Java's Art of Classical Dancing

(© The Wisma Ulah Budaya Foundation 1999)

The island of Java is one of the islands of the Indonesian archipelago and since 1945 it is part of the state 'Republik Indonesia'.
There are many different dance-styles on the island of Java. The main styles are the Pasundan or Sunda style from West Java, the Javanese style from Central Java and the East Javanese style. But every region even has several different dance-styles. All these dance styles develop under influence of the cultural streams that come over Java.
The development of the art of dancing of Java can be divided into 3 stages:
- the primitive period,
- the feudal period and
- the contemporary period.

Primitive period
The beginning of dance starts with the beginning of human civilisation. From the prehistoric time, the Stone Age (Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic) and the Bronze and Iron Age until about 600 A.D. the dance style on the island of Java is a primitive one. We can only imagine about the way of dancing during these periods, because there are no remains but some musical instruments like drums and some jewellery like necklaces, bracelets and rings from this primitive period. But people on the island of Java must have danced by then, because dance is an expression of the human soul. Maybe it has started by expressing happiness or sorrow. Or because of gratitude towards the gods, the deities or ancestors the people worshipped. We can imagine it started by clapping hands or stamping feet and singing, and later on accompanied by playing percussion instruments like drums or wind instruments like flutes. Drawings of dancers that are found on the bronze drums give an imagination of the dance culture during that time.
During prehistoric times the Javanese worshipped their ancestors. It is one of the many traditions that survived the Hindu influence on Java. Even in the Indonesian Islam society of today this tradition has survived more or less.
In the early history of Java there already are 'wayang' performances. The word 'wayang' is said to be derived from the Javanese word 'bayangan', which means 'being an imagination of'. 'Wayang' is an imagination of the ancestors and 'wayang' also interprets a performance in which the ancestors are personated and worshipped. These images of the ancestors are for example first made of stone, bronze, wood and the skins of animals. The 'wayang kulit' shadow play is a performance in which the ancestors are represented by leather puppets. With a lamp the shadows of the puppets are projected on a screen and a puppeteer or 'dalang' tells the story. During a 'wayang kulit' performance the shadows of the puppets reflect the spirits of the ancestors and the 'dalang' is like a priest, who functions as a medium linking the spirits of the ancestors with this world.

Feudal period
Hindu religion
In the further development of Java's culture different social classes come into existence and there is a society of common people, kings, nobility and aristocracy. Common people of great influence grow to aristocracy, nobility and sometimes to kings. The feudal period begins about 600 A.D. with the rise of kingdoms on the island of Java. The first kingdom is the kingdom of Tarumanegara in West Java. Later rise the kingdom of Old Mataram (800-1000) in Central Java, the kingdoms of Kahuripan, Kediri and Singhasari (1000-1300) in East Java, the kingdom of Majapahit (1300-1500) in Central Java and the kingdom of Pajajaran (1300) in West Java. Trade contacts with India result in cultural influence of Hinduism and Buddhism religions in Java. First the kings and the nobility become or are Hindus. The art of dancing also develop into a Hindu-religious art. There is an assimilation of the Indian cultural elements in the Javanese culture and acculturation is the result. Finally the Hindu dance movements are adapted to the aesthetic taste and rules of the Javanese people. The religious aspect becomes more and more important in the life of the Javanese people.
The remains of this period still exist and are mainly remains of religious monuments, for example the Candi Borobudur and the Candi Prambanan group dating from the 9th century. The Indian epic Ramayana and the story Kresnayana are carved in the reliefs of the Candi Prambanan. The Ramayana is a story about prince Rama and his wife Dewi Sinta. The evil king Dasamuka is kidnapping her. Thanks to the help of Jatayu, the mythic bird, and Hanoman, the ape general and his army of apes, Rama gets his wife back and becomes king of Ayodhya.
In the 10th century fragments of the Indian epic Mahabharata are more or less translated in Old Javanese language. The story is about the enmity of five brothers, the Pandawa, and their hundred cousins, the Korawa. The story ends with the Bharatayuddha-battle.
During the reign of king Erlangga of Kahuripan (1019-1042) Mpu Kanwå composes the Old Javanese poem or 'kakawin' Arjunåwiwåhå, about the marriage of one of the five Pandåwå brothers Arjunå and the nymph Dewi Supråbhå. This poem also tells the story, that Javanese dance is originated from the dances performed by the heavenly nymphs or 'widadari'.
Two great literary works, the Negarakertagama and the Pararaton, which are originated during the kingdom of Majapahit, describe mask dance dramas at the courts of Java. These mask dance dramas are first called 'wayang wång' and later on in history 'wayang topeng'.
The word 'wang' means 'human being' and the word 'topeng' means wooden mask. So 'wayang wång' means an imagination of the ancestors performed by human beings and 'wayang topeng' means an imagination of the ancestors performed by actors wearing wooden masks.
The dance dramas perform the stories of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and legends like the Panji cycle. The Panji cycle is about the prince Raden Panji and his beloved princess Dewi Candrakirana. The kings, like king Hayamwuruk, his wives and relatives, also play the roles in the dance dramas.
Apart from the religious dances and the dance dramas there are dances of the common people, like the 'ronggeng' dance, a female dance to entertain the king and the nobility. Outside the courts this kind of dance is called 'tledek'.

Islamic religion
The Islamic religion finds fertile soil in Java since about the 14th century and is caused by trade contacts with Northwest India. The tolerance of the Islam entering Java is because of the fact that Hindu and Buddhist elements in Northwest India already had become attached to Islam coming from Persia. It leaves the development of dancing in Java undisturbed except that the art of dancing is not religious anymore because of the monotheism religion. The fall of the kingdom of Majapahit in 1500 is the beginning of the Islamic era on the island of Java. The Islamic kingdoms are the kingdoms of Banten and Cirebon in West Java, where the Sundanese dance style develops, and the kingdoms of Demak, Pajang and Mataram in Central Java, where the Javanese dance style is developed. The first king of Mataram is Senopati Ing Ngalågå (1586-1601).
The Javanese chronicles or 'babad' mention that the king has 'bedaya'- and 'serimpi'-dancers, women of the court to entertain him. The marriage of Sultan Agung Hanyå Kråkusumå (1613-1645) of the kingdom of Mataram to a princess of Cirebon results in a cultural influence of Cirebon including its dancing. Sultan Agung also is the choreographer of the Bedhåyå Ketawang dance being performed for nine women. The dance symbolises Sultan Agung's meeting with Kanjeng Ratu Kidul, the queen of the South Sea as described in the 'Babad Tanah Jawi'.
Besides these woman court dances the 'babads' also already mention dances like 'beksan' and 'wireng', as the dances in Central Java are still called nowadays.
European visitors of the Javanese courts like the Dutchman Rijklof van Goens in his report 'Javaense Reyse' (1648-1654) and the Englishman Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles in his book 'History of Java' (1817) also mention several kind of dances which belong to the 'bedhåyå'-, 'serimpi'-, 'beksan'- and 'wireng'-dances.
The other 'bedhåyå'-dance compositions are derived from the Bedhåyå Ketawang dance and most are choreographed for nine women dancers. The 'serimpi' dances are often also derived from the several 'bedhåyå' dances and most are choreographed for four women dancers. Both 'bedhåyå'- and 'serimpi'-dances are named after the accompanying melodies of the 'gamelan'-music. Both kinds of dances are abstract-symbolic dances. Some of the dances are sacred dances. The symbolic meanings of the dances are about the legendary history of the kingdom or a message of the king to his guests.
'Beksan' is derived from the Javanese term 'bekså', that means dancing and 'beksan' is generally used for choreographs in which the dancing part is most important. So the 'bedhåyå'- and 'serimpi'-dances belong to this 'beksan'-category.
'Wireng' is derived from the Javanese term 'wirå', that means brave and 'wireng' is generally used for choreographs which represents combats. The most important choreographs that belong to this category are the 'Lawung'-dances. The 'Lawung'-dances are performed by the king's soldiers and demonstrate their defending and attacking qualities.
The art of dancing in West Java develops the parallel way, because of the relationship between the Central and West Javanese courts, nobility and aristocracy.
In East Java only people dances develop because the cultural centres of the court arts are in Central and West Java.
Both Sundanese and Javanese dances distinguish a male- and a female-style, which distinguishes several characters. The main characters of the male-style are 'gagah' (tall and extrovert) and 'halus' (refined and introvert) with various gradations between. The main characters of the female-style are 'branyak' (proud and extrovert) and 'luruh' (humble and introvert) with various gradations between.
From 1735 on the Dutch East Indian Company makes several attempts to increase the power of the kingdom of Mataram. In 1745 Sri Padukå Susuhunan Paku Bhuwånå II moves the centre of the kingdom of Mataram approximately 10 km to the east of Kartasura to Surakarta. In 1755 the kingdom of Mataram is divided into the kingdom of Surakarta Hadiningrat (still under the monarchy of Sri Padukå Susuhunan Paku Bhuwånå II) and the kingdom of Yogyakarta Hadiningrat (under the monarchy of the first king Sri Sultan Hamengku Bhuwånå I). Some years later the principality of the Mangku Nagårå derived from the kingdom of Surakarata Hadiningrat and in 1812 the principality of the Paku Alam derived from the kingdom of Yogyakarta Hadiningrat. The splitting of the kingdom of Mataram into four smaller monarchies increases the political power, but the cultural development grow prosperously and strengthens the cultural identity of the Javanese courts.
After the splitting of the kingdom of Mataram the Bedhåyå Ketawang dance is preserved as sacred heirloom by the Kraton Surakarta Hadingrat. This dance is still performed every year during the celebration of the anniversary of the king's coronation.
Besides the several 'bedhåyå'- and 'serimpi'-court dances other kinds of court dances make rapid development and are created. The courts initiate majestic 'ringgit tiyang'- or 'wayang wång' performances, 'langendriyå'- and 'langen måndrå wånårå'-performances. The 'wayang wång'-performances are dance-dramas using dance, music and dialogues. The 'langendriyå'- and 'langen måndrå wanårå'-performances at the end of the 19th century are dance-dramas with sung dialogues. The 'langendriyå' performance represents the story of Menak Jinggå and Damarwulan; the 'langen måndrå wanårå'-performance represents the Ramayana-story.
Fragments of the great performances became separate dances called 'beksan', 'wireng' or 'pethilan'. 'Pethilan' means fragment and fragments of the great dance-dramas have become complete short choreographs performed by two or more dancers.
At the beginning of the 20th century the courts rediscovered 'wayang topeng', which only has been preserved by the common people from about 1700 until now. Other people dances are also adopted and refined and result in the creation of a new kind of court dances, called the 'golek'-dances. These are excellent examples of the interaction between court- and common people-culture, because that is usually the way of development of the arts century by century.
In August 1918 in Yogyakarta two brothers of Sri Sultan Hamengku Bhuwånå XVIII, named prince Tejåkusumå and prince Suryådiningrat, established the dancing school Kridhå Bekså Wiråmå to give the opportunity to dancers outside the court to be taught the classical style of the court. Several years later the court of Surakarta Hadiningrat also admitted the court dances to be taught outside the 'kraton' walls. Raden Tumenggung Kusumåkesåwå is one of the court-dancing masters of the Surakarta Hadiningrat court tradition. It is the beginning of court dance to be taught to dancers outside the court.
This development is parallel to the consciousness and appreciation of the Javanese people's own cultural identity.
Since then court dance develops in a rapid tempo and also becomes the art of classical dancing for the common people. Existing choreographs are revised or shortened and several kinds of dances are created based on the classical style.

Contemporary period
The contemporary period starts with the proclamation of the Republik Indonesia in 1945. Several kinds of dancing organisations develop including the dance academies. The academies are for example named ASKI (Akademi Seni Karawitan Indonesia or Academy for the Art of Traditional Music of Indonesia), ASTI (Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia or Academy for the Art of Dance of Indonesia) and STSI (Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia or University of Arts of Indonesia).
C.S. Ngaliman and S. Maridi (Raden Tumenggung Tondokusumo) are important choreographers, who created Surakarta style dances in this period. Romo Sasminto Mardowo is an important choreographer who created Yogyakarta style dances during this contemporary period.
Raden Tjetje Somantri and Raden Nugraha Sudiredja are the important choreographers who created Sundanese style dances in this period.
Classical dances are revised or created and new choreographs about the nature's gifts (peacock dance, rabbit dance etc.) and daily labour (harvest dance, batik dance etc.) are created. Several dances are inspired on the struggle for liberation.
Choreographers like Bagong Kussudiardjo from Yogyakarta and Sardono W. Kusumo from Jakarta, but originally from Surakarta, develop their very individual styles, sometimes abandoning the traditional classical styles. Their styles reflect expressionistic effects. They are also inspired by Amercan modern dance techniques of Martha Graham for example.
In West Java Irawati Durban Ardjo, teacher of the S.T.S.I of Bandung and artistic leader of the Pusbitari Dance Company, is one of the choreographers who continue the dance tradition of Raden Tjetje Somantri and Raden Nugraha Sudiredja. Her choreographs maintain the classical tradition and reach a neo-classical style.

Bibliography (sources) and recommended literature:
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- Brakel-Papenhuyzen, Dr. Clara; The Sacred Bedhaya Dances of the Kratons of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, Leiden, 1988.
- Brandes, dr. J.L.A.; Pararaton (Ken Arok), Het Boek der Koningen van Tumapel en van Majapahit, Martinus Nijhoff, 1920.
- Bratawidjaja, Thomas Wiyasa; Upacara Perkawinan Adat Jawa, Pustaka Sinar Harapan, 1988.
- Brongtodiningrat, P.H.; Kawruh Joged Mataram, 1981.
- Djumena, Nian S.; Batik dan Mitra, Batiks and its Kind, Djambatan, 1990.
- Durban Ardjo, dra. Irawati; Pagelaran Apresiasi Tari Sunda karya R. Tjetje Somantri, Laksmidara, 1986.
- Durban Ardjo, dra. Irawati; Fragmenten van aantekeningen van een voorstudie over de Sundanese danstechniek, gebaseerd op de stijl van R. Tjetje Somantri.
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- Helsdingen-Schroevers, Beata van; Tari Serimpi, dalam istana Soerakarta, Balai Poestaka, 1925.
- Holt, Claire; Art in Indonesia, Cornell University Press, 1967.
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Foris Publications, 1987.
- Pamoentjak Singgih, Roswitha; Partini, recollections of a Mangkunagaran Princess, Djambatan, 1986.
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- Singadilaga, R. Ibrahim; De Soendaneesche Dans, Soendaneesche tekst samengesteld door M. Soeriadiradja en I. Adiwidjaja.
- Singgih Wibisono et al., drs.; Ensiklopedi Tari Indonesia, Dep. P & K., 1985.
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- Soeharto, R.; Diorama Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat, Tiga Serangkai, 1985.
- Soerjobrongto, B.P.H.; The Classical Yogyanese Dance, Dep. P & K, 1970.
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- Soeroto, Raden Mas Noto; Causerie over de Javaansche Danskunst.
- Veldhuisen-Djajasoebrata, drs. Alit; Bloemen van het Heelal, de kleurrijke wereld van de textiel op Java, Sijthoff, 1984.
- Several other programme notes on performances of Javanese dance.

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