Tuesday, 17 March 2009


Published in NOW! Jakarta - April 2009

The front of the Wayang Wong theatre in Kalilio, Jakarta.
Last month I travelled around Jakarta with a troupe of classical javanese dancers and a gang of groupies, all hoping to help conserve the capitol’s last Wayang Wong classical Javanese Dance theatre—the Bharata Purwa, on the road to Ancol.
The groupies consisted of socialites, ex-supermodels, society decorators and the odd business mogul. Dancers from the prestigious ISI Dance Academy in Surakarta made up the core of professionals.
It was a joyous week filled with lots of loose rehearsals, intriguing backstage gossip and excellent food, courtesy of the catering division of the Ibu-Ibu Gaya—the ‘glamour panzer’ division of Jakarta’s glitterati, collectively known as Beling-boz. The whole experience was like a boot camp for the heavily maintained, with Javanese music.
Every morning legendary Solonese beauty Yani Arifin, chairperson of the Mitra Wayang Orang Indonesia which arranged the two nights of performances, would send out spirit-boosting s.m.s. warning the ladies to eat less and stay out of the sun, and advising us gentleman to squat deeper and speak Javanese in long loud slow bursts, like the Chinese from Lawang in East Java.
As my role was Bima the Rambo of the Ramayana, I had to glide onto stage in a controlled mince before performing some high kicks and menacing gestures and genuflections.
Now read on:

LEFT: Society beauty, artist Astari in repose at a rehearsal.
RIGHT: Madam Nina Akbar Tandjung reading my latest book ‘The Best of Stranger in Paradise 1996 – 2008’, during rehearsals.

22nd February 2009: Our first dress rehearsal
The week starts at the Garden Hotel in Kemang—a delightful low-rise, Soviet Era love-hotel with a big banquet hall—generously loaned for rehearsals.
The rehearsal is a wake-up call: the Solo dancers are so incredibly agile and expert that we ring-ins look like clutzy dorks! And to help them the Solo dancers have the equivalent of Martha Graham and Cecil Beaton in attendance while we, the groupies, have Mr. and Mrs. Pono, from Bharata, waving and cajoling, prodding and kneading us all as we go.
We are all exhausted at the end of the session.

The atmosphere in the banquet hall of the Garden Hotel, Kemang during rehearsals.


The second big rehearsal is a week later at the cockroach-infested Bharata Purwa—a stunning theatre with early Ibu Tien interiors (Empire meets Taman Mini) and lots of sweet Central Javanese dwarfs as stagehands.
At this rehearsal , on a real stage, the orchestra pit is packed with a Dad’s Army of gamelan musicians, plus one rather effeminate, albino rebab player with Tourette’s Syndrome.

LEFT: One of Bharata’s hard-working stage hands.
RIGHT: The flamboyant Pak Seto star rebab player in the Bharata gamelan troupe.

Me ‘playing the goat’ with our elegant and generous sponsor Wiwoho Basuki, my dance partner.

Mid-afternoon, when I finally get my sequence of steps to match the music, I draw a muted burst of applause from the male chorus. My dancer partner, the elegant Wiwoho Basuki, generous co-sponsor of the mega-production, shoots me the first smile of our tenuous partnership.
In the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ atmosphere of the romantic Bharata Theatre bonds are forming across class lines: Miss Arifin, for example, is spending a lot of time rehearsing her moves with Gareng, an immortal with a big packed lunch from Malang (Gareng is to bring the house down two nights later with a will‘o’the’wisp stage entrance that deposits him, miraculously, at the feet of Krisna, whose cod-piece he then licks.

Muni Gastel gets a dance lesson from Bapak Soepono.

Other details are also emerging, such as:
Decorator Ted Soelistya has surprisingly strong calves for a tassle-swinger; the aristocratic Muni Gastel (6 foot 6 inches) is the only dancer to come with a valet whose sole job, is to keep Muni out of the Womens’ Changing Room; artist Astari (who like too many Javanese goes by only one name) has real diamonds on her purple bustier.
The true heroes of the rehearsal are Mr. and Mrs. Soepono, however, as they are everywhere at once, pulling the strings on us lack-lustre marionettes.
In the afternoon, I emerge from the theatre, in the bright light, I am greeted by a group thumbs up from the parking attendants and viagra vendors who have been sneak-previewing the show.

2nd March 2009: Opening night at the old opera house
This morning I venture down for a swim at the heavenly Four Seasons: I feel as if I have been asleep for twenty years and woken up to a new Jakarta, where the sky is perpetually blue and the dew glistened on even grass.
I have been in fitness training for my dancing role so I decide to risk doing some Hatha Yoga by the pool: after a few minutes my antrums clear, letting in the stench of the lower Kuningan sewerage treatment ponds.
I retreat to the elegant spa where Irwan stretches me with the grace of a Solonese dancer.


Madam Atilah Soeryadjaya dancing at the Bharata rehearsal.

At eleven a.m. the work day starts at the theatre with rehearsals on the new stage. A selamatan is held at one during which society painter Maya Soeharnoko channels Lady Diana Cooper (as the Madonna)—and then we all partake of the special yellow rice (Nasi Tumpeng) meal.
Great concern is then expressed about the need for siestas so I collapse on the red carpet floor, between rows eleven and twelve. After 15 minutes of light slumber, I awake to the sounds of Pak Seto, the Solo albino, being interrogated by Gareng about Miss Arifin’s marital status.
Meanwhile, up on stage, Madam Atila, the star of the production, and wife of ASTRA heir Edward Soeryadjaya, is flicking her selendang scarf at Arjuna, who only last night tried to sell me his son—the beefcake bottle blonde of the Solo dancer chorus—for five heads of water buffalo. At the other end of the stage Madam Nina Akbar Tandjung, wife of the popular politician, is rehearsing the haunting song which is to open tonight’s performance. My dresser brings me a cup of coffee and a sticky rice cake—I am in Solonese seventh heaven!!!


Famous bakso mogul makes up as Semar.

At 6 p. m. the make-up sessions start: thick stage make-up is applied on thick skins; Gareng has scratched a love poem about Miss Yani on the wall; Miss Yani’s emails are coming thick and fast, exhorting us all to ‘mingle’ with the Bharata and Solo dancers. I don’t know what theatre she thinks she is in but in the male dressing room we are waist deep in dwarfs with bakso and kretek smoke coming out of our ears! Any closer with the ‘mingling’ and the Gunung Sahari Syariah cops will be on our case for ‘kwalat’ (or ‘close proximity with non-moslem make-up artists’)! Ha ha ha ha!

LEFT: One of the Solo dancers in the GKJ dressing room.
RIGHT: Miss Yani Arifin and Bapak Heru (Abimayu) just before opening night.

By eight p. m. we have been in the theatre for ten hours and the show is just starting.....we all watch on a television in the wings (TVRI are kindly shooting the production) mesmerised by the artisticness of the production design and the lighting( somehow the amateur theatricals is looking like a Broadway production!).
The audience are lapping it up.
In Act 17, during my scene, I get my thumbnails stolen by Gareng—punishment for blowing the whistle on his blossoming backstage romance. But the night really belongs to Ciblek, the little person, who steals the show with her incredible comic timing and dancing.
Bravo Ciblek!!
Bravo Bharata!!
Bravo Mitra Wayang Wong!!


Performance, National Art Theatre Jakarta (GKJ) 2-3 March 2009