The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Raising triple threat performers

Noel Coward’s advice to Mrs Worthington to keep her daughter off the stage could have been written for Daryusti.

Like the famous English performer and composer Daryusti is multi-talented, a dancer, choreographer and academic – head of the Padangpanjang Institute of Arts in West Sumatra. He’s also the father of three girls.

“One is a chemist, another a doctor and the third is still studying,” he said. “I didn’t push them to go on the stage, though that’s what my father did to me. I know just how tough it can be.”

Daryusti’s father, a teacher and amateur drummer, urged his talented son to study the arts – which he did in Yogyakarta to get a master’s degree. Dad also sold food to help young Daryusti get a formal education along with qualifications from the university of hard knocks.

Those who think the entertainment industry as a life of non-stop glamor punctuated by air kissing get gored by reality when they seek enrolment at the Padangpanjang institute. Half the candidates don’t get beyond the doors of the stylish Minangkabau building with its multi-peak roof because they don’t make the grade.

At the moment 1,800 have gained entry to a multiplicity of courses in seven faculties covering most art forms, but they do need to watch their step. Failure to match the high standards required can rapidly lead to a dash for the exit, said Daryusti.

“We insist on students being disciplined,” he said in New Zealand while leading a cultural group called Sumatran Sounds. “None of our graduates are jobless because their quality is so high. We attract students from all parts of the Archipelago and most are women.

“That’s not surprising because Minangkabau culture is matrilineal. In West Sumatra children are close to their mothers – in Java they’re close to their fathers. Women are dominant in many areas including land and property ownership. Our fees aren’t high – Rp 600,000 (US $66) a semester for locals – and we have 22 overseas students.

“Applicants must also show creativity, talent, devotion to the arts and demonstrate a strong willingness to learn. Their flexibility and ability to improvise are also taken into consideration.”

Kiwi ethnomusicologist Dr Megan Collins who spent two years studying in Sumatra said the Institute was equal to prestigious arts institutions in Yogyakarta and Solo.

“It’s successful because it’s supported by the local communities as well as the national government,” she said. “It’s helping keep the arts in Sumatra alive.”

Some of these arts were on display during a week of workshops and performances in the NZ capital Wellington.

The visit of the 15 performers and four officials led by Daryusti was funded by the Indonesian Department of Education and the Indonesian Embassy in NZ.

Sadly the tour was not well publicised so few got the chance to see some spectacular and polished presentations that drew standing ovations from those lucky enough to attend two public performances.

These featured traditional Sumatran dancing and music, along with contemporary items featuring new instruments, and works exploring the fusion of European, Maori and Indonesian art. The artists were not afraid to adapt and alter, modify and contract to suit foreign audiences.

It’s not the first time the Institute has sent performers overseas. “We’ve been to Holland, Germany, Australia and the US,” said Daryusti. “We need to experience other cultures and draw on what we see and hear.

“We’re in Wellington because the previous ambassador Amris Hassan knew of Dr Collins’ studies in Sumatra and her role in the NZ School of Music which has a gamelan orchestra. ”

On the Wellington program that included “serious and challenging artistic material aimed at artists and university students” was a dynamic item called Tari Rundo (night watchman’s dance). This was choreographed by Daryusti and based on the neighborhood security system used in Indonesian villages.

Deftly using torches and sarong the male and female dancers moved with the elegance normally seen in traditional Western ballet, through to the energy found in boisterous Broadway musicals. The result was a robust piece that also owed much to contemporary Chinese theatre, as its creator acknowledged.

“Dance has to be created out of knowledge,” Daryusti said. “After observing, I write then deliver my ideas to the cast.

“When I’m directing dancers at first I tend to be authoritarian. If a doctor can’t cure his or her patients they can’t stay in medicine. It’s the same with the arts – do it right, get it right or quit. Dancers need to be fit and strong.

“However as the work develops I allow more ideas to come from the performers. I start as a dictator – but end as a democrat.”

More traditional works included the piring (plate) dance representing seasonal changes. The performers hold dishes in their palms only using centrifugal force to keep the crockery in place as they twirl, leap, dash and roll. It’s a dazzling piece demonstrating the performers’ dexterity – not a dance to try in the kitchen.

Randai is folk theatre that features much loud pounding of baggy pantaloons. It’s a rugged athletic work with elements similar to the Russian kalinka dancing.

Many pieces in the Sumatra Sounds repertoire require the cast to be ‘triple threats’ – the most feared and admired of stage performers able to sing, dance and act.

Daryusti is a small, dapper man with a penchant for flamboyant multi-colored ethnic jackets matched – or mismatched -with Western clothes. This makes him look nothing like the standard senior academic in bureaucratic black.

At 49 he still occasionally dances, but said his time was now taken up moving between board meetings, leaving little opportunity to star on the boards. It took four months of rehearsals to perfect Tari Rundo. His last public performance was in Melbourne in 2009.

“We like to tour overseas so people can learn more about Indonesian culture and visit our country,” he said. “Sumatran culture is seldom promoted, unlike music and dance from Java and Bali.

“This creates a misconception that Indonesian culture is only found in particular areas when in fact our unique cultures are spread throughout the Archipelago. We should love Indonesian culture, it is so diverse and every region has its own special characteristics.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 Sept 2010)


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