Interview: Emiko Saraswati Susilo on the Beauty of Indonesian Dance

(Sara Gambina-Belknap)

A distinguished choreographer, dancer, and vocalist, Emiko Saraswati Susilo bridges Indonesia with San Francisco’s Bay Area and the global community as the director of one of Bali’s most active and internationally renowned performing arts companies, Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Through Javanese and Balinese performance that is innovative yet deeply rooted in tradition, Susilo serves as an emissary of Indonesian arts and culture worldwide. In a recent interview with Asia Society Northern California, she explains her relationship with Indonesian performing arts.

Emiko Saraswati Susilo will represent Gamelan Sekar Jaya in a performance at ASNC’s Open House Night Market Reception.

When did you begin studying Balinese and Javanese dance? 

I made my stage debut at age eight as a blue monkey in the Ramayana. It was exceedingly fun! There was a profound connection happening inside for me — as if the fires of the foundry were being lit.

Did you always know you wanted to share Indonesian dance and music traditions globally? Or is this something that developed naturally over time?

Sharing these traditions cross-culturally grew naturally out of my life, out of the fact that I love to learn about other people and cultures and love my own traditions of music and dance. 

A performer can truly bring joy to his or her audience and that when people understand others cultural traditions. It helps make our world a better place. It’s not about a good show — it’s about a good world. 

Your parents are the noted artists and teachers Hardja Susilo and Judy Mitoma. How have they influenced your philosophy of teaching?

My mom is a visionary leader. She was a professor for many decades and taught a range of classes, but I think among the greatest lesson she has given us is to do what we love, be unflaggingly demanding, have the courage and faith to find our vision, and then the discipline and strength to see that vision into reality. My father passed away in 2015, and I’ll never be the same. He was a tremendously gifted teacher with a beautiful sense of artistry, profound loving gentleness, and generosity. He also had an amazing sense of humor. All of those things I hope to have as a teacher, but I have a long way to go. I learned from them is that when we give generously and lovingly to our students, we create a kindness that will not only benefit us, but our children and grandchildren — that teaching is not just about a class, a dance, a grade, a semester, or even years. It is a lifelong path of sharing, learning, giving, and receiving.

How do you see the relationship between gamelan music and dance? Is one led more by the other, or do they interact organically? 

When I’m dancing, I feel that in my deepest heart, I am a musician, but I’m just playing a different instrument. One of my favorite ways to play music or dance is in the temples in my village of Pengosekan. Often, late at night, we will [perform a] memendet. In these cases, there is no audience and the priests are giving directions, such as “now face east. Now, shout! Now, circle the shrines!” I love this kind of dancing as it is performed completely without ego — it is about what we can give as an offering. That is when I feel that music and dance are truly just the inhale and exhale of the same breath.

I’ve read about your talent as a singer as well. How does song play into this relationship?

Singing is music and because it uses the voice, our own body, to create the sound, it is the perfect coming together of things that I love. I enjoy the texts that vocal work has to offer us and Balinese songs are so full of wisdom, humility, and human emotion. One of the things I have been enjoying most these days is work that incorporates singing and dancing. It’s very challenging because it’s all systems go: language, musicality, physical movement, evoking the feeling of the text through movement, and intercultural communication, as sometimes the audience does not understand the text. 

As a choreographer, how do you develop the details of the dance? How are gestures and expressions coordinated with depending on the type of gamelan?

There are many things that inspire me when I’m creating movement. Sometimes there is a character, an animal, a story, or a feeling. The gestures and expressions are most strongly influenced by the genre of dance. For example, Bebarisan is a strong warrior character, pearjaan includes vocal work, pelegongan is the classic female form, and there are many others. For example, if I am working within the parameters of pelegongan, I try to create movements that might be new but still consistent with the aesthetic of the legong style.

Contemporary or innovative work is freer in terms of the types of movement that can be used. The type of gamelan will also influence the dance. Gong kebyar is very strong and means explosion. Semar pegulingan comes from the word samara and is gentler in its feeling. Gong gede is noble and expansive. There are many more examples. 

What inspires you to create new dance ensembles?

I am happy when I can find or create a repertoire suited to the dancers I am working with, connecting them to an aspect of the traditions, philosophy, and beauty of Balinese culture.

How have your experiences living in Indonesia, Hawaii, and the Bay Area influenced your work?

The Bay Area’s incredible open-mindedness and diversity are something that I feel continually reminds me to think outside the box, be open to exploration, and in awe of the diversity of cultures and traditions in the world. There are some deep connections between Hawaii and Bali, in particular, the reverence for nature, ancestors, and the spiritual role of the arts. As my birthplace, Hawaii holds a very special place in my heart. I am inspired by the courage the kumu hula have in making political statements to care for their land and native Hawaiian rights. I hold this in my heart when I am in Bali and see issues of environmental degradation, expansion of tourism, and land ownership. My father was from Yogyakarta, a city with an amazing history and deep roots of performing arts and culture. Bali has a spiritual vitality value of family and community that we all could really learn from. The word kanggeang cannot be translated into English, but it is a statement of complete and utter humility. Over and over I see this stunning skill paired with humility and commitment to the community. It is truly humbling and inspiring. 

I have read about your work with Gamelan Çudamani in Ubud. How have you seen gamelan contribute to the cultural life local communities in both Indonesia and in the Bay Area?

Gamelan comes from the word gamelan. To gemel is to “hold on to” something. For many people in Bali and in the U.S., gamelan is a core part of life, something people hold onto for a sense of community. I am a mother of two amazing teenagers. I really don’t know how I could have raised my kids without Çudamani and Sekar Jaya. It is our community, bound to my heart and soul through our music and dance that help my kids always feel loved, appreciated, and respected. This is so important.


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