Saturday, February 28, 2009

Malam Seni & Musik Rohani Budya Wacana

Last night (27 February) I watched the annual show of Budya Wacana, a Christian faith school which my daughter is attending while we are living in Yogyakarta. The show, which lasted some 3 hours, took place at the Concert Hall of Taman Budaya Yogyakarta, Yogya's major indoor theatre, with a proscenium stage and a raked auditorium that seats 1000.

The school children and teachers had been working on the show since December. More than 200 performers took to the stage in an elaborate parade of costumes. A camera on a crane recorded the event and projected feed onto three screens above and to the sides of the stage.

There were several choirs singing (mostly) Christian songs. Girl models from TK to SMA strutted their stuff in fanciful costumes made to resemble high fashion. A number of girl groups sang to recorded backup music. There were speeches from students in Indonesian, Javanese, English and Mandarin. A group of violin students played (en masse) numbers from Suzuki Book 1 (Lightly Row, Twinkle etc). There was also a number in which 2 teachers in ethnic costume (Minang and Javanese) sung a pop duet with a group of 6 or 8 dancers dressed in ethnic costumes from all over the archipelago. There was some attempt to incorporate Balinese and Acehnese dance moves into the choreography of this.

Several dance, theatre and film pieces dealt with the earthquake of 2006. For example, in one piece 8 dancers manipulated two large pieces of cloth to sign at the shaking ground, as groups of distraught children roamed the stage. Raw footage showed houses destroyed. Another piece - a monodrama - had a teacher talking to her colleagues about how to reconstruct the primary school after its destruction.

The mayor spoke briefly too. He joked that the head of the foundation must be a big fan of Kentucky Fried Chicken as KFC (actually standing for Knowledge, Faith, Character) is the school's motto. He also said that though the children at Budya Wacana might look different (there is a high concentration of Chinese Indonesians at the school, and also a healthy proportion of mixed raced kids, and expat kids from Korea, China etc), when you take off their multi-coloured clothes, they all have the same beating heart underneath. I found metaphor to be strange, even shocking, but the audience did not react at all.

The highlight for most was probably the appearance of Dirly, winner of the Indonesian Idol contest. Featured on the cover, he sang some songs at the very end of the programme. You could also get your photo taken with Dirly for Rp. 100,000.

The event was nominally a charity benefit for the school -- tickets cost Rp20,000 to more than Rp 200,000 -- but the huge expenses involved in producing the show meant that there was probably little profit.

What it did do was show off the range of talents of Budya Wacana kids (some of the singers and a hip-hop dancer were actually very good, and Hannah was a bit jealous of the keyboard player who is in her class), and also expressed the school ethos to parents and backers. (Chinese-Indonesian schools have been holding events like this for many decades - some of the most important dramatic scripts published in colonial Indonesia are incidental products of this.)

Though a Christian school, there was a studied attempt at ecumenism, with no mention of Jesus or the Holy Spirit etc.

It was in fact a presentation of bland, generic Westernized modern culture - with only hints of ethnic accents in some Chinese dramatic numbers (with projected Indonesian subtitles) and recorded gamelan music to back a Javanese speech. Indeed, the school prides itself on preparing children to face 'the challenges of globalization' by providing a layar (sail, kite) in the form of education (particularly in ICT, English and Mandarin lessons) which will allow students to move far away and see the world from a distance. At what cost, I wonder.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Karya-Karya Arahmaiani

Last night I attended a talk by Bandung-born artist Arahamaiani at Bentara Budaya, a small gallery attached to the Yogyakarta branch of the Kompas newspaper office. There were perhaps 50 people in attendance in all - including someone I knew via London's Kalimantan Creations - and the question-and-answer session was lively and well-informed. I had met Mbak Yani, as she is called here, at the PSi conference in Singapore (she gets around) and was looking forward to hearing more about her work.

Yani handed out a text she wrote outlining the political philosophy behind her work and spoke (also using a prepared text) about 3 projects that have been occupying her in recent years.

The first are a series of graphic images using familiar American cartoon figures like Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse for political humour. One image, for example, shows Mickey Mouse falling from a Wall Street skyscraper in an attempt to grasp a box with a $ on it.

A second project is a series of community-based performances called bendera (flag) in which key words (kata kunci) of significance to local communities are inscribed on flags in the font of multinational corporations and waved about in public spaces with important resonances. This work started with one flag of Yani's design, with the Arabic-derived Indonesian work akal - meaning 'sense' or 'cunning.' Working with community groups in Australia, Europe and Asia she has created dozens of flags. Spaces include Sydney's Hyde Park and a park next to Borobudur.

A third current project is related to the Lapindo disaster. Yani and a friend-collaborator pose in front of a backdrop showing a town overflowing with mud - in the style of a movie poster. Yani is dressed in traditional Javanese garb with a kebaya and traditional head covering and her friend is dressed in the Middle-Eastern garb of a traditional Islamic leader. Posing with them in a series of photographs are a number of visitors of different ethnicities. The attitudes shown are light, even flippant, a contrast with the sobering realities of the mud flow.

The question and answer session allowed Yani to expand on her motives for creating this work. She views her projects as work in progress - and if the aesthetic results are not always pleasing, she says that work that is instantly beautiful is forgery, and that all art needs to undergo a process of growth and development before achieving fixed form. She sees herself as a learner always, not a maestro.

Meaning is also not to be fixed. She does not propose an answer to what should be done about Lapindo, but rather asks questions - for example about the possible complicity of Islamic conservatives in ignoring (or even causing) this pressing ecological issue.

Yani is highly critical of corporate culture (that is part of the reason she 'steals' cartoon icons), and sees art as a way of making relations with people and forging communities. She claims not to be interested in selling art work but in developing alternate channels for the social -and says that in the globalized world artists must necessarily ask uncomfortable questions about the purpose of making art.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

An Anniversary Party at Rarasati

Last night (21/2/09) I attended an anniversary party at Rarasati, a catering venue located in Mantrijeron, Yogyakarta. I didn't realise it would be a birthday party - I only knew from Facebook that Sampak Gusuran, an ethnic ensemble from Pati would be playing.

As it turned out, it was the anniversary of a Dutch couple celebrating 30 years of residence/continued visits to Indonesia - a couple we knew from Holland. We had actually visited their house some 10 years ago, and share a research interest in the field of Indonesian history. From an initial awkward welcome, we were embraced and became part of the party.

The venue Rarasati, which has a beautifully carved pendopo, is little known (our taxi driver had a very hard time finding it), but its owner Sugeng is an interior designer and businessman who is well-linked into the neo-traditional and modern performing arts scene here. He tells us Rarasati is often used for theatre and music rehearsals - and he happily provides this free of charge, even serving drinks. Among the guests were Mella, the owner of the Cemethi art gallery and a little person who is a member of Didik Nini Thowok's dance troupe. (I saw him perform at the Chinese New Year ketoprak show.)

There were the normal speeches, kaki-lima type food such as empal and soto and nasi liwet, and lots of beer and drinking.

The entertainments were divided into four sections. A solo guitar player/singer played some folksy songs. A mime in classic white face did a sketch with a friend wearing a plastic bag over his head. This was called Dunia Plastik, and featured a number of plastic bags - offered as presents to the sponsors, played with like a balloon, challenging the mime in various ways. The space was not well lit, and I found it hard to follow the plot, if there was one, but thought the miming was pretty good.

Then there was an open mike, in which a number of musicians and singers 'nyumbang suara' to the event.

Finally Sampak GusUran ( offered a set of 5 songs. The group's leader offered an introduction in Indonesian about how the group plays both big venues such as TIM and also worked at the local (desa) level promoting good causes. He believes that good art will be recognised and appreciated wherever it is performed. Their base in Pati - a pesisir area far from the major cultural centres such as Jakarta and Yogyakarta - is no impediment in today's globalized world.

The group of perhaps 15 or 20 performers combined guitars and drum kit with saron and terbang, various styles of singing and chanting. It was a good neo-ethnic show, slick and entertaining and high volume. (My wife commented that the neighbours must be very tolerant to allow for these sorts of events.)

There were fewer than 50 people in the audience at this time - and I felt very privileged to have been present at this private concert.

NB After writing this blog entry, I received an apologetic email from Sampak GusUran leader Anis Sholeh Ba'asyin via facebook. He had read this blog and apologised for the quality of the sound system, not greeting me on my arrival etc. He was lead to believe that the performance would be a much bigger affair than it turned out to be - that is why he advertised it via facebook. I was pleased to have a personal connection, and explained that the event was a special treat for me....

Friday, February 20, 2009

Pelantikan Pengurus Pepadi Yogyakarta

Last night, the new board of the city of Yogyakarta's dalang union (Pepadi) were officially appointed - celebrated by a wayang performance at the mayor's house (rumah dinas) in Timoho.
I was invited to participate in this mutli-dalang event (15 puppeteers!) at the invitation of Ki Ledjar Subroto and his grandson Nanang. Nanang has been rising in the Pepadi hierarchy, and plays a central role in the educational outreach activities.
The lakon performed was Babad Alas Wanamarta, based loosely on a script written in 2006 for another occasion by the drummer/director of the show. Three different playing areas were used - screens on left and right and a central area (pictured above) for wayang golek puppets and some of the wayang kancil figures (animated by Ledjar himself). 1, 2 or sometimes 3 puppeteers performed in each scene. Some of the scenes kept close to script - though with frequent breakouts for improvisation - while others, including the whole of pathet manyura (performed by Catur) and my own scene were entirely improvised.
My scene called for me to play Bima (Jayasena) meeting protesting forest animals before he deforested Wanamarta. This allowed for environmental messages to be conveyed - and also was an opportunity to flatter the walikota, who is well liked here for his penghijauan (greening) programme, involving planting trees, plants etc. My partner in this scene was Ki Ledjar himself - along with one of Ki Ledjar's students. I found it so hard to get in a word edgewise that in rehearsals I hauled out Petruk to speak on Bima's behalf. While some of the puppeteers and audience found my Cirebon Javanese accent and vocabulary hilarious, I received a nice message from Ria (an UGM-educated puppeteer who runs a modern puppet company called Papermoon) and also kind remarks from Catur and others after the show.
The highlight for many was the Limbukan, in which the walikota Herry Zudianto played Limbuk and another local politico, the Kepala Dinas Kimpraswil Kota Yogya Eko Suryo played Cangik. This allowed the mayor to reiterate a message he gave in his opening speech - that wayang needs to be protected and fostered in this age of modernization and globalization, AND that wayang needs to adapt to the time, primarily through working together with educational bodies.
The show ended around 2.30 am - Catur, who took on the role of pathet manyura joked (through one of the punakawan) that as he got manyura he could take as long as he wanted in finishing the lakon. There was little audience in the end - the location of the rumah dinas in Timoho, far from the city centre, meant that few incidental spectators (such as tukang becak) were attending.
One of the most interesting features of the event was the combination of professionals, dedicated amateurs and wayang novice such as the mayor (who could bearly hold Limbuk to the screen and had little clue about her voice). This is an increasing feature of arts here in Yogya -inclusive projects that reach out to the public - and worth following.
A small article titled 'Pelantikan Pepadi Komda Kota Yogya: Dalang dari London Ikut Mainkan Wayang' about the event appeared in the local paper Kedaulatan Rakyat today (20 February) with a pictur of one of the wayang golek scenes. It is nice to get recognition - even if I still feel like a bit of a trained monkey when I perform in central Java (in contrast to Cirebon, where my performances are generally appreicated for what they are).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Seni Kampus

Yesterday I attended an academic conference at Universitas Sanata Dharma, my sponsor here in Yogyakarta, the second meeting of an emerging research network called Reading Asia, Forginging Identities in Literature (RAFIL). A full review of the conference is not strictly necessary here - though I must say it was a pleasure to hear and talk with keynote speakers Melani Budianta from Universitas Indonesia and the Australian translator of Indonesian literature Harry Aveling (Latrobe) and other participants.

What I would like to briefly discuss is the 'cultural night' that capped the day. This was another affair with kaki lima food carts (actually mock-kaki lima - they all belonged to a caterer, with some proferring non-Javanese food like beef stroganoff) and local talent. Most of the evening was the campus keroncong ensemble - flute plus strings - accompanying amateur student singers and some more polished singers. There were also two dancers - a Balinese student who performed a solo legong and the SMA daughter of one of the conference participants, a lecturer in English, who performed a tari merak.

The keroncong ensemble was made up entirely of university staff - and while Sanata Dharma does not have a music department, they were fairly polished and professional both in appearance (black t-shirts with musical notes on them plus black jackets) and sound. A tight ensemble, polished and precise. I was told they often perform on local tv and venues like Taman Budaya Yogyakarta. Some of the singers (who performed both Javanese and Indonesian language keroncong) were VERY amateur (one had to restart a piece as the pitch was too high for her) but the musicians were not to be perturbed.

The Balinese dancer was also very competent. A Balinese lecturer told me that Sanata Dharma has just started up a Balinese dance club that meets every Friday and Saturday. The guru is from ISI Yogyakarta. Members of the club are both Balinese and non-Balinese. Men are learning baris and women are learning panyembrana. I was encouraged to join.

I am not sure what precisely the conference participants got from the shows. Some of the foreign conference presenters showed great interest in the Balinese dance/dancer particularly. She came out after her dance to allow people to take pictures together with her. An Iranian English lecturer and her husband, a nuclear physicist (!), seemed very enthusiastic indeed.

Preliminary impressions indicate that there is a lot of this sort of artistic activity going on in university campuses around Yogya. People I spoke to said it was a good social experience for students and also a way to promote the university. Something to think about.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wayang Kancil and Ki Ledjar Subroto

Over the last 12 days since arriving in Yogyakarta, I have seen a fair bit of Ki Ledjar Subroto an his nephew Nanang.

Ledjar during this time has been working on a new variant of wayang kancil, the form of wayang he is most associated with. Ledjar started performing wayang kancil in 1980, with figures from the standard wayang set supplemented by a few of his own design. Over the years he has gradually modified these figures, adding movable limbs and body parts and shaping them into a cohesive ensemble. Sets of Ledjar's wayang kancil have been purchased by puppeteers, collectors and museums around the world.

Ledjar recognises that he is not the first dalang to turn to kancil for inspiration. An early performer cum writer Raden Mas Sayid also performed wayang kancil starting in 1943. In his encyclopaedic book on wayang on Bauwarna Wayang, RM Sayid credits a Chinese-Indonesian named Bo Liem as being the creator of this form in 1925.

But in an interview with Koran Tempo (Heru CN, 'Ki Ledjar Subroto Memperkenalkan Wayang Kancil', Koran Tempo 11 February 2009: B4), Ledjar insists that he is not simply a 'penerus' [continuation] of Raden Mas Sayid but 'benar-benar mulai dari nol saat membuat wayang kancil' [genuinely started from a clean slate when making wayang kancil]. There is precious little information about Bo Liem available - and while RM Sayid was a well known cultural figure, there is likewise little documentation of his wayang kancil work - aside from a small b&w picture in Bauwarna Wayang.

Privately he expressed disappointed that in a number of museums displaying his wayang kancil puppets he is not credited - and that Bo Liem is noted instead as the form's creator. He told me that some of the people responsible for attributing wayang kancil to Bo Liem are his friends from Senawangi - people he knows personally, and ought to know better.

This disappointment coming from lack of recognition and perhaps also a concern for legacy as an independent artist, is perhaps why he has been working so hard on making a very distinct and new form of wayang kancil. The figures have animal head and extremities but are dressed in human costume. As such they resemble Wayang Rajakaya, a new wayang form created by a young Solo puppeteer named Herlambang Bayu Aji and his German musician collaborator. (In a brief documentary about Wayang Rajakaya, Bayu Aji admits that he was influenced by Ledjar's wayang kancil - so the influence is not simply one way.)

Ledjar will be performing with these new figures for the first time in a scene in Babad Alas Wanamarta - a multi-dalang spectacular at the Rumah Dinas Walikota Yogyakarta on Thursday night (19 February). I have been enjoying being a participant in this scene - taking on the role of Bima (and also using Petruk - which allows me to get in a word or two against the ever-talkative kancil). The new clothed figures (model 2009) has been an opportunity for lots of humour, as well as statements about relations between humans and the natural world and the costs of so-called progress.

Ledjar has created at least some of these new figures by drawing directly on to hide. You can imagine my surprise when he hopped on to the back of a motorcycle last night with the whole set of figures (plus more wayang!) bundled into a doubled over piece of cardboard and bound by twine - in the midst of a light sprinkling of rain. Ledjar might stake a claim to be an independent artist but he also treats his wayang in a traditional fashion - as tools of the trade to be used, not displayed and fetishized.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pau Hana in Yogyakarta

Right before departing for Solo on 13 February, Aviva, Hannah and I saw the first part of a Pau Hana - a sharing of workshop materials by students from SMKI and nearby SMP in Bantul.

Four three-week workshop for children roughly aged 13-16 on taiko drumming, bharatanatyam dance, Hawaiian dance and drum band were faciliated by 4 American artists under the auspices of Judy Mitoma' centre for intercultural arts at UCLA. Funding was provided by the American state department - a cultural attache from the US was present and spoke briefly before the presentation.

The overall mood was joyous, even festive. Pau Hana is a Hawaiian term imported to Yogya via LA. The children wore brightly coloured t-shirts with a picture of Obama (who was of course conceived in Hawaii) surrounded by a mega mendung motif. They seemed comfortable performing in public - though we arrived early there seemed to be little in the way of stage nerves.

The event was attended by many of the big names in Yogya performance. We recognised the head of the Ndalem Pujokusuman dance foundation, Didik Nini Thowok and Miroto. There was also a delegation from ISI Yogya etc. Before the show, we spoke briefly with Jeannie Park (who now heads the Padepokan Seni, Bagong's old dance school), Joan Suyenaga, Judy Mitoma and Garret Kam -- who has been living in Bali for the last 15 years or so and was providing an 'outsider eye' to Judy on this occasion.

The event was simply structured. A group of 30 or so kids played 2 pieces for taiko drums along with Shoji Kameda. All but two of the drums were locally manufactured from used tires with sticky tape heads - two were imported from California and were made from recycled wine vats.

Then there was a demonstration of bharatanatyam - various stretching exercises, children demonstrating various asta (hand positions that convey semantic meaning) and a dance. The only slightly jarring note here was the use of black leotards under the dance costumes and the fact that the boys did not expose their chests either. Another sign of encroaching Islamism, and a reminder of how much has changed since Indian dance was first displayed by Yogya school kids by Goesti Noeroel and her classmates back in the 1930s (see the KITLV website for some lovely pictures of this!).

Sadly we had to miss the Hawaiian dance and drum band.

This was a very endearing display of American multicultural in action. While the head of SMKI, in his opening address, misidentified the workshop facilitators as being from Japan, India etc rather than Japanese-American etc the intention was clearly to demonstrate the power of arts to cross cultures. One of the opening talks expressed the hope that the children would take away skills with them. (One fellow spectator commented that perhaps the taiko drumming will influence bedug playing in mosques in the future.) But more than that they also took in a way of delivering the other's arts in an alien context, and a new appreciation of the diversity of America today.

This event will be followed up by a residency of seven Yogya artists at UCLA later this year - who will be performing and auditing classes and courses to further implement this sort of workshop-based, hands-on practical teaching.

I find it a relief to see such straight-forward cultural exchange going on - without having to offer excuses or make empty gestures to current 'strategic' interests.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wayang Wahyu

Attended for the first time a performance of Wayang Wahyu, a Christian wayang form last night. The occasion was a reunion of a Christian Sekolah Dasar (primary school) called Pangudi Luhur in Solo, and the event took place at the school's new building on Jalan Haryono in Solo.

Wayang Wahyu emerged in Solo some 60 years ago as a way to popularize Bible stories among Christian believers in Javanese. The musical accompaniment is standard gamelan (a gamelan pelog was used in last night's performance) but a whole new set of wayang figures was created - with Jesus and others with halos. (A recent article in Asian Theatre Journal provides the essential history.)

Last night's show of Purwaning Dadi (Genesis) was by Blacius Subono, one of my teachers at ISI Solo between 1988 and 1990. It was a three hour performance about Lucifer's revolt against the Almighty and the temptation of Adam. The language and puppet movement was characteristically Solonese - but the theme obviously very different than the normal Mahabharata/Ramayana fare. Subono brought much energy to the show - the transformation of Lucifer from angel to demon was particularly engaging - with some wonderful dancing and beautiful singing. (Pak Bono taught me suluk at ISI.)

The puppets and gamelan and beautifully carved screen frame (with a crucifix in the middle held up by two winged cherubs) was owned by a foundation called Paguyuban Wayang Wahyu and all the musicians (an ensemble of some 30 players and singers) were teachers at Pangudi Luhur or associated schools. They were a strong ensemble for an amateur group - and ably accompanied Bono even through difficult musical transitions.

The group has performed about 5 times over the last couple of years with three different puppeteers (one of them a woman). The next performance is scheduled for Easter in April - and bring an obvious passion for the work.

Members of the Paguyuban see themselves as launching a Wayang Wahyu revival of sorts. Wayang wahyu was performed sporadically during the 1980s (I heard about but didn't attend Christmas and Easter performances at the Sriwedari amusement park in Solo) but declined in the 1990s. The puppets they used initially were made from cardboard, but their current set (perhaps 100 figures? supplemented by a few purwa figures such as buta and setan and macan) is beautifully carved from buffalo hide with lovely colouring.

The event as a whole had a gentle nostalgic feeling to it. The performance took place under a tarub canopy set up in the SD's courtyard with customary plant decorations. Kaki lima (food carts) offered characteristically Solonese foods like srabi. A number of vocal ensembles sang pop and keroncong songs both before the wayang and during the limbukan and goro-goro intervals. (The presence of Limbuk and Cangik etc was explained as being a 'dream' of Adam.)

I found out about this event through Facebook and feel very privileged to have been there. I have been promised a DVD of the show, and also was offered food and even a parting gift. Extraordinary generosity, really.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wayang Kulit Gaya Yogyakarta

I have been spending the last couple of days hanging out with dalang - including Ledjar Subroto and his grandson Nanang (at their house and elsewhere), Dewanto and Agung (at ISI Yogya) and with members of PEPADI (the dalang association; at a rehearsal for a multi-dalang show to be held on 19 February at the Balai Kota). This has gotten me thinking about the anxieties of Yogyakarta style dalang and wayang more generally.

For a long time, Yogya and Solo style wayang were viewed as near-equal complements, each with their own strengths and qualities. Solo style took off really in the 1970s and came to dominate most of East and Central Java. Today Yogya dalang say they are only actively hired in 5 kabupaten of DIY, and even then they need to mix elements of Solo style to appeal. Only in the traditionalist dalang courses such as Habiranda can you find 'pure' Yogya style. Dalang worry about the disappearance of Yogya style.

I see Solo and Yogya style as very,very closely related - at least as close as the gaya lor and gaya kidul styles of Cirebon - and the divisions between them as being more ideological than aesthetic. But this is an outsider's eye. To the Yogya dalang the problem feels real and pressing. Unfortunately it is also a distraction - as it prevents (some) dalang from seeing that the more real issue is how to integrate and appropriate flows of global culture.

Some Yogya dalang (such as Catur, who performs much 'wayang kontemporer') are aware of this. Catur tells me he is off to Tegal on 28 February to konsultasi with Enthus, who has been asked to perform a 2 hour wayang in bahasa Indonesia in Semarang for the governor.

But ISI Yogyakarta is behind the time - almost all of the Yogya dalang I identify as significant (Ledjar, Sujiwo Tejo, Heri Dono, Sukasman) have never taught at ISI. And when I asked Dewanto and Agung what sort of kontemporer work the students look at for their komposisi class, the answer was none - they just invent their own stuff, for better or worse. It is no wonder the department is having so much trouble attracting students.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Yogya Semesta

Last night I attended an event at the pendopo of Kepatihan - Yogya Semesta - a monthly gathering sponsored by Sri Sultan and Sri Paku Alam. Most of those in attendance seemed to be businessmen of variou description. A young dalang named Catur - the co-creator of Wayang Pixel - performed scenes of a wayang between talks about the connection of Javanese and banking culture. It was a rather untraditional event in a very traditional setting. (Kepatihan is no longer connected directly to the kraton but is a govt building - but the architecture seems to have remained the same.)

The seats facing the speakers and puppet side of the screen were all left empty - in case the walikota or Sri Sultan should show up, it was explained to me. (The puppet screen was situated so that it was impossible to see the shadows.) Guests received a coloured booklet describing previous events (titled Yogya Semesta: Buletin Seni & Budaya, edisi xvii: no. 2/-2/09) and a standard snack box.

Catur did his best under trying circumstances (at one point he was instructed - 'don't sing an ado-ado, go right to the funny bits'), trying his best to emphasise light comedy, topicality (the upcoming elections - with Togog etc each representing a different political party with associated 'yel'), light musical numbers etc. He also attempted to integrate points raised in discussion into the wayang.

I was attending with Nanang (Ledjar's grandson) and we left after a little under 2 hours. Catur sms-ed me this morning (yes! at last I have a hp) and said he was looking out for me but didn't see me. He also apologised for the format - normally the show precedes the discussion.

I can only imagine how taxing it was to perform in this way.

Monday, February 9, 2009

More on wayang po teh hi

I returned to the Festival of Chinese Culture (alias Imlek) on Sunday to see a small wayang po te hi exhibition of antique puppets and the final in the series of performances. I also managed to talk to the puppeteer - an elderly Javanese man named Sesomo -- and while waiting for a pop concert to end and the po te hi show to start we were able to talk for a bit. Sesomo also demonstrated some of the more difficult puppet moves and encouraged me to have a go.

I found the techniques of spinning puppets and turning them around on my hand and stabbing with a spear etc more difficult than I imagined. The puppets are held in the English glove puppet style - with the index finger in the head, thumb up one arm and the other three fingers in the other arm.

Sesomo began performing po te hi in 1968. Both his mother and father were Javanese but he grew up in the area of a klenteng in Surabaya with regular po te hi performances and grew attracted to the idea of puppeteering. He performed as a puppeteer assistant for 2 years before establishing himself as a puppeteer himself. I asked whether one could first play music and then become a puppeteer. The answer was no - it was possible (though difficult) to become a puppeteer through self study, but almost all puppeteers first worked as assistants - typically for 2 to 3 years -- before becoming a puppeteer. Musicians never became puppeteers.

At his peak in the 1970s, Sesomo was performing continuously for 7 to 10 months a year - usually one month stints in klenteng around Java.

Rates for puppeteering are low - he gets about 200 thousand rupiah a show sometimes but for the Yogya shows only 100 thousand rupiah (plus lodging, food etc). Better than working a a coolie hauling stones at 50 thousand a day, he said.

His shows are mostly a mixture of Indonesian and Javanese. Hokien is used to introduce characters. Sesomo recalls an old Chinese puppeteer who used only Hokien.

Sesomo seems to think the best puppets come from China, and speaks with high regard for Chinese glove puppetry. Puppets today are typically carved by a Jepara carver (or sometimes a carver from Tulung Agung) and clothed locally.

Sesomo sadly lost his own collection of puppets during a mud slide in 2006 which destroyed his house. He is still waiting for compensation. The puppets on display and being used in the show belong to a rich collector.

This is the fourth year that po te hi has been performed for Yogya's imlek celebration and it seems an audience is growing. I noticed a number of people who came to both nights I attended - suggesting that they were actively following the story and not just coming as a novelty.

According to Sesomo there are only about 12 po te hi puppeteers in all Java - mostly located in East Java - and about 50 performers (including both musicians and puppeteers) still active. It is hard to say how long po te hi will continue. But the new pride that Chinese-Indonesians are taking in their culture suggests that a po te hi revival might be possible....

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Gamelan, ketoprak, arak-arakan, wayang potehi and teater kontemporer - all in one day!

As I write this in the lobby of the Inna Garuda hotel I am listening to the sounds of the hotel's gamelan - tonight made up of kendang, gender, sletnthem, siter, gambang, bonang, gong and 2 pesindhen - a much richer sound than previous nights.

What a pleasure it is to be in Yogyakarta. Both Sekaten and Imlek have been in full swing the last couple of days- with many other performances going on as well.

Yesterday, there was a major arak-arakan procession down Malioboro - for Chinese New Year. There were the expected barong sai and liong, but also dozens of other groups - ranging from an Islamic ibu-ibu group from Malioboro, a Balinese processional gamelan, a group of drag queens (banci) camping it up with sexy poses, a small gong-chime group representing Nusa Tenggara Barat, a replica of the kraton's military band, a drum band from a telephone company, a group chanting Javanese poetry, tv mascots and on and on. The line of spectators was only one or two deep, and the liong passed so close they almost touched us. I've been teaching about Chinese New Year celebrations in London to RHUL first year students the last years. There are certainly parallels in the way that London and Yogya's Chinese communities use New Year to display and affirm their commitment to multiculturalism. But the Yogya event had a joy and vitality I haven't witnessed in London. Hannah was thrilled by the event.

In the evening, I went (by myself) for the first time to Teater Garasi - an experimental theatre located amidst rice fields on the road out of town to Parangkritis. The piece was solo performance art titled 'Tubuh Sepatu Kulit' (Body Leather Shoe) by Tony Broer, earlier associated with the Bandung avant garde theatre group Teater Payung Hitam and now studying in Yogya. This was a close encounter with the butoh type - an anti-war piece that involved the performer (dressed in bandages, wearing a kebaya, with white body makeup and long beard and white hair) removing shoes of audience members against projected film and images of war. The image of a rippling American flag was projected - and the performer saluted it in a kind of seig heil as the flag slowly faded out and an image of the Israeli flag faded in.

In a brief after-show discussion Broer confirmed the piece was about Gaza. If you felt uncomfortable about losing your shoes, imagine how much worse the pain of the Palestinians is.

The piece was naive politically, strong theatrically and uncomfortable to watch for me - but clearly engaging for the spectators.

Interestingly the audience was drawn largely from subscribers to Garasi's facebook site. Some 90 or more spectators said on facebook they would be attending the show - perhaps half of the total number attending.

Afterwards, I caught the end of a Chinese themed ketoprak with Nini Didik Thowok and a charming 90 minute wayang po te hi show - by the group Fu Ho An from Jombang - at the Imlek celebrations right off Malioboro.

And there were many other things going on - ranging from traditional dance at the alun-alun to popular Javanese language theatre sponsored by the radio station 99.4 FM that I didn't even have a chance to get a glimpse of !

Friday, February 6, 2009

Experimentation dansee avec Veronique Delarche et Sudiharto

Just returned from my first real performance event in this trip to Indonesia (discounting the gamelan gadon from Bantul playing in our hotel lobby) - a very pleasant demonstration by French dancer Veronique Delarche and Indonesian dancer Sudiharto at Lembaga Indonesia Francis (LIP), Yogyakarta's French cultural centre. I was invited personally by Marie Le Sourd, the centre's director. The centre has been in existence for 35 years according to Marie, and houses a very pleasant lending library (with DVDs), French language classes and an active cultural programme, as well as a nice cafe.

Marie explained to us that Delarche had come to Indonesia for another project but stayed on for a few weeks in Yogya in order to work togetheer with Sudiharto and deliver some talks on cultural management (with a focus on her experience of managing a French dance company). She had previously worked with other Indonesian dancers, including Martinus Miroto (whom we met briefly before the show) and wanted to spend some time exploring the techniques of contact improvisation.

Marie explained further that this was not a performance per se, but a demonstration of working principles -- something which was reiterated by Delarche in her opening talk.

The event took place in LIP's theater - using both the auditorium space in front of the raked seating area as well as the theatre's proscenium stage - and was attended by a mostly young crowd of SMA and university students.

Delarche and Sudiharto began by offering demonstrations of 3 principles for improvisation developed by Lisa Nelson (wife of Steve Paxton, who developed contact improvisation) involving mirroring and exchange of balance. There was then a long section of some 8 numbers involving degrees of audience participation and a final duet by Delarche and Sudiharto using Nelson's 'Tuning Score' as a structure.

Both of the dancers were strong performers, and showed imagination in the exploration of space - complementing each other nicely and clearly at home with each other's bodies and movement proclivities. There was little in the way of drama or tension, but much to - and -froing in changing musical tracks. Humour was promised for one of the improvisations but not delivered - and overall the event felt formalistic rather than truly experimental.

Most interesting to me were the moments that called for audience improvisation. Delarche structured this by handing out numbered tickets beforehand and asking us to come to the stage when our number was called. Ten tickets numbered '1' were handed out for the first audience participation improv - but only one person descended to the stage, a Dutch woman with a 4 year child. She is is doing a 2 month stint teaching at UGM.

The ice broken, audience members became more enthusiastic. Though not without some problems in translation. (Delarche spoke in English with her words translated - a double translation in effect as her English was sometimes hard to follow.) Asked to do one 'action', some of the audience participants kept improvising away. (And were mildly castigated by Delarche for this.) One young audience participant, asked to improvise together with Delarche and Sudiharto with a chair, used this as a moment for histrionic display - pouting and posing like a runway model - which got big applause from her friends in the audience. Others went into 'teater' mode - very bold young man one used a handbag as a kind of mask.

What I found fascinating was that although this was a free dance concert which (I assume) was attended by many dancers, none of the audience members showed the poise and grace and balance and control I normally associate with trained Javanese dance bodies. Some probably study Javanese dance but this did not show in the ways they presented themselves in public.

It makes me think about the relation of dance and the world, and how different the dance culture of Yogya now is compared to the seminal moment of 1918 when Krido Bekso Wiromo was founded. Then one could assume that many if not most Javanese elites would deport themselves in a particular way. This assumption can no longer be made.

The event lasted longer than expected -- my daughter Hannah fell asleep a number of times and I also found myself nodding off a couple of times. But it had a friendly feel to it, and I hope to attend further events at LIP in the future....