But following the dutch conquests, most court traditions were allowed to lapse into obscurity. Only in Central Java are courtly performances, and royal patronage of dancers, actors and musicians, still found.
Java has by far the oldest attested dance and theatre tradisions in Indonesia. Stone inscriptions dating from the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. frequently speak of dances, clowns, musicians and theatrical performances. And adorning the walls of the great Central javanese temples of this period – Borobudur, Prambanan and others – are numerous reliefs depicting dancers and entertainers, from lowly market minstrels and roadside revelers to sensuous court concubines and prancing princesses.
These reliefs. Like modern Javanese and Balinese dance, bear a strong Indian influence. carved on the outer face of the main balustradeat Prambanan are 62 illustrations from the classic Indian dance manual, the Natyasastra. In these carvings, the dancers are always depicted low to the ground, with knees bent, legs turned out, body straight, and with great emphasis on the attitude of the head and the posture of the hands, In classical Indian dance, the hands communicated literally, telling a story through a complex sign language of hand mudras. While in Javanese and Balinese dance the literal meanings of these hand signals have been lost, the rich expressiveness of hand gestures remains a primary element throughout Southeast Asia.
Most of the dances in Central Java today are attribute to one or another of the past rulers of Islamic dynasties, particularly their 1th to 18th century founders. Undoubtedly the vocabulary of movements and music employed are much older. As we know from the 19th century, rulers frequently choreographed some dance or dramatic pieces for specific occasions. Often this meant simply that the palace dance master was instructed to concoct a particular type of piece using a certain musical composition, but several rulers were also accomplished dancers and musicians in their own right.
The most famous of all Javanese court dances is the Bedoyo Ketawang, performed once yearly in the Surakarta palace on the anniversary of the Susuhunan’s coronation. This is a sacred and private ritual dance, said to have been instituted by Sultan Agung (he reigned, 1613-45), the greatest of the Mataram kings. It celebrates a reunion between the descendant of the dynasty’s founder, Senopati, and the powerful goddess of the south sea, Nyai Roro Kidul.
Nine female palace guards perform the stately Bedoyo Ketawang attired in royal wedding dress, and so sacred is it that they may reheares only once every five weeks on a given day. Until recently, no outsiders were permitted to witness the performance, for it is claimed that Roro Kidul herself attends and afterwards “weds” the king. A similiar Bedoyo dance was formerly performed in the Yogyakarta palace, but it has been discontinued. Some speculate that these dances are remnants of an ancient Javanese fertility rite.
The other important Javanese court dance, the serimpi, was traditionally performed only by princesses or daughters of the ruling family. It portrays a duelling pair (sometimes two pairs) of Amazons who move in unison, gracefully and deliberately fighting with dainty daggers and tiny bows and arrows. Various stories are attached to this dance, and it may have antecedants in a Borobudur relief showing two female dancers in identical attitudes, and in a scene at Prambanan depicting a dancing female warrior. Following the establishment of Javanese dance schools outside of the palaces at the beginning of this century, the Serimpi became the standard dance taugh to all young women.
There are, in addition, several Javanese court dances choreographed specifically for men, such as the Beksan Lawung. Most of these are war or processional dances and are therefore rarely performed today. They are characterized by the use of weapons (lances, shields, swords, bows) and high-stepping, vigorous movements.
The relief at Borobudur, depicting popular dances and musical entertainment, suggest that dance once figured prominently in Javanese life. today, outside of the courts, or in the javanese villages, very little dancing remains. This is perhaps a reflection of Islam’s penetration to rural areas since the 17th century. But it isequally possible that ducth rule and a population explosion contributed to a demise of this art form in the 19th century.
Well into this century, however, there were commercial Javanese dance spectacles, like the Ronggeng street dancers, the professional Taledek dance girls and the hobbyshorse dance troupes mentioned above. All these may be echoes of earlier village danc traditions, similar perhaps to those found today in Bali.