Transcript: Episode 33: The Science of Dance with Prehistoric Body Theatre

Listen to the episode here.

Travis (00:27)
Although each and every episode of Fossils and Fiction has taught me something, rarely has one stretched my mind in the way that today’s conversation did. My guest, Ari Dharminalan Rudenko, is the artistic director of Prehistoric Body Theatre in Indonesia. Ari discusses his background and how his childhood fascination with dinosaurs led him to combine science and dance.

Before the interview, I’m going to play a video produced by Prehistoric Body Theatre of their work Ghosts of Hill Creek, Primitive Streak. We discuss this work in some depth in the episode.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (02:04)
My name is Ari Dharminalan Rudenko, and I am the artistic director of Prehistoric Body Theater. And I’m also a current PhD candidate in dance creation studies at the Art Institute of Indonesia in Surakarta in Central Java, Indonesia.

Travis Holland (02:21)
welcome to Fossils and Fiction. Tell me about your background. Were you a dinosaur kid?

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (02:25)
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the US in the San Juan Islands, specifically on an island called Lopez Island. And my family are refugees from World War II, kind of first slash second generation. And so I have very shallow family roots in the US and my family moved around a lot. And I think there was something about paleontology that really grabbed my imagination as a kid.

that groundedness in something deeper, something that I was connected to. And in the islands there, since I was a kid, I was really obsessed with finding bones of birds and deer and all the other animals, the sea life that washed up on the beach there. We were right across the street from the beach. And…

trying to reconstruct those bones in the house and drawing the bones. And then I got really into dinosaurs from books at first and got a couple of chances to go to some of the museums, the Burke Museum in Seattle, which was closest. Also the American Museum of Natural History, I got to visit when I was in elementary school, which was absolutely a huge stimulus. And then, well, BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs came out when I was in elementary school. So.

I think that was really the clincher because my imagination just went wild watching that series. There was a few books when I was young as well. I don’t know if you know Raptor Red by Robert Bakker It’s a novel told from the perspective of a Utahraptor

Travis Holland (03:59)

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (04:00)
Yeah, and it’s really, really interesting. It brought me into the imagination of not just seeing dinosaurs, but what it would be like to be one. And Robert Bakker’s a paleontologist who is able to kind of put all of his knowledge into the narrative, but make it really juicy and exciting and put us in this first person vantage point into what it would be like to be an animal at that time, potentially.

And I was drawing dinosaurs all the time in other prehistoric life. My mom’s a painter, so I really grew up with visual art. And also was learning piano when I was young. And I did this sort of half an hour piano composition when I was in fifth grade or so about the extinction of the dinosaurs. So all these stories have really been with me for a long time.

Travis Holland (04:50)
Yeah, so I’m getting a real sense of someone who was really interested in animal life in general, but then also extinct animals. And of course, dinosaurs are a huge part of that for lots of kids and through your life. And you took all of that and turned it into this dance practice that engages in a form of science communication. So tell me about Prehistoric Body Theater. I’m really excited to learn how you take dance.

and make it a form of science communication.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (05:20)
Prehistoric Body Theater is a art science, performing arts organization based in Surakarta in central Java. We are a collective team of artists. I am originally from the US. Everyone else in the core team is from Indonesia.

from several different areas, several parts of Java, from Borneo, from Sumatra, from Madura. And we have an extended family beyond our core group as well that is constantly supporting various elements of the work. We live together collectively at a place called the Prehistoric Nest, which is in the Lama Puti Jungle Park, a jungle arts complex.

on the edge of Surakarta city in central Java. We’ve been living together since 2020 here, since the pandemic, this was our quarantine strategy and it’s really blossomed into a beautiful base camp where we’ve been developing very much the collective family values as a group. We are working now full time as a team.

and mutually supporting the creative process in many ways. Beyond the performance itself, many of the functions of this company are also being run collectively with the group and we’ve been really building our strategies for building work collaboratively. I did in the conception of Prehistoric Body Theater bring a lot of the initial

concepts from paleontology and bring the strategy for working with paleontologists to the company. But it’s evolved into something so much more than what I initially conceived of. And now really there’s this joint ownership over the creative process and decision making process based in our creative principles. And based in that principle of…

dedication to accuracy of the scientific narrative. And while I maybe have a bit more of a background in the science than a lot of my team, I also, like I said, position myself as an artist and we work with scientists to try to determine what are the scientific points and narratives that are important to bring into the work.

And so in that sense, there’s very much a collaborative quality beyond the core team here. We very much let ourselves be at the direction of the science and let that inform what choices maybe we need to make and also to clarify what our zones of creative freedom are.

when it comes to storytelling and when it comes to embodiment. And yeah, this learning process has really happened together with the team. We’ve been zooming in scientists from around the world into our base camp, as well as working with local scientists here, especially when it comes to our work with the homo erectus.

Fossil site, which is close to here, we do have a creation process which is connected with the ancient hominids that lived in Java, what’s been known locally in the west as Java man. And that work we can very much work with local scientists. Otherwise, we’re able to handle our translation services to the point where we can bring in people internationally.

We definitely looking forward aim to bring the Indonesian group on tour abroad and get many more opportunities to engage in fossil sites and work with paleontologists more directly and to build that extended community, creative community and academic community around the work.

I’ve been in Indonesia for 13 years now. So Indonesia swept me away. And initially for dance, my route threw back to interests in paleontology in an active way. There was a…

quite a few side steps in that process. My undergraduate degree was in philosophy. And there was some courses on the origins of the biology. There was basically coursework throughout my undergraduate that was around the history of science and scientific thought and revolutions. And so…

I was continually engaging my mind in questions of deep time and evolution, but amongst many other things. I got into dance really at that time because I was interested in the non-verbal, physical, embodied ways of dealing with a lot of these philosophical conundrums that I got thrown into in the context of that course that really…

needed to be, for me to be explored outside of the cerebral to get into other modalities of expression and communication of these ideas. So, and that ultimately through anthropology that I was reading in my undergraduate brought me to Bali, really reading about Balinese dance ceremony. And I was very fascinated about the, in Indonesia, the traditions of dance and their role in the

formation of culture, direction of specific political decisions made on the level of the village that are decided through the process of trance and ritual, and the way that these ceremonies play out, having a large effect on how the society is organizing itself. And that’s a whole conversation, but it

through my years of being here in Indonesia and going through all of this experiences of learning dance, seeing a lot of animal dances, a lot of traditions here in Indonesia are embodying animal characters and responding to nature in various ways. And that brought me through again around to this interest in paleontology and these new fossils that were coming out of, especially the…

Yixian Formation out of Northern China, like the Microraptorians and these other many raptor and fossils that were fossilized in this incredibly dancerly death poses that had this resonance with the dances that I was working on specifically. There’s a number of bird dances in Bali, the Chendrawasi dance, Bird of Paradise dance.

Manawrawo is a kind of marsh bird dance. And there was all of these parallels I was seeing in those fossils and in these dances that I was working on. And I got really interested in what it would be like to try to embody a prehistoric animal working with Indonesian dancers, working with this technical vocabulary, working with this performative style, but also diving into

What does it mean to be a human dancing a bird? What is this connection between the bird and the human going back through into our evolutionary connection? What’s our last common evolutionary ancestor? And tracing those comparative biological stories about how our body relates to a bird. And then as we dance a bird, how are all of those interfaces playing out in the way we craft the dance, the way we craft the story?

And so that brought me to this point of experiment, beginning to experiment with prehistoric animal characters. Initially, just as a set of ideas. This is going back to around 2016. I was doing a master’s in interdisciplinary arts, interdisciplinary fine arts from Goddard College, a small, low residency campus in Washington state. And.

I started to write out these ideas of what it would be like to create a deep time animal dance theater. And what it might look like to trace these connections between biology, kinematic studies, ethology as a source of inspiration for performance, and then also working with Indonesian tradition from the dimension of

technical capacity and all of these beautiful results in embodying various kinds of animals and other characters that have developed in the Indonesian traditional lexicon over the last few hundred years. So I’m kind of, I feel like I’m going on a little bit of a circle in my answer here. So I’ll.

Travis Holland (14:18)
No, it’s a really fascinating story. I’m really engaged in this way of thinking, this circular way of thinking that you’re talking about and self criticizing about. I really follow. It’s, I think it’s a good way of thinking through particularly creative measures because it’s often not logical, right? It’s often not one step after the other. It’s a whole bunch of things feeding back in

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (14:22)

Travis Holland (14:47)
and through time as well. So yeah, it makes sense to me.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (14:52)
Absolutely. Yeah, well, thank you. Thanks for honoring that thought process. And so there was this point, let’s say around 2016, where I had been already experimenting a bit with the traditional dances, specifically in Bali at that time, but also I was traveling back and forth to Java quite a lot. But…

There’s a lot of sensitivities around working with tradition in a contemporary way. It’s done a lot in Indonesia. There’s definitely a lot of practice around that, but it also has to be done right. And I, at a certain point, realized that the more ethical, but also the more interesting way to approach

building a prehistoric body theater performance modality would be to first go to the scientists and to the science and through choosing select prehistoric taxa that were interesting to bring to the stage.

to work specifically with what we know about their anatomy, about their kinematic systems, what we can say about their movement, their locomotion, what we can say about their potential behaviors and scenarios that seem potentially realistic or plausible and the overall narratives in which, you know, we find those animals and that, you know, the way that those particular species could.

carry a larger story. To work with all this information, and ideally directly with scientists to map all of this to the human body in as technical a way as we can or what would make sense to see what it would be like to build a physical movement system in the human body based as much as possible on a kind of

study of the organism that we want to embody. And from that building a set of movement systems, of rules, of physicality and expression that would be specific to that taxa. And then bringing that information to this collaboration with Indonesian dancers that I was working with. So to really have that collaboration meet in the middle between

tradition and dancers that are coming from that rich background and bring all of that technique and all of that strategy and creativity to the collaboration, but then also bringing this body of more scientifically grounded exploration. Of course, also selecting proxy, living proxy.

animals that would could stand in various ways for the extinct taxa that we’re interested in so that we can get more references for behaviors and scenarios and then from there letting that all kind of jam together and weave itself into a performance style that’s kind of really taking the let’s say the best of both of these two worlds and

in a sort of gestalt way forming something new.

And so, yeah, around 2017 was when I really started in more seriousness to build up that concept. And I can keep on going about the whole kind of story about how this work started, but I’ll throw it to you first.

Travis Holland (18:37)
Yeah, no, we will get into it a little bit. I’m interested in the role of the paleontologists. You talked about going off and talking to science, learning from science and involving them without names, I guess. But were they were the scientists or the paleontologists you spoke to, were they skeptical or did they appreciate where you were coming from? Because I feel like it’s a clash of worlds.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (19:01)
Yeah, that’s funny. Well, I would feel comfortable blaming this guy because he’s been one of our key mentors and ambassadors since early in the prehistoric body theater sort of conception phase and until now. Dr. Greg Wilson-Montilla, he’s the curator of the paleontology at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

and he’s also the director of the Hell Creek Project, the annual excavations at the Hell Creek site in Eastern Montana. And I relatively early in this process, let’s say end of 2016, I had begun to set my sites on Hell Creek as a narrative of interest to begin working with. This is a site that’s

famous for capturing a coastal ecosystem on the banks of the Western Interior Seaway that used to cut through the center of North America. And it’s such a famous site, it’s so well known for the T. rex and Triceratops and Amontosaurus, Apachycephalosaurus and Nenglosaurus, there’s so many famous dinosaurs that come from Hell Creek, so it’s definitely not an obscure place to start.

And this site is capturing this very final days of the latest Cretaceous and the actual moment of the K-P-G extinction. We find the iridium layer through the Hell Creek formation. And then just above that, we have the Toluk formation, which is capturing the earliest days of the paleogene. And in that same locale, how ecosystems…

revitalized, revolutionized, and dramatically evolved in the million years or so after the K-PG extinction event. And also I discovered that the first known plesiadapiform primate ancestor, Purgatorius, is also known from that same site. So hypothetically we’re tracing…

humanities direct ancestor from that time to that site as well. So right there we have a rich story unfolding about the survival of our ancestor and this extinction of the dinosaurs happening kind of side by side. And so I was basically from that I was okay. So who are the scientists working on Hell Creek?

who’s working on Purgatorius, who’s basically the right person to contact to try to get more into this story. And I found Greg, Dr. Greg Wilson-Montiel, being the director of the Hell Creek Project. He wasn’t too hard to find. And he works on mammal evolution and radiation across the KAPG boundary. And so he was a perfect person to hit up. And…

I did hit him up. I sent kind of a cold email and he did respond and he did think it was some sort of joke that he was being pranked. He’ll always say this. It was so out of left field. But I think the reason why he responded was I just came up with a very detailed list of questions about Purgatorius. I wanted to know everything about what’s the range of motion in the wrist? What do we know about the wrist?

thumb? What do we know about its environment, its potential social behavior, its cognitive capabilities? Anything and everything that I could possibly learn about Purgatorius that could be applicable to building a dance character and a narrative around this animal. And so I think his interest in answering those questions and getting into the conversation was really

in response to kind of the specificity of my inquiry. And so we had an initial Zoom conversation and then we started talking and there was at University of Washington at that time, a Bergstrom Award for Art Science Interface, a specific interdisciplinary grant program.

that had been established. And so he was like, well, why don’t you write up a proposal for that grant and let’s see where that goes. And so I did, and we applied for that jointly and won it. And so that was really what kickstarted prehistoric body theater in a much more concrete kind of way.

Specifically, I got to join the Hell Creek Project as an artist in residence in 2017. So I got to spend a month or so out in Eastern Montana with the scientists. And that was an amazing experience. I got to work on the Tufts Love T-Rex, which is on display at the Burke Museum now. It’s a relatively complete T-Rex specimen. And I got to spend a couple of weeks out there.

on the wrecks and it was just to be there not just with those bones but also that you can see the flow of the river around it in the mudstone and in the concretions and we have our you know gar scales and we got champsosaurs and we got all kinds of plants and whatnot I mean we’ve got that the Hell Creek ecosystem around these bones in such a way that

just brought me into the full story of this creature and just being there day after day working on it and letting my imagination kind of go wild and connect with the kind of the meaning of this moment. As an artist, I guess I have a kind of a license to let myself dream into that.

And it really, it was amazing. It was an amazing experience that grounded me, grounded the work going forward, that story for the people that I worked with afterwards. And I got to build up so much of the overall narrative of this concept of what now has become Ghosts of Hell Creek, this performance piece through all of this conversations and nights around the bonfire and just getting this

so much time to make that social bond and just dream into the what was the story that’s in that land and yeah.

Travis Holland (25:22)

I love that you approached the paleontologists with enthusiasm, but also with pre-existing knowledge. You didn’t just go in and say, what’s the deal with this? You said really specific questions. And if there’s one thing to get academics going, it’s to ask them questions that they have to think about, as opposed to the ones that they’ve already written about 100 times. And it sounds like that’s maybe what happens.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (25:48)

Absolutely, I could share another piece of the strategy because yeah, there’s been a variety of response from scientists, there’s definitely been those who are just like, why as an artist, why are you so interested in being accurate? You have the freedom to do whatever you want. Why is this so important to you? Yeah, for various things, it’s something new. But the…

On that point, I think that the more specificity I’ve gotten into, it’s gotten them engaged. And because a lot of the questions that I ask are also not easy questions to answer. For one thing, a lot of paleontologists don’t necessarily work on kinematics or on behavior as much as they’re working on more macroscopic evolutionary questions and ecosystem-wide questions. When, let’s say, getting into Purgatorius, Purgatorius itself and pleseodapal forms in general.

Mammals in general are mostly known from teeth. So a lot of what the paleontologists working on, the mammals in Hell Creek are working on is isometric morphometrics of teeth. So that tells you something, for sure it tells you about diet and whatnot, but it can’t answer a lot of the questions I was asking. And so I think that was one of the things I encountered early on was hesitancy to venture guesses.

and scientists kind of wanting to throw this back to me, like, okay, we don’t know, so it’s up to you. How do you want to do it? I’m like, no, I want to, I know that there’s going to be a best guess. And so when I got back from Hell Creek, I had some lab processes at University of Washington where I got to bring some of the paleontologists into the dance studios there and just sort of do this initial experiments of, okay, let’s try to map this to my body and tell me, you know, what do you…

what do you know, and we can get into some basic things. But whenever it came to the questions of, let’s say, is its wrist position more like this or like that, which in the gait structure, where’s the weight going? What are the oscillations? What are these kinematic subsystems that are interacting with each other? I kind of brought those questions to the studio, but so many of them were not easy to answer. So I was like, okay.

let’s try ABC and I’ll do three different variations and tell me which one seems the most plausible. And so I was able to basically through that multiple choice process, get them to be like, okay, well, if you do it like that, like that, like that, okay, it seems like C makes the most sense because I can, you know, either refer to studies of other similar animals or, you know, we can talk about ethology, we can get into…

other references which could help support one conclusion over another and yes, it’s best guesses. This is paleo art. This is not, you know, we’re going to go with our best guesses but we also of course are going to make guesses throughout the process. And it was fun to try to figure out the ways to get them out of their, to loosen them up to feel free to answer questions without also

you know, without them feeling like they’re maybe academic. What do you call them? Yeah, good.

Travis Holland (28:56)
I totally get where you’re coming from. I saw a behind the scenes documentary about Jurassic Park recently. And to try and get the sense of how in the Gallimimus scene, how the animals would have run and moved and jumped, they, because I think that, you know, the animators were struggling to put that together on the computer.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (29:04)

Travis Holland (29:20)
So they took them out into a car park and laid out a series of sort of obstacle courses and gave the animators a lesson in bipedal movement that the Gallimimuses would have been pursuing. I mean, obviously humans are bipeds, but that kind of theropod approach. And had them moving around the car park in that same way to try and inform their artistic generations, to inform what they were actually trying to design on the computer.

So I can really see how marrying the science, and as you say, the best guesses with the physical movement makes sense and brings the work, brings the ideas to life in a way that is well beyond the page, is well beyond the research report that we might be used to seeing. And also in a way that is quite different from

just watching it on a screen as well.

Ari, in your performances, you’ve already mentioned about some of the specific vertebrates, the specific animals that are part of the performances, that are central characters there. Could you explain a bit more about some of those choices and how you chose which characters to feature or which animals to feature as characters, perhaps in Ghosts of Hell Creek?

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (30:33)
Hmm. Yeah. So for Ghosts of Hell Creek, it started with Purgatorius with this question of the K-Pg extinction and our likely ancestor, ancestral primate that would survive that extinction. That survival story to me was something intrinsically interesting to explore in a performance.

It’s speaking to the shared ancestry and the sort of shared wonder and celebration of the ingenuity of our ancestors who survived something as drastic as that. And to of course reflect on the current extinction happening at the human hands and in that question of what does it look like to.

Survive an extinction and what does it look like to go extinct? And there’s so many dimensions of empathy and storytelling to get into with Purgatorius and then from the Hell Creek area. I wanted to select a dinosaur species that would be a good complement to basically represent the

perspective of the extinction itself. And Acheroraptor came up pretty quickly. I, since I was young, just had an aesthetic fascination with dromaeosaurs with, especially as we got more and more understanding of their feathering, of their potential physicality, their similarity to birds, and also their

Unique forms of agility with these flightless but aerodynamic wings. There’s so many just amazing kind of visuals that always come up for me in imagining how those kind of animals could have moved and behaved. And a caroraptor is very similar to a velociraptor. It’s taxonomically placed right next to a velociraptor, although it’s a bit later.

and in North America rather than in Asia, but has very similar features from what we know. And the size is great. There’s a lot of, this is kind of comes into the second set of considerations other than its interests sort of aesthetically and within the evolutionary narrative frame, the ability for a human body to perform the animal comfortably.

is definitely a consideration when thinking about creating a dance character. And a character has its limbs, its legs, its arm, wing arms are proportionally not so different from those of a human body. Size-wise, we’re also not so different. I mean, it was lighter than a human, but we’re not so off. And so, and because I was already working with the, in learning these

dance characters from Balinese and Javanese tradition. And so I already had a traditional technique and kind of framework of physicality that very much connected with a dromaeosaur dinosaur. So from there, it was not a difficult decision to hone in on a character as being the main dinosaur character in the piece.

And from there, then it was just the next question was, well, what’s their common ancestor? If we’re going to tell a deep time origin story, yeah, the question is, what’s the deep time common origin? And that brings us back to the Carboniferous and it brings us back to the split between synapsids and psoropsids, the reptile and mammal ancestral lineages. And protoclepsid drops

maybe the taxa that’s placed closest to that split from the Joggins-Cliffs formation in Nova Scotia and Canada. And we don’t know much about protoclepsidrops. The evidence is basically comes from the 70s and there haven’t been any new discoveries that have at least been proven to add to that particular.

taxa descriptions, so we are still kind of have to look at, you know, all of the other early sauropsids and early synapses and kind of make some kind of best guesses about what protoclepsid drops would have been like. But it was of course a very lizard-like animal. And protoclepsid drops is very interesting in being right at that.

origin of the amniotes of the amniotic egg, that transition between amphibians and tetrapods, which could fully live on the land and pioneer the dry land. And so that in itself is a very interesting story that comes out of that, you know, that taxa and that moment in earth’s history.

And then from there, I was like, well, we need a fourth. I don’t know, I often work in fourths. And there’s just a kind of a balance to that. And then I was like, okay, well, we’re talking about vertebrates. Let’s just go right to the origins of the vertebrates. And so that brought me to the origin, yeah, of vertebrates on the Cambrian explosion. And there’s a few good candidates, but Heikoichthys.

ultimately was the one that I chose. It has a notochord, it has a distinctive head area with small eye spots, and several of the other cephalochordates, these early vertebrate ancestors that have already… the notochord is a bit of a stiff…

support structure for a spinal column, but coming prior to the origin of bones, but it is that sort of prevertible column structure that we also see in embryonic development. And, but yeah, because it has eye spots, because it has a slightly bulbous sort of proto brain on the end of its notochord,

It really is looking like a likely common ancestor of all vertebrates, a precursor to fish, but very likely on the line directly towards fish. And it’s known from the Chengjiang Formation in Kunming in southern China, which I actually went to high school in China and I used to live in Kunming. So I have an interesting sort of…

history in that particular area. And yeah, it’s known from a really beautifully preserved Cambrian fossil site and Lagerstatten site with a great record of the ecosystem there, the Changjiang biota. So there was definitely a lot to work with in terms of thinking about the scenes to work on there. But I think really bringing us back to this ancestral

origin of the vertebrates and that absolute revolution in the development of life and within the simplicity of that nervous system to work on the most basic impulses of fight or flight, of hunger, of drive towards sex within an

that simple of an ancestral form to bring us back to something that basic at a moment that’s that pivotal and to realize what potential can be hidden in something so small. Hicoichthys is just about an inch long or so, just a couple of centimeters. And so there I kind of from there just had this.

let’s say almost like a Y-shaped, very simple diagram of a piece, which is origin of vertebrates, split of synapsids and seropsids, and the origin of the amniotes, and then the Hell Creek story, the extinction story told from the vantage point of acheroraptor the dinosaur that goes extinct, and Purgatorius, the ancestral primate form that survived. And there’s a very

balanced theatrical composition with an iconic set of references that immediately can bring an audience into a much wider understanding of the tree of life and taxonomy. And we can fill in so many blanks with the questions that come out of it, but also have a very clear filtration, filtering process to really isolate.

a very iconic and easy to capture narrative and for animal forms, which are all very different. So they all just aesthetically have lent themselves to unique stage presence and unique choreographic ideas and are all compatible with a bit of creativity with the human body as far as a choreographic foundation.

Travis Holland (39:39)
the fact that all vertebrates, all tetrapods even, basically have the same set of bones and muscles and things throughout their bodies, even where they’ve changed shape or sometimes reduced.

And that allows you to make these comparisons and make these links through time, as you’ve said, and through clades. But it’s also something that a lot of people struggle to conceptualize and to understand how similar our body is to other mammals, let alone to birds and reptiles and fish even in some regards. So I really liked the approach of saying, well, let’s take all of this and perform it in a…

in an artistic style that people can hopefully relate to if the science isn’t something that works for them necessarily.

What media or design do you use to bring these animals to life? How do you actually put them on stage in addition to your body?

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (40:27)

Yeah, I love stagecraft. I think maybe this comes back to my visual art origins. And so I work with the concept of a portal on the stage. That means for the audience, I don’t want them to just see the literal physicality of the piece, but for the piece to activate their imagination to almost see

through the live performance and into this journey, into deep time, into the animals and the story in and of themselves through the mind’s eye. And there are a number of specific artistic choices that have been made to facilitate that activation of the imagination. And so that can be seen in the costumery.

we are not working with literal costumes of these animals somehow representing, let’s say, an acheroraptor with the shape of an acheroraptor. That would be very cool and would be very interesting to work on. I definitely don’t want to close off the possibility of really getting into fun costumery like that. But for the purposes of this work,

that would really cause the imagination’s, the audience’s imagination to basically stop at the character itself and in that literal costume. When we present the human form more explicitly on stage, we can activate that imagination with the addition of a few key elements. So we do work with some aesthetic, prosthetic pieces, for example, for acheroraptor

we do have prosthetic wing elements. And these wings, we’ve tried to shape them to reflect the primaries of the, what Acheroraptor’s wing form might’ve looked like, but we don’t have any feather texture or anything. It’s just a very simple geometric shape. So that simple geometric shape is there to…

invite the audience to feel the wing. Those prosthetics also, they need to have that right elasticity, that right springiness to give that impression of feathers, to give movement dynamics that will follow what those feathered wings might have been doing, but to not give them any more than that, so to let it be a springboard for their imagination to dream into the rest of the end.

And the way we work with the set, the set is all clay textured. Prehistoric Body Theatre has been very much working with this clay texture aesthetic idea since its origins. Fossils are more often than not excavated from clay stone. And it’s also the body made stone. Also, clay has this metaphorical

of elasticity and flexibility to become any shape it’s molded into.

The clay texture gives a sensuous foundation to play with light and to play with form and the way that the clay cracks, we bring in metallic elements, we bring layered elements, and that’s in the body and it’s also permeates to the whole stage installation. And it works as a kind of textured canvas.

So again, going back to that portal space, we have this blank canvas, and then we let the light work as a kind of paint. We let our bodies work as a kind of paint. Sound is also very much involved in the storytelling, and all of these elements work together on this sort of blank canvas of the stage installation to give just enough to the audience, to give them a sense of…

the atmosphere of the sounds and the smells and the dappling effect of the light passing through the leaves of the forest and hitting the forest floor without there being literal trees, without there being other elements, but it’s enough to bring the audience there and to let them take it further. And we play with, especially light in a somewhat hallucinatory way with a…

some techniques of how we do very subtle oscillations and whatnot there and the way it works with our body and the way it works with sound, of course, these are all stimulating something to emerge from inside of each audience membrane. With the sound, we also work on vibration very much on this deep bass tonal qualities, which will hit the…

audiences’ bodies in specific ways to bring them in resonant relationship with the story.

And that’s a lot of our fun is in stagecraft. And what are the particular sort of magic capacities of the stage to touch on these things. And then another point to make with the human form on stage, why we don’t hide the human form is that we want to see the human in the story. That as an audience,

Yeah, this is also us. This is also our story because we’re homo sapiens. We’re also primates. We’re also tetrapods. We’re also vertebrates. We’re also animals. We’re eukaryotes. Like how these are all equally relevant parts of our identity. And to identify with those things brings us…

in this sort of radical empathy with all of life past and present. And to portray the story with the human form is a part of that. And as the performers within the piece, of course, we even more deeply have to touch this story, have to find these characters and their emotions and their world through our human form and also through an

active embodied imagination where, you know, we’re in the forest and we don’t have any trees but we have to see the trees there as the dancer. They have to be able to visualize that they’re amongst the trees and they’re smelling the smells and they’re being hit by the breeze that’s there and, you know, every element that might have been there in their ecosystem, how do we build this common imagination between the dancers where everyone is supporting this invisible…

portal space together. And that’s very much also part of how we bring that audience into the story. We could say probably the most critical element of it is that embodied imagination and comfort and relaxation that the performers need to have with portraying that, being in it, pulling the audience also into that story.

through their stage presence.

Travis Holland (47:56)
Yeah. And how has the audience reacted to it? Do you have any sort of memorable reactions that you can point to and say, yes, this is the impact that I want to have on an audience member?

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (48:08)
Our audiences have been so varied. So we are based here in Indonesia. So a lot of our audiences are Indonesian audiences of various kinds. We’re as a group very connected with the Art Institute of Indonesia and the dance ecosystem here in central Java, which let’s say it’s among the most developed in terms of contemporary performance. There’s a lot of audience for seeing

experimental dance here and there’s a lot of conversation around it. So there is an audience that can, they’re coming to it from the perspective of being interested in the dance and then being pulled into this conversation about dinosaur life, about prehistory, which is within Indonesia, let’s say very unusual. Evolution is not really taught in the school system here.

in Indonesia in general has very low scientific literacy in a lot of ways. But has also this very rich relationship to deep history with it being very much an indigenous culture with roots going back thousands of years and active traditions that trace their roots deep

to be pulled back into an epic story of the ancestors is definitely familiar. And to go this much deeper into it, yeah, we get a lot of questions. There’s definitely the type of audience that reads it very imaginatively and makes their own stories into it. And within artistic mediums, in dance, that’s something that…

To a certain extent, we have to also give the audience their freedom to respond as they will. And that’s all very interesting, the connections they make. But we also have a few specific ways that we also try to make sure that we get the information we want to convey to the audience, especially because the work itself is nonverbal. We don’t have any narration in the performance itself.

But we do have a booklet that the audience will get and the booklet is got a seal on it. And so we have on that first page, the unsealed page, we ask them, do they want to access the story before they watch the piece or not? And we give them that freedom to open the seal before they watch the piece or to keep it sealed until afterwards or to never break the seal. It’s up to them. So…

to give them that freedom of how they want to dive into that science. And it’s been really interesting, even working, let’s say with my dancers themselves, all of whom were not coming from a background with let’s say scientific literacy or interest necessarily. Although let’s say animal life is very interesting for everyone. I mean, here we’re like rich in the jungle.

Many of my team are also been raising, you know, various kinds of wild animals since they’re, they were young and have, you know, various kinds of exciting relationships with nature. But, Prehistoric Body Theater was really their gateway to the science of deep time and the way that they have questioned the process, the way that they have learned, the way that they have…

Also gotten into, we’ve gotten into very interesting multi-dimensional debates around many topics. And all of that, those conversations have so deeply fueled this also kind of awareness of what audiences are thinking about here. And let’s say I can even pull this a little bit further, maybe see on my body, this won’t be in the audio,

My body’s fully tattooed with the traditional tattoos of the Mantawe tribal people who are a group living in the Mantawe Islands across from West Sumatra. Sumatra and we take about a 10 hour boat ride across the water and the Mantawe people are really living in their old ways until today. It’s one of the oldest really intact traditional cultures in Indonesia. And…

It’s been really interesting being in Matawe. Their traditional dances are all animal dances. Every animal in the jungle has its own dance, in Matawe, and that really drew me there. And I didn’t intend to really bring, you know, the story of the paleontology there, really trying to be sensitive within the context of

really traditional animistic community that’s, you know, that’s in those old ways, you know, to kind of filter my influence there. But people kept on asking me to bring my dance and so I was bringing the Acharaptor dance there and they have an eagle dance which is very, has a lot of sort of interesting similarities actually. And so, you know, I ended up just like

doing a lot of these impromptu performances there. Not really giving any context for it, but it was like people reacted so positively just because they’re so deep in the animal dance and seeing the human body in animal forms and to see that in a different kind of way, but in a way that also feels very connected with their tradition was just very interesting. And what we’ve got.

always like kind of screaming hilarious response, but you know, it’s a very different, let’s say kind of an audience. Then that can also like when we did a version of Holy Ghosts of Hell Creek at University of Washington in Seattle and there we had the audience was probably more than half scientists from the science perspective. And so there we have a completely different kind of audience, which is actually less familiar with dance, but is able to trace all of those.

narrative connections in the work and really, I think, respond to the work in a really unique kind of way coming from a perspective of knowing more than I do about the story that’s being told and that diversity of potential responses to the work, I think, is what makes it a rich locus of conversation. And we’re very much interested in.

Travis Holland (54:26)

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (54:27)
really beginning to tour the work more broadly, to really start to experiment more with what different audiences in different countries, different cultural backgrounds are, yeah, it’d be like.

Travis Holland (54:37)
Yes, so I guess that brings me to the next question then. So as the director of Prehistoric Body Theatre, what do you think is the future? What do you hope to achieve with the theatre company now?

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (54:47)
Since the beginning, we’ve really had the dream of touring the work globally. Ghosts of Hell Creek specifically has been under a multi-year design process to become a touring work and to engineer all of the set and everything to make it really portable has been another whole dimension to it. But we’re gearing up to bring the pieces as widely as possible.

We’re hoping to begin this global touring starting next year. we are looking pretty positive about bringing the work to North America and more broadly to Australia as well. We have a couple of conversations on that front. And the work, it’s a global story.

It’s for all of humanity. And although we created it in an Indonesian context and very much the Indonesian audience is our dear beloved home audience here. The work is from the beginning been configured in such a way is that it could be brought as widely as possible. And we have also other works in process beyond Ghosts of Hell Creek.

I haven’t talked too much yet about our Sangiran piece, but we have a piece about the homo erectus, the pre-sapiens hominids, which are very famously known from Java and from a fossil site just 20 minutes north of where we live. And this piece has a whole other set of resonances because of its direct connection with the culture here, with the history here, and we’ve spent extensive time in the fossil site and with the

local population that lives there. It’s very traditional village community that’s been in this very dynamic relationship with the fossils all around them and the scientists and museums that are there. And so the, this Homo erectus piece, we’re also looking at beginning to tour that work as well, with a different touring modality. Ghosts of Hell Creek is a proscenium theater piece.

And the Homo erectus piece is looking to be much more site specific in its touring concepts. So they will be able to tour to very different kinds of events, which will be interesting. And we’re really looking for this to continue to grow and ideally to become a multi-generational company to have young generations of dancers start to take up the mantle and

Uh, yeah, we definitely have, have dreams of longevity, of, you know, what the future educational programs that we can build that cross, uh, science and art and specifically dance arts and kinesthetic learning, uh, outside of the stage context. Uh, we’ve also been working with film. We have a Ghosts of Hell Creek Primitive Streak is a

super teaser film of Ghosts of Hell Creek that we created that will be continuing to launch over the course of this year and we hope to be involved with more film projects as well and beyond that really continuing to build the strength of our dance family here.

Travis Holland (58:08)
just one more question really is could you explain how about your PhD? We mentioned it right at the start, but we haven’t really got into that. How is your PhD shaping up and what’s the links between, you know, the theatre work that you’re doing in the PhD, which itself is practice based as I understand.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (58:11)

It is. So the Art Institute of Indonesia, Surakarta, has a Dance Creation Studies PhD program, which is a practice-based PhD for generative artists. So within the frame of the program, there is a work that is to be created and then a dissertation to be written on the creation process.

the focus of study is the study of dance creation, methodologies, paradigms, and all of the strategies and considerations and greater discourses connected with the process of creating and staging work. So within that frame, although

Public Outreach for Science is very much at the core of prehistoric body theater. I am writing this PhD from the lens of dance creation studies and paleo art within the realm of within the field of dance creation. And it is also coming from a Javanese and Indonesian cultural context.

So that also does frame some of the way that I am expressing prehistoric body theaters, methodologies and creation process. Definitely my hope with the dissertation is that it’s going to function more broadly to create a public record and a document that can help work to, let’s say bridge these

diverse academic communities from paleontology, ethology, environmental studies, and then dance creation studies and traditional cultural studies on the Indonesian side, and to build that bridge academically as well as socially and through the actual creative process. The work under question is Ghosts of Hell Creek.

So although Ghosts of Hell Creek has been under development for years before I entered into the program, the final form of Ghosts of Hell Creek that we aim to bring on tour, the sort of the final pre-tour performance, pre-premiere showing of the work is going to be at the Art Institute of Indonesia here, and we’ll be concluding the creation part of my study.

The methodology that I’ve been working on is I’m calling prehistoric body choreography. And choreography is the study of dance analysis and notation. And this is specifically, I’m working on the study of how we work with paleontological science, kinematics and the science of description of movement.

and bringing that to and working with concrete prehistoric taxa as characters and the way in which we articulate the movement systems for the human body in representing each of these characters as well as the argumentation behind all of those artistic choices. And that also develops then this system of

Notation, the notation is also very much working with traditional dance vocabulary. So it’s kind of this interesting marriage of kinematic vocabulary and, uh, and traditional vocabulary. And we’ve been sort of collectively working with the team to choose the shortcut, shorthand language for all of the different movements and techniques that we’re working with, um, as well as behavior motifs.

and building that then into a language that can function for choreographic process, but also for training and for teaching.

Pretty significant bulk of my dissertation writing is about all of our choreography labs that we’ve been doing and the recording of all of those terms and how we want to express the system of movement behind prehistoric body theater and also then how we can analyze prehistoric body theater performance using that vocabulary.

to articulate particular artistic choices or differences between individual dancers’ expression. And yeah, it’s a very multi-dimensional dissertation touching on a lot of different things with the frame of paleo art is very much in there and discussion of the discourse of paleo art and what dance theater performance.

might contribute to the field. Paleo art has not been particularly explored within the medium of performance. So especially not in a more concretely dance-based domain. There’s been the Walking with Dinosaurs Stadium Show and a few other things like that. But this is certainly bringing quite a few new ideas to the table.

And also kind of asking that question of, is this paleo art? Does it also potentially fall outside of the domain of paleo art? What is the art side of paleo art? For sure we know the paleo side, but how do we frame art and the difference between art and illustration when it comes to generating works of paleo arts and discourse on cultural appropriation?

Travis Holland (1:03:57)

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (1:04:03)
of course makes it into there. We’re working with traditional dance forms in various ways and techniques and ideas. And so how do we ethically take inspiration from tradition? Working with custodians of tradition, working with permissions, working with the frames of introspection analysis that play into also the artistic decision-making process

portions and dimensions of inspiration from tradition that make their way into the final staging and doing also pretty as comprehensive sort of overview of the science narrative and the references for that as possible as well to make sure that that’s all on paper. And my intention with this is, you know, I don’t want to think the worst, but in case something happened to me.

that this is out there on paper so there would be a possibility of, you know, others carrying, taking up the mantle and continuing the work and having all of the thought process and the work that’s been done so far down there on paper in such a way that it’s not all stuck in my head. And also in Indonesian,

I’m writing the dissertation in Indonesian. I will do an English version of it as well, but for the schools in Indonesia and for my team themselves, and for everyone that we’re working with academically and creatively in Indonesia, it’s important that they also are able to access the full body of thought process behind the work in a language that we all share here.

Travis Holland (1:05:43)

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (1:05:43)
That’s, it’s an interesting process also for a lot of these more scientific discourses to also translate that into a form of Indonesian, which also is compatible with the language of Indonesian art academics, which has its own vocabulary and perspective.

Travis Holland (1:06:02)

Ari, this has been such a fascinating conversation. The mix of science and dance as a particular form, art form and as a paleo art form that we perhaps haven’t seen very much of, as you alluded to, is really, really interesting. I think we could probably talk for hours, but right now I just wanna thank you so much. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. And so thank you so much.

Ari Dharminalan Rudenko (1:06:29)
Thank you.

Thank you.

Travis (1:06:34)
Thank you to Ari for this fascinating and mind -stretching conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.

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