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Theaterfestival Boulevard tales: shared embodied heritage of mutual history

Through dance practices and other activities, Theaterfestival Boulevard is working on building a community with people from in and around the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch with a shared history in the former Dutch East-Indies and The Moluccas. Coralie den Adel, audience developer, gives a little inside in the connecting of the community and the unfolding of its member’s stories.

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

Mister Middel is 96 years old. You wouldn’t expect this if you’d see him. When he moves the space is opening up. He moves with confidence, purposeful, sometimes dreamy and fragile. When he talks his voice is strong and clear. He is using no more words than necessary. When he does a solo physical exercise, time stands still and sound mutes.

Mister Middel is one of the participants of Boulevard’s Dancing in Your Shoes. He is the eldest of the group of 10 individuals, consisting of first- or second-generation immigrants with roots in the former Dutch East-Indies and The Moluccas (a former Dutch colony). This group of people, now meeting for appr. the 10th time, has quickly become a sturdy community!

The ‘Dutch-Indo’s’ do often not so much feel part of a community with people with similar background, but have mixed a lot with the total population. On the other hand, the Moluccans have strong feelings of community. You may find quarters that are designated for Moluccans only (by policy). Moluccans and Dutch-Indo’s often look at each other with much (inherited) suspicion.

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

Allow us to tell your stories

Some of the group members were already familiar with the festival. We met with them in a series of meetings to co-design a program at our festival in 2020 around the 75th commemoration of the Japanese capitulation and liberation of the Dutch East Indies on 15 August 1945. This officially ended the Second World War for the Kingdom of the Netherlands and would demonstrate, in this year of commemoration, that the war did not end in May 1945.

We asked our group of 40-50 peers:

Could Boulevard be a platform for stories and themes that emerge from this history?

For the majority of the group, an important motivation for endorsing our attempt, was to improve the knowledge of this history amongst our audiences, and secondly, they trusted art to broach this often-precarious subject in a good way. We also learned that the meeting between Moluccans and Indo-Dutch people, made a lot of sense and was healing.

This experience, brought us to the confidence to once again be that platform, through which this history, partly anchored in them, could receive attention and a stage. We found an opportunity with Performing Gender – Dancing in Your Shoes!

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

From stagnation to fast forward

After several attempts to re-engage the people who worked with us in 2020 – due to Covid-19 – we finally met for the first time in January this year. We decided to take our colleague program-maker Vincent Wijlhuizen along during the community-building meetings and beyond.

Besides being an experienced moderator, Vincent also has a background in the Former Dutch-Indies and therefore embodies knowledge that happened to be so relevant in this process. Besides that, he is also a familiar face as he was already present in 2020.

The urgency to share the stories that was also felt in 2019-20, immediately hit us at that first encounter in January: all the people said ‘yes’ to the unknown, to adventure, to exploration. They all embarked on this - partly uncertain - journey with us!

Already in this first meeting we asked them questions to think about in the coming weeks:

How can we bring together dance, gender, your personal Dutch/Indonesian/Moluccan history and build a community; what first ideas and thoughts come to your head? What stories come up? Which people could join the project? And which artists do you already know that we can invite to the project?

From there on everything accelerated! The group of 5 persons doubled the second time we met, because we asked to bring a introduce. This is our core of 10 now. We want to invite more younger participants via them, since they are also very curious about the experiences of the third and fourth generation people living in The Netherlands.

We have activities (physical practices and others) with the community once a week, until the summer. We do have our own spaces, that are very suitable for these kinds of activities.

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

Where stories and movement are intertwined

Our dancemaker Jija Sohn is part of the process from the beginning, so she follows the process of community building and knows what’s happening in the group. In the first meetings, she was invited to do exercises for the biggest part of the meeting.

The focus is on the community itself; their diversity, their knowledge and experience, their physical capability.

Together with Jija they are slowly converting personal stories and experiences into form, play and experience, joint movement and dance. The community unravels common questions, examines their feelings and allows for words and movements to arise.

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

Jija used songs and poems that each community member felt reminded/connected to their roots as a starting point. In this exercise, first the songs/poems were shared among small groups, and each person shared the story of some else in the large group. In this space, it felt comforting acknowledging who they are because of the attentiveness and sensitive, active way of listening. 

From here on Jija likes to see how and where stories and movement are intertwined. She is curious about transformation of these stories and also interested in exploring more physical expressions, from dancing to very sensitive small movement or just listening. 

Working with this community made Jija remind of the power of moving and appreciation to feel connected with other bodies. Because there is a big age difference, she gets to study how the same exercise can apply to diverse bodies and where the simple tasks take her and the group to a bigger embodiment journey.

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

Other activities

From the first meeting onwards, we asked the community what directions they envision this project to take. We also wanted to also broaden the activities outside of the dance space. The first field trip was to REVOLUSI, a large exhibition in our Rijks museum about the Indonesian struggle for independence (1945-’49), seen through the eyes of the people who experienced it.

In an after talk, Vincent led a conversation about the exhibition. Leading questions were: What in the exhibition changed your opinion, your mind or your perspective? What was new to you? What stood out? What touched you the most?

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

One other evening we asked the group to prepare and bring their favorite Indonesian dish. We had a lovely dinner together, fully enjoying the delicious Indonesian food, while talking in detail about each dish.

This needs some explanation: food is the main topic of Indo and Moluccan families or groups. Each time we meet, somehow the conversation is moving towards food.

So Vincent started with the question: What is your favorite dish? And then: How do you look back at the last weeks? How would you design the coming week? And who would you invite for that? We collected all the comments, to explore and pick the ones the group wants to act upon.

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

For the last two meetings we invited dance maker Nikita Maheshwary, who is the rooted artist of our Dutch partner DansBrabant. She continued on the exploration of Jija with the group. The exercise was the following: Nikita asked the group to give 1 word to the thought of ‘father’, ‘favorite food’ (there it is again ;), ‘the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’ and ‘home’.

The second round we made a gesture with the word saying out loud. For the second meeting Nikita asked the group to bring one object that reminds them of a ritual. Here also very touching stories were shared…

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

From now on

We cannot be happier with how the process goes so far. Each and every member of the group is so loving, kind, easy going, cooperative and grateful to join. The group has already a strong connection (friendship?) with each other based on their mutual history. And also with the members of team Boulevard. We have a Whatsapp group in which we share facts, stories, jokes and ideas.

There is a warm and strong connection, we listen with respect and understanding to each other, we capture sad moments, we give space to each other’s quirks and we have great laughter as well!

In April the group will work closer with Jija, for a longer period of time each time they meet. Right now, we are at a point we want to make the group more responsible for the process and to see themselves as artists instead of pupils. Also make them co-owner of the community, its activities and its expansion with new and younger people.

Photo credits: Karin Jonkers

The challenge here is how to connected them to the topic of gender and to modern dance.

What is gender, what is dance, where does dance begin and what does our history and environment give us?  

Many touches of these topics are in the air. It's already happening. But the next attempt is exactly how to cultivate ownership so we slowly transit from tasting to researching, and developping a joint research language. This needs an attitude of studying and focus beyond having a good gathering time, and a space where having fun (as a gathering community) is the engine so we can work from a thrive-driven passion!

Explore the other tales of Performing Gender and keep following us Facebook!

Coralie Den Adel