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Rare Glimpse of Javanese Dance

Tour offers traditional forms from sacred ritual to rival puppet kings

WITH its five recent Boston performances, the Court Art of Yogyakarta-Java ensemble completed a month-long tour that brought Americans a glimpse of one of the most rarefied and protected art traditions in the world. Jeremy Aliger, head of the sponsoring Boston Dance Umbrella, took the occasion to remind audiences that the arts in some societies are greatly respected, unlike their current vulnerable condition in the United States. Indonesian arts have a strong traditional base even when they're contemporary. In Java, the old sultans' courts at Yogyakarta and Surakarta act as centers for the preservation and continuance of those traditions in their purest form. Companies of musicians and dancers are on call to perform at the kraton (the sultan's palace), and these artists also teach in local academies and give public performances.

For the tour, in connection with the 1990-91 Festival of Indonesia, four distinct but interrelated genres were given, all accompanied by a large gamelan orchestra.

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The sacred dance form Bedhaya was the one most readily recognized by the American audience for its pristine classical expressiveness, despite the fact that the nine majestic women did almost nothing that resembled any dancing familiar to us. Swaying from side to side or gliding smoothly forward on their toes, they maintained a very still inward concentration. Their linear floor patterns dissolved from one cryptic design into another, almost as if something outside the dancers' will had caused each change. Heads tilting from side to side, hands curling or flicking back the ends of their scarves, they seemed to be gently brushing away any speck of dust that might cloud their aura of spirituality.

More theatrical but also removed from the mundane were the dance drama Wayang Wong, the shadow puppet play Wayang Kulit and the drama based on rod puppets, Golek Menak. Stories in Javanese theater come from the great Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and also from more contemporary, Islamic texts. But whatever the religious foundation, they're all populated by deities, noble characters with good and evil intentions, giants or demons, and affable servant-clowns. There's always some moral question at issue, and battles get fought by all the characters in the hierarchy, according to the refinement or the coarseness of their nature.

The dialogue can be in one of several languages, from arcane ancient Javanese to the lowest vernacular, including English slang. Plot synopses printed in the program helped the audience figure out what was going on, but at least in the Wayang Wong and Golek Menak, the action was so graphic that specifics weren't too essential. Wayang Kulit is more verbal, and in Los Angeles an excellent simultaneous translation was provided by professor Hardjo Susilo, who is now on the faculty at the University of Hawaii.

In an all-night Wayang Kulit - Los Angeles saw the only example on the tour - the rival puppet kings sit immobile and engage in lengthy, elaborate debates about the ideal conduct of religious and political life. The audience may doze off during these seances, but we're woken up again by vigorous battles that escalate in size and violence. The dalang (puppeteer) accompanies the combat with loud rapping and clanging, which adds an illusion of weighty impact to what are only filigreed leather figures looming on a screen in the light of an oil lamp.

Besides working all the puppets, the dalang improvises much of the dialogue, cues the gamelan, and often arranges the scenes to suit each performance. He invents uproarious comedy for the clowns, who represent the common people and so can be rude and even irreverent, but who uphold the moral codes by remaining loyal to their leaders. Dalang for these performances was the virtuoso Radyo Harsono.

The same story, ``Arjuna's Wedding'' was the theme for both the Wayang Kulit and Wayang Wong programs on the tour. When live actors performed it, the piece became very theatrical. The sumptuous, gold-ornamented costumes and headdresses alone provided a spectacular display, and the actors filled out the character distinctions that could only be indicated by puppets. Given as a two-hour evening, the Wayang Wong zeroed in on the characters: the saintly Arjuna; his enemy, the boastful Niwatakawaca; and the princess Suprabha, who saves herself from the villain's clutches and tricks him into exposing himself to one of Arjuna's arrows.

Two princesses are rivals in Golek Menak, and engage in a genteel struggle that ends when one of them stabs the other, with such deadly finesse she could almost be doing needlework. In some ways, Golek Menak is the strangest of all these nonrealistic and often grotesque forms. The actors' movements are conventionalized to resemble the limited range of Wayang Golek rod puppets. We got an example of the real thing, by the way, on the program of Sundanese music and dance from West Java, which was also touring in September.

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Golek puppets are hinged at the shoulder and elbow joints. Like the two-dimensional Wayang Kulit puppets, they have no legs, but are held by a central shaft. Their heads can move up and down and in rotary motion, apart from the torso. All these, and only these, options are open to Golek Menak actors. With stiff legs, jerky peremptory arm gestures, and a kind of swiveling locomotion, they still manage to make the noble characters look more refined than the demons and the clowns.

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