Discovering Javanese Culture through Dance

By Marcia Mai
Sep 27, 2011 Bookmark and Share

Over the past academic year, the University of Michigan had the honor of hosting the renowned Javanese artist F. X. Widaryanto. Widaryanto is a man of many talents—he is a dancer, teacher, scholar, choreographer, and gamelan musician—and this residency was his third at the University, having come for the first time in 1980 (thanks to Professor Emeritus Judith Becker). For this residency he was asked to create a dance drama about a beloved Muslim saint, Amir Hamzah, and to teach Javanese dance and music to members of the University community for seven months leading up to the premiere. 


I was fortunate enough to be asked to dance and perform with him, even though I am not, like the other twenty-three dancers, a student—I am an alumnus (MA, South and Southeast Asian Studies, 1989) and an independent dancer and choreographer. For seven months Widaryanto, who is affectionately known as Mas Yanto, taught us the basics of Javanese dance while choreographing, on us, his evening-length drama. The piece, called Love Flows, centers on the theme of love in Islam, both spiritual and human; it features the story of Amir Hamzah, the saintly uncle of the prophet Mohammad with whom two princesses fall in love. Learning to dance for this event was more challenging than it sounds because none of the dancers in our group had any experience with Javanese dance, whose movements and conventions are very different from those of other styles. Many of the dancers had a background in ballet and modern dance; several, including me, had a classical Indian dance background; and some of the dancers were taking their very first dance class. We were a motley crew.


But with thirty-five years of teaching under his belt, including several international residencies, Mas Yanto proved to be adept at training everyone, from the most experienced to the least experienced. Modeled after the movements of puppet characters from the traditional wayang puppet theater, Javanese dance movements are subtle and stylized, unfamiliar and challenging even to those of us who have danced for decades. And so Mas Yanto presented the movements in sequences, flowing from posture to posture, and gently asked us to repeat the dance patterns again and again—always dancing with us, sometimes telling us about the significance of specific movements, and sometimes telling us about Indonesian culture. Over the weeks and months his guidance paid off, and by the premiere, on March 27, the dancers were vividly able to portray their Javanese characters.


Javanese dance is different from other styles in culturally important ways. In contrast to Western ballet, modern dance, and to all of the Indian classical dance styles, traditional Javanese dance requires that a dancer’s eyes be downcast. This downward gaze, we learned, originated in the court of the Jogjakarta Sultan, where dancers, like all Javanese people, looked down out of respect, and were never allowed to look directly at high court figures. Looking downward is still considered to be refined within Indonesian society, a sign of good manners.


In striking contrast, American culture regards looking down as an impediment to good communication, a sign of shyness at best, or of disengagement or alienation at worst. As an American I have been taught from childhood to make eye contact whenever speaking to someone, and as a classical Bharatanatyam dancer I have been taught to gaze directly forward and imagine that I am looking at my beloved.  These habits are hard to break, so I found the downward gaze challenging! In the end I used my experience with sitting meditation to focus inward. With eyes focused down and mind focused inward, a peaceful feeling arose. Coupled with the sculpted movements, the dancing was both absorbing and relaxing.


The acting that occurs in a Javanese dance drama is unique in that it does not involve the face: a placid expression, which Mas Yanto described as “emptiness in fullness,” is to be maintained at all times. This seems like a contradictory concept, so I asked Susan Walton, who directs the University gamelan and has trained with Mas Yanto for many years, how she understands it.  “When one’s mind is empty, serene, and unfettered by daily concerns,” she says, “a deep spiritual fullness or awareness can enter.”


According to Mas Yanto, Javanese dance evolved in the court as a kind of meditative ritual to “get the Sultan in a peaceful state.” The synchronicity of the group of dancers, and of the dancers with the music, is of primary importance. This applies even to the smallest of movements: the flick of the scarf, which is a standard piece of costuming, should be executed by every dancer at the same time. The collective aesthetic focus (instead of a focus on individual prowess, as one finds in most other dance styles), along with the predominantly downward gaze and ever-serene expression, create a meditative experience not just for the viewer but for the dancers as well.


The significance of the scarf was one of many revelations. While I’d initially seen it as a colorful but superfluous swish of cloth, the scarf, he said, was “an empowering sign of the body, enlarging the human form.” As we learned Javanese dance movements we learned a Javanese way of seeing and understanding the world.  Movement is embedded with cultural meaning.


Mas Yanto says that the purpose of dancing Javanese dance is “to become more civilized, so that we can act with refined qualities.” Possessing refined qualities—the Javanese term for them is alus—is a highly regarded virtue in Javanese society, and comes from a deep spiritual understanding.  Susan Walton, who was instrumental in bringing Mas Yanto here for this residency, described alus as emotional equanimity and a deep spiritual acceptance of life. The way Mas Yanto kept his peaceful demeanor, even when rehearsals were challenging, made it clear that he acts in an alus way not just when he is dancing.  He was modeling the Javanese core values of serenity and deep enjoyment, and these are embedded in life and in dance.


During rehearsals I was able to interview the other dancers. Some had taken Javanese dance to learn a new dance style, others to fulfill the world dance course requirement for dance majors. For several students, it was their very first dance class. But whatever the motivation for taking the course, every single dancer said that she would take it again if the opportunity arose. This makes for a remarkably successful residency, and speaks volumes about Mas Yanto. His gentle demeanor and encouraging teaching style helped even absolute beginners achieve something of the incredibly refined Javanese aesthetic sense. When asked what he hoped his American students would learn, Mas Yanto said he would like the students to “imbibe something of Indonesian culture, and to be empowered.” My informal survey confirmed that he was successful on both counts.


In Mas Yanto’s view, the goal of performing is “to enjoy the movements and to share the results of your (collective) hard work.” After months of bi-weekly classes we were finally able to do this, and the performance was exhilarating. Love Flows premiered at Hill Auditorium on March 27, 2011. The choreography was inspired and graceful. The live music provided by the University’s gamelan orchestra, with the addition of special guest artists flown in for the performance, was splendid. The costuming wizardry of Mbak Eni, Mas Yanto’s wife and constant collaborator, transformed all of the dancers into lovely Javanese characters. All of these elements helped to tell a moving, universal story of love. I’m so grateful to have been able to play a part in it.


Mas Yanto hoped that the audience witnessing Love Flows would “get more clarity, experience that Islam has love as an ideal, not violence and terror.” I’m certain that his artistic vision of this often-maligned religion was unforgettable.