Every year, the Theatre & Dance department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa puts on a stunning theatrical production from a different East or Southeast Asian traditional theatre form. Last year, I was privileged to be involved in their kabuki production; the previous year they did jingju (Beijing opera), and the year before that, Noh.
This year, UHM’s Kennedy Theatre brings us Randai, a traditional martial arts / dance-drama form from the Minangkabau people of Western Sumatra. This is the only place outside of Indonesia that Randai is performed, and so I feel quite privileged to get to see it.
I started writing a rather lengthy post sharing everything I know about randai (mostly learned secondhand through friends, through a talk or two I’ve attended, and through just seeing the performance itself), but what I really ought to be doing here is sharing my impressions, having seen the show last week.
The randai is performed in the round. A giant circle has been built into the normally rectangular stage, and bleachers placed up on stage, around it, offering the opportunity for audience members to sit up on stage, mere feet away from the performers, and all around them. The entire arrangement is meant to attempt to simulate the feeling of a village performance, where villagers would simply gather around, in a full circle surrounding a central circular area where the performance takes place. Dancers move around the edge of the circle, performing martial arts routines mixed with powerful, energetic pants-slapping percussion called tapuak. The pants are quite low-slung, providing plenty of fabric against which the performers slap their hands – when they pull their legs apart, the fabric becomes taut, and great sound can be produced. All of these motions are tightly choreographed, and performed alongside instrumental and vocal music performed by musicians off to the side of the stage. Song lyrics describe the ongoing plot, even as the martial arts / dance action on stage does not depict it. One dancer, the goreh, shouts “hup” and “ti“, vocal cues for the dancers to strike the next silek pose (silek being the name of the Indonesian martial art used in randai); their coordination is incredible.
Actors playing the major roles enter from off-stage, passing through the moving dancers, and entering the center of the circle. The section of silek (martial arts) and tapuak (pants-slapping) ends, and a “normal” plot scene begins. The dancers sit, facing inwards and watching the action. I really quite like this convention; it brings out a sort of “storytelling” feel to the whole thing, as though the action in the center is manifesting magically, appearing like a spirit vision. Sometimes, a dancer will be brought into the scene as his character, but while it might sound like this breaks the illusion or ruins the distance between the imagined world of the play, and the dancers who are outside of it, actually I find this kind of playing with boundaries quite enjoyable.
The acting is done without any particular stylization of the voice (i.e. as is done in jingju or kabuki), which for me sort of broke the illusion of that theatre world, that world within the story, and brought be back out into the reality of sitting on a stage watching friends perform roles. But, the acting was very well done, as was the martial arts stage combat – much more realistic, less stylized, than kabuki. There is actual grappling, and, well, I won’t give anything away, but there are some pretty impressive moments.
Overall, I am not quite sure how to describe my feelings on this, other than to say it’s a true spectacle. Colorful, magical, and extremely impressive. The energy these people bring to the stage, the complex movements they perform, with such strength, speed, and most importantly precision and coordination (unity of timing) is truly incredible.
This weekend is your final chance to catch The Genteel Sabai before it goes away forever. UHM is the only place outside of Indonesia where Randai is performed, and the only place in the world it is performed in English. For more information on times and tickets, see the Kennedy Theatre website.