Performance review: Sardono Dance Theater and Jennifer Tipton at REDCAT

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Making art isn’t easy, and for many artists the hardest part is getting started. The first invention must be a strategy for facing a blank page, canvas, computer screen. Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s ritual was to begin the day by playing a Bach prelude and fugue on the piano. Terry Riley likes to greet a favorite tree. Some turn to the bottle.

The extraordinary Indonesian dancer, choreographer and visual artist Sardono W. Kusumo has come up with a far more fanciful ritual for making an action painting in his “Rain Coloring Forest,” which opened the REDCAT season Thursday night. This collaboration between the Jakarta-based, three-member Sardono Dance Theater, the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and the composer David Rosenboom continues through Sunday.

The activity in the theater lasts an hour, and during it Sardono makes a beautiful drip painting on a newly primed canvas that will enliven whatever lucky room in which it eventually settles. But those who watch the painting’s organic birth, the agony and celebration of its creation, are the true possessors. The painting is the vapor of its performance, and I think it is safe to say that no canvas has ever been so primed.

The evening begins like this: The theater, as we enter, is already a place of color and texture and luminosity. Along one side wall snake coils of rice-paper paintings. On the stage are five elaborately painted Sardono scrolls only partly unspooled. Another painted rice-paper coil lies on the stage floor. The dancer Bambang “Besur” Suryono, the first to appear, will slowly drape himself in it while the five scrolls rise to their regal 30-foot height.


This first part of the performance might be called wrap and rumble. Besur, who has worked with Sardono for two decades, is also a vocalist. His measured movements of arms, legs and torso are accompanied by deep growls from which materialize unearthly overtones. Along with this, Rosenboom, who is seated on the stage cross-legged at keyboard and computer, creates an electronic sound-scape that envelops the room in richly complex drones, manipulated from pre-recorded somatic sounds. They intersect with Besur’s, producing the sensation of an animated wilderness.

The middle part features a Sardono solo. He arrives from darkness. A ramp bisects the stage. Its dark covering unrolls to reveal a white canvas, mystically lit. Sardono, with long beard and hair, dances in silence on it.

He begins with minimal, primeval movements, as if something from him is about to emerge. Hands and feet appear to be unconnected. Postures are variations on the fetal position. Sardono seems to be in the process of identifying his appendages. He traces fingers and toes with a marker on the canvas as he effortfully wends his way down the ramp.

Then the miracle occurs. Some 800 rice-paper paintings suddenly drop down. Sardono and his colleagues made them during jet-lagged nights over the last two weeks, while they acclimatized to Pacific Daylight Time and work-shopped this “coloring forest” in the black box. (REDCAT officials told me it is not as easy as you might think –- or inexpensive –- to come up with 800 sheets of rice-paper on the spot).

The speakers explode. The young, athletic dancer I Ketut Rina emerges covered in rice paper from what has now become a forest floor of the stuff. Besur returns changed into a woman. Both are masked. Meanwhile Sardono, a Jakarta Jackson Pollock, flings paint, which appears to come from the dancer like body fluids. This is painting as parturition, gestated from rice-paper and ritual, from chant and chaos, and given life-bearing illumination from Tipton’s artificial suns.

At the end, the ramp rises and the paint begins to run the canvas. Broad swatches of colors turn into streaks. The new painting then takes its place among the five other scrolls as a beaming new being. It is smaller but much brighter, and, still dripping, alive.

A final bit of amazement is how reluctant many in the audience are to leave once the house lights come on. Watching paint dry is said to be boring –- not in this “Rain Coloring Forest.”

-- Mark Swed

Sardono Dance Theater and Jennifer Tipton: “Rain Coloring Forest.” REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St. 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday, 1 hour. $25-$30 (213) 237-2800 or