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CRL Resources on Dance in Indonesia

Christopher A. Miller
Curator, Cross-Cultural Dance Resources Collection, Arizona State University


Surakarta style dancers depict brothers Rama and Laksmana in the epic dance-drama Ramayana. From Dances in Indo-nesia by Gunung Agung Soedarsono (Jakarta, Indonesia: P. T. Gunung Agung, 1974). CRL e-Resource.

The five selected resources from the Center for Research Libraries collection discussed below share a common thematic thread in the dance arts of Indonesia. For the scholar who wishes to know more about The Dance across local cultures in the diverse nation, these titles offer an introduction that ranges from cursory information on Indonesian dance history to in-depth discovery of specific performance practices. On a deeper level, each author approaches the subject matter as an ethnographer, weaving into descriptive narrative their own interpretations of underpinnings in Indonesian dance, most importantly key social, religious, and political overtones. Further, the authors are themselves practitioners of dance performance, and with one exception Indonesian, providing a definite sense of the insider’s perspective.

These resources provide yet another layer of discovery when considered as a whole. Together, they capture an important moment in the Indonesian performing arts in which a shift in discourse is clearly evident. Most of the authors have both a historical connection to a courtly past coupled with a contemporary responsibility for instruction and leadership in the national performing arts conservatory system established in the early 1960s. There is an inherent tension as knowledge production shifts from the courts, particularly those of Solo and Yogyakarta in Central Java, which supported the arts for centuries, to the newly developed state-sponsored academies. The writing further captures a compelling dynamic in which the Indonesian nation is still interpreted through a Central Javanese gaze. Increasingly resisted in recent scholarship, the frame built around Indonesian dance (with the important exception of the work on Balinese dance) is Javanese, exemplifying a cultural dominance over national identity construction from the time of these works.

Soedarsono. Dances in Indonesia.
Jakarta, Indonesia: P. T. Gunung Agung, 1974

Soedarsono, who grew up in the courtly dance traditions of Central Java, played a key role in both the establishment of the first performing arts conservatories of Indonesia and the instruction of an early generation of ethnomusicologists in the United States. Though the title of the work advertises a consideration of dance arts of the nation, the actuality of the text reflects strong consideration of Javanese dance, coupled with a respectful review of Sunda and Bali, and ending with cursory information of cultures beyond the Java-Bali center. Perhaps the greatest strength of this work is its keen observations on the divisions in classical dance performance practice between the courtly Javanese traditions of Solo and Yogyakarta. Richly illustrated in both textual description and photography, Soedarsono crafts a deep understanding of these traditions. This is also the most clearly nationalistic of the works considered here, as Soedarsono interprets the dance stage as a larger metaphor for the pursuit of national harmony through diversity, directly referencing the principles of Pancasila. Discussion of dance in Bali and Sumatra naturally lead to the strong influence of Hinduism and Islam respectively, as the author emphasizes both the diversity of the nation and its strength in collective character.

On a more practical level, the work offers helpful synopses of key theatrical works in almost every tradition that it discusses, including a rich explanation of important terminology. The allied arts, especially music and theater (including puppetry), are rightfully depicted as inseparable from dance traditions. And though they are not approached with the depth they deserve, the dance traditions of Sumatra and the eastern islands are presented with a connoisseur’s respect. This work likely presages the curriculum development of more recent instruction and study in a broad range of Indonesian dances among those conservatories that Soedarsono helped to establish.

Surjodiningrat, Wasisto, Raden Mas. Gamelan, Dance, and Wayang in Jogjakarta.
Jogjakarta, Indonesia: Gadjah Mada University Press, 1971

Though a mathematician by profession, Surjodiningrat shares with the previous author a common bond to life in the court. This work is an early example of a prestigious academic institution, Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, adding its voice to discourse on the performing arts. Though it is episodic, Surjodiningrat’s work offers endearing perspectives on artistic life and accounts of dance culture that are often hidden from light. His snapshot accounts frequently offer small morsels that mean a lot. The transmission of dance practice seamlessly leads into discussion of gamelan instruction in the West and the then-recent role of electronic media. This is most likely the earliest and most serious discussion of mediation in the arts (for the time that it was written) including keen observations on the benefits and challenges offered by newer media. Since the time of its publication, and especially in recent years, the scholarship on media in Indonesia (everything from film to cassette culture) has been dissected in the literature.

Surjobrongto, B. P. H. The Classical Yogyanese Dance.
Jogjakarta, Indonesia: Lembaga Bahasa Nasional Tjabakg II, 1970

Surjobrongto offers a charming account of dance practice in Yogyakarta and perhaps the most compelling of those discussed here in its approach to dance method. Originally written as a conference address, the text delivers a moving description of Javanese spirituality in dance. Surjobrongto masterfully frames dance as both an internal struggle and spiritual quest, situating the dancer in descriptions of Javanese symbology usually reserved for religious works. Though sadly faded, dance photographs from the 1930s add to the backwards glance.

Brakel-Papenhuijzen, Clara. The Sacred Bedhaya Dances of the Kratons of Surakarta and Yogyakarta.
Voorburg, The Netherlands: C. Brakel-Papenhuyzen, 1988

Brakel-Papenhuijzen’s comprehensive investigation of a single dance performance tradition is a monument of ethnographic research in dance. Balancing the archival collections of the courts with the first two decades of research in the conservatories, the text reflects close readings of a rich spectrum of resources, from esoteric court manuscripts and poetry to contemporary academic theses. Having dedicated herself to both dance performance practice and scholarship in Java for well over a decade, Brakel-Papenhuijzen presents carefully considered participant-observer ethnography of the increasingly rare bedhaya dance. Documentation of the tradition extends into film capture, which enables thorough notation and graphic representations in the back matter. Unlike the works discussed above, which often paint with broad strokes, this text offers dance tradition under a microscope with fine-grained investigation of minute regional differences.

Bandem, I Madé, and Fredrik Eugene deBoer. Kaja and Kelod: Balinese Dance in Transition.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 1981

A scholar with many connections to gamelan instruction in the West, I Madé Bandem delivers a smartly constructed investigation of dance in Bali connected at all times to religious belief systems on the island. The work takes as its launching point the spatial and temporal organization of the island into kaja (sacred) and kelod (profane), which is deeply infused into life on Bali from the most macro matters of infrastructure to the home and finally in personal spiritual practice. Not to be separated from this sense of place and time is the diverse repertoire of Balinese dance, which is precisely constructed along this spiritual spectrum. The scholar interested in deep religious connections to dance practice comes away from Bandem’s work richly rewarded.

Additional Texts on Gamelan

Because the literature on the gamelan music of both Java and Bali is copious, many of the texts reviewed here assume a cursory knowledge of writing on gamelan. Among texts available from CRL, the following are recommended:

Lindsay, Jennifer. Javanese Gamelan.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 1979

Lindsay’s introductory work on gamelan until recently was the default text in many music programs around the U.S.

International Gamelan Festival. Proceedings of the First International Gamelan Festival and Symposium.
Vancouver, B.C.: Republic of Indonesia, 1986

An interesting snapshot of early gamelan study and a compelling mix of Indonesian and Western perspectives.

Hood, Mantle. The Nuclear Theme as a Determinant of Paṭet in Javanese Music.
Groningen, Djakarta: J. B. Wolters, 1954

For the reader with a deeper understanding of music theory, Hood’s investigation of mode in Javanese music remains a defining work.

The works discussed here provide terrific insight into dance practices of Indonesia, specifically those of the well-documented traditions of Java and Bali. What remains to be added is the wealth of scholarship that has developed since: most notably the many theses and dissertations that have been produced by the talented students of Indonesian conservatories, now more inclusive in distribution of location and frame of inquiry. Those theses now far outnumber scholarly works of dance ethnography in the West and are sadly neglected. Further, one hopes that this effort at CRL may be duplicated with scholarship on the dance traditions of other Southeast Asian nations.