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Pramoedya’s Ontosoroh: A song against oppression
Publication Date : 01-09-2013
This version of the Javanese classic Ontosaroh uses traditional dance, music and sung poems to replace the original narration and dialogue
Peni Candrarini serenely rendered a sung poem in Javanese as she stood on a dimmed stage, accompanied by a metallophone gender and a shrill violin.
Suddenly, a woman emerged on stage, striding forward in a black, broad-bottomed modern dress, cool and with a warrior’s swagger.
As Peni, the traditional vocalist (pesinden), sang, Ontosoroh the warrior, played by Enno Sulistyorini, started dancing in a rigid way, pointing and gripping while assuming a straddling stance.
Ontosoroh then withdrew, leaving the singer alone while holding an iron wand to symbolise courage when facing life’s challenges.
It was then Peni’s turn to display her Javanese vocal talents with finesse. She continued to sing in slow and soft tones, reaching high notes accompanied by a rebab, a Javanese two-stringed violin.
As Peni reached the end of her sung poem, she began improvising with her soprano voice, livened by the percussion of the gamelan.
So ended the first act of Ontosoroh, recently presented at the Central Java Cultural Center in Surakarta (Solo) as a collaboration between composer, musician and pesinden Peni Candrarini and Australian choreographer Ade Suharto.
The pair is slated to next present the drama, adapted from Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s famous novel Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide, Australia, in September.
Unlike other versions of Ontosoroh, Peni and Ade depicted the struggle of this figure of women’s emancipation using classic Javanese dance, gamelan music and sung poems, to replace the original narration and dialogue.
For example, Ontosoroh was introduced to the audience through the sung poem, with the rising tempo of the gamelan representing an intelligent and strong Ontosoroh in a masculine manner.
The story is just part of the tale of Ontosoroh, who, when still named Sanikem as a teen, was made a concubine, although later she grows into an adult able to face crises with strength and acumen.
Peni portrayed moments of romance between Ontosoroh and Herman Mellema — the Dutchman who made her his mistress.
Despite the humbling experience of being addressed as nyai (a colonial term of address for a concubine), Ontosoroh had romantic times with Mellema to reminisce about.
Ade smartly arranged their moments together on stage. As a contemporary dancer with a Javanese classical background, Enno had no difficulty in performing lovely sequences to illustrate Ontosoroh while deeply in love.
In a duet with violinist Prisha Bashori Musthofa, Enno danced gracefully, in perfect tune with the gentle, occasionally piercing sounds of the instrument.
It came as a surprise when modern percussion instruments, the gender and the violin responded to each other at a brisk pace. Enno abruptly turned sensual, presenting a salsa-like dance, while Peni’s vocal flair added color to the sensuality.
“I included salsa to convey the message that Ontosoroh is shrewd and quick to learn,” said Ade after the show. “Salsa was seen as something beyond her capacity. But with her brilliance, Ontosoroh is able to execute it.”
At the end of the salsa, Ontosoroh entered a long crisis following Mellema’s departure. In this scene, Enno translated her emotions into a dance reflecting strength. The crisis and conflict in her life were shown as Enno bowed down on stage, her back laden with paper and looking like a snail.
As the “snail shell” dropped off, Enno began a pantomime. With her back facing the audience, the dancer’s fingers explored her body’s new freedom while trembling and gripping.
Now on her own, Ontosoroh faced derision and experienced frustration on stage, while her nyai status ruined her dignity as a Javanese woman, leaving her with no rights over her children or property and an object of public scorn.
Refusing to break, Ontosoroh was determined to survive through her power and intellect. The atmosphere of a tumultuous inner battle was given a lift with Peni’s Javanese sung poem “I don’t care”.
Peni, a lecturer at the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) in Surakarta, ended by singing in a near-murmur. “I don’t care what people say. I don’t care how they set my heart on fire. I have a name, body and soul, so I must be firm and bold.”
Calm returned as the stage lights dimmed. Ontosoroh returned in her warrior’s attire. The final act was choreographed by Ade without long sequences to produce a feeling of frustration and at the same time great courage.
Enno gave a final gentle-yet-valiant dance. The 60-minute dance drama ended with another soft and clear sung poem offered by Peni as Ontosoroh and the pesinden walked along the stage in the rear.
“I’m very much interested in handling this story because Ontosoroh is a symbol of women’s struggle against colonial authoritarianism, Ade said. “Ontosoroh represents a progressive woman who refuses to surrender — an attitude shown by such heroines as Cut Nyak Dien, Kartini, Sarinah and many others.”