- Indonesian Theatre: New North American Scholarship on Modern and Traditional Performance Practices
In the 1960s, the trailblazing work of James Peacock (on the transvestite comic theatre of ludruk) and Clifford Geertz (on Balinese cockfighting, the theatre states of Java and Bali, ritual, and so on) established Indonesian theatre and performance as essentially the scholarly turf of anthropology in North American academia. Studies focused analytically on symbols and their communal meanings, hierarchy and status and their subversion, and the transformative power of performance in local contexts. Also starting in the 1960s, a coterie of American theatre scholars, most notably perhaps John Emigh and Kathy Foley, learned how to perform comic mask plays and puppetry in situ from revered masters and returned from Indonesia to write academic articles, translate plays, offer workshops, and [End Page 127] perform with university and community gamelan ensembles. Such practice-based scholarship likewise drew on anthropological paradigms, while contributing to the development of intercultural theatre practice and performance theory. Regardless of disciplinary affiliation, scholarship through the 1990s emphasized traditional forms, which neatly fit the neo-traditionalism of the American-backed New Order dictatorship (1966–98) of President Soeharto. Innovative practitioners were not actively excluded and due recognition was given by more sensitive scholars to dialogical exchange between the researcher and her Indonesian interlocutors (subjects, informants, teachers). But emphasis was on virtuosic forms of expression by hereditary performers, typically possessing little formal schooling though much communal integrity, giving voice to the past in the present. American practitioners occasionally collaborated with avant-garde Indonesian artists. (Julie Taymor, for example, spent four years in the 1970s working with Rendra’s theatre collective and directing an Indonesian company called Teater Loh that toured Java and Bali and played La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York City in 1981.) But the study of the resistive practices of modern and contemporary playwrights, theatre collectives, and performance poets was largely left to the Australians.1
North American awareness of more contemporary Indonesian performance was raised by the innovative performance programs of the Indonesian pavilion at the World Exposition in Vancouver in 1986 and the Festival of Indonesia in cities around the United States in 1991. Long-term residencies of two Bali-born auteur director-playwrights, Putu Wijaya (who taught and directed his plays at the University of Wisconsin and Wesleyan University during 1985–88) and Ikranagara (a visiting artist at Ohio State University starting in 1990), brought American faculty and students into intimate communication and direct exchange with two of the most prominent proponents of avant-garde neo-traditionalism, a movement Wijaya dubbed Tradisi Baru (“New Tradition”). A small though steady stream of aspiring American scholars and practitioners journeyed to Indonesia in the wake of these seminal encounters to observe contemporary theatre rehearsals and performances in Jakarta and the provinces, join ensemble theatres, and take up residencies at art centers; additional Indonesian contemporary practitioners, in turn, traveled to the United States for study, residencies, conferences, festivals, exhibitions, and the like. A recent crop of monographs, translations, and catalogs by scholars of Indonesian performance from Canada and the United States can be seen as fertilized by the two-way exchanges kicked off in the mid-1980s.
The books by Michael Bodden, Evan Darwin Winet, and Felicia Katz-Harris under review make hay of the privileged access to Indonesian practitioners that North American scholars enjoy, extending and complicating our understanding of performance in late Indonesian modernity. Bodden and Winet celebrate counter-hegemonic and resistive theatre, joining a choir of Indonesian and international voices emboldened by the New Order’s fall, while Katz-Harris chooses to focus her attention on a classical puppeteer...