Friday, December 31, 2010

Pesta Pulau Pinang

Went last night (30 December) to Pesta Pulau Pinang, an annual month-long carnival and night market on the outskirts of Georgetown. This event is particularly popular among Penang's Malays - and is similar in many ways to the Jakarta Fair, Sekatanen in Yogya and Solo and the like, with cheap clothes, household items and trinkets for sale, carnival rides and such.

There are regularly artistic performances scheduled at Pesta - a boria competition, Chinese acrobatics, and such - but we were not in luck last night. We caught a bit of a boxing match, and we also saw a reptile show from Thailand (with a young woman handling snakes inside a glass cage), but though a 'rumah seni' was advertised, we could not find this.

We did manage to get to 3 Indonesian pavilions - from Aceh, Sumatra Barat and Sumatra Utara - with vendors selling handicrafts. The longest-running of these pavilions (which are permanent structures, left vacant 11 months of the year) has been in business for 13 years, and is staffed by 20 people who ship over their goods 2 weeks before the fair, and stay in the pavilion for the duration of the event. The pavilions are organised by the propinsi governments, but the vendors are private Indonesian entrepreneurs selling wares that are designed to appeal to locals (e.g., Muslim clothing). No cultural shows were being fielded by any of the pavilions this year, though there have been such in the past.

Mentioning the snake show and Indonesian pavilions to my colleague Tan Sooi Beng over lunch, she read this as a sign of Penang's cosmopolitanism, and how the island has always been a meeting place of different cultures - Thai, Malay, Chinese, Sumatran and places further afield.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Amin Sweeney

I have just learned that Amin Sweeney, the great scholar of Malay literary and oral culture, passed away in Jakarta on 13 November 2010. An obituary was published in a Brunei website ( and reprinted in H-Asia.

I first met Amin when I was applying for graduate schools back in 1990 - and remember vividly visiting his office at Berkeley, where he showed me the full set of wayang Siam puppets he kept there and impressed me with the way he combined his scholarship with practice as a tok dalang.

He was an important influence on my work in years thereafter - and while we met in person only a few times, he was a significant interlocutor for me. His passing merits further notice.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kecak at Padang Tegal

I attended the nightly Kecak performance at the Pura Tamansari at Padang Tegal in Ubud last night.

This had the feel of a community eventm even if it is staged exclusively for tourists (without even a programme in Indonesian). The floor of the covered open-air hall where it was staged was marked for badminton. A little warung next to the hall sold cold Bintang beer, krupuk, packs of kacang bawang etc. The massive chorus of kecak dancers was in very close proximity to spectators seated in a U shape around the performance area (with the back of the U being a Balinese gate and stairs decorated with janur).

The half-clothed kecak chorus performed with great precision, and was of diverse ages, and if lacking in some of the enthusiasm of a chorus of young men had a great deal of intimacy. There were also quite a range of highly competent dancers (including one penasar each for Rama and Rahwana) in very fine costumes. The lighting - provided by live flame in the middle of the hall - was absolutely stunning. This kecak is associated with Walter Spies, but has obviously been regularly renewed and revamped. It was lovely to hear the Kawi of the Ramayana being chanted throughout, and also to hear the panasar interpret the noble characters into Balinese (even if nobody in the audience could understand Balinese!). A priest officiated - sprinkling performers with holy water before the show.

The Kecak was followed by a staged performance of Sanghyang Dedadi. The music (a chorus of men and another chorus of women) was quite moving-- and I was reminded again of how much the female choral singing resembles the female chorus of brai Bayalangu, clearly one of the most ancient forms of music in the archipelago. But the dancing was not inspired - with no clear differentiation between the dancing before and after the dancers went into 'trance.'

More exciting was the final item on the programme, the so-called fire dance, or sangyang jaran, in which a man on a hobbyhorse is possessed by a horse spirit and walks around in burning coconut husks, kicking them as he goes, making a tremendous effect with jumping sparks etc. It was quite thrilling to be so close to the intense heat of the pire of coconut husks (lit with kerosene) at the beginnnig of this number -- and while the dancing was not very interesting, the horse was nicely constructed and the movement well coordinated with the male chorus.

A fine evening performance - even if not quite long enough for my taste (only an hour in all).

Legong programme at Puri Ubud

Last night (20 December) I attended the Legong programme of dances at Puri Ubud. Ubud's palace has been running nightly dance performances for tourists for decades. The group has toured abroad a number of times, and performances are always well attended due to the central location (opposite the market), prestige venue and the beauty of the setting. Last night was the full moon and was particularly nice to see the beautifully lit palace gate used as an entrance with the moon rising behind it.

While the programme was advertised as Legong, it was quite a smorgasbord of dance and music on offer, with Legong Kraton as being only one item. Other items included baris, a very short topeng tua, a panyembrana (welcome dance) of course, and so on. The highlights of the programme for me was an energetic Taruna Jaya, and the Legong Kraton, which had a superb Condong.

I think the pura would benefit from staging fewer items of a higher quality, and with more 'cultural' explanation. I can understand the appeal of lots of items (more photo opportunities etc) but the special environment of the palace would be better served by a more focused performance event.

Kuningan at Bona, Gianyar

I am spending a few days in Ubud, on way to a family event in Australia. A door prize I won at an Indonesia promotional event at Harrod's means that I can stay at Uma Ubud, a beautiful and very friendly spa hotel on the outskirts of town.

Made Sidia, a puppeteer and dancer who teaches at ISI Denpasar and has performed in many international collaborative projects (including Theft of Sita) invited me out to Bona, Gianyar yesterday for the local pura's big Kuningan festival.

The temple celebrates a large-scale Kuningan karya every 5 years, involving a donation of Rp150,000 for each villager from the 6 banjar served by the temple. This allows 3 weeks of performances staged inside and directly outside the temple.

Yesterday was the climax of this festival - with afternoon performances (starting at 3.30pm) of gambuh, a children's baris group (with boys aged 6 to 12 wielding spears), topeng (dance and comedy, but not a story), kebyar played by ibu-ibu, and a variety of other dance and music. Inside the pura there was also wayang lemah and other performances - but unfortunately we weren't admitted.

Before all these performances started (in close proximity to each other - leading to a lot of noise!) an excerpt of the Old Javanese Ramayana was chanted (with intepretation into Balinese). This chanting went on in fact as all the dance and music was staged.

The main stage event was the gambuh performance by a professional troupe - who performed in front of an Indian-style image of a dancing Ganesha lit by a swirling gobo.

Made Sidia was in charge of 'seksi kesenian' of the event so very busy and as a result we did not have much of a chance to talk. But I was introduced to a number of his friends and collaborators in a pre-performance social get-together in a neighbouring house (with tea, pisang goreng, poci etc) -- I Wayan Suweca (one of the founders of Sekar Jaya) and I Made Subandi (a composer who toured with Theft of Sita and also plays gender wayang for Wayan Wija and teaches at SMKI and has a group called 'Kelompok Musik Tradisi Radikal').

A remarkable event over all - a true testament to the vitality of Bali's traditional arts today, as well as the sense of community in this village.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International Stages, 1905-1952

I was supposed to deliver a talk today to the University of Surrey on Java and Bali in interwar American dance. But the snow blanketing London (well maybe not a blanket, more like a thin sheet) resulted in cancellation. So I find myself with a few extra hours in the week. Enough time to post the book cover for my newest book- Performing Otherness: Java and Bali on International Stages, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan. It has been available in the UK for the last month or so, and will be released in the US on 7 December.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Launching of the Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Drama

The English edition of the Lontar Anthology of Indonesia (with volume 1 edited by yours truly) was released earlier this year - but is still awaiting international distribution. That has not prevented Lontar from arranging a series of launch events - one in July at the Luce Foundation in New York, and a number in Indonesia. The picture above shows a reader of the first volume of the Indonesian edition.