There was a rumor that Mas Wisnu’s wife would leave him after his recital, and this quelled my resentment at being ordered around like a circus monkey. Of course most rumors in Java are talk, based more in pride and truth, and the news of my choreographer’s impending divorce reached me through a friend who, as the coordinator of all dance events filtering through UGM’s campus, once spurned by Mas Wisnu a year before by being called “unprofessional”, had a lot of gossip to spit.
Gossip or not, as I shifted around on stage I envisioned Mas Wisnu’s wife standing in the aisle of the auditorium, holding the wrist of their eight-year-old daughter as she twitched in anger. Mas Wisnu would pace back and forth in a tantrum. Her gaze would narrow as his outbursts spewed. I imagined her offset teeth grinding as he continued to torque up further within himself, like a toddler without recognition of why he cries, like a wind-up doll whose owners have grown tired of his company. His loved ones would approach him, stand unnoticed as he writhed blindly behind an occupied brow, and leave him with a resolute calm. Of course these were fabrications of my own; Mas Wisnu’s wife would not enter the auditorium until later that night, and now the only people present were the punk who coordinated the lighting, Mas Wisnu, and the demons of his dance troupe, Chakil Squad, of which I was one.
Sweat caked my hair against fake silk. I had arrived from work in time for stage blocking, and was promptly hammered with instructions that flew out of Mas Wisnu’s mouth like wet tobacco, with messages just as indecipherable. The other dancers contained their expressions, unwilling to set Mas Wisnu further on edge. I saw that Mas Endra also wore his work clothes. He had come from teaching Javanese to a classroom full of grade school students and wore a frown of supreme exhaustion. Lita behind me heard me unleash a breath of bafflement and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, “Don’t ask. Just go along with it.” And so we shuffled silently from stage corner to corner, bowing our heads to Mas Wisnu’s clenched fists.
Later, Fendi would explain that the previous night, after our performance, Mas Wisnu was informed that if he did not alter elements in his choreography, and if his dancers were not rehearsed in the placement of their movements, he would not graduate with his undergraduate degree in composition. Months of effort and hundreds of dollars would go down the drain, and Mas Wisnu, with his suspended job contract and his undergraduate degree ten years overdue, would be resigned to status as B-class entertainer.
I now felt at fault. During the previous night’s show, when I had struck my inversion for the final pose (too far downstage it turned out), the stage curtains swept over me and I rolled towards the audience like a cat stumbling into the underbrush of Hell. Upon later watching the video of our performance offstage, we had all tossed on the floor in laughter at my blunder. In fact we had all danced poorly that night, and I was just the most obvious comic relief. But the following day, I was the most obvious contributor to the pressure that now weighed upon us. As usual, I felt unworthy of occupying space on a stage meant for artists of traditional training. I was using acrobatics as compensation for absent technique. No one was fooled.
It was only when we moved to the dressing room that we began to relax. Fendi, the comedian of the clan, instructed me to sit down so he could put make-up on my face. Fingertips dipped in paint, he put a glob of red on my cheek and started smearing the stuff around. I could feel the wetness cover my nose and upper lip and a slow cool sink into my skin. Fendi had grown up dancing various roles in the Hindu epic, Ramayana (specializing in the selfless white bird, Jatayu), and so the act of applying make-up was as much a ritual as a necessity. His knees against mine, I could feel his skinny legs start to loosen, and his voice unleash its usual good humor, crooning along to pop-rock singles blasting from the stereo of a mustachioed clown on the other side of the room. When Fendi had finished applying my make up, I turned around to look in the mirror. Fake teeth hooked over my lips, and my features disappeared behind a drawn-on-ferocity that had always been in me.
Luthfi, the youngest (at seventeen), drew on his own face. He had shown up at dress rehearsal two days before with a rash that covered the entire length of his neck—due to stress, he had said. Even before stretching I could see him break a sweat. Now that paint had covered his rash, his adam’s apple looked as if it were sprouting scales, spurring his metamorphosis into the hot-blooded “Chakil” he was meant to be. He stood looking in the mirror, stroking his blemish as if it were a new spine.
Mas Wisnu’s wife entered. All the dancers turned to look, having heard rumors of her marital woes. She was a real trophy, with a round face, big eyes, delicate bones, and heavy hair that swished across the middle of her back. With characteristic Javanese grace she greeted each one of the dancers before sitting down to relax against the mirror. Later she would tend to the needs of her husband and the dancers, sewing costumes at the armpits, replenishing refreshments, picking up discarded clothing. It seemed, at least for the time being, that she and Mas Wisnu would be alright. Her daughter, meanwhile, frolicked out of reach. A miniature martial arts prodigy with boyish tendencies, the girl ran around the dressing room in an inspiring display of hyperactivity. Mas Wisnu wrestled her to the ground, smothering her in kisses.
The Javanese clowns disappeared from the dressing room. We would soon follow, and in a daze we warmed our limbs. In the history of Javanese Wayang, the character of the Chakil is restless and quick- moving; hungry and impulsive. Seven red faces challenged their nerve in the dressing room mirror. There was a hasty peeling of oranges, a steadily emptying bag of meat-stuffed tofu and green chilis.
Lita, having changed into her costume and covering her arms with a sweatshirt, beckoned for me to braid her hair. She was the most pious of the demons, and sought to make herself modest whenever possible. In the Ramayana Ballet, as the golden deer, she represented a romping of freedom, but in everyday life she was stringent to the standards of Javanese Islam and femininity. She would often confess her nervousness to me on multiple trips to the bathroom, which she always insisted I attend. Today she was quiet and solitary, her apprehension masked behind an air of dignity and black lipstick.
Dilla sat in a squat near the bags and coats, picking off sunflower seeds that she had dumped on the floor. She seemed right out of a book of myths: slim and slight of movement, quiet and unassuming. Perhaps because she had a cloud-like nature like Mas Wisnu’s wife, Wisnu’s daughter took an obvious liking to her and shoved her every time she made an exhaustive lap around the dressing room.
Dilla’s boyfriend was Endra. At 24, Endra was the wisest of the Chakil; by far the most skilled. During rehearsals I found myself watching for him—such a chiseled face, unmoved and solemn—as he flexed his hands and feet at perfect 90 degrees. Endra lifted his limbs without effort, his movements flowing with a precision that could cut the world like a cake. He often spoke to me of the history of his mother culture: the complications of Javanese language and formal poetry even he, as a student of Javanese literature, did not fully comprehend. He spoke of the legends of the Hindu epics; how they morphed as they moved across continents, how the characters demonstrated heroism and how they died. Despite the fact that he was of a small build, no taller than me, I often sensed he was looking down.
Now he knelt in front of me, and I sensed a quiet intimacy that had taken eight months to develop. When I first joined Chakil Squad it was he who had introduced me as an “acrobat rather than a dancer”, who instructed me on technique when Mas Wisnu failed to explain the finer points. Now he took the pleats of my gold ribbons into his hands, folded them with a kind of affection so they would hang properly between my legs. Then he rose and rehearsed, arms bent in continuous rotation as one leg hung suspended like God’s rung.
Mas Wisnu’s professor provided his blessing before we left for the stage. I had seen him a month earlier, after our last trial. It was the first time I saw Mas Wisnu humiliated. On that occasion, the old man had ripped Mas Wisnu’s choreography apart in full earshot of the dancers and musicians. What was the story behind the movements? Where was the What and Why? Why were women dancing the roles of men? Why was there a white acrobat dancing as a traditional Javanese character? At the time these inquiries had struck me as sexist and racist; or perhaps he just wanted his student to think about his creation, and Mas Wisnu simply hadn’t exerted himself that far.
Now this professor peered at me over his glasses. We both knew I didn’t deserve to be there, and yet with a single tip of the head he expressed something—perhaps not quite respect—for my nerve in showing up at all, for my fidelity, especially as a foreign woman, to a man most of the dance community deemed a bad egg: a man who had, despite being well into his thirties, publicly mocked his professors to the extent that his mother had to apologize on his behalf, a true demon the faculty would prefer to fail.
Behind the curtain, I could sense an urgency filthying our tongues, creeping into our nails and helping them grow. This commander of Chakils had trained the other dancers since childhood, had taught them to flip and fly, and had over the course of eight months liberated my stiffening limbs by transforming me into a creature of ages. He was in us. From the other side of the curtain, we heard the shrill cackle of Mas Wisnu, King of all that was raw and foul, King of family, King of us, and, in spite of myself, I smiled.
The curtain opened and the demons began to move to the thrums of gamelan. I began to run. As I leapt, I disappeared, reemerging as my avatar. From then on I swept into the dispersions and contractions of our collective body as we pulsed like a punctured heart. Beside us the gamelan orchestra pulled us deeper, set us on one foot. We rotated our arms like spindles, unleashed a combative cry that, even to us, sounded beyond human.
Towards the end of our routine, I cartwheeled onto a handstand. Fendi caught me. This was the moment when Chakil femme seduced the most rabid of beasts. I moved my foot to the place on his thigh, from where I was meant to ascend. Fendi leaned back, and my hands left the ground. Something was off. Perhaps it was the angle between us, or perhaps our demon sensibilities had jostled our concentration, but before I even stretched my torso I could already feel myself falling. There was a thunk on the stage floor. Fendi stooped down to sweep up my face as if to suck it up. Upon taking Fendi’s hand I stood again, hiked his shoulders, positioned my arms high as I fixed my gaze on an audience I couldn’t see, the reputable dance community of Yogyakarta before whom I had no shame and nothing to lose.
The rhythm of the gongs accelerated. The Chakil flipped and lunged, twirled like propellers until, at last, we froze. When the curtain closed, we collapsed in exhaustion. From Fendi I heard a dull whimper. And then Dilla began to shake.
It took us several moments to notice that something was wrong. Dilla’s limbs trembled as if she were rocked by a seizure. Two people came from the wings of the stage to lift Dilla’s body, and she was carried through the side door to the courtyard. We all reached out to canopy her, release her from the corset and costumery that confined her waist and limbs. Her eyes were wide open, trembling fingers reaching out for something invisible. As she was set down in the dressing room, she unleashed a gasp of air as if revived from drowning. I looked to Endra, who stroked his girlfriend’s arm as if watching her retreat to a distant place.
“What was it?” I asked.
He looked at Dilla another moment and then looked away. “Exhaustion” was all he said.
My departure that night had me standing in front of Mas Wisnu in his underwear. Just minutes before, his professors had informed him that he would in fact, despite causing his professors great distress, graduate. He was free and, from the looks of it, his wife and child would stay beside him.
I tried to apologize for falling, but Mas Wisnu, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I wanted to say something, reached out to me and pulled me close, pausing in the mirror to look at himself hugging me in his underwear. He kissed each of my cheeks and then pulled back, sending me a questioning look as if to say “now what?”
At last he said, “You’re family to me, Jul. Don’t go home.”
I left him like that, standing in the dressing room with his shorts around his ankles, and I knew I would come to him, King of Chakil, whenever he called. I was a creature just as lost and as ravenous as he; of the same beast, born half a world away.