September 21, 2008

Sad story of would-be king to open in S'pore

Goenawan's 'Panji Sepuh': Sad story of would-be king to open in S'pore

The Jakarta Post, Sunday, November 26, 2006
Blontank Poer

Panji Sepuh, A Remake. Directed by Goenawan Mohamad, choreographed by S. Pamardi. Music Director Tony Prabowo. Stage/artistic design Teguh Ostenrik. Lighting Engineer Iskandar Loedin.

Seven women walk side-by-side, forming a line that resembles the opening of bedhaya, a grand dance unique to the Mataram Dynasty. One by one, they ascend a set of stairs on stage towards an altar. All around is a sense of gripping silence.

The only sound is the wailing of a middle-aged man who is none other than the crown prince -- but the wailing cannot break through the gloom that prevails for the first 10 minutes of Panji Sepuh, A Remake, by Goenawan Mohamad. Instead, it permeates the corners of the "palace" with a heavy atmosphere of sorrow and anguish.

Panji Sepuh (played by S. Pamardi) is in grief.

Reigning a kingdom that is near collapse, Panji Sepuh is a lonely, solitary royal.

On the one hand, he must rebuild the glory of his dynasty, but as a consequence of his duties as king, he will reside in another realm, one that will require him to maintain his distance from everyone: his family, his wife (and concubines), palace officials, even his subjects.

A conflict settles in his mind.

The seven women shift in their roles; sometimes they are consorts (although most are simply concubines) and maids when they accompany the king, but when they are not with the king, they are ordinary women who realize their sense of being, along with their wishes and desires.

The masks (created by painter-sculptor Teguh Ostenrik) the dancers don symbolically distinguish their real and their "other" personalities. In one scene, the women dancers smash their masks on the ground in a show of their rebellion against the shackles of the power the king exerts over them, at the same time rebelling against male domination.

This is the message that is conveyed through the conflict as presented by poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad through Panji Sepuh, A Remake. The dance performance, which will be presented in conjunction with the inauguration of a performance hall at the National Museum of Singapore on Dec. 8 and 9, is directed by Goenawan, with choreography by S. Pamardi and Sulistyo Tirtokusumo.

Panji Sepuh, A Remake is an adaptation of Panji Sepuh, which was performed in Surakarta, Jakarta and Melbourne 12 years ago. Although the original pangkur -- a type of Javanese poetry -- by Goenawan is still used in this remake, the performance undergoes radical changes. For example, there is no scene about the burning of an umbrella, the symbol of royalty.

In addition, the women are no longer cast as auxiliary objects within a power structure.

"On the other hand, in this remake version, the entire mental conflict of Panji Sepuh all lead to the women," Goenawan told The Jakarta Post.

As women symbolize life, Goenawan presents them as dynamic figures. They adhere to the traditional norms of the palace, but are also capable of rebellion when their existence is threatened and colonized, as is evident in the mask scene in which the women discard their masks of pretense forced upon them by power.

Aside from Goenawan's imaginative use of the character in this dance, Panji Sepuh is originally the name of a dance of Surakarta Palace that is mentioned in the Serat Wedhataya, a manual of classical Javanese dance -- wedha means book, while taya means dance -- and is believed to have been created by Sultan Pakubuwono X (1866-1939).

According to this book of dances, Panji Sepuh contains instructions on movements as well as the philosophy behind them. Almost every movement, including the position of the hands and feet, as well as facial expressions and gazes, are imbued with meaning.

A crown prince is required to dance the Panji Sepuh, a solo piece, and he must perform it in the gedhong pusaka (an heirloom room), where the male symbols of power are kept.

It was the late KRT Kusumo Kesawa, a master dancer of Surakarta Palace, who first interpreted Panji Sepuh in the late 1950s. However, this dance did not develop as well as Panji Anom, which was revived by the late Gendhon Hoemardhani, founder of the Indonesian Dance Academy (now the Indonesian Fine Arts Institute/ISI) Surakarta. Panji Anom is still taught as a dance subject at the institute.

Although Panji Sepuh may not be a singularly popular dance among the repertoire of Surakarta Palace, Sulistyo Tirtokusumo, one of Kusumo Kesawa's students, must be credited for his initiative to reinterpret the Wedhataya.

And Goenawan has re-created from this book the sad story of a Javanese crown prince.

Meanwhile, the heart-rending sound emanating from the strings of a rebab (violoncello) and gender (xylophone) in the score by renowned composer Tony Prawobo lends greater significance to the dance, and the collaborative result is a masterpiece, complemented by Teguh's involvement as artistic designer with lighting designed by Iskandar Loedin.

After observing several rehearsals, it is clear that Panji Sepuh, A Remake will mesmerize the audience in Singapore not only with its captivating choreography, but also in transporting the audience to the mystical, yet philosophical realm of Javanese power in Goenawan Mohamad's version.

It is unfortunate, however, that this contemporary dance performance, which is expected to make up for the stagnant past few years in Indonesian choreography, will not be presented to the local audiences until next year. ***