OzAsia Festival: Ontosoroh

Ontosoroh. Ade and Prisha Bercinta. Photo by Arief Budianto
Ontosoroh. Photo by Arief Budianto

Ontosoroh is a work of song, music and dance based on the Nyai Ontosoroh character in Indonesian Author Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s historical novel This Earth of Mankind.

The novel incorporates the story of Nyai Ontosoroh who is the concubine of one of the Dutch Colonial rulers of Indonesia at the time. The Attorney General of Indonesia banned the book in 1981 because of the perception it promoted a socialist agenda.

The Ontosoroh of the OzAsia Festival is a re-imagining of that Nyai Ontosoroh as both a cry of voices for the liberation of women and a metaphorical journey of the Indonesian independence movement.

This multi-layered show works and it works well. Gamelan player Iswanto gives an inspired performance, setting up the show with an intensely dramatic prelude – the plangent banging of a large gong suspended at the rear of the stage.

Pain and struggle is strikingly evident in the vocals of Peni Candra Rini, there are times when her voice breaks through any politics and expresses the outright terror of human oppression.

Ade Suharto’s dancing is exquisitely timed to the live musical accompaniment, embracing both traditional and modern techniques with a fluent ease.

Susan Grey-Gardener’s lighting design is simplistic but highly effective while Rini’s singing when accompanied with violinist Prisha Sebastian does, at times, resemble Yoko Ono’s wailing – only softer, gentler and better.

Ontosoroh engrosses its audience from the start and doesn’t let go. It’s an hour of simplistic elegance that sometimes gently and sometimes dramatically draws its audience in to think and reflect

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