Future section



248th Meeting - Tuesday, May 15th 2004

“Masks and Selves in Contemporary Java: 

The Dances of Didik Nini Thowok”*

A talk by Jan Mrázek


      The arts scene in contemporary Java evades easy characterization: it is a diverse and unpredictable landscape, and focusing on a single force, agent, or movement risks concealing the multiple forces, contradictions, transformations, and the variety of creatures in that landscape. Traveling in the confusing landscape is a precondition to understanding any single artistic phenomenon. Yet, in mapping this landscape, in emphasizing the bigger picture and adopting an “all-seeing” perspective or even in focusing on a dominant feature or force, there is the danger that the multiple and diverse individual ways in which the landscape is perceived from a variety of positions within that landscape, and the individual situated ways of being in, and relating to, that landscape, are lost.

      While in the past much of the writing on traditional Javanese arts took general art forms as its subject and individual performers tended to be seen as “exponents of tradition” and “informants” and not as unique individuals, in more recent scholarship there has been a shift of attention to the lives and work of performers, concurrent with the critique of the primacy of critical categories such as “tradition” and “culture.”[1] This shift in focus is part of moving away from seeing “traditional societies” as homogeneous and essentially timeless, to a scholarship which attends to historical change, the heterogeneity and contradictions within traditions and cultures, political forces, and actions of different parties and individuals involved with the arts, with their often differing views and agendas. But the shift in focus is also in part motivated by change in Indonesian society itself, in particular by new attitudes to individuality and individual artistic creativity.

      This essay is a reflection on the dances performed by the popular Indonesian dancer, choreographer, comedian, and make-up artist Didik Nini Thowok (born 1954 in Temanggung, Central Java). Didik dances around and laughs at the question “Who am I?” I do not dispute the importance of tradition (i.e., continuity) if it is seen as a kind of rooted-ness in existing artistic and social structures, values and sensibilities that survive from the past and live and change in the present.  Nor do I dispute the importance of seeing Didik’s dances in the context of the contemporary artistic landscape, for his art shares many trends with other performances and in many ways it is an expression of the cultural climate and historical times in which he lives. However, I take special interest here – if only as a kind of exercise -- in the individual and the personal, and in the question “Who am I?” that I sense in Didik’s dances. I reflect on how Didik’s dances relate to Didik’s own individual personality and the life experiences through which he perceives the world and orients himself in it.[2]

      The essay shows on a particular case how Javanese arts are not only part of multiple and changing Javanese traditions, but how individual people are involved with the arts, and their individual life experiences and personal concerns and passions shape their involvement. The arts they practice are better understood when we are also aware of who they are as individual human beings.

Background: Didik’s dances and trends in performing arts in contemporary Java

      This essay’s observations are limited to only one part of Didik’s oeuvre: the dances that he has choreographed for himself, and for which he is best known. In them, Didik always impersonates a woman on stage.  He often uses more than one mask and more than one costume in a single dance, changing the masks and/or costumes on stage as a part of the dance. In the various Dwimuka (“two faces” or “double face”) choreographies, he wears a mask on the back of his head, and either another mask on his face or he works with his own made-up face. Many dance movements or whole sections of dance, are closely based on, or are in, a traditional dance style, typically performed with great power and elegance. Didik has studied many distinct dance traditions from several different parts of Java and Bali as well as Japan, India and Spain, and many of his dances combine several of these styles. The sudden, unexpected transitions from one style to another, supported by simultaneous sudden changes in musical accompaniment (often a recording mixing different styles) punctuate the dance by disorienting moments of surprise. In some cases, transitions from one dance and musical tradition to another is less abrupt, but is made more striking by a change of mask and/or costume. Another memorable characteristic of Didik’s dances, are the occasional apparently impossible bodily movements, “as if [his body were] without bones.”[3] These include “tying” his hands in a knot, or dancing with his back towards the audience but with his arms moving behind his body as if they were in front (this happens especially in the Dwimuka dances). Last but not least, all Didik’s dances discussed here are essentially and profoundly comic: they follow the anti-logic of humour, they caricature human looks and behaviour, and the most immediate audience reaction to the various characteristics described in this paragraph ranges from light amusement to serious, uncontrollable laughter.

      When I first saw Didik dance, and before I learned more about his life, I saw the dances as fascinating expressions of many trends in traditional Javanese performing arts. The emphasis on humour and entertainment, brief duration and fast-moving tempo, medley- or cabaret-like arrangements with fragmentary and disjointed structure full of contrasts between unrelated elements, bringing together performing arts from different traditions or imitations of other traditions that highlight their strangeness, play with surprise transitions from one dance and/or musical style or tradition to another often resulting in intentionally “strange” and thus humorous juxtapositions, the artist becoming a celebrity or star and success being at least in part measured by popularity with audiences and commercial viability, and interaction with the mass media (from appearances on television to articles about the artists in newspapers and popular magazines) –these are all characteristics not only of Didik’s dances but also the main trends in mainstream popular traditional performing arts today.

      As in the case of many other popular artists – dancers, singers, musicians, wayang puppeteers – Didik has grown up “on” traditional arts. A powerful force in Javanese arts landscape is the love of certain people -- like Didik -- for the world of traditional performing arts – their pleasures, sensations, affects, values. This love is not a matter of clinging to a dead past, but rather a matter of keeping alive a part of one’s self; an attempt to live, to move, in a way and direction which is one’s own.  Much of the energy and life of the traditional arts today derives from the conflicts and tensions between such attachment to traditional arts, and a desire to be part of, and keep the arts alive in, the contemporary world. Both Didik’s dances and other performing arts manifest the contradictions and incongruity between the inherited and the new, between the familiar and the strange, or between what people often think of as Javanese and foreign values and ways of doing things. Much of the humor that dominates contemporary traditional performing arts derives from a play of contradictions and incongruous juxtapositions between traditional and modern elements.[4] In Didik’s work, an example is a moment when an elderly woman impersonated by Didik, in traditional costume dances to traditional East Javanese music. Abruptly the music changes to a disco beat. The woman first appears as surprised and confused as the audience, as if there was a technical mishap, but then she gradually “gets into it” and begins to dance disco, but the movements exhaust her and she almost collapses, panting heavily.

      The “medley” character of many Didik’s dances, in which different kinds of music and dance are juxtaposed, is reminiscent of the fragmentary character of contemporary wayang, kethoprak, and Sri Mulat performances. In the clown scenes in wayang kulit, for example, different types of music (different regional music, forms of Indonesian pop music, etc.) and dance are performed one after another, or at certain dramatic scenes in the wayang theater, such as, for example, when a demon dances to a medley of different kinds of regional music (or drumming), with matching puppet-dance movements. I have shown elsewhere that these scenes, which resemble in their structure television shows and generally the flow of programming on television, reflect and manifest something about the contemporary world as a kind of “medley,” a mixture of different cultures, worlds, ways of being.[5] Much the same could be said about Didik’s dances.

      As with other artists, Didik is most deeply rooted in one particular regional style, but he has expanded his skills to performing arts from other regions. One thing that distinguishes Didik from others is that he has studied these “other” performing arts more seriously and tried very hard to make them his own, to go beyond superficial “flavours” of east Java or Bali or West Java, beyond caricatures of foreigners. Yet, the combination of different regional styles that characterizes Didik’s dance resembles to some extent comparable practices in other performing arts, such as music and shadow puppet theater. In the most dominant version of wayang, there is one dominant regional style – associated with Solo -- that functions as the familiar base, and other regional styles are represented -- often in a superficial manner in which, for example, “Balinese music” is a simple melody with “Balinese flavour” -- as other, as somewhat strange, and as interesting – and often funny – because they are strange. While Didik is rooted in Solonese and Yogyanese styles, and while he juxtaposes different styles for a similar effect – otherness and humour -- there is a difference in that it is less clear in Didik’s dances which style is his “home” style, and all styles are “more equal.”  Didik tries to study many regional dance styles seriously and tries to present not superficial resemblances, but high-quality performances. In Didik’s dances, the humour and interest derives less from seeing the strange other from a home base (like laughing at a foreigner because of his accent), but more from the juxtaposition of different styles from different regions (thus more like laughing at everyone because everyone is different). While different artists and performances present different perspectives and emotions on the question of local identity, and each has it’s own set of attitudes to other regions and to the interaction among regional arts, the same issue persists in many contemporary traditional performances.

      Didik’s dances not only have many things in common with other forms of performing arts, but they are also often part of other forms of performances. For example, Didik has performed as a guest star in large-scale wayang performances, singing, dancing, and acting as a comedian during the clown scenes; he has been involved in many performances of kethoprak; he often dances and acts at a variety of entertainment shows on television; and he has acted in a soap opera as well as television commercials.

 Who am I?

      One of the themes of this essay is to show how Didik’s dances put at risk the concept of individual identity, and especially the notion of a single stable self. As I said, Didik dances around and laughs at the question “Who am I?”

      The concern with individual identity can be itself seen as a sign of the times. Individualism is often thought of, both by some scholars and popularly (from many Javanese commentators to Asian governments), as an imported value of western culture. The idea is an easy subject to simplistic generalizations which often resonate with colonial views of timeless and homogeneous traditional cultures, but it is also true that if one looks at the developments in various arts, there has been various signs of individualization and, as Hardja Susila has called it in the case of the Javanese artist Sukasman, “personalization of tradition.” One can look at self-consciously modern Indonesian artists, who, following the conventions and values of western art, create works of art that are thought of as expressions of individual thoughts and feelings. Or one can look at the phenomenon of the popular celebrity, from pop singers and TV actors to superstar wayang puppeteers. Didik himself fits both categories: he is both a creative artist with academic training whose works are closely associated with him, and he is a popular celebrity. Thus, even Didik’s individuality can be seen as a part of a recent trend.

      However, the intense interest in dancing around the question “Who am I?” needs to be also seen in the circumstances of Didik’s personality and his life experiences, especially since his own personality is not so much emphasized as it is reflected upon and played with, and in his dances he presents multiple identities rather than a sense of single ‘I’, thus reflecting on rather than simply following the trend. The following sections discuss several aspects of how Didik questions individual identity.

Masks, Selves

      Didik has seriously studied different traditions of masked dance, but, according to him, the initial and the most important was his period of study in the Cirebon area in the westernmost part of Central Java, which has its unique styles of dance and music which are quite different from the better known Solonese and Yogyanese styles. Didik’s teacher, the late Ibu Sutji, told him – and Didik seemed to be ascribing to her words an active, prophecy-like or blessing-like force -- that “the masks are going to move to Yogya,” and he explained that she didn’t mean that he would literally bring the masks as objects with him.[6] He said that in Cirebon, they use the word nopeng – a verb form of the word topeng (“mask”) – and what Ibu Sutji meant was that Didik would “tetep nopeng,” to continue to nopeng, “to mask,” after his return from Cirebon, and masks would become part of his life and personality in a profound way: as he put it, he would become one (menyatu) with the masks he would be wearing.  When Didik talks about his Cirebon experience, he emphasizes his admiration for his teacher’s artistry and how much he has learned from her, but he also describes what he learned from Ibu Sutji, who symbolically adopted him as her son, in terms of “inheriting magic charm knowledge” (diwariskan ilmu pelet) about masks, and his apprenticeship included various spiritual exercises and rituals.

      Speaking about dancing with masks in general, Didik described how he and the mask “become one (menyatu), and I am not thinking any more that I wear a mask – it’s as if it were my own face [mukanya sendiri].” He also told me how when he was once performing at a dance workshop in Japan, one of the participants commented that at the moment when Didik takes off his mask, his facial expression is similar to the mask’s expression. He said that only then he became conscious that his “face follows” (mukanya mengikuti) the mask.

      For Didik, wearing a mask is a serious and rather uncanny business: it is s not only a matter of putting the mask on one’s face as an external object, but it involves a temporary personal transformation, a profound change of character, and learning to wear a mask in this way requires training and, in Didik’s case, it is a matter of “inheriting a charm.” Didik said once, figuratively, about Pak Bono, his favorite mask maker, that “he is my dukun (shaman, medicine-man).” Other Javanese dancers have also emphasized to me the uncanny transformation that takes place when one puts on a mask. The Solonese dancer Nunuk Sri Rahayu, for example, said that when she dances with a mask, “it is as if it were not me who is dancing; it is as if the soul (roh) of the mask has entered me, and it is this soul that is dancing.”

      As a student of Javanese puppetry, I have been struck by the similarity of the ways in which dancers talk about masks on the one hand, and puppeteers about puppets on the other. Puppeteers often talk about the uncanny relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet and the union between them, and I have often observed how when a puppeteer performs with a puppet, his bodily movements as well as facial expression “follows” the character of the puppet. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere on the case of Javanese wayang, but one can look at some related forms of Southeast Asian art, such as the Thai nang yai and Khmer sbek thom, to see the continuity between shadow puppet theatre and masked dance. In these forms of performance each large shadow figure is held by one dancer above his head, and the dancer adopts the poses and dances in a style appropriate to the character represented by the figure and the action. Prince Dhaniniwat has theorized that the Thai masked dance drama has developed from this form of performance, and whether it is historically true or not, it is clear that mask drama and this form of dance drama with shadow figures are closely related.[7]

      Didik said that in Cirebon, the term dhalang topeng is used. While topeng means mask, dhalang usually refers to the single puppeteer in Javanese puppet theater who directs all aspects of the performance, moves all the puppets and speaks all their voices. The dancer performing with a mask, dhalang topeng, is equivalent to the dhalang wayang performing with puppets, as both have to impersonate a variety of characters using immaterial objects and their bodies. In fact, in the Cirebon region in the past, a single person would perform topeng during the day and wayang at night, so that performing with puppets and with masks were but two aspects of the same profession.[8] Didik himself made the connection explicit when he was describing what he learned from Ibu Sutji. He said that what always impressed him about her was how


“She was a single person but could perform many different kinds of characters – perform men, perform women. Like a wayang kulit puppeteer (dhalang wayang kulit), she was able to perform any character. I also always perform many different characters.” 


      When I asked Didik about the use of masks in his own choreographies, he said that a mask makes “powerful” the presentation of a character and the transition (perpindahan) from one character to another. “It turns out that to change character is not an easy thing.” Both in Cirebonese masked dance and in Didik’s own choreographies, but not usually in Solo or Yogya, a single dancer impersonates different characters during a single performance, which means that part of the dance are transformations from one character to another.  This is comparable to the puppeteer’s essential skill to “be” a different character at different times and to make swift transitions between the different characters, such as during a dialogue: a dhalang, I was told repeatedly by puppeteers, needs to be able to be gentle and polite at one time, rude at another, or speaking beautiful poetic words immediately followed by obscene curses – and all this needs to be done equally truly and convincingly, “from the heart.” To be a puppeteer or mask dancer is to be someone else than oneself; it is to disappear as oneself so that one can be many people.

      In Didik’s dance Walangkekek, for example, he first represents – with his own made-up face – a young, pretty woman; later he dons a caricature-like mask representing an ugly woman; and, in the end, he dons a mask which shows an old woman with white hair. Changes in dress, dance movements, and music all support each different character. The same effect would not be achieved if there were three dancers: because one is aware that one dancer represents three characters, the dance emphasizes transformations from one character to another, and the fact that one person can wear -- literally and figuratively speaking – different masks; that one person can have three different identities. What makes the dance powerful is the dancer’s ability to let the mask define who he is, and his ability to change who she is as he changes masks.

      Didik’s most striking use of masks is in the Dwimuka dances. Didik has choreographed many variations, but in all of them, Didik acquires “two faces” (dwi-muka) by means of wearing a mask on the back of his head (his “front” face may or may not employ a mask). The audience usually sees only one face at a time, and through his virtuosic body movements Didik is able to make now the front and now the rear appear as his face. The audience is first often fooled into thinking that the dancer’s back is his front, and only when Didik turns do they realize that he has been dancing with his back toward them. The moment when he turns is indescribably disorienting, for before one realizes what has happened, it is as if one were watching a body with two faces and two fronts. On one social occasion where I was present, Didik met a friend who, before he shook hands with Didik, walked around to look at Didik from behind, joking that with Didik you can be never sure if Didik is facing you or showing you his back – a good description of the feeling of uncertainty and disorientation of watching the Dwimuka. Moreover, each of the two “faces” has its own distinct, often sharply contrasting, character, and as Didik turns to face the audience with his other “face,” the bodily disorientation coincides with another surprising and disorienting transformation, the change from one character to another – perhaps a beautiful and graceful woman to a comic figure with a malformed face, grinning at the viewer’s confusion. The dwimuka dances, like Walangkekek discussed earlier, also often involve change of masks during the performance, so that one dance often involves several different characters and many transformations.

      The person that one sees on stage has a strongly articulated identity at any one time, but as soon as the viewer has become comfortable in seeing the body as a character, Didik turns around and shows another, contrasting character. As he turns to reveal another mask and transforms himself another identity, there is the sense that what one thought of as face and identity was the person’s back, not the “real” face, but the same happens to all the faces, all the identities, for there is no distinction between what’s the real face and what’s the back. Didik’s own face, when it is not covered by a mask, becomes just one of the masks, further unsettling the distinction between “the real face” and a mask. Moreover, some masks cover only part of his face and it takes some conscious effort on the part of the viewer to distinguish what is mask and what is face, because one tends to naturally see the two as forming one face.

      The person that one sees on the stage seems to have many different identities, each being worn like a mask – but a mask worn in such a way that it is the face, that it becomes person’s character and “the” identity. The dance plays with the viewer’s prejudice that a person has a single stable identity, by reassuring the viewer first by presenting a clear character, only to show it to be a mask. The dance opens the possibility that a person has multiple identities and that these identities are not fixed, but can be changed like masks. By becoming one with the masks, Didik suggests that these mask-like identities are not superficial disguises, but the real thing.

      Many of the characters in Didik’s dances are socially recognizable types of people, or caricatures of them. Didik challenges the stereotyped appearances while at the same time playing in the realm of appearances. Didik doesn’t offer alternatives and doesn’t shun stereotypical images – quite the opposite: through humor, transformations, and juxtapositions, the perceptions  of people as types, are shattered and ridiculed.

      This is what Didik told me about dwimuka:


“I realized that I experienced... that in my life I have to always wear a mask (harus selalu bertopeng), right? So dwimuka, it’s not disguising (menyamar) oneself – well it’s also disguising, that’s also true, Mas. Because according to my experience I can’t show myself as I am (tidak bisa menunjukan saya apa adanya)– it’s disguise in a broad sense, so for example when one socializes with people, we have to wear a mask (bertopeng), too, a person has to wear a mask, has to place oneself (menempatkan diri). So I feel that we can be without a mask, that [we can say] truly “this is me” only confronting God, only confronting God we are naked, as we ourselves, but if we socialize with people --- if one were not [wearing a mask], one really wouldn’t be safe, ha ha ha!”[9]


      I should note that it was I who suggested, or perhaps forced on Didik, the verb “disguise” (menyamar) to which Didik reacted in the quotation above, and the flow of his thoughts shows that he was not entirely comfortable with the specific connotations of that word. Disguise suggests that there is a real self or face under the mask, but it seems that Didik, who prefers to use the verb bertopeng (to wear/have a topeng), may have resisted the imposition of the word “disguise” because for him, there are no real faces, only topeng, as far as “living in a human society” is concerned.[10] Even when confronting God, there is no mention of a real face, only nakedness and a lack of topeng. 

      The implications of the dance may have universal interest and they are not merely “about” Didik, and one could reduce the individuality of Didik’s thoughts on masks into an example of Javanese philosophical-mystical discussions which often use masks and puppets as metaphors. Yet Didik’s thinking about identity is deeply personal, and it has grown not from thinking in terms of abstract people but from living in a society and interacting with people – it is as one “socializes with humans” (bersosialisasi dengan manusia) that one wears a mask. As I continue to discuss Didik’s dances, I will show that the wisdom of Didik’s dances grows from Didik’s personal experiences at a particular social and historical setting.

Man, Woman

      Didik is a man who always dances in female costumes and impersonates female characters. This aspect of his dances is indivisible from the play with masks and selves discussed above, but it questions a particular aspect of “who am I,” namely a person’s gender identity.

      Off stage, Didik dresses as a man in public. When asked by journalists about this – a trendy question for him as a celebrity – he answers that he is “real man” in life and cross dresses only as a part of his work; that he has had girlfriends in the past and his reason for not getting married is his busy performance schedule, and the fact that he has to travel constantly. Despite this assertion, many people suspect or are convinced that he is gay. In this section, I will focus on his cross-gender performance, and I will briefly return to the possibility that Didik is gay in the next section.

      While he doesn’t dress as a woman off stage, Didik, in his dress, behaviour, and interests, is distinctly effeminate. As a little boy, he was interested in activities that are conventionally thought to be for girls -- playing with dolls, sewing, painting, and dancing -- and preferred associating with girls rather than boys. His grandmother was quite happy to buy him skirts and girls’ dresses for him to dance in. He described to me how impressed he was with the golek, a three-dimensional rod puppet of a beautiful woman dancing at the end of a shadow puppet performance, which he often watched as a child with his grandfather. Later, as a dance student at the Yogyakarta dance academy, he always excelled at traditional female dances, regularly getting better marks than his female classmates, while he was never good at impersonating the most “macho” (gagah) male characters.

      Many people, including professional dancers, say that Didik is able to present the essence of female dances better than most female dancers. When I asked Didik about this, he said that he heard someone else’s explanation that he liked:


“A man can play a female character better than a woman, because for a woman it is already natural, but if a woman performs a male role [which, by the way, is common in traditional Javanese dance] or a male performs female role, that’s something that needs special attention and something extra, so that [the representation] is more careful/thorough. [....] it’s researched. But a woman doesn’t think about it because it’s already natural [....]—so perhaps it’s because of that care [or careful attention or research: ketelitian].” 


      Didik’s effeminate behaviour and interests have shaped people’s attitude to him and his experience of “socializing with humans.”  In Javanese society today, there is a tendency to see a man who is strongly masculine as “normal,” and any effeminate marks as abnormal or deviant. Many people consider dance to be for girls and not for boys. One of my Javanese relatives, for example, has a son who has repeatedly expressed strong desire to learn traditional Javanese dance, but his father has not allowed him to on the grounds that dance is for girls and that it would make the boy effeminate or “like a banci” (term for transsexuals and gays with derogatory connotations). Didik also notes that when he was in school, dancing was considered an activity appropriate for girls, and he was ridiculed by boys because of his involvement in performing arts.[11] I should note that this attitude may be a relatively recent development in Javanese culture. The most refined and powerful ideal heroes in wayang, such as Arjuna, are extremely effeminate, and in dance drama are usually performed by women. It seems that such an effeminate male was an important version of the ideal man in the past, but today when people talk about role models, they tend to prefer the more masculine males, like Bima, Gathotkaca, or Baladewa. Ben Anderson has noted already in the 1960s that the more masculine wayang characters were displacing the refined, more effeminate characters as the Javanese ideals.[12] In any case, during his lifetime, Didik’s effeminate behaviour has been typically seen as deviant.

      When he was in school, Didik was ridiculed and beaten by boys, which made him avoid their company. He reacted to this not by conforming, but by working hard at his “female” activities such as painting and dance, and even as a child he became well known as a performer of female dances and was often invited to perform. He was locally famous and admired, but at the same time ridiculed and laughed at. He described to me that when he was performing, people would walk from many villages to see his performance, but when he was walking home after performing, some people would laugh at him and call him by a female name. Even though Didik’s status as a respected dancer makes him less vulnerable today, this ambiguous attitude is still present.

      As an example, let me describe the audience reaction at a performance he gave at a village near Blora in East Java. When Didik first appeared on the stage, his mere appearance caused giggles. Didik uses cross-dressing for comic effect and the audience appreciates it, but at the same time there was at least a touch of derision in the spectators’ initial reaction, and Didik confirmed to me that he often feels the same. This was true especially about the rows of women all dressed basically in the same manner as the archetypal mother figures (ibu-ibu) – a perfect picture of the conformity to the stereotype of Javanese woman. When Didik began to dance, the feeling gradually but almost palpably changed. The dance was still punctuated by audience laughter at Didik’s dance jokes, but the ibu-ibu now began to watch Didik’s movements with an intense attention and focus, like that of a student watching his teacher, or an artist watching a respected fellow artist. They were not giggling to each other anymore but were paying attention only to him, and many of them began to imitate Didik’s graceful movements with their hands. This was in a rural area where the most popular entertainment was popular dance parties (tayuban), and one could see that all of those present were very familiar with traditional dance. Didik was dancing Walangkekek, which features an East Javanese style of dance which is not too distant from the style in the area of the performance that I am describing, so the local audience could appreciate Didik’s skill. Later in the performance, Didik acted on the stage as if he were the female dancer at a tayuban and he thus danced with the village head (who, I was told quietly, was a tayuban addict), and again Didik’s feminine grace and skill clearly impressed all viewers, including the ibu-ibu. Didik told me later that he especially enjoyed himself because he was accompanied by an excellent local drummer. Indeed, the feeling of the whole event changed from a rather formal, official event to a relaxed, lively village party. In any case, the change of feeling on the part of the ibu-ibu – from amused but somewhat derisive giggles to genuine admiration and appreciation – is quite typical of people’s reaction to Didik’s practice of impersonating female characters.

      Even beyond dance, Didik has challenged boundaries between the sexes by being involved in activities that are traditionally female, and he has excelled in them to become “better than a woman” but because of his success also encountered resistance. While Didik is known as a make-up artist whose work supports his work as a dancer and choreographer, he has also studied the complex art of make-up for Javanese brides. In 1977, he participated in a competition, and while he was the only man and his competitors were all professionals in the field, he won the first prize. The following year, when he wanted to participate again, he was refused entry because he was a man.[13]

      In her thesis on Didik, Daruni, also a dancer who collaborated with Didik, comments:


“Didik, because his bearing tends to be feminine, has often been the object of insults and ridicule. The reaction that took place in his self was an effervesce of desire to work as well as he could in his field. He was searching for the dance that would be right for him and for a stylistic identity. From the ridicule and insults emerged Didik’s creativity, which was also stimulated by his bodily condition, [a body] which is flexible and unique.”[14] 


By excelling as a dancer and by showing female beauty in his dance with such skill and feeling that it makes people admire him, Didik has not only shown persistence in being himself –herself, that is -- but he also asserted that he does not have to follow the stereotype of a man. By resorting to art, he is not simply escaping from the issue, from the ridicule that he was facing, but rather asserting, in a quietly powerful way, his own truth, and challenging convention and stereotype. One’s identity and role in life is to a great extent defined by whether one is a man or woman. By cross-dressing, and by dancing female dances “better than a woman,” Didik transgresses against this basic social distinction and challenges it, and the elegance with which he does this, and the beauty of his feminine movements, make this challenge powerful. As will become apparent later, the theme that connects this aspect of Didik’s dance and personality to other aspects is not a focus on gender, but the transgression against conventions and societal distinctions and the challenge of stereotypes.

      When Didik dances a female dance, he is not simply “like a woman”; it is precisely the fact that he is a man that gives his performance a strange and unsettling magic, and that makes it challenge the distinction between a man and a woman. While, just like when he wears his masks, he puts his soul (menjiwai) into being a woman, in his jokes he plays with the distinction – as when (this is a repeated joke) his wig and traditional hair bun (the almost fetishistic symbol of traditional Javanese womanhood)[15] falls and reveals his shortly trimmed skull (Daruni comments that “the figure/character of gentle, weak Javanese girl in traditional dress is destroyed because she loses her hair bun”).[16]

Chinese, Javanese

      Didik is famous as a man who dances female dances, and this is superficially discussed ad nauseam in the hundreds of newspaper articles about him. There is another aspect of his life experience that seems no less important, but that is known to only a few people, and is never mentioned in the media: he is of a mixed Chinese-Javanese descent, which in Java generally means to be “Chinese”. There is widespread racism in Java, a sense that people of Chinese descent, even though they may have lived in Java for many generations, are different, un-Javanese, and there is a widely believed stereotype of the Chinese as being untrustworthy, as being merely interested in money and business, and as being unable to speak Javanese and follow the conventions of Javanese etiquette. It is against this background that it is interesting to see Didik’s excellence in Javanese dance, which, people in Java often say, involves expressing the essence of Javanese etiquette, feeling, and life philosophy, and presenting ideal Javanese characters. I suggest that it is another way in which Didik challenges stereotypes, this time racist or ethnographic ones. I should note that historically the people of Chinese descent in Java have appreciated and strongly supported Javanese arts, many of them have been connoisseurs of Javanese arts, and all in all they have played an important and constructive role in the development of Javanese arts.[17] In some cases, they were also actively involved with Javanese arts, such as in the case of dance drama (wayang orang) troupes with all-Chinese cast. However, today these facts are somehow not part of the Javanese perception of  “the Chinese.”

      Kwee Tjoen An -- Didik’s name then -- grew up under the strong influence of his Chinese grandfather with whom he lived, Tjoen An’s Javanese grandmother, and Javanese mother—as he put, “since I was little, I was formed in two cultures – one strongly Chinese, and one strongly Javanese.” He said that while in many ways the cultures are “actually the same,” the ceremonial behaviour is different, and he remembered using Chinese greetings and celebrating Chinese New Year. Tjoen An also liked to watch the Chinese hand-puppet theater, known in Java as potehi, and he was often performing a home-made children’s version of it for his Javanese and Chinese friends at his home – with eating plates used for sound-effects, and puppet heads carved by his friend. His grandfather was telling him Chinese stories but also often took him to tayuban and wayang kulit (Didik said his grandfather was a “wayang kulit maniac”), and Tjoen An’s mother was a kethoprak fan (kethoprak is a traditional drama featuring much dance and gamelan music) and often took him to those performances. Didik said that he liked Javanese arts not because he tried to or because he was forced to, but because he grew up with them and because his mother and grandparents liked them. He remembered:


“My grandfather was also heavy kethoprak fan, and at that time there was a kethoprak series on the radio telling the story of Sudiroprono, which is a translation of the Chinese story Chin Chin Gui. It was a long series; it went on for several years. Well, my grandfather always listened to that because he knew the story of Chin Chin Gui, he told me that story before, and [in the Javanese kethoprak] Chin Chin Gui was Sudiroprono, Wan Le Wa was Wariati, Sintisan was Sutrisno – and I always listened to that with my grandfather.”


      But this rich and peaceful coexistence of the two cultures is only part of the story. When Tjoen An was little, his grandfather would forbid him to play with Javanese children and scold him when Tjoen An invited them to his home, so Tjoen An had to wait until his grandfather was asleep (as Didik said, he waited until he heard his grandfather snoring, “krrrrrrr - - - krrrrrrrr”) and only then he sneaked out to play. He described his experiences when he went to junior high school:


“I had to go to state school, even though most Chinese went to the Christian school in my town of Temanggung. It was something frightening for me, because in the whole school I was the only Chinese. And boys would often shout at me, throw stones at me, they called me ‘Chinese!’, and so on, and they rarely associated with me. Because then I still had a Chinese name, so they rarely associated with me, only very few wanted to associate with me. That was my experience. And I tried to play with them, because I felt I am an Indonesian – well, at that time I didn’t think that, I just wanted to have friends and to play, as a child. But I loved very much Javanese arts and it wasn’t a problem for me to study them. And precisely after I mastered different dances, many people were surprised in the Temanggung community, “Eh! He is a Chinese and yet he can dance!” (‘E, uwonge wong Cina kok pinter joged!’) , “How come—a Chinese, and his Javanese dance is good!” (Cina kok jogete Jawa apik!). That was something astonishing, something strange. It’s like when a white person can dance or play gamelan.”


      In his later life up to now, he would also hear derogatory comments by those who found out that he is of Chinese descent. He also said that for example when one of his neighbors, previously friendly, learned that he comes from a Chinese family he would become suddenly cold to him. Didik says he feels also discriminated against by the administrative system – for example, when he extends his passport, he, as a Chinese, has to pay higher fees and go through a more difficult process than other Indonesians.

      Didik’s commercial success has been sometimes ascribed to the fact that he is a Chinese.  Said Didik:


“Even at ASTI (the dance academy) some people were saying, “Oh, he is a Chinese.” For example, my dance studio was a success, my business was a success, and they talked about it, saying that it was successful because I was Chinese. Why does it have to be like that? It brings back painful memories. [...] Sometimes I think about this: The people from Padang often come here and their businesses are successful. They are in a minority. Maybe Chinese people who came here were also successful because they are a minority: they are successful because they are in a difficult situation and they have to work hard. So it’s not a matter of descent.”


      As I mentioned above, at the time of writing Didik doesn’t publicly reveal his Chinese heritage and the wider public is not aware of it. When I was talking to Didik about this in December 2003, he said that a journalist was preparing a popular publication about Didik, and Didik was uncertain whether to disclose his Chinese heritage to him and to the public for fear that it would change people’s attitude to him.

      Newspaper articles as well as information published by Didik often mention that Didik Nini Thowok‘s “original” name is Didik Hadiprayitno. In fact, he adopted this “original” name only as a teenager when the New Order government began to require that all Chinese adopt Javanese names, and when, as Didik put it, “Chinese culture began to be made not to exist again (budaya Cina mulai nggak dieksiskan lagi).” Didik’s multiple names, with the original Chinese name concealed by Javanese “real” and a stage names, are rather like multiple masks and identities in his dances.

      The most obvious difference between Didik’s gender identities and his ethnic identities is that while in his art, and to some extent in his life, Didik openly transgresses gender stereotypes, his Chinese identity is concealed from the wider public in life and doesn’t openly figure in his dance. This wasn’t always true, but I would argue that even today, when his Chinese identity is hidden, his experiences as an Indonesian-Chinese profoundly shape his art. What shows is not anything specifically Chinese, but rather his experience as someone who in life has to wear a mask to conceal his face and someone who has been bothered by being defined by a single face, a single ethnic identity, a single stereotype, “the Chinese.” While Didik doesn’t openly criticize the symptoms of racism, by his ability to “be” many different characters and to have many different faces during a single dance he challenges the idea that a person is predestined to have a single, fixed identity, and attacks the underlying logic of thinking about people in terms of ethnic stereotypes. The surprises and the resulting uncertainty are not unlike when people saw the Chinese boy and were astonished that he could dance Javanese dance, or when they see that Didik, a man, can be an excellent female dancer.

      If Didik is a gay, as many people believe, there may be another point to be made here. Perhaps his gay identity is like his Chinese identity in that it is something that he hides and that compels him to “wear a mask” in public life. It would be then another thing, like his Chinese-ness, that resonates, and is in some ways “behind”, his play of masks on stage.[18] Didik never told me whether he is gay or not and never raised the issue, and I have never asked him either. At this point, I rather like the fact that I am not sure – it reminds me that when one is facing someone – or when one writes a paper such as this one -- one is always facing only one of the person’s many masks, while being surrounded by rumours about what is behind the mask. 

Juxtaposing regional/ethnic dance styles

      The question of ethnic identity and racism discussed in the previous section needs to be related to a prominent feature of Didik’s dances: the juxtaposition of different regional styles in many of his dances. He has studied dance from different parts of West and East Java, Bali, and Japan, and also briefly Indian and Spanish dance. The surprises and transformations that characterize his dances include transitions from one dance style to another, sometimes concurrent with changes of music, masks, and costumes. Didik doesn’t only combine references and dance segments from other traditions, but also, for example, he may wear a mask inspired by a Balinese mask while his dance movements are inspired by the West Javanese jaipongan dance. Some of the tricks and techniques featured in his dances may be also inspired by other traditions. For example, the changes of costume in which an outer layer is taken off and lower layer is revealed, a transformation that coincides with the transformation from one character to another, derives from the Japanese kabuki theatre.

      As I have said while discussing Didik’s dances in relation to the contemporary Javanese performing arts landscape, the interest in other regional styles is a widespread phenomenon today, but Didik’s interest is distinguished by the seriousness with which he has studied other dance styles, often going to live to different parts of Indonesia and the world and working hard with the best teachers available. He stands out by often thanking his teachers (usually unknown traditional artists) at his performances and in interviews with journalists, and when he performs with traditional village artists who might otherwise remain anonymous, he also publicly compliments and thanks them. The admiration for traditional arts and artists is no doubt one motivation for Didik to learn from them.

      I have described above Tjoen An’s exposure to a variety of (Central) Javanese and Chinese arts. But in remembering his childhood, he also described how he was exposed to other arts. He liked to watch the East Javanese drama ludruk (which, incidentally, involves transvestite actor-dancers), and when a ludruk troupe visited Temanggung, he would watch through holes in a fence since he didn’t have money to pay for a ticket. There was also someone in Temanggung who performed “Balinese dance” as it is performed in the Javanese kethoprak theater in a play that represents a Balinese hero, and Didik studied it with him. (While Didik remembers this fondly, he also says it amuses him after he has studied dance in Bali, because he has become aware that the dance he learned as a child was quite remote from what he would later learn in Bali). Didik also told me how his mother loved to watch Indian films, so he was exposed to Indian films “since [he] was in the womb,” and, as he put it, he “inherited” his mother’s passion for Indian films. According to Daruni, Tjoen An’s mother liked to watch films with many dance scenes, for which, of course, Indian films are famous.[19] Didik told me that he has always felt that it was not a problem for him to understand the feeling of Indian dance.  It is interesting to listen to how Didik talks about Indian dance: it is not something foreign and exotic, but something that he “inherited,” something that is as familiar as Javanese dance.

      So, one can partly explain Didik’s interest in many regional styles by his exposure to more than one regional style as a child. However, that still doesn’t explain why most Javanese dancers are not as open to learning other regional styles as Didik. When I asked Didik, he said that “perhaps it’s because I am mixed (karena saya kan campur)– there is the Javanese element, and there is the Chinese element,” and he began to talk about his Chinese and Javanese heritage – “since I was little, I was shaped in two cultures, one strongly Chinese and one strongly Javanese.”  Thus, while Chinese identity itself is not directly revealed in his dances, Didik connects the variety of regional styles that he works in to his experience as a Chinese-Javanese.

      His dances feature surprises when an Indian character, for example, suddenly changes into a Javanese character. In Dwimuka dances, sometimes the mask on the front is in a different tradition than on the back, and the turn described previously involves a sudden and disorienting change from the dancer being, for example, a “Javanese” into a “Japanese.” His costume changes also often involve change from one regional or ethnic style to another. His dance Dwimuka Jepindo-Bali-Walangkekek, involves first a Dwimuka section in which Didik alternates between “being” Indonesian (with his back mask) and Japanese (with his front mask) -- hence Jep-Indo, short for Jepang-Indonesia -- then changes costume to dance a Balinese legong dance, and finally changes to East Javanese dance.

      His dances do not represent Chinese ethnicity specifically, but instead challenge the very idea of ethnic identity and the idea that one’s ancestry decides and delimits who one is. The dancer that one sees on the stage teases people by appearing to fit a category for a moment – “Indian”, “Balinese, “Javanese” – only to turn around and shatter that way of seeing. He brings out people’s prejudices and stereotyping vision only to laugh at them.

      Dance is a powerful medium to do it, since a dance style is an expression of style of being, of who one is. Dancing the dance of a different culture well is extremely difficult, like speaking a foreign language like a native. Claire Holt opens her chapter on Indonesian traditional dance with this motto: “Show me how you dance and I’ll know where you are from...”[20] Didik’s dances seem to answer: “Ha ha ha!”

      One may ask: How Balinese is Didik’s Balinese dance? How good is his Japanese Noh dance by Japanese professional standards? It seems that Didik has been able earn the respect of his teachers and fellow dancers in different parts of Indonesia and the world by his dedication, strong will, and hard work, and that they have come to respect him. Aside from any qualitative judgment, Didik’s attitude cannot be discounted and that ultimately comes through in his performances as well as his life: his profound, genuine respect for other traditions, and in particular his teachers, proven by the great effort put into learning from them, and his genuine desire to go beyond mediocre imitations, to learn from others, and expand the possibilities of his performances. Without becoming a “perfect” Balinese or “perfect” Japanese – that is, without becoming another petrified stereotype -- Didik puts at risk the very notion of self being defined by an ethnic label, indeed the notion of identity itself, by confusing people’s visions and categories and treating identities like masks – and just as seriously as he treats masks. Jim Siegel writes that identity is not “achieved, negotiated, crafted, and in other ways a product of the self which, knowingly following its interest, invents itself,“ but “to find a place of self-definition is to be thrown off balance unless one can be convincingly self-deceiving.”[21] Didik’s identity is never achieved, it doesn’t “stick,” and his dance reaches no conclusion that would put the viewers at ease. Instead, his dance consists in constantly throwing perceptions of self off balance and in breaching socially established mental boundaries.

      In an interview with Laurie Ross, Didik said:


“If we have an open heart, we can receive anything. And, of course, it is important in the spiritual way. When I studied in Cirebon I wanted to be adopted by the Cirebonese people: to learn how they eat, about the food they enjoy, about their way of life, about respect for their teachers. This kind of process is special. When I open my heart I forget my identity, I am nothing. I am just zero. Zero. When I went to Cirebon, I let things enter me through the process of nature. And when I studied in Bali, I became zero again. I learned Balinese tradition, I ate Balinese food, I participated in many ceremonies, etc. This is so important, but not everybody is willing to do this. [...] For example, when I studied Japanese dance in Japan, nobody knew me there. I had to be ‘zero’ again. Also, when I studied Beskalan Putri Malangan in East Java in 2001. When I invited my teacher to come to Yogya, I was ‘zero’ again. I was very happy to be zero. [...] When I speak of ‘zero,’ I am speaking of emptiness. If we are empty, we have a place for our expression.”[22]


      It is because Didik is “nothing, zero,” because he is able to “forget his identity, that he is able to be open to other traditions and learn, and with every new tradition he learns, he becomes “nothing, zero” again. His identities are like his masks in the way he uses them in his dances: worn seriously to the extent that he becomes one with them, adopts their character and forgets his identity, yet none of them permanently claims that nothing, the emptiness, the openness that he is. Note also that this is not an apathetic emptiness or openness, for this emptiness is at the same time the intense love for the arts and for other people that, as Didik always insists, is the reason for learning from others.

Didik’s body:  self and the (un)natural

      A striking feature of Didik’s dances is his unusual work with his body, described well by Daruni as being tidak wajar or diluar kewajaran, diluar sifat normal (“unnatural,” “improper,” or “outside the natural”) and movements in which his body is “as if without bones” (seakan tanpa tulang).[23]  When Didik dances with his back toward the audience but it appears as if he were facing them, when it seems that he has tied his arms into a knot, or when his hands are flapping loosely like pieces of cloth, are a few examples. While these movements are primarily comic and laughter is the most visible reaction, in seeing them the viewers experience a momentary shock and a strange feeling of seeing something that one knows is impossible – even a bodily discomfort, almost as when one sees a human body mutilated.

      The conventions, prejudices, and stereotypes concerning the human body and its behavior are among the most basic and most deeply ingrained in culturally conditioned perceptual frameworks, and transgressing those conventions, transgressing what is considered normal with respect to human body, is especially effective – striking, revolting, titillating -- if one wants to rebel against conventions and prejudices. It is a way to make social and cultural norms move one’s stomach. Didik’s work with his body contributes to the general feeling of disorientation generated by his dances, and to the many physical and mental shocks to which the audience is subjected. If, together with face and dress, the human body is the physical aspect of a self and inextricable from that self, Didik’s protean body evades “natural laws” and, like everything about Didik’s dances, defies fixedness and prefers to constantly and unexpectedly change. It rebels against preconceived notions about what a body is, how it works, and what can be done with it, defying and ridiculing any conceptual and perceptual framework, even the framework of the bones of the skeleton, as just another prejudice. Didik’s use of masks and female impersonation are also such transgressions against physical (but ever cultural) normality and conventional perceptual frameworks, and the “unnatural” movements only add to the number of ways in which Didik disturbs and confuses conventional ways of seeing and notions about what is normal and natural. In this sense, the “unnatural” movements work together with, and support, the attack on ways of seeing in terms of gender and ethnicity discussed earlier: his ability to move in apparently impossible ways physically parallels doing the apparently impossible socially and culturally, such as a man dancing like a woman, or a “Chinese” dancing like a Javanese.

      Daruni points out that Didik’s dances are best performed by Didik himself, and she quotes Didik saying that he indeed composed them for himself to suit his bodily condition and capabilities.[24] Two Javanese dancers told me that they do not like Didik’s dances, and when I asked why, they said it was because they can’t perform them themselves; the dances are only good when they are performed by Didik. The individual uniqueness of the body shows in another way how Didik’s dances are, in many ways, about him; yet they show him to be anyone and no-one, impossible to describe in terms of conventional categories, and transcending any category into which people may try to fit him. His body, too, is a “zero”, an emptiness, a blank slate, a not-body – it doesn’t move in a way that one expects human body to move, but it seems to be able to move in any way at all. Didik’s body is the very opposite of a classical Greek statue, which is final perfection, perfect wholeness, timeless balance, the ideal achieved: Didik’s elastic, “boneless” body and “self” is not an achieved timeless state, but a kind of aimless rebellion against labels and prejudices, against content, constantly thrown off balance in a play, struggle, juggling with masks and emptiness.

       In some ways, his body is like a puppet with replaceable heads. Watching Didik on stage is often like watching a puppet that comes to life – always a somewhat mysterious, almost magical experience. Several dances that he has choreographed include play with puppets and other objects that cross the boundary between life and death.  Interestingly, the dance for which he became famous in the first place and from which he takes his stage name, Nini Thowok, choreographed by his friend, shows the practice of making a simple figure (Nini Thowok) which is entered by a spirit (in this dance, Didik represented the woman who calls the spirit to enter into the figure) – in other words, it represents magical animation of a dead object. His own dances include Tari Boneka, or Puppet Dance, in which “the movements of a puppet, which is a dead thing [benda mati], are imitated so that the stiff and limited motions appear strange and funny”.[25] In Tari Tengkorak, or Skeleton dance, Didik dons a black costume with a skeleton painted on it with a special paint, and his movements imitate that of a skeleton. He performed this dance in ultraviolet light in which only the special paint was visible so that it appeared as if it were the skeleton dancing.[26] A skeleton is a dead object that was once alive, something that has crossed the boundary between life and death, and in the dance this “dead thing” strangely comes alive, like a spooky puppet. In the more recent Pancasari, Didik represents five different characters, including one who moves in jagged, angular motions like a robot or automaton (another close relative of the puppet), then he represents the Javanese wooden golek puppet, and later the trained monkey that can wear a mask and human dress and do all kinds of tricks in a popular street entertainment. But even in his other dances, especially when he wears a mask, he appears rather like a puppet. For example, in the Dwimuka dance, when he “faces” the audience with his back, what one sees is a body, dominated by a mask, that in its shape and movement is strangely like and unlike a human body, and the impression that one is watching a puppet is particularly strong.

      In Central Java, many dances are strongly influenced by puppet theatre, and in some ways imitate puppets and puppet theater: for example, the golek dance, especially in the Yogyakarta tradition, involves angular movements resembling those of the golek puppet, while wayang wong, the wayang in which human actors perform, adopts many conventions from the shadow puppet theatre. I have discussed earlier the proximity between puppet theater and masked dance in the case of the Cirebonese tradition which Didik studied. But Didik takes this puppet-likeness even further. Simply putting on a mask brings a person closer to a puppet, not only in the sense that he or she becomes someone else, but also in the sense that what represents this other person is not simply a human body, but an object combined with the human body. It is combined in such a way that the object takes the central place of the human body, the face, the site of the primary signs of life -- sight, speech, voice, and facial expression -- and the part of the human body which plays a primary role in defining a persons identity.[27] While the person “inside” the mask gives it life, the body, because of the importance of the face, is in some ways dominated and defined by the mask (especially when the mask is worn in such a way that the mask and the body “become one”). As such, the mask-body comes closer to being a puppet – a thing that is perceived as both a dead object and as alive in performance in a strange “double vision,” a phenomenon extensively discussed by theorists of puppet theatre. 

      Puppets, like Didik, often play on people’s perceptions by appearing to be like humans yet they are able to do things that humans cannot – monsters and supernatural beings can be easily represented with puppets, which, rather like Didik’s body, aren’t bound by “natural” laws; they can fly, take off their head, and do all kinds of magical acts. Various acts in which a puppet’s body is “unnaturally” transformed, moved in “unnatural” ways, and so on, are standard in puppet theatres around the world. By doing the unnatural with his body, and by wearing a mask which further adds to the sense that what one sees is not a human being but a kind of object resembling it, Didik approaches puppet – he moves on the border between being human and being and object. Like a good puppeteer, Didik plays in the liminal space between being a human being and being an object, a space in which he is strangely both and in which he moves back and forth between one and the other, and exploits its possibilities. By becoming a puppet or skeleton that strangely moves on its own or by moving back and forth between being seen as a dead object and a living being, Didik plays on people’s perceptual distinctions between dead objects and living beings and between human and inhuman, and disturbs those distinctions.

      How does this relate to other aspects of his work and his life? To see a person as someone with a single, fixed, stable, recognizable identity –“a Chinese” or “a Javanese” or “a gay” or “a real man” or “assistant professor” -- is to move towards turning him or her into an innate, dead object, it is to take away his or her life, agency, power to move, transform oneself, and react. It is an act of objectification and dehumanization. I have discussed how Didik disturbs that way of seeing, and here I suggest that in playing with people’s distinction living being/dead object and human/inhuman, Didik, in yet another way, attacks, ridicules, and upsets people’s ways of seeing. Didik plays with people’s tendency to objectify others, to take away their life, to reduce them into dead stability and predictability. The astonishment with which one watches a person move like a puppet, or a skeleton like a living being, is like the astonishment in which people watch a Chinese boy dance like a Javanese girl.


      Here scholarship can take a cue from dance. An advantage of encountering people as individual living beings, rather than as stable specimens of a class, is that there is a better chance for us to see -- though no guarantee -- that not only is each person different from the other and thus cannot be fully understood as a specimen of a monolithic category (member of an ethnic group, exponent of a tradition, etc.), but also that each person is multiple, changing, unstable, an emptiness with many masks. Categorization is always part of human thinking, socializing, and self-imagining, and just as Didik works with masks and types, so categories -- as human products, tools, and weapons -- need to be looked at and played with, if only to upset them. Moreover, to learn a little about who someone like Didik is, one needs to see how he plays with, reacts to, struggles with, conforms to or not, the categories in the society in which he lives. Yet, while the focus on individual living beings provides only a particular limited perspective, its contribution may be to upset and disorient scholarly (and political) categories and ways of thinking that objectify and dehumanize people by reducing them into predictable, fixed, objectified specimens of types, groups, races, classes, and by attaching fixed labels to them. When Didik says through his dances “I am zero” he negates whatever such scholarly or political discourse may say about him, and creates a space, an emptiness, in which he can live, change, and laugh.

Laughter as conclusion

      Many of the issues discussed so far beg to be related to serious social and cultural issues in the study of Indonesia, such as the racism against, and persecution of, Indonesians of Chinese descent, conservative, stereotyping ways of thinking about gender roles, and the objectification and dehumanization of people. Didik’s dance seems apolitical in that it does not directly criticize the government, political parties, or individual politicians, or even discriminatory laws and social ills such as racism. What it does, as I have tried to show, is to challenge widespread prejudices in Javanese society and the screwed logic and empowered stupidity that, in the convincing masks of “common sense,” “our values,” “culture,” “tradition,” and so on, are behind persecution and discrimination. Behind the dances, there is also a more universal human wisdom, or a rebellion, derived from Didik’s individual experiences: about who one is or is not, and about what it means to “be” someone and to have an identity.

      But the different issues raised and prejudices attacked by Didik’s dances do not appear in the form of philosophical statements, and certainly they are not “translations” of language statements into dance. Rather than criticizing people with a serious face, rather than making philosophical points, rather than achieving or defining an identity, Didik’s dances startle people, challenge their perception, disorient them, and make them laugh. The result is great, absorbing, memorable art, full of life and energy. The greatest danger of this paper is that it will be read as reducing the dance into its interpretations (whether my own or even Didik’s reflections), as explaining, “what the artist wanted to say” (as my much despised Czech literature teacher in primary school used to say). What I hope to have done, rather, is to point to some of the things that happen in the dance, to how the dance plays with people’s perception, and how what happens in the dance and the play with perception are connected to Didik’s life experience. I am not speaking about direct, simple relation like when one says “this means this” or “this causes that”; rather, it is a matter of parallels, resonances, and sympathetic vibrations between what happens in dance and in life, and continuities between watching a dance and making sense of and orienting oneself in the world. The dance’s resonance with life and the living forces in it, without being labeled, described and interpreted, adds to the power of the dance. Laughter, tears, or an upset stomach will be always a better reaction than an academic paper (but an academic paper may help to upset the stomach).

      When, at the end of certain dances, Didik – in the mask of an the old woman – laughs at the audience, sometimes pointing her finger at them, she curiously reverses their places: he, the comedian, is heartily laughing at them. If one thinks back to the dance, one may realize that throughout the whole dance Didik is laughing at “them” – us, me – and “they” not quite consciously join her in laughing at themselves. What one sees on the stage are the conventional distinction, human types, and human behaviour, always established for a moment only to be shattered and ridiculed a moment later. People are made to laugh at their ways of seeing, categories, and notions of normality. Didik’s art works, not with rational concepts and arguments, but at a level of perception that is physical and not fully conscious; it attacks the realms of human perception and consciousness where prejudices about what is normal and natural are ingrained.

      The effects of Didik’s dance are in the nature of spontaneous laughter – physical, disruptive, disorienting, beyond the decorum of rational verbal argument. It is only the scholar’s cruel fate to reduce dance and laughter into significance.


* Didik Nini Thowok and his art is the inspiration behind this essay, and I feel fortunate to see him dance and learn to know him, but I am also very grateful to him for all his help and kindness when I was preparing this essay. He answered my questions, provided essential materials, invited me to his performances, and in other ways has been extremely helpful. While I have known Didik for a number of years, the research for this paper was conducted in December 2003 and in 2004. Previous versions of this paper have been presented at the Alliance Francaise in Chiang Mai, May 2004, and at the Performance Studies International conference in Singapore, June 2004.

[1] The recent collection of articles on wayang exemplifies this new trend. See Jan Mrázek, ed., Puppet Theater in Contemporary Indonesia: New Approaches to performance Events, Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia 50 (Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan: Ann Arbor 2002), In Indonesia, there are a number of interesting unpublished thesis on the lives of individual traditional artists. The biography of Didik Nini Thowok is a good example: Daruni, “Kehadiran Didik Hadiprayitno di Dunia Tari: Sebuah Biografi (1954-...)”, S-2 thesis, Universitas Gadjah Mada, 1996. In the study of visual art or “material culture,” Janet Hoskins has moved in a similar direction with her notion of “biographic objects.”

[2] This essay is neither Didik’s biography, nor does it try to explore all the aspects of Didik’s artistic activities and his life. For a good biography of Didik up to 1996 in Indonesian, unpublished, see Daruni, “Kehadiran Didik Hadiprayitno”. A new popular book on Didik is being prepared by the Indonesian journalist Harry Gendut Janarto, and it should be published by the end of 2004. Didik’s website, www.didikninithowok.info, also provides some info and images. A DVD with a number of Didik’s dances has been published by him, and is available from him. Check either  his website or write to Didik Nini Thowok, Natya Lakshita, Kav. 7, Jl. Godean Km 2,8, Yogyakarta 55182, Indonesia, fax (62-274) 586050.

[3] Daruni, “Kehadiran,” p.77.

[4] Jan Mrázek, “Javanese wayang kulit in the times of comedy,”

[5] Jan Mrázek,

[6] This and other quotations and references to Didik’s statements below, unless otherwise indicated, are from interviews and informal discussions with Didik in December 2003.

[7] Prince Dhani Nivat, "The Shadow-Play as a Possible Origin of the Masked Play," Journal of the Siam Society 37, I (October 1948).

[8] I am indebted to Matthew Cohen for this information. 

[9] When I asked him whether when he first began composing a dwimuka dance he was already thinking about the dance that way, he said, “No, not yet, but after I performed it, I began to be conscious of it.”

[10] While “mask” is the easiest translation of topeng, topeng does not have the exactly same connotations as mask. While in English mask evokes disguising and  “covering up,” and the verb “to mask” can mean to cover something up so that it is not visible (like with a masking tape), in Javanese and Indonesian when topeng is verbalized it means to “dance with mask” (nopeng in Javanese),  “make masks” (menopeng in Indonesian), or “have or wear a mask” (bertopeng) thus in neither case having the broader connotation of disguise, covering, making invisible.

[11]Daruni, “Kehadiran Didik,” p.20

[12] Benedict R.O’G. Anderson, Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese, second edition (Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, Cornell University: Ithaca, NY, 1996), p.43.

[13] “Mas Didik Merias Pengatin Wanita,” Femina, 23. Juni, 1981, pp.27 and  94.

[14] Daruni, “Kehadiran,” p.39.

[15] The Javanese (Yogyanese) artist Nindityo Adipurnomo has extensively used the Javanese hair bun as symbol and object of obsession in his art. His images include the series “Portrait of a Javanese man,” in which the hair bun replaces a man’s face or in other works his genitals.

[16] Daruni, “Kehadiran,” p.87.

[17] See, e.g., Sumarsam, Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1992), 83-89.

[18] Commenting on my paper (p.c.), Goenawan Mohammad said that he thinks that Didik is gay and that it may be this aspect of his personality that he masks (Goenawan said “represses”).

[19] Daruni, “Kehadiran,” p.18.

[20] Claire Holt, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change (Cornell University: Ithaca 1967),  p.97

[21] James T. Siegel, Fetish, Recognition, Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p.9.

[22] Interview with Didik by Laurie Ross, forthcoming in Asian Theatre Journal in 2005.

[23] Daruni, “Kehadiran,” p.80 and 77.

[24] Daruni, “Kehadiran, p. 77.

[25] Daruni, “Kehadiran,” p.71.

[26] Daruni, “Kehadiran,” p. 38.

[27] Cf. the focus on face in portraits, or the fact that in puppet theatre traditions where puppets have multiple removable heads, it is the head that gives the puppet its most specific identity, or, of course, the fact that the mask, such a powerful means to transform a person, replaces the face rather than another body part