02 November 2011


Sang Penari (The Dancer) tells a love story between Srintil and Rasus, both were children of Dukuh Paruk, a poor village in Central Java. Srintil, an orphan, grew up to be a prima donna dancer known as ronggeng. A ronggeng was not just an ordinary dancer. She was not only the most beautiful girl in the village, but should also be blessed with indang or ronggeng spirit. Therefore the dance was a spiritual one, a means of communication between the villagers and their sacred ancestor. Ronggeng dance was a laku, a ritual that determined the destiny of the village.
"Ronggeng itu tidak cuma perkara urusan nari. Tapi juga urusan kasur, urusan dapur, urusan sumur..."
Ronggeng is not only about dance, but also about bed (sex), kitchen (cooking) and well (household)...
A ronggeng was a symbol of perfection. Every man wanted to sleep with her, and every woman wanted her husband to sleep with her as well. Sleeping with ronggeng was also a ritual.

But it was one ritual too much for Rasus. Heartbroken, he left Dukuh Paruk and became a soldier.

It was 1965. For some years, the notorious Communist Party had started to gain influence. Even Dukuh Paruk was decorated with communists propaganda even though the villagers were unable to read. Srintil was initiated as Ronggeng Rakyat (People's Ronggeng) and her colourful costume had changed to red. When asked by his commander, Rasus confirmed that Dukuh Paruk had become red. We all know the aftermath. Following a failed military action in Jakarta, the Communist Party military wing was defeated. What happened next was the ugliest episode in post-independence Indonesian history. Thousands communist party members, their family and friends, even those who only remotely connected, were captured, interrogated, tortured and murdered. Srintil and other Dukuh Paruk villagers were among those who were captured. Rasus abandoned his duty and tried to find Srintil.

Sang Penari was 'inspired' (for not to say adapted) from an Indonesian literary masterpiece, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk trilogy by Ahmad Tohari. Book adaptation is never easy and I can imagine there were a lot of traps to be avoided in making this movie. It took place in one of the most important events in Indonesian history, and a still controversial one at that. On the other hand, it portrayed an untouchable Indonesia, a village that was too poor, too unimportant even to be mentioned at all. You don't even wanna be there. Yet you need to capture their spirit. And I'd say writer/director Ifa Isfansyah and his two co-writers had made it. Beautifully shot, beautifully acted, beautifully composed.

In fact, it was sometimes a little bit too beautiful. Reading the book(s), I imagined Dukuh Paruk as a barely inhabitable place, only the most stubborn people with faith in their ancestor would stay there. I missed it in the movie. I enjoyed the chemistry between Prisia Nasution (Srintil) and Oka Antara (Rasus), but again, it was also visually too beautiful. I wanted it to be just ugly, I wanted it to be rough, I wanted it to be painful.

A few days before watching the movie, I saw street performers, well, on the street. They were a person with portable tape player and a dancer wearing an unidentifiable mask (it was like a kitsch cross between Cirebon topeng and Betawi ondel-ondel). Seeing these performers always remind me of Cemeng 2005, a 1998 movie from Teater Koma director Nano Riantiarno. It was a tragic story about a traditional dance group, how internal conflict and, later, modern time had eradicated them. What left were the formerly prima donna and a musician from the group, with portable tape player and hair accessories from decorative paper, wandered down small streets and villages. That movie, even only the thought of it, always give me an unpleasant feel in the stomach. A part of me wants Sang Penari to be beautiful, but a part of me feels it should give me a pain in the stomach just as Cemeng 2005 does.

The ending, then, was a compromise. For Rasus and his pain. For Srintil and her pride. For time, the past, and the future.

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