Performance diary: Javanese Wayang Kulit at Asia Society

March 18, 2012
Gamelan Kusuma Laras, the Javanese percussion orchestra that I’m part of, presented a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) at Asia Society last Friday night featuring famous dhalang Ki Purbo Asmoro and members of his company Mayangkara (from Solo, Java). Originally I was supposed to perform in the show with the gerongen (chorus), but I had to miss a bunch of rehearsals so at a certain point I realized I wasn’t going to be able to learn the music well enough, so I decided to sit it out. Much as I love playing and have enjoyed being in concerts in the last couple of years, I’m really glad that circumstances were such that I got to sit out front and enjoy the show this time.


For me, it was an opportunity to revisit the experience of falling in love with gamelan the first time I saw a wayang (performed by the Royal Court Gamelan of Yogyakarta at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival). Certainly, for a Westerner, you start out paying close attention to every single thing, trying to “make sense” of the gestures, each puppet, each sound, each word on the screen, each song that is sung… Watching wayang as if it’s a play in the theater and trying to tune out everything else pretty quickly becomes exhausting, confusing, and frustrating. Somehow, slowly, imperceptibly, you give that up, and the whole thing takes over, and you realize that you’ve entered another world, a kind of trance state, where no single element is primary, but hundreds of little tiny elements are adding up to a whole experience. Extraordinary! Then everything becomes completely engrossing and enjoyable, including the movements of people in the audience coming and going, people taking pictures, musicians laughing and joking among themselves (and yes, even making “mistakes”!).


Typically for wayang, Dewa Ruci (Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment) is based on an episode from the Mahabharata and follows one of the five Pandawa brothers on his quest for perfection in life. He undergoes two big adventures, one in the forest and one in the sea. In between these parts of the tale, there was a comic interlude, which is the part of the show which the dhalang improvises at every performance, tailoring his remarks to current events and the particular audience he’s playing to. In this case, President Obama made a surprise appearance among the various wayang characters (wise men and ogres and mothers and brothers, etc.), and Ki Purbo invited (or should I say commanded?) Kitsie Emerson, who had been sitting at her laptop skillfully providing translations for the English-speaking audience, to play kendhang (the drum that leads the gamelan). Here’s a small, sort of random excerpt from that passage of the performance:

The singer, Yayuk Sri Rahayu, was fantastic. Andy and I watched most of the show from the auditorium, where you could see all the musicians and the dhalang and his puppets as he manipulated them, while off to the side was a video screen showing what the shadows looked like. As is traditional for wayang, the audience was invited to go up onstage and sit behind the screen and watch the show from there, so we sampled that perspective as well. It was hard to read the translations (projected onto a screen over the stage) from there, but the detail of the puppets (carved into thin buffalo hide) was the reward for sitting here.



Good show, gamelanistas!

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