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Atilah Soeryadjaya and Cultural Improvisation

Atilah Soeryadjaya is a Javanese princess raised inside a palace in Surakarta, Central Java. She’s also a thoroughly contemporary impresario, producing blockbuster shows that promote traditional Indonesian culture, along with wayang orang performances that have her socialite friends dancing.

Photo By Bagus Tri Laksono, Atilah Soeryadjaya Doc.

Although steeped in traditional Javanese dance and gamelan, which she says she had to study every day as a youth; Atilah is anything but traditional when it comes to saving Indonesian culture.

“Inside the palace walls, I couldn’t do anything different because dance is sacred. It had to be pakem. You cannot improvise,” Atilah says. “Young people see a sacred dance for one or two hours and think it’s boring. They’re sleeping. So what I do is improvise on the timing, maybe make it 15 minutes, with more artistic lighting and a multimedia approach, and now they want to see what the real sacred dance is. They’ll go Google it.”

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Atilah says that as a teen she loved dance, but hated the confines of the Javanese version. She pursued a career as a model in Jakarta and then studied modern dance and languages in Dusseldorf, Germany. Atilah became a star in Europe, performing dozens of gigs each month and releasing gold albums in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands.

Returning to Jakarta after eight years, Atilah wanted to promote Indonesian culture. She started with the Wayang Orang Bharata troupe.

“It was sad to see,” Atilah says. “It was the only troupe in Jakarta and it was only Rp 3,000 per ticket. The box office was maybe only Rp 3 or 4 million each night, divided among 100 dancers—not even enough to cover transportation expenses or electricity. But these people were saying ‘My life is here.’ I had to do something.” What she did was convince her socialite friends that wayang orang was not much different from sports or meditation.

For two years, the socialites brought their daughters and granddaughters to train and perform with the dancers, along the way deepening their appreciation of the traditional art. There was always a full house, Atilah says—and the troupe raised enough money to renovate its theatre.

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Atilah is most famous for two colossal dance productions: Matah Ati, in 2010, and Ariah, in 2013. Both were scripted and produced by Atilah, who brought her experience in European show business to play a critical role in every aspect of the shows. Both were monumental in scope, featuring hundreds of elaborately garbed traditional dancers, dynamic music and sound and a lighting experience rivalling Broadway.

Matah Ati, which tells the tale of Rubiah, a woman warrior who marries a Javanese king, premiered at the prestigious Esplanade in Singapore. Atilah spent 18 months convincing its programmers that Matah Ati presented a different side of Surakarta at a moment when the city was considered a terrorist incubator.

The foreign premiere was important for Indonesia, Atilah says. “Indonesian culture is very rich, but I wanted to show actors and artists here that tradition can be international.”

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One hallmark of the shows was the inclined stage developed by Jay Subyakto, who directed both productions. The innovative design gave every viewer a complete view of the action on stage. Atilah said she was doubtful at first. “I tried it eight times, going up and going down. I wanted to throw up. How could my dancers perform on this stage? If there was one drop of sweat, or one misstep on a kain, you’d fall.” However, Atilah says that she doesn’t like places limits on creativity. The different approach for the traditionally trained dancers was a great success.

Following Matah Ati, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, then Jakarta’s governor, asked Atilah to develop what would become Ariah, a tale of the Betawi indigenous people of the capital. she had a scant few months to research the show. Atilah describes the experience as a whirlwind spent in the field, meeting historians, finding out about Betawi traditions from people and even learning pantun Betawi humorous rhythmical verses.

Ariah, which attracted crowds greater than 15,000 a day to its 72-meter stage in front of the National Monument, was extravagant, involving 200 Betawi and Javanese dancers and a 100-person orchestra. Ticket prices started at Rp 2,000, ensuring that a wide audience would be introduced to the Betawi folktale and the nation’s traditional performing arts.

Atilah won’t stop there: Her next project is curating an exhibition of Iwan Tirta’s collection of antiques, art and batik at a major museum in 2017. Iwan, who Atilah met as a girl when he revivied the batik of the keraton, bequeathed to her his collection before his death.

“These are the pieces that inspired Iwan Tirta,” Atilah says. “If I keep it [hidden], no body will know about it.”

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