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Indonesians in Focus: Sardono W. Kusumo

Famed as one of the country’s pioneers of contemporary dance, choreographer and dancer Sardono Waluyo Kusumo has nothing to prove, yet he continues to be impeccably disciplined in his work. The rector of the Jakarta Institute of the Arts had returned from a two-day trip to Yogyakarta in the morning, then sat through back-to-back meetings, which had taken him through to his interview in a South Jakarta mall.

“I’m in the middle of shooting a film about Raden Saleh, which is scheduled for release at the end of the year, as well as preparing for the Pangeran Diponegoro opera in Yogyakarta in May,” said Sardono who is affectionately called Mas Don among colleagues, friends and even his students according to Emmy Fitri.

“The film is more than Raden’s life story. I am trying to look at him from a modern perspective,” Sardono said.

The work of Raden — the legendary 18th Century Javanese artist — influenced many of the country’s early painters.

Raden, according to Sardono, did not only leave a legacy of priceless works of art but also provided a rare political perspective in the colonial era, despite his Western-influenced upbringing.
Diponegoro was a noble man from Yogyakarta who took up arms against the Dutch colonial administration from 1825 through 1830.

To carry out the projects, Sardono is dividing his time between Yogyakarta and Jakarta, where he is doing post-graduate work on urban issues and creative industries at the IKJ.

When Sardono was doing research for the Diponegoro opera, he learned as much as he could about Raden.

“His story fascinated me. It was a fascination that grew over the 10 years I was researching Diponegoro,” he said.

According to Sardono, Raden immortalized a pivotal moment in the history of the nation in his great work Penangkapan Diponegoro (Diponegoro’s arrest).

“How brave he was to make that kind of painting at that time. He cast Diponegoro as the adored protagonist and gave the Dutch officers un-proportionally big heads.

“The most interesting detail that I found is that, among Diponegoro’s troops there were two figures who represented Raden’s presence at the event. The other soldiers wore regular uniforms, but these two figures were dressed like Raden.”

The figures stood among Diponegoro’s troops but their postures were a dead giveaway: they were not Javanese, Sardono said.

“Both figures stood in sober meditation like great thinkers,” said Sardono, resting his chin on his hand in the manner of Rodin’s The Thinker.

Sardono read everything he could find about the realist painter, who was raised by a Dutch family.

“His talent was nurtured. He was sent to study arts at a formal school and later on was accepted in Europe’s intellectual circles. There was a period when Raden received commissions from Europe’s royal families,” said the recipient of the 1997 Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands government.

Living as he did among the creme de la creme of society, it is no wonder that Raden was also friends with Alexander Dumas, Sardono said.

Raden had also been featured in early European newspapers on account of his career and his clothing, which he always designed himself.

“Raden could be considered Java’s first metrosexual man for his fashion sense and lifestyle. He was seen as the enlightened prince from the East,” Sardono said.

Born in Surakarta on March 6, 1945, Sardono initially learned the martial art pencak silat before studying dance at age 8.

He continued his dance training at the Surakarta palace, from 1961 to 1970, and the Jane Erdman Theater of Dance in New York, from 1964 to 1965.

Sardono, whose works are deeply rooted in tradition, has traveled extensively across the archipelago.

He recalls the jeering remarks — and being pelted with rotten eggs — when he incorporated into his choreography new movements that were inspired by age-old dances from the regions.

“The time they threw eggs at me is still fresh in my mind; it was 1969 and my work (Samgita Pancasona) was being staged for the first time. Then, in 1971, my Kecak dance was banned by the Balinese government,” he said.

Sardono, who is married to Amna, received an award from the Mexican government in recognition of his work in 1993, and also the Distinguished Artist Award from the International Society of Performing Arts in 2003.

Sardono, who, at the age of 60, has for decades “lived the art life”, is unabashedly critical of today’s artists for “giving up too easily”.

“Every dancer must be ready for the lonely road that lies ahead. People will not always understand their work.

“It is important for artists to believe in themselves. Those who take risks in their work will always feel alone,” he said.

Performers today, Sardono said, had plenty of opportunities to stage their works, not only at TIM (cultural center Taman Ismail Marzuki) but also at cultural centers and arts festivals in other cities.

Access to international festivals, scholarships and even collaboration with overseas artists is wide open, Sardono said.

“It is up to the artist to move on to new horizons. It’s nobody else’s responsibility.

“It’s not all gloom and doom for the artists in this country,” he said

As the evening crawled toward midnight, Sardono excused himself. Passing a table of youngsters on his way out of the cafe, in the tradition of the Javanese, he gave the courtly bow of a prince.