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Balabala: Traditional Indonesian dance premieres at Sydney Festival

Balabala is a dialogue between slow, isolated movements and the collective pulse of the ensemble of five women from Jailolo in Indonesia.

Supplied: Sydney Festival

From the remote town of Jailolo in Indonesia's Maluku Islands, five young women have travelled to Australia for the very first time to perform the world premiere of Balabala at the Sydney Festival.

Exploring the personal strength required by the women of Jailolo to challenge gendered hierarchies, Balabala is the companion piece to Cry Jailolo - a fusion of traditional dance and contemporary ideas performed by seven young Indonesian men also from Jailolo.

Eko Supriyanto, an accomplished chorographer originally hailing from Java, worked closely with the women to develop a story about gender roles in Eastern Indonesia.

"The work is a process, not just a presentation, establishing a space for the five young women to re-configure the layers of their own history, society and movement vocabularies," Eko says.

"It is a piece that is from the periphery, not the dominant, well known Indonesian cultural forms from Java, Bali or Sumatra."

When Eko found a photo of women doing the Cakalele dance from the 1960s, he had no idea it was ever performed by females, as traditionally the Cakalele is a war dance that is dominated by male dancers.

"I began to research more deeply, meeting with the women who were part of the tribe that performed the Cakalele during the 1960s and was interested to work with them, but we were denied permission," Eko says.

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Watch Balabala, choreographed by Eko Supriyanto YouTube: Sydney Festival

The initial rejection didn't deter him though, and in 2012 he met the five girls he would go onto develop the piece with.

"We began working and rehearsing intensely with the five girls in October 2015, and continued throughout 2016 with the premiere in Jakarta in November last year," says Eko.

"That was the first time the girls were ever in a big city, their first time inside a theatre and their first moment of experiencing being in front of an audience."

Now in Sydney for the world premiere, the piece focuses on the nine roles that are culturally believed to be the duties of women in Jailolo : husband, kids, kitchen, bed, community, mountain and forest, ocean, ritual and belief, and self.

"The roles of the household and community are the greatest duty of human kind. It has a great impact on a family, community and nations, but is not appreciated or acknowledged," says Eko.

Working with non-professional dancers has been an eye-opening experience for Eko.

"I was always really struck by the strength of women in Jailolo. Yet there are also many issues particularly in Eastern Indonesia that often limit this strength," Eko says.

"When I am working with non-professional dancers, the local community, different cultures and traditions, it’s allowed me to dive deeper into the maritime culture that is such a big part of Indonesia and its history. But one that I was never immersed in as a Javanese."

"It’s opened my eyes to look at Indonesian arts and culture, people and attitude as a much bigger trajectory."

Having worked so hard to develop this performance, Eko is looking forward to see the response Balabala will have in Australia.

"I’m so excited and also really wondering how Sydney and international audiences will perceive and receive this piece," says Eko.

Balabala draws from the values of traditional art while engaging with contemporary issues.

Supplied: Sydney Festival

Balabala is being performed at Carriageworks Bay 17 at the Sydney Festival on January 10 at 6pm.

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