THE DANCING OF THE MOON: Yan Palapa’s Photobook

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The last line of William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “Among School Children”, can be taken as a quotation that perfectly befits Yan Palapa’s photobook, Ni Ketut Arini: Candra Metu. We can interpret the line as a poetic expression about the inseparability of the artist from the artistic works she created. The dancer are so intimately connected to the dance that she can not be isolated from her dance. When dancing, the dancer and the dance she performs are one.

This poetic vision informs Yan Palapa’s photobook. As clearly suggested by the title, Ni Ketut Arini: Candra Metu is a photobook depicting both a dancer and her dance. Ni Ketut Arini is the name of the dancer, an older female Balinese dance maestro. Candra Metu is the name of a now rarely performed Balinese classic dance choreographed by a legendary Balinese dance maestro, the late I Nyoman Kaler, who was the dance teacher of Arini. The Balinese phrase “candra metu” means “moon rising”. Candra Metu dance is inspired by the beauty of the moon rising. It celebrates the moon whose beauty is artistically and symbolically equated with the beauty of woman. In Yan’s eyes, however, Arini herself is the beautiful moon in the dance she is performing. The photographer identifies the dancer with the dance.  

Yan Palapa’s photographs in the book capture Arini in the act of performing Candra Metu dance. The focus is the dancing female body, the body that is weighed with the cultural memory as well as the popular image of Bali, and is consciously present to be looked at. Yan constructed a photographic narrative centered on the woman and her gestures. The woman has entered old age, she is dancing an old traditional dance, but her body is still highly charged with energetic life force. The dancer is old, but the spirit within her remains young. Arini the dancer is as old and evergreen as the moon herself. Yan created pictures around certain notions of the dynamic female body that is simultaneously a cultural body, including the idea of the dynamic and the survival of a culture. This dynamism is enhanced in some of the photographs by introducing blurred images, a well-known “signature” of the photographer.

Yan Palapa appropriated the dancing Arini within a symbolic framework of significance as determined by the photographer. Even though Candra Metu dance is commonly performed in a public space, Yan employed close cropping to the images, isolating the dancer in some mythical space detached from everyday life. His photographs exclude elements which connects the images to a particular place and time. There is virtually no reference to the actual setting in which the dancing took place, such as the stage and its prop. The central position of the dancer, the emphasis on the dancer’s gestures and facial expressions, and the absence of her surroundings transform the dancer into something larger than herself.

Through his gaze, Yan constructed the dancing woman as a symbol that transcends the actuality in which she exists. His subject gained importance from the symbolic status the photographer assigned to the dancer as the guardian of a great culture. By eliminating the particular context of the dancing, the photographer made it possible for the dancer to be seen as a symbol of cultural resilience. The pictures of the time-affected dancer and dance paradoxically point to the timeless.

The photobook Ni Ketut Arini: Candra Metu is not a mere documentary photographic account of an old dancer and an old-fashioned dance. It is a tribute to the great Balinese culture and her best daughter.

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