An Indonesian Puppeteer Wowed Dallas Last Night, and That Was Just the Beginning

If you Google the Indonesian term dhalang, Wikipedia will give you a simple definition: a puppeteer from the island of Java. But last night, the capacity crowd that watched a master dhalang perform at the Dallas Museum of Art discovered there is way more to it than that.

Ki Purbo Asmoro performed a traditional Javanese wayang kulit -- a kind of improvised shadow puppetry -- as part of the DMA's week-long celebration of Indonesian art. He was joined on stage in the Horchow Auditorium by a gamelan (an ensemble of musicians playing traditional Javanese instruments). In his role as dhalang, Asmoro was certainly a master puppeteer, but he was also a comedian, conductor, singer, actor, artist, instrumentalist, director, choreographer, poet, martial artist, storyteller, improviser, orator and social commentator.

Wearing a mustard-colored jacket and traditional skirt and head-wrap, Asmoro sat cross-legged with his back to the audience in front of a beautifully carved wooden apparatus holding a blank white screen. An electric lantern above him illuminated the screen and the elaborate 2-D puppets he maneuvered across it. His right foot, crossed yogi-style over his left leg, tapped and slapped a loud, clanging percussion instrument, effectively "conducting" the gamelan musicians behind him with its beat and leading the entire group in a fascinating form of improvised theater.

The story Asmoro told last night, like all stories in a traditional wayang, did not have a predetermined script. It was derived from an ancient Indian epic called the Mahabarata. While Asmoro knew the basic plot of the story going into the performance, he improvised all of the dialogue and action on the spot, changing his voice to depict each character and singing as he shifted from one scene to the next.

The puppets Asmoro used to tell the story are hand-crafted (often by the dhalang himself) out of the raw hide of a water buffalo. They are flat, with intricately carved cutouts that create a lace-like shadow pattern against the screen. They are also colorful, hand-painted in shiny golds and rich reds and blues on both sides. Even the long sticks that support them are ornately carved from the buffalo's horn.

Asmoro grabbed a puppet by its supportive stick and stabbed it emphatically into a board that lined the bottom of the screen. Once the puppet was in place, he used smaller sticks attached to the arms to move and manipulate it. The arms are the only part of a wayang puppet that move; tiny water buffalo bones act as joints at the puppet's shoulders, elbows and wrists allowing them to gesture, dance and fight.

Asmoro didn't treat his beautifully crafted puppets delicately. Instead, he brought them to life with quick, violent, jerking motions, banging and slapping them against each other in carefully choreographed martial arts routines. During the best parts of the story -- intense battle scenes -- he flipped and juggled them, tossing them into the air and spinning them around against the screen with a clap of wildly flopping arms and sticks. The audience, completely caught up in the story, clapped and cheered and booed at the action.

For about ten minutes in the middle of the two-hour narrative, Asmoro stopped the action of the story and put on a kind of comedic slap-stick interlude. During a traditional wayang, this interlude might last an hour and a half: a break in the middle of a six, seven hour-long performance. Last night, this was when the audience discovered Asmoro is really, really funny. Like a mini Daily Show episode, his puppets conducted fake interviews and made social commentary through jokes about presidents past and present.

For those of us who are not fluent in Javanese, the story would be impossible to understand were it not for Kathryn Emerson. An American who has lived in Jakarta since the early 1990s, Emerson developed a computer application that allows her to simultaneously translate Asmoro's story-telling into English on a screen for the audience. The application she uses is cumbersome (at one point last night an obnoxious Apple-rainbow-pinwheel-of-doom appeared, disrupting the flow), but to date she is the only person who has figured out how to make this ancient improvisatory art form accessible to English-speaking audiences.

The gamelan musicians play brass gongs, xylophone-like instruments, traditional two-sided kendang drums and string instruments. A beautiful young woman in a sparkling pink gown sang along with haunting chant-like melodies during breaks in the action of the play. The instruments of the gamelan are tuned using an entirely different system than Western instruments. They play in a seemingly random pattern, creating a swirling pattern of warm, mesmerizing harmonies.

It's a rare opportunity to see these instruments and these puppets in the hands of a master-performer in the United States. If you want to learn more or just see them for yourself, check out the DMA's website. A list of events this week includes a free gamelan rehearsal, wayang workshops and Indonesian dance performances.

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