Sun, 25 May 2003

Didik brings down the house in San Francisco

Amron Paul Yuwono, Contributor, San Francisco, California

The Theatre of Yugen at Noh Space in San Fransisco, California, was a full house. All of its 90 seats were occupied, many other people were sitting on the floor or standing in the hallways.

If the fire marshal were there, they would have shut us down as we were way over capacity for that particular theater. Some of the people came from as far as Santa Clara, San Jose, Humboldt County and Los Angeles - around three to 10 hours from San Francisco. Tickets were sold out over a week before the show.

Still, many people tried their luck and lined up at the door on the night of the performance, hoping someone would cancel their ticket. Unfortunately, many had to be turned away.

Famous in his home country, Indonesia, as a versatile cross- gender dancer, the name Didik Nini Thowok -- the reason for people to queue so long that night -- might have not rang a bell in San Fransisco then. But with a hard, diligent effort on promotion and driven by an intuitive hunch that the San Francisco crowd would love his show, here we are, organizing An Intimate Evening with Didik Nini Thowok - a re-stage of the one I once did back in my hometown, Yogyakarta, as I was still working at the Jogja Village Inn, a boutique hotel, in the mid 1990s.

Together we created and arranged some performances and workshops for both local and international audiences at the hotel, branding it with the same name.

Didik's prolific dance talent would be the main event - but how to present it to the audience who, presumably have little knowledge of Indonesia apart from, say, Bali, took a some extra work. Known for his versatility in impersonating female dancers, Didik prepared four of his best scores: Gambyong, Pancasari, Beskalan Putri and Jepindo Walang Kekek.

However, knowing him as well as my new home of five years, San Francisco, I had something in my mind to add. So, the opening started with me appearing onstage, acting as the young Didik growing up with an unusually creative side, which often meant being laughed at by peers due to his gestures, seen as too soft for the stereotypical macho image that a boy should have.

Combining with shadow puppet techniques, the silhouette of the "now-famous Didik" splashed against the white screen. Suddenly, Didik appeared from the shadows and greeted San Francisco dressed as a traditional female court dancer.

Just when people thought that he was about to perform some fine Oriental dance, Pink's Get the Party Started banged out over the sound system. Instead of dancing to a traditional score as many previously expected, Didik moved along with Pink's upbeat pop/rock song, the scene was a nice twist. Yep - it was an old trick indeed, but that ice-breaking always works.

A handful of artist friends lent a hand in putting on the show: Noni (daughter of renowned Balinese painter, I Nyoman Gunarsa and dancing for Gamelan Sekar Jaya group), Wan-Chao Chang from Taiwan (an arts school graduate and dance teacher who accompanied me the whole time MC-ing), Christina Sunardi (a Bay Area artist, University of California Berkeley graduate student who studied gamelan orchestra and dance in Yogyakarta), Senggo (Christina's husband who volunteered to be Didik's costume assistant and props manager) and Made Moja (a Balinese visual artist and dancer) who got a chance to also show off his dance moves with a little piece from Jauk Manis, the sweet demon mask dance from Bali. All of us just love the arts like to perform whenever we can.

The music for the performance came from a 12-piece live experimental orchestra group led by Eddie The Rat and Peter Martin - supplying tunes to fuel the snappy, funny dialogues linking the four dances seamlessly. Raul Mangubat, an American- born Filipino friend, helped a lot behind the scenes including catering and costume prep.

Now, the dances. Gambyong originates from Surakarta, Central Java, rooted in a fertility ritual which is called Tayuban. Created in the 1920s, the dance depicts a young woman celebrating her beauty. Wearing a green costume showing off bare shoulders paired with an intricate brownish batik cloth, Didik's supple movements and proper flirty vibe reflected the refined palace version of a dance originally taken from Tayub folk tradition.

Pancasari illustrates five characters by using several masks and is set in a medley. This dance synthesizes traditional dances from China, India and Western modern dance with a comic touch.

The third, Beskalan Putri, is a form of a transvestite dance from Malang, East Java, in which men dress and act as women. In the past, this dance was normally performed for village purification ceremonies, for vow statements and as the opening for Lerok or Ludruk (traditional drama) performances.

Now, women also perform the dance that has developed into a form of entertainment staged only for opening the Ludruk.

The closing dance is of Didik's masterpiece, Jepindo Walang Kekek which draws dance techniques from Japanese dance and from the Indonesian dance Tari Dwimuka (two-faced masked dance), also Didik's creation.

Portraying two different characters that may coexist in one person, Jepindo also borrows some movement from Balinese dance. Fusing three ethnic dance styles from Java, Sunda and Bali as well as incorporating traditional Japanese dance techniques Nihon Buyo, the choreography expresses three different female dispositions: Beautiful, ugly and old.

The show was fun - but deeper, it was a years-long yearning of an immigrant kid stranded in this foreign land. Five years of living in San Fransisco and the Bay Area where many artists from all over the world have shown their talents and survived despite the prolific, competitive scene, has tickled me, an Indonesian, to show the culture from my homeland too.

In times of global political conflicts and misunderstanding, what else could be better than cultural arts to bridge the existing prejudices? Or at least, that is how my simple mind works, mainly from traveling to different places and meeting people from different walks of life.

Didik also did a charity show in local clubs organized by two charity organizations: The Asian and Pacific Islanders Wellness Center at the N'Touch club hosted by a local community transgender celebrity, Miss Tita Aida and The Contra Costa Rainbow Community Center at Bleu Club at Danville, hosted by another community celebrity, Miss GAPA.

At the end, all the hard work paid off as we got rave reviews from a local newspaper that wrote that many wished the show were extended. Even days after, emails are still flowing in from the audience, commenting about how amazing the whole performance was and asking when the next show is scheduled.

They came to the show as a bunch of interested folks who mostly did not have the slightest idea about Indonesia and came out as "the converted" - considering a visit to the country in the near future. And for those Indonesians residing here in the Bay Area, this performance gave them a bit of obat kangen (home- sickness comfort).