Ballet is known for its high level of difficulty, requiring discipline and hard work to master. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Where Do Ballerinas Go After Ballet School?


APRIL 27, 2018

Jakarta. After years of training, young Indonesian ballet dancer Jemima Vaya finally landed a place as an intern at Melbourne City Ballet at the end of last year.

The eighteen-year-old was introduced to ballet early because her mother, Jetty Maika, owns Speranza Dance Studio in Bekasi, just outside Jakarta.

Jemima trained at her mother's school, then in Malaysia, Australia and the United States before finally starting what she hopes to be a long stint with Melbourne City Ballet.

Her mother said she was forced to take her daughter overseas to gain experience and look for dance jobs because building a career as a professional ballerina in Indonesia is still impossible for one very simple reason: the country does not have a professional ballet company.

"If dancers want to have a professional career, they have to go abroad. I did that for my daughter," said Jetty, who was also the artistic director of Dance Prix Indonesia held two weeks ago.

Other Indonesian dancers have followed the same path as Jemima. There is the Indonesian-Australian ballerina Juliet Burnett, also famous for being the niece of the late poet W. S. Rendra.

The award-winning dancer was trained in the United Kingdom and Australia, before a 12-year stint with The Australian Ballet. Now she's the first soloist at Ballet Vlaanderenin Belgium.

Then there's Rebecca Alexandria, who studied at Jakarta's Marlupi Dance Academy. She won first place at the 2018 Youth American Grand Prix in the pre-competitive category.

Needless to say, the good news rarely reached the mainstream media in Indonesia.

So what's stopping Indonesia from having its own professional ballet companies?

Rebecca Alexandria won first place in the pre-competitive category at the 2018 Youth American Grand Prix. (JG Screenshot)

Plenty of Schools, No Company

According to Ballet Indonesia Foundation (Ballet ID) founder Mariska Febriyani, there are over 100 ballet schools in Jakarta, but only a few have a professional unit.

One of the oldest ballet schools in the country Namarina has Namarina Youth Dance (NYD), Marlupi Dance Academy has Indonesian Dance Company (IDCO) and Ballet Sumber Cipta has Kreativität.

Unfortunately, all of these companies are still only semi-professional.

"Ideally, a professional ballet company works just like any other company. We dance and get paid for it. We get paid to join classes everyday. It becomes a profession. We live purely from dancing. There's nothing like that in Indonesia yet," said Mariska, who currently works as a freelance ballet dancer and teacher.

A fully professional dance company recruits dancers to work for it full-time, not just for short-term projects.

Mariska said the only professional dance company that checks all the boxes is Eksotika Karmawibhangga Indonesia (EKI) Dance Company, but it is not focused on classical ballet.

Namarina's principal and artistic director Maya Tamara said during a show on Sunday (22/04) that NYD expects to be a professional company by 2025.

Namarina the dance school was established in 1956, but NYD the dance company started only 12 years ago in 2006.

NYD now has a troupe of 12 dancers who rehearse four times a week.

The youngest is 17-year-old Soraya Nathasya, who has had to juggle professional dancing with school. Thankfully, she has now completed her national exam

Truly Rizki Ananda, an NYD dancer and teacher at Namarina Dance Academy, said most dancers in NYD juggle work and ballet because dancing still does not pay the bills.

"It's not easy to earn money just from dancing alone. My friend Andhini [Rosawiranti, fellow Namarina teacher and dancer] would agree with me. We're academics by day, and dance whenever we can," Truly said.

Having been part of NYD since its inception, Truly said the company's biggest problem is finding ways to be fully professional.

"We simply don't have enough money. If we have a permanent patron or sponsor, or if the public finally realizes that art, including dancing, is important, then maybe things would get easier," Truly said.

Lack of Appreciation

International-scale shows happen only once or twice a year in Jakarta, but ballet schools regularly stage showcases for the public. How often do you go to them, though?

Three generations of Namarina ballet students and dancers performed in a showcase called 'Dancing for the Future' on Sunday (22/04). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

"People think ballet is boring, especially the classical stuff. Y0u don't see it on TV, so people are not familiar with it. Most boys also think it’s not for them," said Juliana Tanjo, the founder of Indonesian Dance Society (IDS).

Mariska said public interest in ballet is growing but progress has been slow. Most people who come to ballet recitals are either family or friends of the dancers.

"Pop culture wins. People don't mind spending millions to see a Michael Buble concert, but ballet, no way. They would go, but only if it’s for free," Mariska said.

Ballet ID’s second Indonesian Ballet Gala last year charged Rp 280,000-Rp 1,250,000 ($20-$90) for tickets.

Mariska said staging free ballet shows is unsustainable since production cost is very high.

And when a show invites international dancers, the cost skyrockets since the rupiah remains in the doldrum.

Since their seasonal shows are rarely sold out, ballet companies struggle to make any profit, which makes it even harder for them to become full-fledged companies.

Not Traditional = No Government Support

Another reason why Indonesia's semi-professional ballet companies have struggled to crossover to become fully professional is the lack of government sponsorship.

"It's so hard to get government support here. In comparison, for example, the Singapore Dance Theater receives huge funding from the government," Jetty said.

Truly said the government might be reluctant to give funding to ballet companies since it still sees ballet as something "imported" from the West.

Mariska quickly agreed with Truly.

In her view, ballet dancers are no different to Indonesian athletes, especially when they make their mark in international competitions, but the reality is ballet dancers are often treated like second-class citizens.

"In my experience, it's almost impossible to send our ballet dancers overseas. Many government officials have told me that ballet is not part of Indonesian culture. They only want traditional dances to represent Indonesia in international festivals," Mariska said.

Normally, students who perform or compete overseas get funding from their school or use their own money.

Dancers rehearse 'The Nutcracker in Jazz' at Sumber Cipta Ballet school. (Photo courtesy of Rumah Karya Sjuman)

To compensate for the lack of support, local ballet communities turn to foreign embassies and ballet institutions for help.

IDS collaborated with the Embassy of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute for Dance Prix Indonesia 2018.

The foreign delegations helped with inviting Claudio Cocino and Susanna Salvi, principal dancers of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, to perform at the festival.

Winners of the Dance Prix also received scholarships to Ena Ballet Studio in Japan, Universal Ballet in South Korea, Singapore Ballet Academy and the V. Chabukiani Ballet State School in Georgia.

Jetty said networking with overseas institutions has become so important to allow local ballet students to get more experience.

Ballet ID also hosts exchange programs in partnership with several embassies.

Its Ballet Gala last year received help from the British Council, Institut Francais and the Australian Embassy.

Sadly, the "exchange" doesn’t go both ways.

There's only enough funding to invite international dancers to Indonesia to perform or teach.

"We've never managed to get any state funding to send our dancers overseas in return," Mariska said.

Truly said it used to be difficult just to invite government officials to attend ballet shows, though these days they're showing slightly more interest.

"Coming to the shows is a token of appreciation. Appreciation is important too," she said.