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Fresh off the plane at Denpasar International Airport, I am being driven through the streets of Bali at a breakneck speed, amongst fearless scooter drivers and very trusting pedestrians. There seems to be few traffic laws, mostly just suggestions and a tacit agreement by everyone on the road to not hit each other. I see plenty of close calls but no accidents. It seems to be working.
I’m on my way deep into the Balinese countryside, to Bona Village. I’m here to learn about the traditions of Balinese shadow puppetry, to eat Balinese food.
I’m here to meet Made.
It was the suggestion of a fellow theatre artist that landed me here. Patrick Larsen is a set designer living in Singapore, and I reached out to him when I started researching artistic development opportunities, and the Ann Shaw Fellowship. “We’re doing a lot of puppet work,” I told him. “And a lot of projections. Where should I go to meet people who are awesome at that?”
“Bali,” he said. “You need to meet Made.”
Patrick tells me that I Made Sidia (pronounced ‘Mah-Day), is a preeminent Indonesian performance art maker, whose work is a fusion of dance, theatre and music. A fourth generation master or “dalang” of shadow puppetry (wayang kulit), he is known for pushing and expanding the forms, experimenting with the traditional and the new. His work integrating projections and contemporary theatrical lighting with giant puppets in large scale productions appeals most of all.
And Made, along with creative partner and collaborator Peter Wilson, an Australian puppeteer whose credits include the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics, have just opened an international artists retreat, Villa Paripurna. “You should go there,” says Patrick.
So we do. My husband and I are to be the very first guests.
We arrive, beat, hot, but excited. We meet Peter, whose warm welcome immediately puts us at ease. It’s late, so we’re led to our rooms. When we awaken, we see where we are. In the center of an exquisite building and property, surrounded by rice paddies. It’s absolutely, ridiculously gorgeous. Every part of the property, inside and out, is covered in art and intricate carvings. And it is amazing.
Then Peter takes us to meet Made.
I’ve researched Made’s work, his sanggar (school) and his art, so I know a lot about him. Patrick had worked with Made, and I’d worked with Patrick. I was sure there would be alignment. The appealing thing about Made was it seemed there was commonality in our work. It’s rooted tradition, history, academics, but also transformative, bold and forward looking.
But still, I don’t know what to expect. It’s much the same feeling I have about being in Bali in general. Everything is new, everything is undiscovered, everything is unexpected. And so I am ready for anything.
Everything is new, everything is undiscovered, everything is unexpected. And so I am ready for anything.
Made greets us and we sit on the ground outside the main building of the sanggar while tea is served. The exchange is formal, and I assume this is typical. I come to know later that while the tea is commonplace, the formality it is very far from the man.
He is easy to laugh, enjoys telling a story, patient with questions and incredibly welcoming. We are to enter the kitchen when we want to eat, someone will be there to feed us. We will watch his students and performers, including his wife and two children, rehearse for a performance celebrating Indonesian unification. We will see Bali Agung, his show at Bali Safari Marine Park. Oh, and did we know? We’ve arrived in the middle of Galungan and Kuningan, on the of biggest religious festivals on the island. From what he describes, it’s as though he is producing Christmas and the Fourth of July, simultaneously, while still running a school, a show in current run, and hosting us.
We are invited to attend, alongside him, everything he’s doing. For the next two weeks.
And he will teach me about shadow puppetry.
. . . . . . . . . .
Sanggar Puripurna, Bona is an amazing machine. It’s a school of dance, puppetry, music, and mask, but it’s also a full production company. There are musicians, prop builders, set engineers, dance masters, and it is in full-swing nearly 24 hours a day. This is the part of Made’s world that is closest to mine. Working with children, with designers, directors, musicians, bringing talent together to make shows. The children, like the ones I work with, are both students and performers. They are rehearsing outdoors for the unification day festival, along with older teens and adults. It’s a cast of over three hundred, with half as many in production and support. It is an enormous undertaking. The crafts people are masters. All the artists are amazingly disciplined, and there is visible joy in the process. Made is relentless in his pursuit of artistic excellence. Rehearsals and work start very early each day, and continue late into the night.
By the time the show is ready for performance, he will have called for a midnight load-in at the venue with a spacing rehearsal to begin at 3 am.
I begin to understand he does not sleep.
Made is also a university professor. He teaches shadow puppetry at the Indonesian Institute for the Arts. ISI is blend of modern and traditional. The facilities, the performance spaces, these are where he was educated, and it is part of where his work continues. These positions, his international speaking fees and his commercial work all fund the sanggar.
Bali Agung, the show Made and Peter created for the Bali Safari Marine Park has run for seven years, six shows a week, with a cast of 200, and live animals. Made attends and gives notes after every performance. I ask him why he continues to attend to the show in this way, so long into its run.
He says, “If it’s not important enough for me to be here, how can it be important to the performers?”
Made, as his father and his father before him, is the main producer of work at religious festivals and pageants. As the only non-Muslim island in Indonesia, he, as his family for generations, is the main artistic voice in the Hindu tradition. He takes us, night after night, to temples and holy ceremonies. We are outsiders, but welcome, if unusual. As the festival nights continue, Made takes his elderly father, hand in hand, and guides him into the temples to participate. There is some tiredness in Made, and my husband starts carrying his gear. Made thinks this is hilarious, and lets him do it.
There are bells, food, incense, traditional costume in colors signifying the importance of the days. Performances, dance, gamelan, masked characters performing scenes, happen on all sides of the sanctuaries. They are often unrelated, but in the same space. The work is markedly different in pace, scale and tone than the work in rehearsals at the sanggar. I ask about this.
“This is not for us,” he says. “This work is for God.”
. . . . . . . .
We eat, sleep and breathe Made’s world for two weeks. He shows us his workshop, demonstrating traditional characters and movements in mask. He shows us how he is experimenting with technology and shadow puppetry. He moves me through the traditions of the form, and I see how he pushes and pulls the history of his art to integrate more modern tropes. As we see other local, traditional artists perform I realize just how far Made has pushed the envelope. It isn’t just the projections, it’s the way he tells stories, handles scene changes, creates opportunities for his artists to perform. Made’s work is vital and modern. I ask him if he is ever criticized for straying from traditions in work he creates. Yes, he says, quite a lot.
We watch him teach, direct, lead designers, perform at the temples. We see the Indonesian unification spectacle, to which Made has added, last minute, substantial pyrotechnics. We watch from the VIP section, with government officials and Balinese celebrities. We are interviewed by the news. Someone hands me their baby.
All the islands are represented, but Made’s troupe is the grande finale.
We meet other artists who have come to meet Made, from Belgium, Japan, Brazil, France… everywhere. One day, the Belgian choreographer Arco asks if he can see the puppets.
Made leads us to the roof of the sanggar and produces several nondescript cardboard boxes. Inside are three hundred year old leather Balinese shadow puppets. They are ancient and delicate, made by his ancestors. “I really must find a better way to store these,” he muses as we marvel over the intricacy, the age. He does not take them for granted, at all. And yet, they are stored in a box.
My husband and I discuss ways to raise funds for their preservation.
. . . . . . . .
It is one of our last days with Made. He is teaching.
He brings the children around to speak to them, as he does with every class, every rehearsal. It’s time for notes. This is very familiar.
The children are rapt, as they always are when Made addresses them. He introduces me again, but after two weeks of daily rehearsal, I am not a stranger anymore. He refers to me as he speaks, I watch the children’s eyes move back and forth from my face to his. Then I hear him say, “September eleventh.”
I realize then that I may be the only person they meet from America, and that the biggest thing they know about our country is that event. I see Made’s face change, I see the children’s faces change in understanding. I do not understand his words, of course, but suddenly I understand what Made’s real mission is.
To preserve the connections of artists? Save the world through art? I came there to learn, but the tables are turned, and I realize I’m a piece of the global puzzle he’s building for his people, students, village, his nation. Made and Bali are all connected through art. Education, religion, commerce, the state- they are all the center. One is not more important than the others. They are integrated.
These children, in this open room, on this island, led by this remarkable man, are in many ways our planet’s best chance at global understanding and perspective.
My eyes well up. I am moved beyond words. I came to learn about shadow puppetry. Made is changing the world. And he is inviting me to join him. It is, he says, our collective mission.