For the next 18 months, the vast Festival of Indonesia -- a celebration of that huge and provocative republic's visual, performing, cinematic and video arts -- will wend its way about this country. To get things off to an official and suitably spectacular start, Indonesian Ambassador to the United States Abdul Rachman Ramly hosted a gala performance Sunday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Amid all the glitter, incense and rose petals, the 1,600 invited guests and 1,000 paying spectators experienced a sampler of performing artistry of breathtaking range and virtuosity.
Just as it is impossible to tie up our country's diverse creative spirits in one neat, categorized package, so it is absurd to try to put all of Indonesia on stage, as it were. A multitude of religious and ethnic groups there makes for an amazing assortment of dance and music styles, some of them rooted in ancient court or temple traditions, others of a more contemporary nature. Nevertheless, the festival programmers did themselves proud with a roster of artists representing Indonesia old and new, sacred and profane.
The lengthy concert began in rather muted fashion with an interlude by the palace musicians of Yogyakarta, Central Java; while the men played the gongs, drums and metallophones, two women vocalized reedily. Then, like a chorus line of somnambulists, nine women floated on from stage right. Dressed in beautifully patterned sarongs, burgundy velvet vests and golden headbands festooned with tall pink plumes, they moved in perfect unison, ever so slowly tilting their bodies and faces, swiveling their wrists and ankles, manipulating swags of fabrics as if handling precious gems, paving the air with their angelic hands. Their every movement spoke of secrets, and made one achingly aware of the chasm between our culture and theirs.
By contrast, the male dancers of this group -- longhaired, heavily made-up beefcakes -- bellowed and laughed like hooligans, and executed a kind of ancient break dance.
Just as these macho warriors put down their spears, a vague smell of incense wafted through the theater, followed by the sound of distant drumming. Soon the 21 extraordinary members of the Children of Bali ensemble paraded down one aisle, bearing floral arrangements, bowls of fruit and flowers, and tiers of fringed parasols in brilliant shades of yellow, purple and red. Many of the boys played the cymbals, drums and enormous gongs that make up the raucous Balinese gamelan; several of the girls were held aloft in sedan chairs. Once on stage, the troop's leader anointed these youngsters with droplets of what seemed to be holy water, and the soloists stepped forward.
First came a young boy to demonstrate a baris or warrior dance. Encased in layer upon layer of embroidered panels, he splayed and twittered his amazingly long fingers, flexed his feet and darted his eyeballs about like some maniacal wind-up toy. Next three exquisite girls in skintight sheaths, their midriffs bound in yards of glitterly material, engaged in the delicate but no less complex Le Gong keraton, once a sacred dance of the divine nymph. Watching these young dancers -- so intense and yet so joyful -- proved a truly ennobling experience.
After intermission, two groups of musicians from Sunda, West Java, joined forces for a demonstration of oral tradition and innovation. First a sedate band of instrumentalists and popular vocalist Idjah Hadijah filled the hall with their mournful, Middle Eastern-flavored sound. Later they accompanied five virtuosic drummers in a rollicking display of Kendang Rampak, a contemporary, highly syncopated style of rhythmic one-upmanship.
The evening ended on a show-stopping note. A group of 13 men from Aceh Sumatra formed a tight line, knelt and launched into a centuries-old blend of manic movement and "body music" known as Saman. Chanting euphorically, slapping their chests, bending together at the waist and sending their black-tressed heads up, down and diagonally through space, they reminded this spectator of a giant caterpillar on speed or some marvelously human thrushing machine. The audience roared its approval.