Dancing in Yogyakarta: 29 Jan - 1 Feb '14
Wed 29 Jan 14 - Sat 1 Feb 14 32 °C
After the peace, quiet and excitement of Bukit Lawang, our next stop was the cultural centre of Yogyakarta (pronounced sort of like Djogdjakarta), or Yogya for short. Situated in central Java, Yogya is not a huge city, but can claim to be Indonesia's cultural heart. At the Sultan's palace (they still have a Sultan), you can almost daily see a performance of either traditional dance, drama or music.
Luckily for me the first morning in Yogya there was a gamelan performance. For those of you non-musos, a gamelan is an orchestra made of gongs and xylophone- and metallophone-type instruments. Traditionally each village has one and it is a real skill to learn how to play each instrument - for example on the metallophone-style instruments you have to play one note while damping (essentially stopping) the previous one. Its pretty hard. Gamelan uses a pentatonic (5-note) tuning system (Western music uses 12) so it sounds pretty different. They are unique to Indonesia, and Javanese and Balinese gamelans differ - Bali is the only remaining Hindu part of Indonesia and so I imagine retains some of the previously more widespread cultural idioms that were lost when the final Hindu kingdoms fled from Java to Bali. To most Westerners gamelan sounds pretty weird, but I have a great fondness for it - probably because I first came across it as a kid (the University of Cambridge has one of the only full Javanese gamelans outside Indonesia so we saw it on some school trip), and studied it at GCSE as a world music choice (as my teacher then loved it) and we learnt by playing gamelan music. I was the gong ageng player. Its the biggest gong. Its ace. Although slightly highlighted my inability to count. So in Yogya I was determined to see Javanese gamelan performed. It was beautiful.
I got to see/hear Javanese gamelan again that evening, as we saw a performance of the Ramayana ballet. This is a very traditional telling of the story of Rama and Sita (their Indian names) popular throughout SE Asia - its on the walls at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, and here it is told through Javanese dance. It was beautiful and interesting and at times funny, but far far far too long. Now I am used to Western ballet being long - but the great performances have two important distinctions that make them amazing: -
1) Choreography that is startlingly different in different scenes, i.e. the choreography changes to show different parts of the story. Yes, the dancing changed in this Javanese dance - but often too subtly - and frankly one fight scene was mostly the same as the next (and the Ramayana has lots of battles).
2) Music that is integral to the drama. The greatest ballets in Europe have amazing scores that absolutely fire your emotions. I have never seen Romeo and Juliet as a ballet, but if you just hear Prokofiev's score to the fight between the Montague's and Capulet's you know it is a great dramatic moment, you know something terrible and tragic is about to happen without even knowing the story of the title of that scene. The Rite of Spring, with music by Stravinsky, caused a riot at its first performance in Paris in 1913, and its so striking it still sounds like it could have been composed yesterday. Music is so important to drama. A fantastic example is the start to Jaws, where you are swimming through the water from the shark's perspective. With that tiny repeated two-note phrase there is a sense of danger and menace that builds with every repetition. Try watching that scene with a nice twinkling bit of a Mozart piano sonata, with something from Disney's The Little Mermaid , or better yet, with a David Attenborough commentary. Somehow, it isn't scary anymore, its just swimming through the water from the fish's perspective. So my point here is that the music, while lovely, didn't really seem to add to the dancing other than giving them a beat and a couple of moments of Mickey-Mousing (when the music exactly matches the action - like a bang when a character gets hit on the head in a cartoon). In fact, the music seemed a separate entity rather than an integral part of the ballet. While I understand there is probably particular bits of music for particular bits of dancing, none of them seemed different enough - the music for the love scenes didn't come across as very different to the music for a fight scene.
All in all, I expected more from the Ramayana ballet - after all its supposed to be a big deal!
The setting for the ballet, however, was pretty cool - Prambanan temple - a big old Hindu temple complex. Unfortunately it was rainy season so the ballet took place in a theatre rather than in the temple complex itself - the atmosphere in the temple might have made it more dramatic. The temples were beautiful - very familiar to me - looking like a cross between Bagan, My Son and some of those at Angkor - with the most beautiful carvings - some of which looked distinctly Javanese. We even got a free guided tour from a student.
We got the same treatment the next day at Borobodur - the biggest Buddhist temple in Asia (apparently). Our poor long-suffering guide had to put up with Elin and I being asked for photos at every single point - before she'd turned up we'd only walked about 10-15 metres in half an hour because so many people kept stopping us! We didn't mind the schoolkids asking questions for their projects, but random people taking photos of us without asking, and worse, getting their friends/family to pose behind us without us knowing - was just weird and intrusive. After a few hours wandering round we were getting pretty fed up of it. The temple itself, however, was stunning. Basically a stepped pyramid topped in lots of stupas, most levels have a surround of carvings telling various stories - the life of Buddha for example. We had even gone to a nearby hill to watch the sunrise over it. Although cloudy, it was still pretty cool.
So from one type of culture to another - reggae bars are a big deal in Indonesia. Yogya's was just down the street from us, and it had a simply fantastic live band. They got everyone skanking their little socks off. Most recommended. We would have gone every night if we weren't up for sunrise one morning!
On one other note, food in Yogya sucked. If you don't eat chicken or fish, you can't eat Indonesian food there, which seems pretty bizarre as tempe, made from soybeans, is available everywhere else, and meat is so expensive, so you'd have thought there would have been vegetable dishes as well. Apparently note. Food in restaurants was expensive and not great, so we resorted to (shock horror) the local mall to eat - I had a bad okonomiyaki and some excellent bakery goods.