what do you think that the community is expecting from this idea?
AR: I don’t think they have any expectations at the moment. They’ve asked me about the Embodied Landscape program, and every time I’ve mentioned it, it’s about a cultural exchange.
I think that they’re just interested to learn about the different cultures, and to accommodate them. To teach the Indonesian students – to show them their landscape, the amazing environment here in Rainbow which is such a contrast to where they’re from.
DD: We’re in an isolated, remote community – we’ve got TV, we’ve got the internet – but that “experience” thing is something quite unique. In rural areas, we are getting more and more cultural interaction and diversity, so we should join in if we can – and through art! What better way than through the arts to give people that experience.
One of the outcomes of this idea is talking to Tony – who’s had more than 10 years’ experience running the Melaka Festival, and now he’s involved with Taka and the Pelem Festival – and they are very keen to continue on and run a festival in Rainbow based on that experience.
DD: Part of what they do will be to see if we can do it again, maybe every two years. We set up something in Rainbow where we have artists from Melbourne or even international artists come over, and we put on some sort of a performing arts festival here.
Y’know, it’s very early. Baby steps. But they’re very keen to do that.
WM: And how are things going with The Oasis in general?
AR: We’re tickin’ along – it’s all happening here in Rainbow! I think that the community’s slowly starting to see things happen – with the building being painted and colours appearing throughout and the garden starting to happen. I think people are really starting to embrace the project overall, which is quite nice. I think it’s needed to have this low momentum to get a lot of people on board, and to slowly get everyone involved.
We’re still trying to figure out what’s important to the community, and what kind of equipment they need, and what things are going to be a great legacy for this project to leave the community. We’re still juggling a few of those things – it’s quite an organic process. We’re slowly getting more people involved and they’re telling us what will be beneficial in the long run.
It’s slowly evolving and it’s all happening! I’ve got a vision in my head and I think people are starting to see it too.
WM: Great to hear.
To learn more about The Oasis and hear about everything that’s happening in Rainbow, visit https://www.oasis-rainbow.com/
All images in this post supplied by Dianne Dickson unless otherwise indicated.