Stunning: Matah Ati leads Rambat Yulianingsih (left) as Rubiyah, and Fajar Satriadi as Raden Mas Said/Prince Sambernyowo, were both majestic. Photos: Istana Budaya
Princesses nowadays are expected to get their way out of trouble rather than be a damsel in distress. From Scottish princess Merida of Disney Pixar’s Brave to the latest incarnation of Snow White, the princess role has been drastically toughened up in these modern times without losing the regal touch.
In Indonesian dance drama Matah Ati, its female lead Rubiyah goes from humble beginnings as village girl to an capable warrior at Raden Mas Said’s (Prince Sambernyowo) side to eventually becoming his princess.
Matah Ati made its Malaysian premiere on May 9 at Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, after debuting in October 2011 at Singapore’s Esplanade before touring Indonesia, the Philippines, the Netherlands and China. The Indonesian production brought a massive cast of 77 dancers and musicians to Istana Budaya’s halls to tell Rubiyah and Raden Mas Said’s epic saga, which is equal parts love story and wartime epic in 18th century Java.
Matah Ati is based on the concept of langendriyan (Javanese dance drama) made by a descendant of Raden Mas Said, King Mangkunegara IV, who merged Javanese poetic songs with classic palace dances into a unique performance style.
Written and produced by Atilah Soeryadjaya, a direct descendant of the Mangkunegaran royal family and court dancer in the Surakarta Palace, Matah Ati is a tribute to the history and sacred artistry of the Javanese, in a performance that is simultaneously theatrical in expression yet meditative in tone.
If anything, Atilah brings a touch of Broadway modernity to the affair, adding contemporary dance moves, updated outfits and an unusual approach to stage construction.
Slanted and enchanted
The first thing to strike the audience at Istana Budaya when Matah Ati came on was the massive stage that sloped about 20° to allow viewers, no matter where they sat in the hall, to catch the various dance formations. Despite the slope, the dancers still moved about stage gracefully and unhindered. Such was the skill and nimbleness on display.
Using hyrdraulics, the centre of the stage would lift for dramatic introductions. Take for instance, Rubiyah and Raden Mas Said’s appearance during their wedding scene.
The tilt on stage came in particularly useful during the war scenes where intricate formations of Indonesian rebels would dance around the Dutch invaders/colonisers.
As gravity goes, it did have the unfortunate effect of making some props slide off the stage occasionally.
Meanwhile, the lighting was subtle and gave the Istana Budaya hall a real atmospheric touch. It was mostly used to paint the background of starry skies, with slight movements creating the surreal effect of watching a living storybook.
In one scene featuring traditionalshadow puppetry, the projectors played videos of wayang kulit onto a tarp hung across the stage, while a real life Tok Dalang (puppet master) also played another set of puppets.
Not just a visual spectacle, the director also had a keen eye for musical cues, shifting from gamelan music to brassy trumpets and rhythmic drumming, which blared out as the Dutch army routed the Indonesia soldiers.
The leads Rambat Yulianingsih, who portrayed Rubiyah, and Fajar Satriadi, who played Raden Mas Said/Prince Sambernyowo were impressive, both vocally and in their dances. Rubiyah’s first scene Adegan Dupa was particularly haunting, letting her showcase her vocals in a sublime solo.
Though being a musical about a warrior princess and her contingent of female soldiers, the male cast in Matah Ati were also responsible for some eye-catching moments.
Of note was the scene featuring two whip dancers performing acrobatic moves with frightening thick whips lashed about. It was probably the highlight of the smaller scale dance scenes.
Spanning nearly two hours and 17 scenes, some in the audience without a keen grasp of Indonesian history would be hard-pressed to follow (the script) without one of the programme books. The show, sung in Javanese poetry, only provided surtitles which explained the most basic details, like where the play was set or who was about to go to war with whom.
While the grander scenes of war or a village festival were easy enough to grasp, one wonders what finer details of character development was lost to viewers unable to follow the Indonesian conversation.
Perhaps to compensate, one segment at the midway point of Matah Ati featured a quartet of elderly ladies making Malay language jokes and local pop culture references (like singing parts of a Search song).
This seemed to win over the local crowd, getting the most cheers that night. In the context of the dance drama, it did seem oddly distracting. Overall, despite the minor bumps, Matah Ati was an incredible performance, thanks to the unified approach to the stage and song sequences. plus the powerful performances from the leads.