Sunday, February 10, 2008

The future for shadow theatre may just lie in a merging of East and West.

The shadows that breathe.

What kind of a world would it be like if there were no shadows? Without shadows, children will no longer have fun playing with light and silhouettes; there would no longer be contrast between light and dark in paintings and cinematography; there would be no difference between standing under a big tree or being out in a field; the colours of the ocean and the sky will seem like plastic, and the fun of seeing how time changes in one location would definitely be dull. In reality, the lack of shadow eventually means the lack of light. Without shadow, our perception would become altered and our emotions parched.

Although our bodies cast unique shadows that intimately accompany our lives, shadows have often been culturally associated with the space between life and death, for example, many ghostly appearances have been referred to as shadows. Nevertheless, many countries in Asia have turned the mysterious quality of shadows into a part of their performing art traditions, such as the Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet theatre) of Indonesia, Pi Ying Xi of China and Nang Yai of Thailand. While the ancient art of traditional shadow theatre is diminishing at an alarming rate, many experiments and efforts have been used by artists all over the world in order to preserve a place for the special art to live on.

Racing with the rapid change in the world filled with modern entertainment, including the fight for the audience's familiarity and acceptance of the shadow theatre, Larry Reed (a US shadow theatre artist based in San Francisco) and I Nyoman Sumandhi (a Balinese shadow-theatre master or dalang) have spent most of their lives trying to preserve the art of the shadow theatre. They have a friendship that started in 1974 when Reed first met Sumandhi, who at the time was teaching a gamelan (musical ensemble of Indonesia typically featuring percussion instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs) class offered by the the University of Washington. After that summer, Reed continued to pursue his studies with Sumandhi's father, I Nyoman Rajeg, who was a master dalang in Bali. He discovered that a dalang is the sole performer in the tradition. Accompanied by the gamelan ensemble, the dalang conducts the ritual ceremony, narrates the story, sings, improvises dialogue and manipulates all the puppets, while giving cues to the musicians. Hence, a dalang's art encompassed many qualities and talents.

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