A series of dreamlike rituals that abruptly turn violent, ugly, nightmarish: That's one take on Sardono W. Kusumo's "Passage Through the Gong," a striking if enigmatic example of contemporary Javanese Expressionism that opened a three-performance run at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday.
Performed by Sardono Dance Theatre, the 85-minute piece begins with a meditative solo for the choreographer in which life forms slowly evolve out of breath rhythm: As Sardono sits cross-legged, his breathing sets his hands stirring the air like water creatures swimming against a current.
When he eventually rises, his breathing becomes a growl and his quivering fingers shoot out into wings and then change into claws. Soon--after aggressive/defensive stances--he's looking around and listening, as if noticing the world for the first time. It's all so simple and pure here, but it doesn't stay that way for long.
The world Sardono discovers includes a traditional Javanese gamelan (percussion ensemble) as well as gongs that hang in the air like planets; characters from Hindu myth and legend; strange pewter-colored figures that resemble Dutch colonial statues come to life; Javanese court dancers who pause in their serene, timeless ceremonies to fire antique revolvers at one another. Think of it as a living notebook with both fictional and documentary entries.
Early on, for instance, the work incorporates a classic performance text from the 18th Century: a traditional Javanese court dance with such highly untraditional European implements as wine glasses, decanters and those revolvers. Created by a Central Javanese sultan, this lengthy interpolation dramatizes the Javanese ability to integrate cultural extremes and clashes, a theme Sardono further investigates in episodes increasingly personal and difficult to penetrate. There's a growing sense of our being allowed to watch but not helped to understand.
When Sardono impersonates a monkey who rescues a woman (Eko Kadarsih) from the clutches of a monster, the reference to the "Ramayana" epic seems unmistakable, especially since (as program notes document) he was a celebrated interpreter of the Hanuman role in his youth. But what about the woman he rescues--whose sarong unwinds, layer by layer, without ever uncovering her? Is she supposed to be Draupadi from "Mahabharata" as well as Sita from "Ramayana"? What does her fate mean in Sardono's retelling?
Intensely culture-specific in its orientation, "Passage Through the Gong" features a complex layering and juxtaposition of images that may ultimately alienate outsiders. For a Javanese audience, it would undoubtedly produce one shock of recognition after another. For others, however, it proves far less accessible than Sardono's "My Ramayana," a 1990 work never performed in America that put a grim, contemporary spin on ancient myth and spoke to larger issues than Central Javanese identity.
Put bluntly, Sardono communicated his feelings and insights in "My Ramayana," but through most of "Passage Through the Gong" he merely exhibits them. For someone born half a world away, that difference is greater than any clash between old and new that he dramatizes here.