Wayang Orang Star Enjoys Her Second Act
Mamiek Kies Slamet never wanted to be a dancer or an actress. Born in 1954 as the youngest child in a family of traveling wayang orang performers, her early life revolved around working at the troupe’s makeshift theater and helping stage the elaborate shows that came to life at night. In the beginning, it was not a life that Mamiek wanted for herself, but her passion blossomed, even in the face of tragedy.
Mamiek’s family was part of a traditional troupe that made its living performing in different cities across Indonesia, but she was reluctant to join them on stage. In 1968, however, as Mamiek’s mother was performing with a group called Sri Waluyo and her father was roaming Sumatra with another traveling troupe, the teenager saw no other way to continue her schooling other than to become a dancer herself.
Wayang orang is a traditional Javanese stage performance often compared to Western-style opera and filled with dancing, singing, acting, jokes and fight scenes performed to the music of a gamelan ensemble.
Dialogue and narration are delivered in Javanese, and the stories are usually based on the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The first act establishes the conflict; the second features comedy and fight scenes; while the resolution is presented in the third and final act.
In the 1960s, artists joining a wayang orang troupe were given bond money that they had to pay off before they could leave. Performing every night near the Kosambi market in Bandung, Mamiek divided the money she earned to pay installments that would release her from the group, with the other half dedicated to study at a vocational school. But dancing was merely a way for Mamiek to earn a living because she had no intention of remaining a wayang orang performer. Her dream was to work in an office.
Several events, however, changed her mind. First, actor Kies Slamet and other top-notch performers from Bharata, a wayang orang group in Jakarta, arrived in Bandung. It was customary for wayang orang performers to travel and see their contemporaries’ shows, exchanging skills and experience.
With broad shoulders and a slim waist, Kies was a handsome and accomplished character actor both on the wayang orang stage and in movies. He and his brother Aris taught the performers at Sri Waluyo new kinds of choreography.
“I began to realize that he singled me out from the other young dancers,” Mamiek recalled. “He would teach us dances for two and pick me as his partner.”
Almost 13 years her senior and already a widower with two sons, Kies nevertheless captured Mamiek’s heart. After they married, she followed him to Jakarta in 1973. Mamiek started performing with Bharata, and her interest in wayang orang evolved from a job into a passion.
“Bharata had better costumes and more exciting battle scenes. It was more interesting than in Bandung,” she said.
Around the time of Bharata’s arrival, Mamiek was offered a job as a bookkeeper at a construction company. But she quickly realized it was not for her.
“The routines were the same, day in and day out. Just filing invoices using a typewriter with the long bar for bookkeeping,” she said. She left after four months.
Now there was no turning back. Mamiek’s self-study of wayang orang performances had been focused on characterization and acting, and she felt the need to improve her dancing outside the troupe. Fortunately, she was invited to train under Retno Maruti, the renowned maestro of classical Javanese dance.
“Javanese dance makes a good basis for studying dances from other Indonesian ethnic groups. Master Javanese dance, and you can study any type of dance,” she said.
Mamiek’s stage career took her to Germany, France, the Netherlands, Turkey and Japan as a member of Indonesian cultural missions. But it was in wayang orang that her passion truly blossomed. She learned to sing the songs performed at shows by listening to cassettes.
Wayang orang performers typically go on stage with no script, and are expected to improvise their own dialogue. Having been raised in Sundanese-speaking Bandung with little exposure to the high form of Javanese used on stage, Mamiek had to study Javanese texts so that she could deliver her weighty lines, and carry out engaging colloquy with her co-performers.
She consulted with senior players on how to best carry out each role. “My husband had made a name for himself as a wayang orang performer. I had to be a credit to his name. I had to study the art, too,” Mamiek said.
She and Kies Slamet became a popular act at Javanese weddings, where they performed the dance Gatotkaca Gandrung (Gatotkaca in Love) together — Kies as Gatotkaca, the winged (and mustachioed) superhero with a golden star on his breast, and she as Pergiwa, the princess he carries to the sky on his shoulder.
At a time when few male performers in Bharata possessed the body type and ability to play Arjuna, the delicate, lithe and handsome archer prince from the epic Mahabharata, Mamiek took on the role, fighting and shooting arrows at demons and ogres in fast-paced battle scenes, with keris (Javanese daggers) flying everywhere.
She also played Banowati (but not in the same play), a princess who was in love with Arjuna, but was betrothed to the Kurawa king. “When Banowati parted from Arjuna, the theater was so hushed as the audience listened to our lines. Some of them even wept,” she recalled.
Mamiek’s stage career, however, would come to a tragic and crashing halt several years ago. She developed a diabetes-related gangrenous infection on her right leg and had to go through several rounds of surgery. Her leg was amputated one part at a time, until all that was left was a stump.
Devastated, it took months before she regained her love for life and the arts. The support from her family, friends and fellow dancers and actors was critical.
“I began to come to Bharata to watch the performances again,” she said. “When the story was interesting, something I remembered playing, something moving, I would come to watch.” It was then that she realized she still had a role left to play.
“There were scenes that the audience used to anticipate, dialogue that would mesmerize them and sweep them into the story, and I was disappointed that at some of the shows I saw, I didn’t experience that magic,” she said.
That’s when Mamiek decided to direct a show. Working with Teguh “Kenthus” Ampiranto, a Bharata director with a number of well-reviewed shows under his belt, Mamiek is planning a production of the Hindu epic Ramayana in mid-March.
“I’ve seen a number shows in Jakarta lately, but most of them are [based on] the Mahabharata. But I think the Ramayana has some rarely told stories that would make a wonderful show,” she said. “Plus, I think foreign spectators are more familiar with Ramayana, and many of them love it.”
Established more than 40 years ago, Wayang Orang Bharata is now the last surviving professional wayang orang troupe in Jakarta. Today the troupe performs every Saturday evening in a playhouse in Senen, and also produces special shows from time to time. Bharta’s members are actively involved in practically every event with Javanese dancing or stage acting in the capital.
“I miss performing and bringing the audience into the story,” Mamiek said. “I can no longer do that. But I can still teach and impart this knowledge, this passion for giving a performance from the heart. It is going to be my legacy.”