I La Galigo, Robert Wilson's mammoth production of the Indonesian creation story, Sureq Galigo, makes its United States premiere this summer at Lincoln Center Festival. The three-hour production features some 50 actors, dancers, and musicians gathered from throughout the Indonesian archipelago and comes complete with eminently fallible gods, parallel worlds, and conspicuous incest, which should be familiar ground for any Wagner fans in attendance.
But in some crucial ways, I La Galigo remains in a world of its own. Its literary source material, a 14th-century written account of ancient oral traditions, runs nearly 6,000 pages‹much longer than Homer's Odyssey‹making it a chief contender for the world's most complex narrative. And with only about 500 pages having been translated from the ancient language of the Bugis people into modern Indonesian, let alone any European scholarly language, much of the epic landscape remains relatively uncharted.
The production's first step from academic obscurity to the international stage came from filmmaker Rhoda Grauer, who first found out about the texts while shooting a documentary about shipbuilding traditions of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi. "I can't say I 'discovered' the story," says the Bali-based Grauer. "That's like saying Columbus 'discovered' America. But I became fascinated by Bugis history and legend. It's hard to remember exactly when, but at some point during the film project I woke up and said, 'Theater!'''
From there, her thoughts quickly turned to dancer Restu Kusumaningrum, whose Purnati Center for the Arts in Bali provided not only the space but the atmosphere to develop a production. Working with Galigo scholar Muhammad Salim, Grauer developed a scenario that focuses on the middle generations of the narrative, relegating the creation and eventual destruction of the world to the prologue and the epilogue.
Despite the story's epic proportions, Grauer's version manages to distill the story into a scenario writable on the back of the proverbial matchbook: A boy from the Upper World and girl from the Lower World are sent to the Middle World to marry. Their twin children are destined to fall in love, though they are warned that incest would destroy the kingdom. Told of someone even more beautiful, the boy leaves and eventually meets the woman who, after initially spurning his advances, later bears him a son named La Galigo.
That this story has fallen into obscurity even in its home country is probably not surprising after even a cursory look at the content. One can easily see how stories of multiple gods, the constant threat of cataclysmic incest, and a population of transvestite priests named "the Bissu" might not fare well in Indonesia's modern Muslim climate. Indeed, many manuscripts associated with ancient religious practices were destroyed during politically motivated violence in the 1960s.
A second, less sinister school of thought, though, cites the story's obscurity merely as an unfortunate casualty of Indonesia's rapid modernization. "No one living in the cities knows this story," says Kusumaningrum, who admits to hearing the story first from Grauer. "The deeper you go into the country, however, particularly in Sulawesi, the more people remember."
Script in hand, Grauer and Kusumaningrum approached director Wilson, a frequent visitor to Bali whose own stylized, highly visual theatrical sensibility has long found connection with Asian aesthetics. For Wilson, no stranger to epic productions himself, bringing the story to the stage required first wrapping his mind around a story and tradition that was entirely new to him.
"You have to respect the culture, but at the same time not be a slave to it," he says. "It's especially sensitive whenever you have a sacred text. You wonder, 'Is it right to do it? Am I the right person to do it?'"
Little of that apprehension seemed to be shared by the Indonesian artists involved, however. "What is important to me is not the form, but the soul," says composer Rahayu Supanggah, who before working on the music to Wilson's Galigo had extensively researched the vocal music of Sulawesi for a music festival in the early 1990s. "Once you learn the soul, you can mold it into any structure. Bob made such a strong skeleton that the flesh and the skin lay on top easily."
That "flesh and skin" were not so easy for Wilson, who treaded particularly lightly with the religious aspects, regularly consulting the Bissu as guides to authenticity. "I'd ask, can we have the priests come in from the right or do they have to be on the left? Or, does he have to wear yellow or can he wear red?" Wilson recalls. "But intuitively, I also say the body doesn't lie. If something felt wrong to the performers I could tell right away."
"At the beginning it was not easy," says Kusumaningrum. "The Indonesian way is to watch and follow the master; maybe after three months the master will let them do something themselves. With Bob, it was watch, remember, and do immediately. And you must be able to learn very fast."
"In a way, I see I La Galigo as a certain affirmation of my work," Wilson says. "In this tradition acting begins with the body, not the voice, which is in some ways closer to what my work is about than working with actors in the West."
For much of the case, however, working with Wilson became an affirmation of their own culture, the theatrical veneer enabling them to appreciate it without the spiritual constraints. "There are practices shown here that you would never see if you come from a certain strata of society," says Zulsafri Nurdin, a Bugis performer from Sulawesi, adding that many rituals such, as the marriage ceremony, are still recognizable today.
"As a Muslim woman from Bali, I cannot relate directly to this tradition," says actress Sri Qadariatin. "But my ancestors were Bugis, and when I see the Bugis ceremony something stirs inside me."
Ken Smith is the North American correspondent for Gramophone and the Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times.