If you’ve seen any Pedro Almodóvar movies lately, you already know that San Francisco doesn’t have a monopoly on drag culture — and that Gael García Bernal is hot no matter what kind of clothes he’s wearing. And he isn’t the first; men have performed as women for centuries, if not millennia. Because of a desire to temporarily overturn the societal norms (as in the uninhibited celebrations of Carnival), or social strictures that forbade women to portray themselves, or the challenging art of convincing an audience of one’s femininity, drag performance — comedic, dramatic, and just for the hell of it — has a place in many cultures. Shakespearean heroines used to be played by young men; around the same time, the Japanese art of kabuki featured men in women’s roles. Here in the United States, drag is all about comedy. Hello, Mrs. Doubtfire!
But in the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali, cross-gender play has long been a traditional component of theater and dance. Didik Nini Thowok, who was born in the 1950s in Temanggung, Central Java, found that this tradition was “already lost,” as he puts it, by the time he started to study Javanese classical dance forms at the age of twelve. Modern Indonesia was not as tolerant of genderbending as before. So he decided to show it what it was missing. In 1974 he began choreographing his own work, and since then he has worked inexhaustibly to revive the role of the cross-dressing performer in Indonesian society. Drawing from multiple cultural traditions, among them Sundanese traditional dance, Cirebonese mask dance and traditional stage makeup, and Noh drama and Nihon Buyo from Japan, Didik Nini Thowok is not just a dancer. He is also an actor, a makeup artist, a singer, a mime, and a comedian. And he’s double-jointed.
Didik Nini Thowok will be appearing with the Harsanari Dance School and members of Gamelan Sekar Jaya for a tsunami relief benefit this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., in a residence gallery at 1002 Grayson Rd., Pleasant Hill. $20/student, $30/advance, $40/door. Reservations are highly recommended: e-mail [email protected] for info or to RSVP, or call 925-689-6865.