Throughout Indonesia, dance is an ancient tradition. But there is no singular “Indonesian dance.” Indonesia is a vast archipelago. It spans more than three thousand miles from east to west and includes literally thousands of islands. Indonesia was not even conceived of as a unitary nation until the mid-twentieth century, and it remains among the most diverse countries in the world. Historically, each island developed local styles of dance. These often differ dramatically, even within the space of a single island.
This spring, performers flew from Indonesia to Washington, DC, to introduce Freer|Sackler audiences to dance specifically from central Java. The dancers and musicians arrived at the museums directly from the airport on Friday, May 11, eager to get into the Meyer Auditorium and set their lighting cues for Saturday’s show. They had prepared a special program—one that brought together classical and contemporary Javanese dance, accompanied by a live gamelan orchestra. It was a rare opportunity to present these two distinct genres in a single evening. Typically in Indonesia, classical and contemporary are found in different contexts: classical dance is performed in the palaces or other traditional settings, and contemporary dance is usually seen at the arts universities or theaters. Rather than keeping them separate, this program featured some of the oldest Javanese dance, and then some of the newest. Watch the performance in the video below.
Master Javanese dancers Urip Sri Maeny and Pamardi Tjiptopradonggo performed pieces from the classical court tradition of central Java, as well as a new work reflecting modern dance innovations in Indonesia. Maeny has taught Javanese dance at Wesleyan University for forty years and performed internationally at museums, theaters, and consulates. Dancer and choreographer Pamardi is on the faculty of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Surakarta, and he has taught, performed, and choreographed throughout the world. The gamelan ensemble was led by Sumarsam, Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music at Wesleyan, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on Indonesian music. It was Sumarsam’s invitation that brought Pamardi from Indonesia to be an artist in residence at Wesleyan this spring. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to host all three of these masters at the Smithsonian.
Of all Indonesian dance techniques, Javanese dance is the most refined. It takes an astounding amount of strength and control to execute the slow and steady movements that you’ll see the dancers perform in the video. For Javanese dance—classical or contemporary—the dancers have to look inward to embody the character or the emotion they’re meant to portray. Look for their subtle or unexpected movements, their breath, and their connection to the ground. In Indonesia, power and possession begin from the earth and travel up the body. The beat of the drum directs the flow of energy, and the dancers both respond to and control its rhythms. Learn more in the performance’s program notes.
The first piece that the dancers performed, which is classical, is drawn from the tales of Panji, the legendary folk prince known for his travels. Above, the top image shows a fifteenth-century temple high on the slopes of a volcanic mountain in East Java. The relief carving depicts Panji sitting with his beloved in his lap, playing an Indian stringed instrument called a vina. The relief is the only known representation of this instrument in Indonesian sculpture. The image conjures both the sound of the music and Java’s early connections with places across the sea.
Unfortunately, around 2010 Panji’s head was destroyed or removed. What you see above is actually a photographic reconstruction created by merging an archival image and a current photograph. Natural and intentional destruction is an ongoing challenge at sites throughout Indonesia. That evening in the Freer|Sackler’s Meyer Auditorium, we were lucky enough to enjoy a living art form that is both preserved and continues to grow.
The performance was well received by a lively, full audience. Beyond our walls, more than three hundred viewers enjoyed a live broadcast on the Freer|Sackler’s YouTube and Facebook pages. And hundreds more have been able to watch the performance since.
On Sunday afternoon, the Freer|Sackler hosted a dance workshop. Participants had the opportunity to learn basic gestures, postures, and movements of traditional Javanese dance firsthand from the two dance masters, Maeny and Pamardi. Then Pamardi led the group in his unique contemporary technique, which develops upon these traditions in exciting new ways.
The weekend was a great success! The focus on Indonesian dance was part of our efforts to expand the presence of Southeast Asia at the Freer|Sackler. We look forward to seeing you in the Sackler exhibition Power in Southeast Asia or at an upcoming program soon!