Johnson Diversity Series –  Juliet Catherina Widyasari Burnett

Winner of the Arts and Culture category in the 2021 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards is Javanese Indonesian-Australian, Juliet Catherina Widyasari Burnett.

For over 20 years Juliet Catherina Widyasari Burnett has built an international career as a dancer, choreographer, director, writer and activist, including performing with The Australian Ballet as a lead dancer from 2003-2015. Currently a member of Belgium’s Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, the Javanese Indonesian-Australian is also preparing to launch A_PART, an online studio and stage for Australian and Indonesian artists to collaborate on performance projects in response to the pandemic and the long-term issue of accessibility to the arts. Passionate about sharing Indonesia’s rich arts culture with Australians, she spoke with Johnson Partners about her current endeavours, her frustrations with the lack of both female and culturally diverse leaders in the dance industry and her explorations of ways to present performances beyond the live stage.

JP Let’s start with your exit from Australia to live in Europe. Having danced for twelve years with the Australian Ballet, what inspired the move and what especially were you seeking career-wise?

It was just over twelve years at The Australian Ballet – far longer than I ever intended when I joined! I dreamed of dancing with the company as a kid, but I knew it wasn’t all that was out there in the big wide world. And contemporary dance was always my primary love; classical ballet was what I ended up growing into, though, as my body is well-suited to it and I grew fascinated by it too. But politically my views have never sat well in the traditional ballet world. And as a bi-cultural young woman I felt a tension in representing a minority in works made by predominantly white men from the 19th and 20th centuries. This impelled me to step out of the fold and grow in a more holistic way artistically and personally. Europe has always been the epicentre of dance.

JP In 2016 you settled in Belgium to join its premier arts company, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. What insights and opportunities do you think your experience has afforded you that perhaps would not have evolved had you remained in Australia?

In the practical sense, there’s no way I would’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the choreographers and dance the works I have danced over here. One day we had Akram Khan and Hofesh Schecter in the building just after Édouard Lock had finished up his new creation. With Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui as artistic director we were in the centre of a prestigious network of choreographers and repertory works. We became the first company outside of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal to dance her iconic work Café Müller – a truly historic moment I was proud to be part of. I’ve been able to see so many performances on different scales and different art forms, often jumping on a train to Amsterdam or Paris or London to see shows. The European community is close knit because of the geographic proximity, which makes networking easier and more immediate. My objective when I came to Europe was to soak in as much of the richness of the arts culture as possible and even though I’ve been here six years, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface.

 JP During you final year with the Australian Ballet you performed in Jakarta. It laid the foundation for an ongoing relationship with the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and the local organisation Ballet.Id. With the assistance of those organisations you created a series of community dance workshops for underprivileged children in Indonesia. You’re currently overseeing an expansion of the project to engage Australian and Indonesian artists across artistic disciplines to create a knowledge exchange with remote communities, can you tell us more about this?

I’m a great believer in the role of open dialogues in creative processes, and back in 2015 I wanted to transpose this idea to create a sense of community between disparate socio-economic classes and between cultures. As a kid my life existed between Australia and Indonesia, and I had an early awareness of the great divide between the poor and the privileged, in Indonesia in particular. All this was the genesis of the community workshops.

There’s plenty of workshops with professional artists sharing their art to the underprivileged, but especially in the instance of Indonesia, I feel uncomfortable with the implication that the professional’s Western art form is superior. An exchange of the local art of the community and the professional artist’s experience felt more enriching for communities and artists alike, which gives a greater chance of a sustained relationship rather than a one-off photo opportunity. The expansion of these workshops will be an integral component of a new company I am preparing to launch, A_PART. That component is called OUR_PART, which hopefully captures the spirit of exchange and dialogue as well as engaging the world community in helping the cause with crowdfunding. Previously the workshops had been myself visiting a community in Indonesia for a dance workshop, but OUR_PART will reciprocate the exchange with artists from Indonesia engaging with Australian communities, usually in remote parts of Australia. Additionally, much like A_PART, artists from many different artistic disciplines will be engaged.

JP Born and raised in Sydney, you were fortunate to frequently fly to Indonesia to visit relatives on your mother’s side growing up. Your grandmother was a Javanese dancer in the court in Jogjakarta and your uncle was the great Indonesian poet-playwright-activist W.S. Rendra. What role does their legacy play on shaping your endeavours?

The artist blood runs thick through me, so my grandmother and my uncle’s legacies have very significant roles in shaping me. My grandmother died when I was a toddler, so my uncle W.S. Rendra, who I call Om Willy, was determined to be the conduit for her legacy. He took me under his wing as I was the only one in my generation of the family who became a professional dancer. He taught me everything my grandmother had taught him about Javanese philosophy, spirituality and meditation techniques and their bearing on the way the body is engaged in movement.

In 2012 I had an opportunity to do Javanese classical dance lessons and could put these ideas into play – it was an epiphany; I finally realised why I had grown into a classical ballet dancer. Javanese classical dance has many similarities in terms of movement quality and stance of the body. At those lessons I felt the spirit of my grandmother alive in me, and this remains a guiding force as I continue my story in dance, both as dancer and as choreographer. Also, my uncle was famous for stating that “art is the voice of the people” and strongly believed in the relationship between politics and art. This aspect has shaped me hugely in terms of how I view dance and art in the context of society. I really believe there is not a stronger language than dance to express ideas and our humanness, therefore its powerful influence as a mirror to ourselves and our world.

 JP In recent years you have explored a hybrid of Javanese dance with Western classical and contemporary forms, navigating the confluence of dance, theatre, music and studies of cultural context and its impact on the human condition. Given that only a very small group of professional dance artists in the world working primarily outside of Indonesia possess Indonesian heritage, what have been the most significant (and personal) accomplishments regarding this cultural union?

For me the exploration and development of my own artistic language can be a bit selfish, as it’s a methodology for self-discovery. But naturally it serves the purpose of sharing it with the public, and it’s always very moving to see the myriad ways people connect to and interpret a very distinct artistic language. I love music and other art forms almost as much as I love dance, so when I create I will always gravitate to a wide-angle view when choosing modes of expression, whether they be as culturally iconic as gamelan music or as universal as pedestrian movement.

In terms of my identity as a dancer, there is no question that my Indonesian heritage gives me a sense of pride. Sadly there are few professional dancers with Indonesian heritage who work primarily outside of Indonesia, so it feels important to fly the flag for a country where dance is such an intrinsic and everyday part of culture. I have been working closely with the Indonesian dance community for a few years now, cultivating ideas for how to develop the dance industry there, and one day I hope to see more of the incredibly talented dancers in Indonesia on the world stage.

“In terms of my identity as a dancer, there is no question that my Indonesian heritage gives me a sense of pride. Sadly there are few professional dancers with Indonesian heritage who work primarily outside of Indonesia, so it feels important to fly the flag for a country where dance is such an intrinsic and everyday part of culture.”

JP A key moment for you was initiating and overseeing the West Australian Ballet’s (WAB) Jakarta Tour in 2016. It was the first time an Australian ballet company had toured to Indonesia and was the beginning of a robust working relationship between WAB and the Indonesian ballet community. You drafted a strategic plan to develop the dance industry in Indonesia through relations with Australian artists. What has successfully transpired since this time?

This was a very proud moment indeed, and it has been so rewarding to see WAB and Ballet.Id develop their relationship and activate that bridge between Indonesia and Australia’s dance communities. Indonesian dancers have come to Perth to participate in dance workshops at Strut, learning choreographies of international dance luminaries such as Hofesh Schecter. WAB has sent Australian choreographers like Christopher Hill to lead workshops and create new works. There is a vibrant and sustained flow of work that I hope will continue into the future. The next step is to partner more organisations in both countries. A_PART will be working in that capacity

JP You were involved in the dance film Letting Blood for Dark Mofo which screened at MONA in 2016, and Injustice, a conceptual audience-participation work in response to the Black and Indigenous Lives Matter movement. Further exploring alternatives to traditional stage productions you initiated A_PART in response to the pandemic and the long-term problem of accessibility to the arts. You began preparations to launch an online studio and stage for Australian and Indonesian artists to collaborate through commissioned projects and live online performance. What are some of these projects and how can people access them?

This interview is timely as I’m in the midst of final preparations to launch A_PART. We have two beautiful short films that we commissioned from artists in Australia and Indonesia, responding to the idea of Connection, which introduces what is at the crux of A_PART’s vision. The film from Australia features former Bangarra Dance Theatre dancer, Yolanda Lowatta, and the Indonesian film features classical Javanese and contemporary dancer Razan Widjosandjojo. Both artists reveal their stories of connection to the earthly elements with a deep spiritual sense of longing. Though independently made, it’s amazing to observe how they have a dialogue with one another. I love these accidental moments of magic in creating art and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come in upcoming projects.

For the film commissions, I selected combinations of artists who I felt would alchemise well as a team, and gave them the brief merely as a departure point, then left the rest up to them. It was so rewarding to see them unite as storytelling forces. The next project will call on artists to collaborate with artists from the other country, and as part of this experiment will examine the role of online communications in the present and future of art-making. As a start-up we will rely on crowd-funding and will focus on building a relationship with an audience in order to enable that.

 JP You have spent time back in Australia with your family due to your reduced performance schedule in Belgium and are currently working towards a Masters in Leadership at Deakin University. Post-graduation, how do you envisage contributing to making significant changes to the dance industry’s outlook regarding diversity and inclusion?

 I’m thinking of that Gandhi quote “be the change you want to see in the world.” There’s no better way to action change than by getting in the ring and fully embodying the change you aspire to. I decided to study the Masters course in order to empower myself with knowledge and connect with leaders and potential leaders outside of my industry. In arming myself with that wisdom and embodying the vision I have for the future of dance and other art forms I can have a more powerful influence in impelling that much-needed change. And in being an Asian Australian woman, I innately represent those identities. There is a huge paucity of women in leadership roles in the dance industry in particular, just one issue in an industry that itself is rife with problematic, outdated practices that need addressing. The systems need close examination for their relevance in today’s world – for example, hierarchy in a ballet company – and an overhaul. The dance industry desperately needs to move with the times.

I am working in many facets of my life toward empowerment of women, especially those from minority ethnicities. Last year I began development of a new dance theatre work called Kasekten, in which women as the protagonists rewrite embedded patriarchal histories in a series of rituals and it’s set in a volatile volcano crater environment.

 JP Some of your accolades include: Most Outstanding Female Dancer in Dance Europe’s Critics Survey 2018, Telstra Ballet Dancer Award 2009, plus Dancer to Watch 2008, 2011 and 2012 in Dance Australia’s Critics’ Survey. Looking over all your professional experiences, what would you deem the pinnacle of your career or do you believe that is yet to come?

 I am an eternal optimist, so even though I have worked professionally for 20 years and been blessed to have many incredible pinch-me moments and artistic highlights, I’m going to say the best is yet to come!

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