Thirty Years Ago Today
PEOPLE IN THE DANCE world know Tom Ibnur’s name. He is one of about a score of performing artistes whose names are written large in Indonesian contemporary and traditional dance.
Thirty years ago, Tom was one of the artistic leaders at the Indonesian Pavilion of the 1986 World Exposition in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
World fairs come and go, said a recent newspaper article in Canada. But few have enjoyed — or endured — as much of a legacy as Vancouver has from its stint hosting that 1986 World Exposition.
Expo 86 apparently came at a time when British Columbia was searching for a new image — not to mention investment dollars — and the five-and-a-half month party, beginning on May 2 and closing on Oct. 13, that coincided with Vancouver’s centennial celebration, was the answer. Before the curtain rose, Canadian officials had hoped 13.7 million people would visit. By the end of the fair, more than 22 million had attended, with a single-day record of 341,806 visitors (almost 80 percent of Vancouver’s population at the time).
There were 73 pavilions for 54 countries, seven provinces, two territories, and nine corporations, scattered across the 70-hectare site — and, for most people, not enough days to see them all. The Indonesian Pavilion was apparently one of those must-visit places, since it received a four-star rating (out of a possible five) from a few publications and was the favorite for one organization.
Records show that 2,8 million people visited the Indonesian Pavilion. The guest book even shows a husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Leveen Walsh Jules from Hopesdale, who returned again and again 100 times, and a certain Mr. Brian (surname unknown), who was in a wheelchair and who would stick around the pavilion so much, folding the awnings, preparing the stage, even becoming an impromptu guard when the handmade
phinisi ship launched on False Creek, we eventually appointed him the unofficial mascot.
Constructed in the ASEAN Plaza, our little corner of the 1986 World Expo had a Candi Bentar Balinese gateway carved with the Maple Leaf and the Garuda Eagle ushering people into the front door, and a 150-seat live performance stage that became the pavilion’s hub. I daresay this was the main reason why at least two people returned up to 100 times.
For better or for worse, Expo 86 was Vancouver’s coming-out party, said the press this year on the exposition’s 30th anniversary. Vancouver wooed the world, and the world paid attention.
For Indonesia, almost the same could be said. To woo the world to our shores and invest, we forked out billions of rupiah. I have searched high and low for the exact figure of how much we did spend, but had to bear in mind that 1986 was the height of another regime, when open information let alone bookkeeping were not yet an imperative.
But on record is this: Eight ministries and the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) were, well, on board to host the show, at the behest of a presidential decree, no less — Decree No. 28/1984. This is not even counting the 20 public and private universities, academies and secondary schools that took part, nor the police security and medical teams, the audiovisual, handicraft, design shops and architectural bureau, and, of course, the phinisi- makers, who built a whole ship in situ in the space of three months: the
Phinisi Antar Bangsa. Another phinisi, the renowned KRI Dewa Ruci, on a trip around the world as part of cadet training, had sailed from Surabaya via Honolulu to New York, then made a southward turn and headed to Vancouver in time for the Indonesia National Day held on Aug. 20 in the Marine Plaza, before going off to roam the Pacific Ocean.
During the five-and-a-half months, the Indonesian Pavilion’s 60 dancers and gamelan and karawitan musicians performed live an astonishing 1,600 times, showcasing 50 original choreographies based on contemporary and traditional dance forms. Garnering huge interest in the rotating exhibitions of plastic, fine, handicraft and audiovisual arts were an array of drums and an assortment of
kentungan — hollowed out logs, carved in the shape of monsters and otherworldly creatures, struck whenever a message of death or disaster had to be conveyed — and several becak (pedicabs) and a helicak (three-wheeled vehicle). After all, the Expo 86 theme was Communication and Transportation, with the tagline “World in Motion, World in Touch.”
I was fortunate enough to be part of the whole caboodle, as the deputy to a ministry official handling information and communications. I recall how, in face of all the high tech and gee-whiz inventions the advanced countries brought to the show — both the United States and the Soviet pavilion were space-oriented — Indonesia instead elected to showcase its centuriesold transportation and communication methods — a ship built entirely by hand using no iron nails nor joints, the becak powered by human muscle and grit, and communication through dance performances, where viewers and dancers interact as human beings.
The stance sounds almost naïve now, but it worked.
We did exhibit our Palapa satellite, orbiting the earth for telecommunication purposes. By then, Indonesia had also already established an aviation industry, but put simply, the eight ministries under the aegis of the National Development Planning Board (Bappenas) had decided we wanted to showcase other strengths.
The team held several major events. These included a troop defile by the Dewa Ruci cadets followed by 300 artistes and artisans on Indonesia’s National Day, a village culinary festival, an all-night wayang puppet performance accompanied by live gamelan, participation in the International Drum Festival and the World Art Festival, daily batik and carving demonstrations and the world’s very first International Gamelan Festival — because as performing arts manager, choreographer Sardono W. Kusumo, said, “North America already has a burgeoning gamelan community. How embarrassing if they suddenly hold the first festival instead of Indonesia, where the gamelan originated”.
In his opening remarks at the Indonesian Pavilion’s 30-Year reunion in mid-November, Tom noted that he had been fortunate enough to have been in Indonesian teams for five or six world expositions. “But the 1986 World Expo was where we really learned the ropes on how to showcase Indonesia,” he said, choking with emotion.
Unfortunately, of the 126 plus personnel put through the paces for those five-anda-half Expo months (the Pavilion was open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, with a shop and the aforementioned nine live performances daily, the six film screenings and symposia, discussions, craft demonstrations and visits to speak and perform at schools and museums in Canada and the US) only 81 people turned up for the reunion. It was sad to note that 27 colleagues were no longer with us, having passed away in the 30-year interim.
We had hired the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta playhouse for the celebration. Half of the 81 were performers, meaning the huge hall seated only 40 people ogling at their friends now in their late 50s and mid-60s, yet still dancing up a storm. And I was struck once again by the fact that, of the score of Indonesia’s current performing arts greats, more than a third had served at the 1986 Expo’s Indonesian Pavilion. As we watched Ida Ayu Wimba do her
Trunajaya, Tom do his Tari Piring, and the Pakarena, Gambyong, Topeng and all the other teams perform their dances, the years fell away and we were once more in the ASEAN Plaza, getting a briny whiff from False Creek and English Bay, wearing Indonesia so proudly on our sleeves. +++
BY DEBRA H. YATIM