On Thursday, February 18, 2021 the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) premiered Rianto and Garin Nugroho: Hijrah. Indonesian dancer and choreographer Rianto was trained in classical Javanese dance and Central Javanese folk dance specializing in the cross gender form of Lengger, an old Javanese ritual dance, a symbol of fertility, during which male dancers dress up as women. Now living in Tokyo, Japan, Rianto collaborated with one of Indonesia’s most notable filmmakers Garin Nugroho to create two film portraits; one of Rianto and the other Dayeng Manda, a dance maestro who has notated his entire movement vocabulary in both male and female form into thousands of miniature woven dolls.
Hijrah is Arabic for Migration or Emigration of the Prophet Muhammad’s migration (622 ce) from Mecca to Yathrib (Medina) upon invitation in order to escape persecution. For Rianto, it represents his journey through his body’s masculine and feminine traits. He explains this journey during the first 20 minutes of the film while we observe Rianto, as he phrased it, apply feminine makeup onto a masculine face. While tedious at best, the final transformation is incredible.
In the press release it was stated that “Rianto embodies as no-one else a space for the in-between, the coming together of traditional and contemporary culture, and of male and female”. It has also been state that he is a master of the dance form known as Lengger Lanang. That may be true, but sadly, in Hijrah one does not get to see Rianto perform. He merely sits by a mirror in his studio repeating what he had said while applying makeup and occasionally teases the viewer with hints of movement. For me, the portrait was incomplete.
Much more rewarding was the moving portrait of Dayeng Manda, now quite old and bent over from most likely osteoporosis. Even with this physical ailment, Manda continues to live alone, sculpture his dolls, his “woven libraries of knowledge, that are the embodiment of both masculinity and femininity”. These dolls are made from the leaves of Lontar palm trees and Manda still manages to cut the material and use a peddle driven sewing machine to create their costumes.
The film follows Manda through his daily chores and a visit to a Mosque that is located on the land his family donated. It is a very moving moment in the film, as we see his religious devotion and tears that result from what must have been a life-long struggle between his Muslim faith and his own gender Hijrah or journey.
Filmmaker Nugroho shifts suddenly from black and white to intense color as Manda joins several drummers to perform while seated. A bright yellow scarf is draped across part of his head and face and sounds of anguish are uttered from his quivering lips. In this brief moment, we feel his life’s journey and we get a glimpse of the feminine-like grace with which his hand dances a large straw fan in front of him. Though Manda is quite old, his arthritic hand has not lost its artful agility.
Filmmaker Garin Nugroho completed his studies in 1985 at the film academy in Jakarta. Since then, he has built up an impressive body of work with features, documentaries and shorts. Nugroho is also a film critic for several Indonesian newspapers and a lecturer at the University of Indonesia. In 1999, IFFR opened with his feature Leaf on a Pillow and since then most of his films have screened in Rotterdam. His film Opera Jawa (2006) was screened at several film festivals, including IFFR and the Venice and Toronto film festivals. In 2017 this film was released in cinemas in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
The choreographer for Hijrah was by Rianto; Dramaturgy by Garin Nugroho; Lighting Design and Scenegrapher was Iskandar Loedin; the vocalist was Zamraful Fitria, Music performed by Daeng Serang and Friends, Camera Department was Hananta Kusunia and Tungga Aji Sidik, Editors were Ayuning Widhiakresna and Risqi Aswadie
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Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Dayeng Manda in Rianto and Garin Nugroho’s film Hijrah – Photo courtesy of REDCAT