POST C – Ari Bowo on Traditional Dance and Culture in Java

102921(Ballet Purawisata. 2017)

On my second day in Yogyakarta, Indonesia I decided to visit the Kraton, a palace which serves as the main seat of the Sultan of Yogyakarta and a focus of traditional cultural activity in Java. Still wide-eyed and in the grip of culture shock I arrived in time to witness an abridged version of the Ramayana Ballet – an epic Sanskrit saga told through traditional Javanese dance. When the performance ended I walked around the palace grounds in a daze, processing the beauty and energy of the performance, and stumbled upon Ari’s community studio.

Ari is a traditional craftsman and dancer, part of a community of families whose lives are dedicated to working as craftsmen, artists, and dancers in service of the sultan. Ari studied dance for 12 years under a master dance teacher of Yogyakarta, who introduced Ari to competitive dancing but also taught him how to “begin to introduce the beautiful aspect of life into dancing.”

Dance to Ari is “the most beautiful art that I have ever done and that I ever will.”

dsc_5519(Vagabond Images. 2016)

After his training, he continued dancing – and endeavored to “understand the connection between dancing and life – as a spiritual subject.”

“We try to relate to the atmosphere around us, how we can be honest to self and how comfortable we are when we try to relate to lots of different people. How we can use this emotion in dance to begin to accept things.”

Ari explained elements of Ramayana to me, particularly the binary conflict between protagonist and antagonist, good and evil, Rama and Ravana, which can be seen as an allegory of the Rama’s internal struggle between elements of his personality.

“If there is nothing good there is nothing bad and this is a good way to teach us how to face ourselves and understand parts of ourselves.”

Ari also spoke about beauty in Ramayana, and the importance of masks in representing ‘the surface of the person.’

sendratariramayana(Adam, 2014)

“we should see beautiful things from the inside – beauty is not what they [the dancers] wear but about the movement.”

Sound is also intrinsic to expression in Ramayana, accompanying the transfixing music of gamelan, dancers often wear bells or chimes on their ankles to signify the entrance of giants or demons into the narrative. Characters that are ‘good’ tend to be quiet or silent (Inside Indonesia, 2007).

‘These two sides help understand self’ says Ari ‘but never expect to be a perfect person. It is about how we can feel the process of being self.

Ari decided to stop dancing because, though he enjoyed sharing energy with people through performance, he felt there were not enough positions available for young dancers. His fear was that Javanese dance culture might be lost if the younger generation were not given such opportunities.

“I love this culture and this tradition so personally, that I can’t imagine nobody doing it anymore.”

After much discussion, Ari and I settled upon the word catharsis to explain his experience of dance. Javanese dance is physical and spiritual, traditional and vibrant and enables dancers to respect their ancestors, understand themselves and communicate this energy or feeling to others.

On preserving culture Ari had this to say – “Some people do not want to accept culture that has nothing to do with their own belief. You need to understand the meaning inside a culture or a religion – and not practice on the surface. In Indonesia, but especially in Java – culture and dance is way to communicate with another spirit. We use connections to create beauty.”

prambanan-ramayana-ballet-dance-33(Royal Ambarrukmo, 2017)


Adam, A. 2014, Ramayana Ballet, Antonie’s Travel, viewed 13 Feb 2017, <;.

Ballet Purawisata. 2017, Ramayana Ballet, Magnificant Ramayana Ballet, viewed 10 February 2017, <;.

Inside Indonesia 2007, The Theft of Sita, Melbourne, viewed 12 Feb 2017, <;.

Royal Ambarrukmo. 2017, Sendratari Ramayana, Ambarrukmo, viewed 12 February 2017, <;.

Vagabond Images. 2016, Amazing Ramayana Ballet of Java, Vagabond, viewed 10 February 2017, <;.

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