2.0 The dance in the reliefs: previous research and rationale for the computer animation

On the basis of the cultural links that existed between ancient India and ancient Java, a number of scholars have suggested the likelihood of knowledge in ancient Java of Indian forms of dance and of Indian codifications relating to performance. Earlier research has focused specifically on these Indian inputs in the performing arts of Java (Vatsyayan 1977; Sedyawati 1982).

The main reason why the Prambanan dance reliefs have elicited interest has mostly been in terms of establishing whether this is either Indian or Javanese dance. This is no doubt a most engaging issue, yet it overshadows the dance itself. The reliefs have never received attention for their value as representations of dance qua dance. Indeed, some hold the view that since these are specimens of Hindu art, the representations are abstract and bear no relation to reality. If at all, these would be representations of Indian dance as the people of ancient Java imagined it to be.

But even if, and here the 'if' is stressed, these were representations of Indian dance as the Javanese visualised it, these images still hold interest as examples of virtual dance ante litteram. No matter whether practised for real or only imagined, the dance vocabulary shown in the reliefs is very sophisticated and worth exploring. This approach represents a departure from the way the dance reliefs have historically been perceived.

2.1 Decoding with a non-Western system of analysis

As stated, the decoding of the dance vocabulary was done before the project on computer animation began. Early textual material originating from India was used, specifically the Natyashastra, a text on dance, music and drama, of unspecified date but reputed not to be later than the 6th century CE. The decoding was also done with reference to parallel sculptural evidence, from India and from mainland Southeast Asia.

The use of the Natyashastra codifications in the decoding process that eventually led to the animation should be explained, as reference to it was not made from the usual standpoint i.e. to investigate whether Javanese dance is Indian derived. There were other considerations. The major problem relating to the dance shown in the reliefs is that we do not have a written indigenous classificatory system coeval with the reliefs. Indeed, we have to wait until the 19th century to find written codifications of dance in a Javanese context (Brakel-Papenhuizen 1993). The latter are very specific to the particular forms they deal with and could not be used in connection with earlier forms. The only codification system relatively close to the reliefs in time and in concept is the one found in the Natyashastra and related texts, whose clear aim is to codify dance movements. I say 'in concept' because across Asian dance modes, even today one can see affinities and parallels in the way the body is manipulated for movement. Even though the reliefs show static positions, it is still possible to infer how the body is to be manipulated to hold those positions. This has important implications for classificatory and analytical systems.

Scholars have alerted us to the Natyashastra's potential application in the analysis of dance movements based on specific principles of body manipulation, at the basis of which is the use of particular stances and their variants and manipulation of body parts unknown in other systems (Vatsyayan 1983). The issue of origin of the dance or specific influences is not central in this context, where it is the classification system that is under scrutiny and its effectiveness for analysis. There is a feeling of uncertainty, if not discomfort, in using Western systems of analysis in connection with non-Western dance and movement forms, and one wonders whether there are alternatives. The use of the Natyashastra for the decoding process gave an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of utilising its codes for dance analysis, without having to rely solely on Western systems of movement analysis. It must be appreciated that Western systems of dance and movement analysis are not neutral, even though they claim to be universal in that they are couched in the language of human anatomy. They are nevertheless built around a specific understanding of movement, which is culturally bound.

It was intuitively felt that the Natyashastra codes were more suitable than Western systems of analysis to explain details of movements which, though not of Indian origin, did nevertheless have affinities with the ones codified in the Natyashastra, evident when looking at how the body had to be manipulated. Thus the codes of the Natyashastra were used for the decoding and identifications of the Prambanan movement clusters and motifs and they were found to be more than adequate.

The use of the Natyashastra's codes did, however, prove to be difficult to handle for a number of other reasons, to do with presentation of content rather than the content as such. The terminology of the Natyashastra is technical but also highly poetic and evocative and does not translate well into English from the original Sanskrit. The codes show a different way of thinking about movement and are therefore difficult to understand, without explaining them in every detail. Once mastered, the codes are helpful to exchange information about the movement execution but they are not immediately accessible. This hampers clarity of analysis, is an impediment to the visualisation of the dance patterns and may cause misgivings, especially if the analysis is perceived without a live demonstration of the execution of the movements. If it is presented through a live demonstration by a dancer specially trained for the purpose, it can be immediately grasped. However, it will be appreciated that one cannot always rely on a dancer to access the reconstruction. Working with a moving human body is part of the reconstruction process, because the movement has to be tried out in practice, but it does little for accessibility in a non-live performance context.

It has already been indicated that an understanding of the dynamics of the dance portrayed in the reliefs has some bearing on the archaeological restoration of the temple and on an understanding of its ritual context. It is therefore paramount that the dance reconstruction should be accessible to non-dance specialists as well as dance specialists.

2.2 Communicating the dance reconstruction

Figure 5: Photo of relief P49
Figure 5: Photo of relief P49

What ways are there to communicate the dance reconstruction, apart from performance? Let us briefly review the options4.

Presenting the movement reconstruction through drawings, descriptions and photographs is unsatisfactory. Drawings are static representations and this is insufficient to make the identification easy to grasp. In fact, drawings can be misunderstood. If one is unaccustomed to thinking kinetically, it will not be possible to visualise missing links by simply looking at drawings. (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Movement sequence from P49
Figure 6: Movement sequence from P49 based on Natyashastra definition of movement sequence

Notation can be used to 'write down' the movement but of course it requires fluency in reading. And whereas notation is a very useful tool and a very important one when used in conjunction with other recording systems, a score on its own fails to recreate adequately the sense of period and style or an aesthetic quality (Adshead 1988, 18). It can also become far too lengthy and cumbersome, because of the sheer volume of movement information that has to be notated. Also, earlier statements about the assumption of neutrality of a Western system of analysis equally apply to notation, usually based on such systems. (Figure 7)

Figure 7: Notation score of sequence in P49
Figure 7: Notation score of sequence in P49 (Notation by Jean Johnson Jones)

There is the option of the (video) film with which a dancer's performance can be recorded. A video film, however, still requires a dancer to perform the movements. Thus in the case of reconstructed movements, one needs to train a dancer and then film him/her. With a film a further barrier is interposed between the reconstruction, the interpreter (the dancer) and the viewer, as the dance is seen through the eyes of the film director. A film is a very useful record of a performance but on its own is insufficient as a tool for understanding and analysing movement (Movie 1).

Wahyudi performing movement sequence seen in P49

A newer option is available through the use of computer animation. What are its advantages? Animation allows storage of the reconstruction and its immediate availability, something that for obvious reasons cannot be done with a real dancer. Unlike the video-film, animation does not require a dancer at all, and, unlike a video-film, it can be conceived to be interactive. Thus it seems to allow us to overcome quite a number of problems.

Movie 2: LifeForms animation of movement sequence in P49

Animation, however, presents its own challenges and we are briefly going to see what these are.


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Fri Jun 1 2001