Dance and Drama of Indonesia – Dance and Ritual

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Dance, storytelling and theatre of one sort or another are ubiquitous in Indonesia

For they are elements in a traditional cultural life that is all encompassing – in which the performing arts fulfil a wide variety of sacred and secular needs. Dancers, shamans, actors, puppeteers, priests, storytellers, poets and musicians are members of the community who perform vital roles in informing, entertaining, counselling and instruction their fellow in the well-worn ways of tradition. To Indonesians at least, a coherent society is utterly unthinkable without them.

There is such a variety of dance and dramatic traditions throughout the archipelago that it is impossible to speak of a single, unified tradition. Each Indonesia ethcnic and linguistic group possesses its own unique complex of performing arts. Nevertheless there has been a good deal of borrowing, and all groups seem to have several things in common. Trance and ritual dancing, for example, are found everywhere, as is some form of social dancing. Storytellers, be they village elders or professional puppeteers, exist in each society, telling about the past and about the unseen world of ancestor spirits and powerful deities.

In societies that developed, historically, into hierarchical kingdoms, parallel court and village traditions have also grown up. In those areas that received strong Javanese influence (primarily on Java and Bali, but also on Sumatera, Lombok and the coast of Kalimantan), there is the entire wayang complex of performing arts for which Indonesia is best known: shadow plays and puppet theaters of various types, stylized poetry recitals (booth oral and literary), mask dance and dance dramas, all incorporating tales from the Indian and Old Javanese epics, often accompanieb by gamelan music and ritual offerings.

Unfortunately, very little is know about the historical development of these many forms. Knowledge and records of the enormous performance repertoire that survive in Indonesia today, much of it steadily being eroded by a modern urban mass culture, is incomplete, all we can do is provide a brief survey of Indonesia’s most vital and accesible dance and dramatic arts, in the hopes that visitors will be stimulated to observe, appreciate and support them.

Dance and Ritual: Among all pre-urbanized societies in the world, it seem that dance and ritual life are inseparable. Such a connection is most evident among so-called “primitive” tribes in Indonesia, most of whom have theirs shaman dances performed by priests or priestesses for purposes of exorcism and spirit propitiation. The Batak datuk (magician) of highland Sumatera, for example, holds a magic staff as he threads with tiny steps over a magic design he has drwan on the ground. At the climax of this dance, he hops and skips, thrusting the sharp end of his staff into an egg on the ground.

Most tribes also have their ritual group dances, performed to mark rites of passage and annual agricultural events – births, funerals, weddings, puberty, planting, and haversts – as wll as to inaugurate tribal leaders, to move villages, to undertake any new project, to exorcise sickness or evil spirits and, of course, to prepare for battle and celebrate victory. Almost invariably, these involve members of one sex only, expect in the case of ritualized courting dances.

Sometimes they are danced by a select group or clan only, but more often all males or females inthe community are welcome to join and the movements are generally slow and deliberate, with tiny steps and graceful hand movements; while men lift their kness high and use their hands as “weapons,” often in imitation of martial arts movement (pencak silat).

Costumes are used, and music is, of course, an important element. Accompaniment is provided by chanting, pounding the rice mortar (lesung), and sometimes by bamboo chimes or flutes. In Islamic areas of Sumatera, West Java and Sulawesi, the rebab (a bowed zither), of Middle Eastern origin, is also played.

Traditionally, these group dances with their steady, rhytmic musical accompaniment often involved the entracement and possession of some or all of the participants. The best known of these trance dance is the Balinese Barong, immortalized in the Margaret Mead film of the 1950s, Trance and Dance in Bali.

The Barong dance drama, now performed daily for hundreds of tourists (and still well worth seeing), is a contest between the opposing forces of good and evil in the universe, embodied in the good beast, Barong (somewhat resembling a Chinese lion, but clearly a descendant of the Tantric kala heads of ancient Javanese temple sculptures, the Hindu Lord of the Wodos, Banaspati) and the evil witch, Rangda. A group of men armed with swords (keris) attempts to kill Rangda, but she posses them and turns their swords back on themselves. They are saved only thanks to the intervention of the benevolent Barong. By the end of the play some of the dancers are so deeply entranced that they must be exorcized – by sacrifing a chiken over them and burning incese.

Another Balinese family of dances, the dramatic Sanghyang trance dances, also involve the putative possession of dancers by gods, goddesses and animal spirits. The most famous of these and animal is the Sanghyang Dedari of ” heavenly nymph” dance performed at irregular intervals to drive away disease. In it, two young girls dressed in white enter a circle of 40 to 50 chanting men, the so-called kecak chorus. They begin to sway in time to the chants with eyes closed, a sign that they are possessed by godesses, and are than clothed in glittering cotumes and borne aloft on the shoulders of men, making a tour of the village to drive out evil influences.

Whereas on Bali, trance ceremonies such as the Barong and the Sanghyang Dedari still retain their relecance and meaning; on Islamic Java, the trance dance has developed into something of a commercial spectacle. It is here variously known as Kuda Kepang, Kuda Lumping, Recog and Jatilan and consists of one or more riders on hobby-horses made of leather or plaited bamboo, accompanied by musicians, masked clowns and perhaps also a masked lion, tiger or crocodile similiar to the Barong.

Such hobbyhorse troupes were once commonly seen at weekly markets and in crowded city squares during festival days, but they are now rare. The riders would begin in an orderly fashion, trotting in a circle, them one of them would become entranced and star behaving like a horse, charging back and forth wildly, neighing and eating grass or straw. The others might follow his lead, and sometimes there might be a confrontation between the masked animal and the horsemen.

Eventually the riders would be brought out of trance by their leader, and money would be collected from the assembled crowd. Similiar hobbyhorse trance dances were once performed in Sumatera and Sulawesi in connection with funeral rites. The horse (sometimes also bird) seems to function as a symbolic mount bearing human souls to and from the other world.

–> Read Also : Dance and Drama of Indonesia – Central Javanese Court Dances

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