5.0 The dance and the temple: reconstruction and heritage

The task of reconstructing the dance technique could simply end here and be self-contained. But a research project such as this does not see the recreation of the dance sequences in isolation, it views them as an integral part of the site and the way it is experienced in the present, and also as a means to contextualise the site further. The use of computer technology is what allows us to do this. We are engaging with heritage and related issues, such as ownership of the past and its audience. The reconstructed and recreated dance is heritage.

We feel that work done on the overall reconstruction of the temple complex is significantly complemented by this dance reconstruction. It impinges on the way heritage is thought of, raising a new set of questions on how this is presented and consumed as archaeological performance and as dance.

In more recent archaeological practice, sites have ceased to be seen as static archaeological records, with a consequent and far reaching redefinition of heritage. Sites are places which are 'reworked, reconstructed, reinterpreted with no essential ground-level meaning to be uncovered' (Thomas 1994, 156). Archaeology as a discipline is engaged in a process of reconsidering its raison d'être and its methods, seeing itself as a practice located in the present - a recontextualisation. The site is being proposed as the locus of narrative and different models of recontextualisation, reconstitution and representation are being suggested (Pearson 1994, 152-53).

The heritage issue is a common concern of the archaeologist and the dance reconstructor, who come together in the practice of a dance archaeology. The construction of heritage links images, ideas and practices with national/local/ethnic/cultural identity and is often promoted as educational project and entertainment. The construction of dance as heritage is a very important concern in an Asian context and it goes hand in hand with tourist consumption of the recreated archaeological heritage, with hundreds of dance performances arranged with the backdrop of temple sites. Prambanan is, as will be seen, a case in point.

A less appealing feature of heritage-focused research, but one which must nonetheless be taken into account is its instrumental role in legitimising contemporary political concerns and creating a heritage to suit specific interests. Shahab has shown this interplay of interests in her study of the Betawi dance drama of Jakarta (1994), which has been reinvented as a 'traditional' performance genre, through the intervention of government agencies.

5.1 Contemporary performance at the Prambanan site: institutionalised consumption of heritage

Figure 11: Open air theatre at Prambanan complex
Figure 11: Open air theatre at Prambanan complex

A site such as Prambanan has already undergone a profound transformation in terms of its contemporary use. Located in an attractive and well kept archaeological park, it draws thousands of visitors every day. An open air theatre has been a suitable modern addition to the complex and here, in the dry season, there are daily performances of the Ramayana ballet (Sendratari), a contemporary genre of Javanese dance in which the story of Prince Rama is retold through representational dance, based on the steps and movements of Javanese court dance traditions. (Figure 11 & 12).The link of the dance drama with the complex is explicit: Prambanan is renowned for its reliefs of the Ramayana story. The rationale of the Ramayana perfomance is to convey an impression of tradition and antiquity, in an unbroken continuity with a remote past.

Figure 12: Ramayana ballet performance
Figure 12: Ramayana ballet performance (courtesy Getty Prambanan Project)

The movement sequences in the dance reliefs which were the object of our study could also, for example, be recreated and choreographed in a dance and presented live by a group of practising Javanese dancers, in the same performance context of the temple. Or they could be projected as images using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), during a live performance. Such developments represent a tantalising possibility.

Movie 6: Wahyudi integrated choreography - sequence 1

There is an important caveat, however. Unless this is clarified at the outset, the recreation of dance based on the sequences of the reliefs is in danger of being manipulated to make unwarranted and unqualified claims to pristine authenticity and centuries-long antiquity of living traditions of Javanese dance. Attempting to recreate the dance of the reliefs in a performance context cannot be taken exception to and the outcome may be aesthetically pleasing. But one must be wary of the bombastic rhetoric of certain heritage claims, which is to be prevented and avoided in a context as vulnerable as this.

Movie 7: Wahyudi integrated choreography - sequence 2

Didik Bambang Wahyudi, the dancer who worked with us on this project, has already choreographed a piece for the camera using up to ten recreated sequences from the reliefs and interweaving these movements with those of his own Javanese classical court dance style (gagah). The music for the piece was based on a recent composition for the gamelan ensemble, known as Gendhing Sesaji. The piece is non-representational in character. Its purpose is specifically that of illustrating the Prambanan karanas as dance, recreating a performance context, since performance was originally their raison d'être (Movies 6-8).

Movie 8: Wahyudi integrated choreography - sequence 3

Shanks has argued 'for the primacy of interpretation, the dynamic unity of past and present in the crafting of culture and history, for accepting the loss and decay of the past and...the obligation of restitution, our redeeming act of reconstruction' (1995, 173). In the same spirit, our concern is with ways of presenting the Prambanan site in a manner that is recognisably a creative process in the present and allows people 'to develop their own mental maps of places rather than impose institutionalised readings' (Walsh 1995, 133).

5.2 Future developments of the research

The animation of the dance sequences is thus envisaged as occurring in the wider context of a 'virtual' exploration of the complex. In other words, it makes little sense to talk of the dance of the Prambanan reliefs without contextualising the dance. The use of computer animation to study the dance reliefs is principally for the purpose of making visible what can only be imagined or seen when performed by a dancer specially trained to execute the reconstructed movements and their possible variants. The aim is to integrate the dance with the temple complex, to see it as part of it and as part of the movement of people around the complex, in the past and in the present.

The dance movements of the dance reliefs, on which the AHRB pilot project focused, seem to have a link with the Ramayana and other narrative reliefs of the complex. Similar dance positions can be observed in the Ramayana panels showing ritual performances and one could take these observations further by investigating the relationship between the dance reliefs of the outer balustrade and the narrative reliefs on the inner balustrade.

Few would deny that dance and performance had an important role to play in ancient Javanese society and that they had a connection with ritual, something which nevertheless we tend to underestimate. Understanding dance in the context of a major site such as Prambanan will definitely change our perception of ancient Javanese religiosity, with inevitable implications for our knowledge of ancient Java.

Contextualising the dance of Prambanan goes hand in hand with another important aim: interactive exploration of the site. This can be accomplished by allowing a virtual exploration of the dance and of the temple complex with animations, images and maps, with users navigating the complex and being engaged in a process of interpretation and reconstitution, developing their own sense of the place. The question of heritage ownership can thus be brought into the foreground10.


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Last updated: Fri Jun 1 2001