I hadn’t seen Indonesian dance before, though I am a fan of gamelan music, so I thought this would be a chance to see the visual element that often goes with the music. Since I know little about this, my ignorance will show: this blog posting will be little more than a description of what I saw. Any readers out there who know more about this topic, put in your comments!
In one aspect I was disappointed. Although SPU has a gamelan, half of it was on loan to the UW – so the dance performance was entirely with recorded gamelan. (More on this discussion about “canned” music, anyone…?)
The visual element was also minimal, though in this case it brought what I was seeing into sharp focus. There was no stage setting, and only one “character” on stage at a time, so I could concentrate on exactly what he or she was doing. The dances were elegant, with generally rather slow gestures, though often with sudden quick movements to emphasize the rhythm. For several dances, the dancer wore a strap of jingling bells on one leg, which took a lot of skill to only make “jingle” at exactly the right time (and never at other times!). There were some movements that seemed to imitate martial arts; others were flowing and balletic. There were some sinuous movements that seemed to indicate a lack of bones in the arms of the dancer... Facial expressions (when there was no mask) fit the character: noble, or drunken, or flirtatious (sometimes a combination of these!). The costumes were particularly elaborate, with sarongs, complicated headdresses, and long streamers worn around the neck and occasionally flapped through the air like ribbons or flags (this is similar to some Chinese dancing I’ve seen, though the movements were different and generally somewhat slower). The dancers wore masks for some pieces, which, interestingly, all seemed to be made to jut out from the face and appear to be somewhat smaller than the dancer’s real head – almost as if the dancers were supposed to appear as close to the shadow puppets as possible.
Concerning the music: the quality of the recording varied considerably. Some pieces sounded as if they’d been recorded underwater with an ancient cassette-deck boom box; others had crisp digital sound. It appears that none of the music was recorded specifically for these particular dancers; they were available recordings – and some were quite old, hence the differences.
Musically the most interesting was Gunung Sari, a dance depicting a legendary Medieval hero. Here, the melody gradually sped up against a steady rhythm, a classic gamelan “form” – but then, just as it became recognizable as a repeated cycle, it was suddenly taken over by a chorus of voices. The dancer went on, almost as if not noticing this change. After two repeats, the chorus stopped, and I (at least) expected the music to end or to go into one of the non-metered modal improvisations that sometimes function as a coda to a gamelan performance – but the gamelan kept going with the melody, faster, then faster again. Now at last the dancer seemed to notice the tempo changes, and sped up accordingly, creating some of the only frenetic movements of the evening. She then danced off of the stage as the music continued (several of the dances ended this way). The music continued for another minute or two, then suddenly slowed and came to a conclusion, leaving the audience somewhat stunned, it appeared (they were silent for a longer time than for any of the other pieces).
Afterwards I heard one audience member comment to another, “…well, it’s very cultural… a lot of people left early because they didn’t know what was going on and it all looks the same if you don’t know about it…” I don’t know what “very cultural” means (is there any music or art that isn’t “cultural”?) and yes, it was a lot the same, but there was a lot of difference behind that surface of sameness. To me, at least, it was a varied (and enjoyable) performance.
On the way home, I stopped at the Chapel Performace Space at Good Shepherd Center (where they hold the Seattle Composers’ Salons and other concerts I’ve reviewed on this blog) to hear the tail end of an improvisation marathon by contrabass clarinetist Paul Hoskin (see my 8-28-2010 and 9-19-2010 postings). I missed it – exactly as I got out of the elevator, I heard the audience start to applaud. Oh well, I didn’t expect to hear very much of it anyway. I did meet Paul in the hall afterwards. He showed me a CD he had played on, a 3-CD set of the Seattle Festival of Improvised Music (recorded in the 1980’s) – I got one and will review it in a future posting. I also met Charlie Rowan, another improviser (used to do sax, now, keyboards) who had been manning the ticket booth. We talked for a while. I invited both of them to the next “New Music in the Library” concert and told them about what had happened last time… (The next one will be on Saturday, October 23rd, from 3:00 to 5:00 PM, at the Broadview Library, 12755 Greenwood Ave. N, Seattle, WA).
(This posting is Oct. 20, 2010; 214 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)