Every project undertaken is an adventure and each completely different to the last. THE PLANET: A Lament was an adventure in creativity.
In July 2019 I began my work on THE PLANET and collaboration with the renown ﬁlm maker Garin Nugroho with a week of workshops in Jogjakarta. Nugroho is passionate about celebrating the traditional crafts and culture of Indonesia and had brought together a team from across the Indonesia’s numerous islands (including Java, East Timor, Papua and Sumatra); a reflection of the extraordinarily diverse culture and history of the country. The generosity and creative spirit of that week set us up well for what would be a winding journey with only a six month timeframe, a limited budget and the constraints of international tour-ability.
We began with a rough outline of a story; a reflection on the recent and devastating tsunami which had hit the Indonesian coast.
Initially we considered several Indonesian theatrical traditions but, moving forward, it would be an everyday object which would become the key tool.
Nokan are a Papuan style of sack. Traditionally they are hand knitted from spun bark and nowadays often in brightly coloured polyesters colours (like the red and white striped one pictured). They are used to carry everything from groceries to fridges. With no need for seams or additional stitching they are extraordinarily strong. Strong enough to make them a safe way to carry the most precious cargo - children. And it is through that use that The Nokan has come to symbolise woman and womb. As we developed The Planet, Nokan became a symbolic womb to incubate an Egg (itself an almost universal symbol of new life and unhatched potential).
Also at this early stage the idea of using found clothing was in the conversation. Although how they would be used remained mysterious; the narrative implied by once worn items along the need for sustainable design meant the idea held fast.
Some months later, when I arrived at the second development workshops in Kupang, Timor (a small coastal town and home to Mazmur Chorale who sung in the production) I went, not so much with a design, but with what I hoped was a plan. We would collect what second hand clothes we could and see what evolved.
The second hand clothing market was essentially giant mounds of tangled clothes (some damp and odorous) in a tin shed. And so I found myself, in extreme heat and humidity, standing with local women, up to our thighs in a tangle of secondhand gear; clothes used once or twice in far wealthier towns and cities and then discarded or donated . Donated, perhaps, in the same way mass clothing finds its way to disaster zones; given by people who want to help but do not entirely comprehend the logistical implications of dispersing tonnes of clothing. Given by people who have more than they need. Still each piece was someone’s skin, someone’s external identity, even if it was just for a time. And we sifted through selecting particular colours and shapes. It took us two visits to collect enough even for this testing stage. One of my favourite moments was watching the clothes, stuffed into white bags (these clothes that would be my staging) being trundled on the back of a bike along the rickety market paths on their way to the rehearsal room.
On the tiled ﬂoor of the Kupang cultural centre we sorted and arranged the clothes into a landscape and the indefatigable Dedet Ningsih set about stitching them into a single piece while the choir and dancers rehearsed around us and we worked on making the keys to this world fall into the right places.
For us, in The Planet, the clothes became the force of a tsunami’s wave and a representation of the lost people. They were the histories, the children and the complicated landscape we inhabit. But they were also both our greed and our generosity.
In Jakarta three months later the clothes would be cleaned and restitched to a stable form so that in the theatre they could become a representation of detritus on the beach, a wave, a backdrop and the beach itself.
The final backdrop was created in Jakarta was by Eki Dance Community before being finished in the theatre itself. Meanwhile, the costumes (also using largely secondhand materials and made by Eki) were being built in another room.
This was in the first months of 2020 and Australia was facing horrific ﬁres and Jakarta inundated by terrible flooding which left many homeless and areas inaccessible. The themes of our work were more relevant day by day.
Once in the theatre, over four days, the build continued with gold leaf being applied to the disk, the plastic sheets (the only material to travel with me from Australia) being glued to form large drops. Projections of the magnificent films made by Garin Nugroho Studio were tested on the various surfaces and adjusted.
Although we were luckier than many and were able to have a preview season in Jakarta and then open in Melbourne before the world 'locked down' with threats of the pandemic for a while the voices of the Mazmur Chorale and composition and lament of the amazing Septima Layan could not travel on to the scheduled European shows. Twelve months later it did travel to open the Holland festival to great acclaim.
The journey to make The Planet: A Lament was challenging, joyous, at times confusing, absolute and ultimately filled with love of the best sort. If the making every project is a different journey it is because of the people who come together at a particular time in a particular place. This was a unique journey to a unique end.