“The Last Breath Of The Prince”

A story, through a masked dance performance, lives on in Java, with roots and elements originating from an ancient, pre-Hindu creation myth, and retold in the 21st century in ever fewer rural villages in East and Central Java. Prominent in the story and its multitude of characters are the sun and the moon elements, in many ways it reflects a moon myth, with motifs dealing with the beginning of new eras depicted by the rise and fall of great Javanese dynasties. Not a singular story, not hammered out in stone, the Panji Cycle as it is known, is virtually a vast and diverse mass of stories essential to its central theme.
Sadly, the syncretism, once so characteristic of Javanese mysticism, is fading away rapidly in a modernizing Indonesia. The Panji mask dance is today still performed by small groups in the island. When the master of a craft or the keeper of the knowledge is gone, there is nothing but material traces and vague memories left behind, crumbling away with time; there is no way to recreate their deepest intangible history and state of existence.
It is already too late for hundreds, or more likely thousands, of such cultural manifestations around the world. For the few surviving traditions, the time is now to safeguard continuous evolution and interpretation of their ancient spiritual cultural heritage.

Decisive moment

Nowadays, I think we are in a “decisive moment” as modernity, technology is reaching everywhere, often a process associated with loss of identity and traditions. In South Asia we are in a crucial moment where this loss is happening, unfortunately forcing the last opportunity to see something that will not be present any longer in the coming 10 or 20 years.  

the making


On this occasion, the whole thing was closer to a movie shooting than a photographic one, from the design of theatre backgrounds based in old motifs, carpets, and the fact that I had to build a large tent structure with the villagers for the shooting.

That was an amazing experience, sharing with them the real Javanese life, and feeling their inherent sense of hospitality. They highly appreciated the fact that a foreigner wanted to make such a big thing out of an almost extinct art.

the choreographer

I will always remember how happy the dance trainer was at that time, an old man, 82 years of age and going by the name of “Mbah Sugi”. At our first meeting he was rather suspicious and he pretended not to pay too much attention. Then, during the next meetings, when I assigned him the position of the director, feeling free to create the scenes, this seemed to make him happy and enthusiastic again like in older times. That was very intense for me, and maybe one of the aims of the project was just that. 

Masked dances in Malaysian Borneo had already disappeared, and it required a timely deep research from old books, as well as from museum materials. I was really lucky to find some of these dancers, from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, and the Bahau tribe in the Indonesian Borneo.

This project is more personal. The reason behind it is that to get the feeling of old photos, I made a research, using the same techniques as the old photographers. To create that feeling, most of the otherwise moving models were made to pose as required by the slow shutter speed.