Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Collaborating Balinese Gender Wayang and Shadow Puppetry at SOAS, 27 November 2016

After a hiatus of more than 2 years, I am finally prompted to return to blogging. It's not that I haven't seen or been involved in Indonesian performances worth blogging about - far form it - but I have been overwhelmed with other things. (Not least our baby Leah.)

On Sunday night 27 November we attended an evening of new compositions for Balinese gender wayang with accompanying shadow puppetry performed by the Berlin-based puppet maker and puppeteer Herlambang Bayu Aji.

This event, organised by the London-based musician and composer Aris Daryono, was the latest in a series of annual concerts of new work for gamlean. While in past years concerts have involved only Javanese instruments, this year it took the form of work for gender wayang, played by Nick Gray and friends. Unusually also, this year there was a wayang element, with Mas Bayu flying in from Berlin to rehearse with the ensemble and some of the composers.

I spent a day hanging out with Mas Bayu, visiting museums in London and talking wayang. He had worked with Mas Aris in Berlin in the past and was brought in to put together a contemporary play using puppets and ideas developed for past performances in Germany on the themes of ecology and refugees. One of the conditions was that the play could contain no dialogue or narration or text of any sort - the focus had to be kep on the music - which he said was quite a challenge.

The performance, as in other recent performances of Mas Bayu in Germany, involved a combination of live shadow puppetry (using Wayang Rajakaya puppets made in Solo from buffalo hide around 2010 and black cardboard puppets made more recently in Germany) and projected images and simple animations.

The highlight for me was the final scene set in London - indicated by the projected image of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To a score by my old friend Simon van der Walt of monotonous clock-like ticking (one gender beater against the other) and big unison chords (reminiscent of the chiming of a clock) the refugee animals arrive one by one before the desk of a bureaucrat who is scribbling away, They entreat him but one after the other they are shooed off, and wait in a line for him to respond.

At a post-performance discussion (which we had to leave early as it was way past our daughter's bedtime, Mas Bayu was asked about the narrative, He was initially resistant to supplying his understanding of the story, giving the standard answer that every person could make a story as they please. But he eventually broke down and related how this was the story of animals displaced from their natural environment who take refuge in a city already over-crowded with refugees. One of the more unusual puppets was a tiny airplane. I, for one, could not possibly have guessed this was a vehicle engineered by the animals so they could travel to the metropole to plead their case! Mas Bayu was asked how the story ended. He said that he would leave that up to the imagination of each spectator.

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