Dancing is about as universal as human activity gets. But just because peoples everywhere dance, it by no means follows that all forms of dance can be universally appreciated or understood -- certainly not at first sight, anyway. As with any other form of communication, the lineaments of dance are largely culturally determined, so that dances are as diverse -- and often as remote from each other -- as are cultures. What, for example, could be more full of bizarre artifice, convention and symbolism -- and hence more baffling to those unfamiliar with it -- than what we call "classical" ballet?
All this is prelude to observations about the oddity and mystification -- to unaccustomed Western eyes -- of the program of Topeng Cirebon, a masked dance form of West Java, on display at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium last night. The Topeng performance (topeng is the dance genre; Cirebon is the Javanese city where it originates) was seen here as part of the continuing 18-month Festival of Indonesia. It is easy enough to see instantly, even for the uninitiated, that it is a rich, highly developed art form.
On first acquaintance, topeng also seems strange, intricately ramified and fascinating. Its difficulties are compounded by the fact that "steps," as such, play only a minor role in its choreographic language, which is compounded of elements ranging from highly articulate fingers to subtle shifts of weight and bodily declination. Another obstacle lies in the symbolic hand signs, different from but akin to those of Indian dance, forming a complex sub-language of their own. Despite these and other barriers, topeng -- as embodied in the superb troupe of visitors last night -- is both absorbing and powerfully seductive; its energies, passions and joy somehow bridge the cultural waters.
Indonesia -- in itself a giant of a nation -- embraces, one is told, more than 300 subcultures, each with its own distinctive arts. Topeng, for instance, is strikingly contrasted with the Indonesian form known as bedhaya, which I was lucky enough to see last fall in Los Angeles in a performance by the Royal Court Dancers of Jakarta. Bedhaya, danced entirely by young women in luxurious raiment, is immediately recognizable as classical, in its formal economy, symmetry and serenity of spirit. Topeng, on the other hand, is positively baroque -- vehement, full of discordant flourishes, bursting in and out of comic asides, pungent in the extreme.
In its own habitat, topeng performances typically celebrate rites of passage (circumcision, marriage) and last all day. The 80-minute abridgment at Baird, however, preserved the structural features of the whole. Basically a solo form, topeng Cirebon focuses on the delineation of characters, together with archetypal traits and emotions. The Baird program began with a startlingly percussive instrumental-vocal introduction by the gamelan ensemble (drums, gongs, transverse flute, metallophones), and proceeded through a gallery of five danced portraits -- a measured, dignified noble; a jocular, exuberant youth; an equally lively but soberer adult; a proud, royal warrior; and a rambunctious ogre king.
All the characters but the third were beautifully and robustly performed by lead dancer Sujana Arja, scion of an eminent Cirebon dance dynasty; the other dancer was his sister Keni Arja. Another participant was the genre's clown figure, wittily portrayed by veteran Sandrut Bin Sarwiti. The costumes for the dancers -- featuring tall, bejeweled headdresses and knotted braids, knee-length jumpers bedecked with aprons and panels, a sword and sometimes a studded tie -- helped define the characters. More important, the exquisitely handcrafted masks -- white, placid and sweet-featured for the noble, for instance, but bloody red, bulging-eyed and grimacing for the ogre -- are magically evocative of the dramatis personae.
Not least, the movement style of each character incarnates his typical temperament and attitude in appropriate gestures, rhythms and dynamics. It was intriguing to see, in the case of the warrior, undulant arms snapping abruptly into fixed positions in a manner not unlike that of contemporary American "popping" or "electric boogie."
The clown figure has many obvious Western analogues. He's the irrepressible cutup -- proletarian and agrarian, in contrast to the aristocratic and courtly dancers -- who mimics and satirizes the more "serious" performers, and addresses his tart, mischievous commentary directly to the audience, or to the gamelan players, who give him plenty of back talk. At one point last night, he even sashayed his way into the audience, never letting up his impudent badinage with the onstage performers.
It also fell to Sarwiti to venture a salutation in English for the benefit of the appreciative Baird crowd. Pointing to the doffed garments of the villain he'd portrayed, in an episode of combat with the warrior, he gleefully exclaimed, "He's dead!" followed by a graceful "Thank you!" and a bow. The thanks flowed warmly in the other direction too, as the house rose to applaud and cheer. Other troupe principals included drummer and Music Director Bodong Bin Membang, and the company's leader, Elang Muhammad Yuwana Yusuf.