Ontosoroh is a collaborative piece between Ade Suharto (dancer/choreographer) and Peni Candra Rini (vocalist/composer) with three musicians from Surakarta, Central Java. The work is motivated by the character Nyai Ontorosoh from This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s most celebrated author. Conceived and written whilst he was in exile as a political prisoner in Buru Island, the novel is the first of a tetralogy.

Design-wise, I call this my ‘string and paper show’ – there are basically three main elements to the set: a grey fringe curtain upstage that runs the full width of the stage between blacks; a golden ‘forest’ which is a small stand or grove of strings stage left; and  large sheets of non-woven fabric/paper that accumulate on stage. Conceptually, the set is working with this dominant string or thread idea – I wanted to emphasis the vertical space, and give a feeling of tension to the world the performers are in, and particularly Ontosoroh’s position within this world. Also, breaking the space into receding layers to give the feeling of another space/time/place just beyond.

For the costumes I looked extensively towards warrior-wear, including different traditional armour systems and also exoskeletal scale, plate and skin forms from nature: fish scales, the way feathers knit together, amphibious fins, fan-shaped leaves.

Banned during Suharto’s New Order regime, the novel is set in the Dutch East Indies in the late 19thcentury.  It tells the remarkable story of a privileged-turned-radical nationalist, Minke, the narrator. Central to Minke’s personal-political transformation is Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who embodies all the complexities of her era, an allegory of Indonesia’s struggle at the time. ‘Nyai’ is a derogatory title for an indigenous woman who became the mistress of a Dutch man during the colonial times.

Ontosoroh’s status is used by Pramoedya to reflect the construction of the former Dutch East Indies. Along with Minke, Ontosoroh represents the emergence of radical new voices in Indonesian culture, voices that paved the way for Indonesia’s developing nationalism and subsequent independence. They are born in the Colonial world but presage the forthcoming post-Colonial one. As women living and working more than a century since the days of Ontosoroh, Ade and Peni’s collaboration interprets the most inspiring woman in the post-reformation world of Indonesian literature through a contemporary lens.

—Helly Minarti


Pictures from preview of Ontosoroh at Taman Budaya Surakarta, Indonesia, and at the world premiere OzAsia Festival, The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre. Also presented: WOMAD World Music and Dance Festival, Adelaide 2014; Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, Ubud 2014; Biennale CINARS, Montréal 2014; Makassar International Writers Festival, Fort Rotterdam 2016; Décentrale, Gent 2017; Kingsplace, London 2017; Triangle, Sankt Vith 2017.

Concept Peni Candra Rini & Ade Suharto
Choreographer/Dancer Ade Suharto
Musical Directr/Vocalist Peni Candra Rini
Percussionist Plinth
Violinist Prisha Sebastian
Gendèr Player Iswanto
Designer/Dramaturg Justine Shih Pearson
Visual Artist Mawarini
Lighting Designer Susan Grey-Gardner
Artistic Consultants Helly Minarti & Tuula Roppola
Production & Stage Manager Françoise Piron
Producer Arts Projects Australia

photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster
photo by Sam Oster