On Java, a Creative Explosion in an Ancient City


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The dancer and choreographer Martinus Miroto practices at his studio in Yogyakarta.

Credit
Justin Mott for The New York Times

After the tropical thunder rolls across south Java comes the rain, and each drop has a character. Some sweep across the bamboo roof in high-pitched volleys, and some plop into the puddles one by one, luminous, like silver. Others hit the dried banana leaves with a solid, resonant thunk.

In early Java, they heard music in these sounds and rhythms. They refined it over the centuries into a complex, ethereal form of auditory theater that needs as many as 10 instruments at once, so expansive in tones and harmonies that it cannot fit into any Western style of notation. By now you hear gamelan all over this ancient capital, from the airport public address system to the marbled palace of the local sultan.

All of Java’s courtly arts, including shadow puppetry and classical dance, first flourished here. They made this small city the heartland of traditional Javanese culture, protected during colonization, wartime, occupation, revolution and years of authoritarian rule. And now, as Indonesia’s voters turn away from the past and reach out for an uncertain but promising future, Yogyakarta has emerged as one of the world’s most vibrant centers of artistic innovation and risk-taking.

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A vendor sells bubbles at the Sunday bazaar at the Sultan Agung Stadium in Yogyakarta.

This remote provincial city could even play a part in healing a terror-weary world. Not long before the recent attacks in Jakarta, it was here that the world’s largest Islamic organization started a global campaign to repudiate extremism and intolerance, from the madrasa named for a local saint who preached a pluralistic, tolerant form of Islam in the 16th century. There’s even a Muslim academy for transgendered people here, the only one in the country.

Little known in the West but familiar throughout Southeast Asia, the city known simply as Yogja (pronounce the ‘Y’ as ‘J’) has been a royal center of art and power since the eighth century, even after Dutch colonials made Jakarta the capital. With several major universities, it has always attracted an artsy, intellectual crowd. As an ancient city and the last remaining sultanate in the country, it has long nurtured the presentations that, for Javanese, give symbolic form to everything from official ritual to the routines of daily life.

Performance throbs from this city’s heart. On the expansive grounds of the Sultan’s Palace at the center of the old city, dance troupes and gamelan ensembles perform every day at 10 a.m. on a grand covered pavilion, the kraton. To signal religions at peace, it is lavishly decorated with symbols of the three traditions that inform life here, Hinduism, Buddhism and, the majority, Islam. In its shadow, children play with stick puppets representing Sita and Rama, iconic lovers of Hindu myth, as the call to prayer issues from a half-dozen loudspeakers, each one slightly mistimed to the others to create an atonal, ambient drone.

Over the last several years, a new generation of artists has sprung from these rich but formalized traditions. All over the city, choreographers, musicians, filmmakers, puppeteers and rappers are bursting the boundaries of these styles and their conventions. There’s a gallery scene with painters, sculptors and cartoonists whose works have made contemporary art from Indonesia the sensation of events like the last Art Basel in Hong Kong.

The good news: There’s always something happening on the cutting edge of culture. An art gallery will host a visiting performance artist; a new dance troupe will be re-enacting an ancient myth as interpreted, perhaps, at the Edinburgh Fringe. Only a few events require tickets, and reservations are nearly unheard of. You just show up.

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A member of the Ramayana Ballet.

Credit
Justin Mott for The New York Times

Even private homes readily welcome strangers to gamelan concerts, less like performances and more like happenings. Restaurants, coffee houses, and a few hotels like Dusan Jogya Village Inn offer themselves as art centers, ready to host the next filmmaker or an impromptu act by an electronica D.J. working with hundreds of gamelan tracks. Rappers set up on the plaza across from the kraton, often calling attention to the plight of marginalized peoples of the East Indies. Festivals pop up like jungle flowers that bloom and fade overnight.

The bad news — or perhaps it’s an exciting opportunity — is that little of this is announced or scheduled in a way that fits into a world of prearranged vacations or advance-purchase airfares. Web-based information is sketchy. You could always call. But this is a place where, as Ry Cooder famously said of Havana, “when the phone rings, it’s like a dog barking — no one pays attention.” Official sources such as the city’s tourism group and most hotels know mainly about static attractions like the museums and temples. Word of mouth, through new acquaintances and friends, is how you come to see its hidden life.

So you show up at the right places, find the right people (this town has coffee and pastry shops like Boston has Irish bars) and leave plenty of messages. You spot the few other travelers at recitals and galleries and become comrades at a glance, comparing hand-scrawled notes as they did a hundred years ago. You get invitations to gamelan evenings, or hear of a gallery opening as if it were a rave, show up and meet an artist who last week was lionized in Paris.

Or maybe you just get a cryptic text message telling you to be at a crossroads outside of town. That is the only hint something special may be going on up a dusty farm road, past pens of chickens, goats and a few munching water buffalo. But at its end, a large postindustrial studio is throbbing with activity. Dancers, stagehands, musicians carrying heavy brass gongs, computer technicians with clipboards; all in a swirl and, at its center, the intent, black-clad choreographer Martinus Miroto.

Mr. Miroto was born and raised in this city, where dance class is required in high school. Since then he has toured the world and won praise with acclaimed choreographers such as Pina Bausch and Peter Sellars. His own dancing draws on the rich vocabulary of classical Javanese movement, pulling together its rapid, angular, formal phrases into fluid, emphatic statements of personal experience rather than collective myth. Rather than remaining in Berlin or Los Angeles where he studied, he started the Miroto Dance Company, building an arts campus around this high-roofed studio, clad in aged coconut trunks. A performance here may start on a traditional stage or outdoors, on a terrace that lets dancers overflow across the nearby stream, wandering among torches and foliage, or splashing in a pool fed by a waterfall.

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A view of Prambanan Temple.

Credit
Justin Mott for The New York Times

For the traditional dance he grew up with, one of Java’s most vivid full-scale productions is showcased just a few miles north of town. The Ramayana Ballet, a spectacular staging of the South Asian epic, takes place every night of the year with firelight, extravagant costumes, a full gamelan orchestra and grandeur in the shadow of the nearby ninth-century Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. (The region’s other World Heritage Site, the ninth-century monument at Borobudur, is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and worth a day trip.)

Rather than waiting for that random text message, a good place to start any search may be a special clutch of stages, verandas, studios and classrooms up a red dirt jungle lane. Founded by a leading local painter and choreographer as a retreat for artistic meditation and experiment, the Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardja has become Yogja’s all-purpose center for rehearsals, jam sessions and impromptu performances. Almost all of this is open to visitors, but little of it is scheduled.

Such a roiling performance scene needs a wrangler, and Yogya has Jeannie Park. As the center’s director she keeps track of dance troupes, musical ensembles and theater companies, telling you who’s doing a pop-up performance that night and who’s conducting open rehearsals, helpful when so little information is available in English. Starting this month, the center begins a monthly series with collaborations between the artists in residence.

For the more traditional arts, drop by the Yogyakarta Cultural Office, the Dinas Kebudayaan, in the university district. A staffer, Ibu (Aunt) Dwi, as she is called, is a font of advice and news on all of the classical forms. She has the timetable of performances at the palace, and knows about informal gamelan gatherings throughout the city. She can describe the different styles of puppetry, from the familiar shadow style of the wayang kulit or klitik, or the more bumptious wayang golek. And she makes sure to warn you that the wayang on the Sosona Hinggil pavilion to the south of the kraton is an all-night affair with a cast of hundreds of leather puppets — so bring a pillow.

One puppet act in Yogja, however, is far from traditional. The Papermoon Puppet Theater has become a staple of the global arts festival circuit, with enigmatic modernist puppets that tell stories from myth to the birth of modern Indonesia. In one production, a simple tale of long-lost love plays out against a backdrop of the mass killings that took up to a million lives in 1965 and 1966 — such a traumatic subject that it is seldom discussed, not even in textbooks. Words are few for these puppets with moon-shaped faces who, like mimes, express everything in evocative, poignant gestures.

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Gamelan musicians perform at the Yogyakarta Sultan Palace.

Credit
Justin Mott for The New York Times

Between tours scattered throughout the year, you can visit the puppets and the people who use and make them, like the founder Maria Tri Sulistyani, at their new studio and performance space, a gracious compound near the Chinese cemetery south of the city center. At a just-ended residency at the University of New Hampshire, Papermoon developed an epic-scale production on the Indonesian genocide that’s unlikely to appear in the country, but is preparing a new series based on traditional myths that bear on modern life.

The theatrical spirit runs so strong in Yogyakarta that it has energized the figurative arts as well. Local painters such as Agung Kurniawan, the duo known as Indieguerillas, and the puppet maker and cartoonist Eko Nugroho offer an emphatic, whimsical yet brutal approach that can deliver scabrous commentary on politics and pop culture. As contemporary art of Southeast Asia attracts more attention all over the world, these locals have become global stars, with prices soon to follow.

“As a center of creativity, this place exerts a magnetic field,” according to the influential Berlin-based Matthias Arndt, who has opened galleries in that city and Singapore. Much of the energy springs from communal art spaces such as the Cemeti Art House, which welcome visitors to share morning tea. Updated information on the hottest openings comes from the curator Alia Swastika, based at the Ark Galerie, who also recommends the Art Jog festival, an artist-run event in June that has become a flamboyant center of this scene.

With the national dance institute based here, there are events almost every weekend, ranging from formal productions to pop-up events. Just this year, the weekly dance performance at the kraton features a rotating series of the area’s top troupes. Don’t be deterred by the scruffy entrance to the kraton off the bustling shopping district of Malioboro Street; once you are inside, it gets much nicer, with uniformed guides.

In a search like this, it’s hard not to run into street posters on rap events. Based largely on East Coast styles with a bit of Atlanta steampunk thrown in, crews perform often near the university district and, as in the United States, can take on a political edge. Shaggydog, for example, convened a fund-raiser for displaced people in the Gaza Strip.

The Yogyakarta-based Yogja Hip Hop Foundation has taken recent stardom to a level of media-consciousness reminiscent of American groups, with a new full-length film, CDs, T-shirts and online videos of rapping on an M.T.A. bus straight out of Bushwick, Brooklyn, accompanied by an omnipresent gamelan track that softens anything that sounds defiant. The group welcomes visitors to their headquarters in an out-of-the-way, bunkerlike concrete building.

But Western-style celebrity doesn’t seem to be anyone’s goal. That’s clear from a recent event at the Dusun Jogya Village Inn, a homegrown resort that feels as if it’s deep in the jungle though it’s just a few minutes out of the city. Billed as an opening for 11 woman artists introduced by the provocative 80-year-old abstract realist Kartika Affandi, it had a documentary film, a hip-hop troupe with two rappers, a lightweight gamelan ensemble, an immersive performance art work and a dance performance with stark modern choreography, but in traditional Javanese costume.

“In Indonesia we have a concept for this, an event where anyone joins in, and everyone here is at home,” says the proprietor Amron-Paul Yuwono, a theater director and actor, who recently returned from political exile in the United States. “We call it the village, the kampung, but it really means the community.”



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