With the change of the times, forms of arts including dance also change and develop according to the conditions of each district. Usually these changes are influenced by political, economic, and social factors.
Indonesia, consisting of some big islands and thousands of small ones, is very rich in various forms performing arts. The country used to be composed of more than forty small countries that existed side by side peacefully and independently, and each area has preserved its original arts, including dance and music. With the independence of Indonesia from the Netherlands in 1945, these small countries were incorporated into the Republic of Indonesia.
Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat (The Royal Court of Surakarta), situated in the central part of the island of Java, was one of the main countries. It was founded in 1745 as the successor of the Islamic Mataram dynasty that was founded at the end of the sixteenth century. Although the country was politically and economically by the Netherlands, the people of Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat nurtured various performing arts, such as dance, gamelan (bronze instruments orchestra), wayang kulit (leather puppet theatre), and wayang wong (theatre) to maintain their dignity. Hundreds of court artists were appointed to care for and create the artistic matters in the name of the kings.
Following Indonesian independence, King Pakoeboewono XII of Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat merged his kingdom into the Republic of Indonesia. Losing political power, the king’s role changed from ruler to protector of customary law. Nowadays, his main task is to take care of and develop traditional arts along with practicing traditional ceremonies. To perpetuate the arts that originated from Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat, the nobilities founded a conservatory in 1950, which is now a national high school.
Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat, as a political center in the past and as a cultural center and resource until today, has played important roles in the development of dance in Central Java. It home to various pusaka (sacred treasures), including “Bedhaya Ketawang,” a highly sacred dance piece, performed only at the coronation and the memorial day of it. Danced by nine unmarried female dancers who are still virgin, this dance was created during the Mataram dynasty under the reign of Sultan Agung (1616–1645). Since then, more than ten court dances based on “Bedhaya Ketawang” were created and performed in the court on ceremonial occasions. All these dances are named Bedhaya “something,” depending on the name of the first piece of music accompanying the dance. Another female court dance is Srimpi. Performed by four girls, this dance is less ceremonial than Bedhaya dances.
There are also some male dances and female-male dances. The ones that have a literary background (based on episodes or epics such as Ramayana, Mahabarata, or Panji) are called Wirèng and others that more purely express dance techniques or movements based on martial arts and the combat drills are called Beksan. The court also has dance-dramas. Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat currently has a dance repertory consisting of approximately seven Bedhaya, eleven Srimpi, six Wirèng, and six Beksan, but the frequency and function of the each piece differs.
Even though Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat lost its political sovereignty and has had a hard time economically, it still functions as the center of Javanese art and culture and has also been working to maintain traditional ceremonies while continuing to educate dancers and musicians of the next generation. It also keeps creating new dance and music based on traditional styles. In fact, when Princess G.R.Ay. Koes Murtiyah Paku Buwono was honored with the Fukuoka Prize from Fukuoka City, Japan, in 2012 for her effort to conserve and revive the court dance, she choreographed and the author composed music for two pieces, “Srimpi Wursita Rukmi” and “Srimpi Nugraha,” which are now new parts of the repertory.
(Translated and abridged by Prof. Tamura Fumiko, Chikushijogakuen University)