At Baird Auditorium last night, there were no introductions, perhaps because presenters at the Festival of Indonesia were trying to wedge in so much material. Offering a staggering array of performance forms, the sponsors of the festival -- a lavishly funded, well-organized operation -- hope to turn fascination with the islands into an abiding passion and, perhaps, profit.
The blend of educational enterprise and commercial venture was apparent this week in two programs -- one presented by the University of Maryland Community Concerts, the other by the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program -- featuring the arts of West Java's Sundanese, the archipelago's second largest ethnic group.
Making this material accessible to Westerners was no small dilemma. Many of these art forms spring from a strong tradition of spirit and ancestor worship, placing some aspects of the performances out of reach to those coming in cold.
The spiritual element is especially strong in the classical, all-night puppet play wayang, in which elaborately carved and painted wooden figures bring to life epics of Hindu origin. Monday night at Tawes Recital Hall, an academic setting proved ideal for overcoming barriers. A lively pre-concert interchange among ethnomusicology professors, performers and audience introduced the puppets and their symbolism.
The movements of the puppets, especially those of the "elegant" characters representing goodness -- evoked a heightened reality comparable to Japanese No theater. Offering comic relief and jokes in English was Cepot the clown, whose red plaid flannel get-up clashed with fellow puppets' delicate, jewel-toned silks. "I am Ninja!" he bellowed, spoofing the Ramayana epic's bloodthirsty action. Clown figures are said to bridge the gaps between everyday Sundanese people and the gods; Monday, Cepot proved expert at drawing in American outsiders too.
By falling offstage as his finale, Cepot provided an apt metaphor for the evening's greatest challenge -- bringing to clock-punchers and beeper-wearers a performance that explodes Western conceptions of performance time and space. Condensed from more than eight hours, this nearly two-hour rendition of the Ramayana story was adequate to acquaint us with its ambience and the skill of the dalang, or puppeteer. While singing, dalang Iden Subasrana Sunarya not only manipulated the puppets with amazing skill but also controlled the gamelan ensemble playing behind him. He kept his audience rapt with the dexterity of his puppeteering during battle scenes.
While last night's even more abbreviated wayang was lost on audiences, most of the other performances spoke for themselves. There were highly stylized dances, full of slow graceful movements and barely noticeable tilts of the head. During the gamelan's shattering climaxes, however, they lacked no earthy energy.
Leaping ahead to contemporary material, ketuk tilu drummers treated audiences to a flamboyant display of intense pummeling and synchronized attack, brandishing drumsticks in unison. A convergence of rock-and-roll, jazz and traditional Javanese melody, the ketuk tilu hinted that more exciting evolutions are in store for Indonesia.