Indonesian Dance Master Stirs Up Tradition

The choreographer became frustrated by what he saw as `stagnation' in the classic Javanese style

Bagong Kussudiardjo is an Indonesian Renaissance Man.

The painter and dancer is among the more prominent artistic impresarios in this extraordinary center of centuries-old traditions of music, dance, art, and architecture. The artistic masters of Yogyakarta set the tempo for Java, the country's most powerful culture, and thus for much of diverse Indonesia.

At his expansive artists' colony on the outskirts of this central Javanese city, some unannounced visitors interrupt Mr. Kussudiardjo in his cluttered studio as he puts final touches on an oil painting of Balinese village women.

Anxious to show off the compound he has built since 1978, Kussudiardjo guides his guests through gardens of tropical lushness, past traditional structures with intricate Javanese wood carving, through a display of his oil and batik paintings, to his open-air dance studio, where a regiment of young students practices his latest choreography.

``This is tradition; this is symmetry; this is Java,'' he says, sweeping his arms as if to encompass his artistic empire.

KUSSUDIARDJO is a typical product of Yogyakarta's artistic nurturing. His father was a traditional painter. His mother did batik. His brother danced. And although principally a dancer during his 37-year career, he has mastered all three.

But, impatient with static traditional ways, he has experimented with dance and drama from the West and Asia.

He has incorporated the leaps, jumps, and facial expressions of Western ballet into the stately classical court dances, and, in the process, has altered the concept of traditional dance here and ruffled many purists in this intensely Javanese city.

``In Java, people are very open and tolerant to other Indonesian cultures and influences. They are not fanatics,'' says the dance master. ``But nationalism among artists here is still very strong since Yogyakarta was the center of the [independence] revolution.''

During the 350-year history of the once powerful sultanate, a rich tradition of folk dance and drama was melded into a sophisticated strain of technically demanding court dances and dramatic art. Dance was a cornerstone of royal Javanese ceremonies, battle preparations, theater, and entertainment. A court-sponsored dance institute opened in 1918.

Banned from schools by Dutch colonists, Javanese dance was taught to the young and became an emotional symbol of emerging Indonesian nationalism during the two-decade independence struggle that drove the European rulers from the archipelago in 1949.

Even today, many young Javanese study traditional classical dance to round out their cultural educations and ground themselves in what many parents still consider an ancestral inheritance and the highest form of artistic expression.

But Kussudiardjo says he was cut from a different mold.

At one time a student steeped in the tradition of court dance, the choreographer became frustrated by what he saw as the ``stagnation'' in Javanese classical dance.

So he traveled the world studying dance and drama forms: Western modern dance with Martha Graham, folk dance in Mexico, kabuki theater in Japan, acrobatics in China's Peking opera, the varied techniques of Indian dance, and the multitude of dance forms in his native Indonesia.

What emerged was Kussudiardjo's controversial style employing smooth-flowing movements found in Western dance and soaring leaps and whirls of ballet in an innovative form of traditional Javanese dance. His critics were numerous.

``Some people protested that I had destroyed dance. They thought it was impossible for my dance to keep on living because the existing dances had been stable and deep-rooted in our society,'' Kussudiardjo says. ``But I considered the opposing reactions a challenge to be more courageous and zealous in expressing my ideas and initiative.''

AMID the furor, patrons emerged, and in 1958, the choreographer opened his first dance-training center. His current establishment -

Padepokan Seni, ``home of the artist'' - was founded in 1978, among the first of Yogyakarta's many privately run artistic institutes. Today, the artist and dance master has 15 students from Indonesia, the United States, Australia, and Japan, studying dance, painting, and music for a six-month term.

Kussudiardjo's seven children, all artists, live in Yogyakarta. One of his daughters teaches dance at the institute, and three of his 16 grandchildren have become dancers. The choreographer plans to build an open-air theater seating 200 people for staging his experimental dances.

``Maintaining our dance does not mean putting it in a golden cage, so that every time we want to see and enjoy its beauty, we can only appreciate it merely as a something precious with past value,'' he muses.

``To keep and maintain dance means to touch it, learn from it, and work on it so that it becomes the material for new creations.''

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