Emiko Saraswati Susilo was compelled to keep dancing and singing to Balinese gamelan because of its underlying philosophy that one not shy away from the bold or difficult. For someone who considers herself on the quieter side, this felt good, and it effortlessly became her life passion. Now she’s the Company Director of Gamelan Sekar Jaya (GSJ), a Balinese music and dance company tucked unobtrusively into a South Berkeley neighborhood near Ashby BART, where she dances, sings, choreographs, and teaches. GSJ shows us how a centuries-old art form can thrive in a contemporary world.
Gamelan is an ensemble-based music from Indonesia primarily found in Java and Bali. It has been around so long its origin story is a bit of an enigma, but it’s possible it has existed since the 2nd century.
We do know its first use was for temple ceremonies, borrowing for its sound from around the world, with, for example, stitch-skinned drums from India and bowed strings from the Middle East. Gamelan swiftly spread to the villages, and is now common entertainment for both rituals and celebrations, often accompanied with dance or shadow puppetry. The rhythm, energy, and stories presented through gamelan vary immensely depending on the region, and they reflect differing religions and local legends. In that way it always feels fresh and dynamic.
In Berkeley, gamelan continues to take on new forms. GSJ was started in 1979 thanks to a small group of Indonesian and American enthusiasts and, as the first community-based Balinese gamelan group in the US, quickly became recognized across the country for its dedicated, vanguard work. It now offers gamelan and dance classes to the public, hosts rotating resident artists from Bali – next year it will welcome an accomplished mask dancer – and performs around the Bay Area and beyond, occasionally even returning to Bali. Scan the GSJ calendar to see if there’s a performance near you.
On first meeting Susilo at the company studio she hugs me and offers tea. She’s in her mid-40s, tall, with sparkly eyes set above high cheekbones and dark hair pulled into a loose bun. She calmly floats around the space – boiling water, pulling out cushions for us to sit on. It seems that dance influences her everyday movements too.
The main room has long mirrors and several large shelves filled with brightly painted gamelan instruments, tuned to specific seven-tone scales. Some are made of brass or bronze – like the metallophones and heavy gongs – while others are just wood and bamboo, including the tingklik, a set of hollowed bamboo tubes tied to a small frame.
“Bamboo is so much more affordable. So tingklik has a village feel,” says Susilo, tapping the instrument with her fingernail to demonstrate its soft, twinkly ping.
Susilo was reared on gamelan. Her father was the first Javanese gamelan teacher to come to the US, and her Japanese-American mother was a devoted Javanese dancer. After studying gamelan at UC Berkeley, Susilo moved to Bali for a year and continued to learn the dramatic and communicative nature of Balinese performance art. She now keeps toes in both the US and Bali, and has since married a distinguished gamelan choreographer, Bapak I Dewa Putu Berata (or most days just Pak Dewa), together establishing a Bali-based school and dance company called Çudamani. She’s been involved with GSJ since 1991 and took the role of company director in 2011, where Pak Dewa and her two offspring now also practice and teach.
“Learning to be with 40 people and all breathe together, and feel something together … [it has] profound and philosophical meaning because it’s really about who we are as people and how much we depend on one another,” Susilo says.
The company remains rooted in traditional Balinese legends and wisdom, welcoming its virtuosity and rhythmic complexity, while still finding ways to push the envelope. Staying dedicated to the customs of this music and dance “does not preclude you also being a creative innovative artist … I think that kind of openness and rootedness are what make this music very powerful and vibrant even today,” says Susilo.
“One day you can be playing a temple ceremony – really old pieces that are anonymously composed, passed down from your grandparents – and the next day literally be playing some crazy contemporary piece with some weird time signature … and it’s not at all in conflict with the individual, or the ensemble, or community.”
In both dance and in life, finding and promoting positivity – especially in the local community – is essential for Susilo. Growing up, she was often the only Indonesian-American child in school. Today there is still a general lack of exposure to Indonesian culture in the US and Susilo hopes GSJ plays a part in dispelling animosity. The company makes sure to promote consistent activity outside of rehearsal, like visiting local elementary schools or throwing parties with free performances and Indonesian food. In Bali they call this a pasar feeling (pasar translates to ‘market’), the idea of being a central locus for community interaction.
“I have to believe that every person we meet, or talk to, or touch, or sees our performances, or has some interaction – that we can bring something positive to them so they walk away feeling good about this place and our culture … part of my life’s work is to help people see the beautiful things about this place – the diversity of cultures. It’s not one culture, not one religion.”
A recent GSJ performance told a beautiful, haunting story set in Petulu, a small village in Bali. After enduring a string of tragic massacres in the 1960s, the village elders resolved to carry out a ceremony to bring balance back to the deeply unsettled community. On the evening of the ceremony a white egret visited the priest’s house, the next day one appeared at the temple. After this – as the story goes – Petulu became the nightly roosting place for thousands of the elegant white birds. To this day they don’t sleep anywhere else.
“Some say they’re the spirits of those who passed away. Some say they’re a blessing from the gods and a gift to the village who were trying to create harmony amidst a very chaotic situation … because of course now a ton of people can make their living from people who go there,” says Susilo, taking a sip of tea, a strip of sunlight inching along the carpet to our toes.
“It was a beautiful story to me because a village of elders and priests … came together and were able to acknowledge there was really a lot of discord and imbalance … and found a way to create equilibrium again and to bring harmony back into their life … That kind of wisdom and inspiration can be so powerful and so healing for a community and doesn’t rely on access to education, or money, or international aid.”
The following week I drop in on a rehearsal, curious to see this kind of storytelling in progress. While their parents are busy practicing, the kids learn how to tie their sarongs and try out dance moves, the blue fabric dragging like tails on the floor behind them. Every now and then Susilo stops to tousle their hair and exclaim at how quickly they’ve grown.
“You’re going to be a great dancer, just like your mom,” Susilo says to little Amia Eka. These children have the special treat of growing up in a community steeped in both old wisdom and new ideas – what they will do with this opportunity is still a wonderful mystery. In an interview last year, Susilo said, “When we give generously and lovingly to our students, we create a kindness that will not only benefit us, but our children and grandchildren.”
It is with this consideration that Susilo dances through life in a way that is deeply meaningful to herself, and respectful of those who came before and who will continue after her.