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The Court Arts of Central Java: Part 1

Post Series: The Court Arts of Central Java
  • 1.The Court Arts of Central Java: Part 1

At the same time the Dutch began the cultivation of coffee trees in the 17th Century in Java, unique court cultures developed in the kratons (palaces) of Central Java. Among the most refined of all the court arts were gamelan music, dance and shadow puppetry. In our modern era the performing arts continue to be emblems of a regal past and kraton culture and Sultans can be found to this day in the cities of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. However, since Indonesian Independence in 1945, the royal way of life became unsustainable and like the castles of England, they opened their doors to local and international tourists.

Today’s new generation of dancers and musicians are not servants of royalty; they are artists living in Indonesia’s evolving modern society. It is deeply moving to see these classical forms sustained for their intrinsic value as art itself. I see this as a testament to the embedded meaning and aesthetic achievement of Central Javanese culture. For those, like me, who have studied the performing arts of the world, it is often said that Javanese gamelan and dance rank among the most beautiful and highly developed performance practices in the world.

Today, young Javanese performing artists are trained at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, Yogyakarta (ISI Yogyakarta).  This was the first art school established by the Indonesian government and to this day it remains the flagship campus in a network of arts schools across Indonesia. The dancers coming to Los Angeles on November 29, 2014 are the senior faculty and best students of ISI Yogyakarta. Many of them perform for the palaces of royalty — not for any remuneration, but in gratitude to the source of their cherished cultural history.

Gamelan music requires a large ensemble of players; instruments are made of valuable bronze and range from enormous gongs to small, high-pitched metallophones. Musical repertoire is vast and new pieces are being composed regularly. Indeed, the Cup of Java concert will include new works by both Djoko Waluyo and Anon Suneka.

Instruments are forged as a set, in a highly-elaborate process, thus each gamelan has its own name and sonic identity. You will hear the magnificent Kyai Dara Dasih on November 29, 2014 with Anon Suneka — the sonic conductor of the ensemble — sitting at the drum and Djoko Waluyo playing the instrument that he became famous for in Yogyakarta, the horizontal gongs called bonang. Ten distinct instrument types create a rich sonic soundscape that can at times be gentle and calming or mighty and forceful.

Vocal music is another key element of gamelan — both chorus and ornamental solos add luster and depth. The beautiful dance drama Karno’s Choice is the perfect illustration of how gamelan music supports the dramatic arch of emotions. In Cup of Java music adds context and depth as half-brothers meet in battle while their mother looks on in bitter sorrow.

Just as the music is able to span the range of human emotion, so too does the dance. A very specific movement language that is controlled, deliberate and detailed — down to the fingers — is used to convey the emotional, spiritual and mental state of each character.

Just as humans range in personal style, the Javanese have codified these human characteristics into a specific aesthetic way of moving. On one end of the spectrum there are refined styles that have an internal meditative quality — movements are serene, composed and delicately ornamented. At the other end of the spectrum is the extroverted strong vocabulary that is expansive, dynamic and physically assertive. These styles are put to great effect in India’s two epic dramas, the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

In eras past, dance was an essential part of the education of the princes and princesses of the Sultan. Today, that training and those lessons are available to everyone. The physical training in dance is a portal into developing self discipline, spiritual understanding, equanimity, mental control, and the composure required of a fully developed human being.

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