“Origins, Journeys, Encounters: A Cultural Analysis of Wayang Performances in North America”
Ph.D Dissertation Abstract by Sutrisno Hartana, Interdisciplinary Ph.D University of Victoria
Link to full dissertation – University of Victoria library — UVic account access required
This dissertation examines an Indonesian-North American version of an evolving, transnational and hybrid multimedia art form which has come about through forty years of adaptations made by cross-culturally located artists in creative conversation with Indonesian performers involved in the Javanese and Balinese forms of musical theatre known as wayang.
Wayang theatre employs puppets and other components including gamelan music (Indonesian percussion instruments, drums, flutes, strings and vocals). Given this complexity, there are many possibilities for variations, changes, and hybridization. In this research project, I analyze aspects of this hybrid performance by analyzing select Indonesian-North American wayang performances, as case studies.
In order to isolate complex changes and various adaptations of Indonesian wayang elements that occur in the North American setting, I also analyze and contextualize the already hybrid form of authentic Javanese and Balinese wayang performances. As a performance art form, wayang has always been changing historically—at some points more quickly and dramatically than at other periods of time, thus resisting firm categorization that would provide a baseline for comparison. I have developed the wahiyang theoretical framework as an analytical tool to identify the influence of North American culture on the wayang performances in my case studies.
I argue that new genre of wayang is emerging, creating a hybridized form that I call wahiyang gaya NA. This process has progressed to the point that wahiyang gaya NA can be said to represent a new genre of multimedia world art, which combines elements of local and global artistic practises, making the form even more flexible and adaptable than its original forms in Indonesia.
The gradual spread and popularization of wayang in North America has definite historical contexts, namely the early 19th-to-mid 20th century conjunction of decolonization and Third World nationalism, with the more recent decades’ layering of multiculturalism and push towards conscious cultural responses to economic globalization. This developing continuum of new hybrid forms spans a spectrum of cultural inclusion and expansion of wayang and new components. At times these may be seen as wayang influence upon Western performance practice; at other times an entire Indonesian wayang production with additional elements added from Western music, theater, and other disciplines may be presented. These developments signify an enhanced and expanded exchange of cultural products between the nations of the world, taking place in an expanded space for dialogue between the artists of the developed and developing countries.
I will show, using case studies, how this process has produced and is producing a new branch of wayang as part of a continuum of hybridized wayang forms. This process has progressed to the point that wahiyang gaya NA can be said to represent a new variation in multimedia world art, which uniquely combines elements of local and global artistic practices that can inspire both the artists and audiences. By examining selected performance collaborations that have taken place over the last 40 years, I will provide a detailed analysis, which for the first time, lays out the components that constitute the variation of wayang art performance that has developed in response to geographical and cultural contexts of the Pacific Northwest of USA and the west coast of Canada.
In Chapters I and II, I examine how wayang fits into the Indonesian cultural landscape where it is part of the fabric of life. This is necessary background for understanding the basis of the development of my work examining North American wayang performances and to give sufficient information to familiarize the reader with the naming conventions used in wayang. A brief outline of the role of the dalang and their training methods is important to identify the differences between wayang performances in their home territory and those analyzed in my case study examples.
Throughout my dissertation I emphasize that wayang is a hybrid art form that does not remain static, even in Indonesia. I identify the two streams of wayang that are popular in Indonesia during the period of my case studies (1970-2010). The first stream follows the wayang traditions and develops new forms that are closely related to historical wayang performances; while the second stream embraces innovation and seeks to attract younger audiences.
In Chapters III and IV, I examine a historical view of North American performances of wayang beginning with the first contact and introducing concepts that are relevant to my case studies. Initial contact was followed by a period called the “new wave of puppetry”, a term introduced by Matthew Cohen (2007) where gamelan ensembles (and sometimes includes wayang) became part of programs of instruction at North American academic institutions. This is the era of globalization and an enthusiasm for world music and culture, which contributed to the on-going popularity of gamelan and wayang as a form of entertainment in North America. This is the period when most of my case studies took place (1970-2010), a time that I dedicated to my academic research on wahiyang gaya NA performances, a new genre that continues to be developed by transcultural dalang and artists.
I also discuss performance styles and classification of transcultural dalang and artists who commonly performed in North America. Using the classification of transcultural dalang that I previously developed in Chapter II, I continue by touching upon the major areas of wayang performances where adaptation and modifications have consistently occurred within different North American performances including a section on overcoming the language barrier using simultaneous translation technologies. I introduce the analytical tools of a Balinese philosophical concept, desa, kala, patra (place, time, and context), then describe how I will use a metaphorical analysis using computer networking to increase objectivity. A special discussion about music is included because of the vital importance of this component to the performance.
In Chapters V and VI, I examine how transcultural dalang and artists have created and presented selected wayang performances in collaboration with the Gamelan Pacifica group based at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, USA, as well as performances held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, particularly those produced by the Vancouver Community Gamelan Society (VCGS). I apply the wahiyang theoretical framework to analyze performances held in each location during my case study period from 1970-2010. In my analysis I show how wahiyang gaya NA is defined by modifications in response to North American cultural influences. In order to define the difference between wayang, as it would be performed in the home territory of the dalang (biasa), and wahiyang gaya NA, it is essential to isolate the components of wayang, as identified by experts within the tradition, then list additional factors that may be modified using criteria supported by scholars from a variety of fields.
The wahiyang theoretical framework that I have designed for comparing performances is designed to point out the degree, or extent of innovation caused by North American cultural influence when compared to a performance by the same dalang in their home territory. This method of comparison recognizes that some innovative wayang types may already be well established (biasa) in their home territories within Indonesia before being exposed to influences from being transplanted to a North American environment. The more collaborative nature of the process in North America can become important as the artistic control of the dalang may become diluted when a North American artistic director becomes the decision maker. The artistic intention of the director is crucial to the classification of the performance as either a wayang performance or as an experimental North American entertainment.
The concluding chapter (Chapter VII) explains the methodology that I use to apply the wahiyang theoretical framework illustrated with examples taken from the case study analysis in Chapter V and VI. The wahiyang theoretical framework is a method that I use to classify a performance as “influenced by wayang” if it contains two or fewer of the essential components of wayang. If a performance contains three out of four of the components, then it can be classified as wahiyang, with the geographical locator gaya, in my case studies indicating the influence of North American culture signified by the initials NA.
The classification of an “authentic” wayang performance is more complex, which includes the combination of four essential components of wayang, and the additional criteria that are commonly required in Java and Bali including sanggit (story detail), and tokoh (selected of wayang characters), examining the artistic intentions of the dalang or the North American collaborators and assessing the spiritual aspects or ceremonial function of the event. As a result of the careful application of the wahiyang theoretical framework to analyze my case studies, I conclude that there is an emerging genre of wayang in North America, although it remains closely related to the mainstream of wayang development in Indonesia. In terms of wahiyang gaya NA, wayang as a form may continue its existence with open-ended possibilities, depending not only on the transcultural dalang and artists, but also upon collaborators, combined with other aspects.
Due to the interdisciplinary nature of wayang [Indonesian shadow puppetry] and the new territory covered by my dissertation, it was necessary to interview many individuals. Some are famous dalang who will be familiar to anyone who has an interest in wayang, others are collaborators, presenters, musicians, visual artists and others who are involved in some way with wayang production, education or scholarship.
Matthew Isaac Cohen
Midiyanto S. Putro
I Wayan Wija