An Indonesian – Australian Collaboration Between Ade Suharto & Peni Candra Rini

Re-imagining Nyai Ontosoroh from Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s literary work This Earth of Mankind
The work is motivated by the character Nyai Ontosoroh from This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s most celebrated author. Conceived and written whilst he was in exile as a political prisoner in Buru Island, the novel is the first of a tetralogy. Banned during Suharto’s New Order regime, the novel is set in the Dutch East Indies in the late 19th century. It tells the remarkable story of a privileged-turned-radical nationalist, Minke, the narrator.

Central to Minke’s personal-political transformation is Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who embodies all the complexities of her era, an allegory of Indonesia’s struggle at the time. ‘Nyai’ is a derogatory title for an indigenous woman who became the mistress of a Dutch man during the colonial times.

Ontosoroh’s status is used by Pramoedya to reflect the construction of the former Dutch East Indies. Along with Minke, Ontosoroh represents the emergence of radical new voices in Indonesian culture, voices that paved the way for Indonesia’s developing nationalism and subsequent independence. They are born in the Colonial world but presage the forthcoming post-Colonial one.

As women living and working more than a century since the days of Ontosoroh, Ade and Peni’s collaboration interprets the most inspiring woman in the post-reformation world of Indonesian literature through a contemporary lens.

In creating movement, Ade draws from the vocabulary of classical Javanese dance and other dance styles to shape the context and narrative flow of the work. In the mix of music and vocals, Peni combines traditional and contemporary approaches to vocal technique, such as classical Javanese songs, tembang, which she has written in both poetic and colloquial Javanese language, as well as experimental and exploratory vocals which are completely separated from the norms of tradition.

Ontosoroh is structured in several non-linear yet intertwining segments. The music and the male performers are important elements in the work. The two musical collaborators, Boby Budi Santosa (dunek guitar) and Iswanto (gamelan), fill the space not only acoustically, but also physically, at times emerging as the other characters of the novel, e.g. Ontosoroh’s father and Herman Mellema,her master. A juxtaposition of the sung text (poem), together with movement and musical elements becomes the text itself, forming the beating pulses of the work.

Helly Minarti
1 September 2013

Peni Candra Rini Co-Director, Musical Director & Vocalist
Ade Suharto Co-Director, Choreographer & Dancer
Idud Sentana Art Luthier
Boby Budi Santosa Dunek Guitar & Film clip
Iswanto Gamelan
Justine Shih Pearson Costume Designer
Neil Simpson Production Manager
Mawarini Visual Arts.
Susan Grey-Gardner Lighting designer
Anggara Mahendra Photograph
Sam Oster Photograph
Marc Gierke Video Documentation.
Lee-Anne Donnolley & Ade Suharto Co-Producers, Far & Away Productions

This is an Asialink Project supported by Arts SA and the Australia-Indonesia Institute.

The Australian premiere of Ontosoroh was produced by Arts Projects Australia and co-commissioned by the Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival. Ontosoroh has been assisted by Arts SA, the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body and the Australia-Indonesia Institute and produced by Far and Away Productions.