Opera Jawa 

Directed by Garin Nugroho

Opera Jawa was commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival — Mozart’s 250th birthday bash of two years back, which also enabled Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century and Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. As with the films of those (comparatively) better-known Pacific Rim alchemists, the work of the Indonesian director Garin Nugroho is best taken as an instruction manual for its own viewing.

“The Abduction of Sita,” from the Hindu epic The Ramayana, is an infidelity saga shaded with class predation and sensual awakening; here it’s sung and danced against a shape-shifting backdrop of rural habitats and allusive materials, a performance piece suggestive of myth, social agitation and the free-floating provocation of installation art. It’s less anachronism than everywhen-at-once: canned news reports of civil unrest seem to emanate from a TV sculpted with hammer and chisel.

Nugroho’s rhythms, like his cast of dancers’, are languid and controlled, springing without having seemed coiled. Like Apichatpong’s exquisite corpse ethnography Mysterious Object at Noon (or Takamine Go’s floating Okinawan tall tale Untamagiru), Opera Jawa harmonizes the associative logics of folklore and Surrealism. But that’s a frustratingly clinical description for a scene in which a village potter puts his love on a pedestal, slathers her with wet clay and sings to her, only for her to reject her Pygmalion. Or a doorway framing a red ribbon, “wide as a bedspread, and as long as the road of life”, leading from a seducer to the threshold of his intended. Or a row of nude statues hanging as in an abattoir, the candles atop their necks dripping red wax across their torsos. Or…

Opens January 16 at the Museum of Modern Art


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