In Java, gamelan is inseparable from the arts of poetry, dance and drama, and a gamelan player will be familiar with dance movements and traditional poetry, while a dancer will be quite at home playing the gamelan. Although Javanese classical dance is divided into two main types, female (tari putri) and male (tari putra), the distinction between dance for men and women is not absolute. Male dance is further divided into two main character types, strong/dynamic (gagah) and refined (alus), and the latter roles are sometimes danced by women.
Performances by Southbank Gamelan Players have included masked dances, dance-dramas, and sacred court dances.
The Ramayana, an epic Hindu poem in Sanskrit, is one of the world’s great stories, and a wellspring of South Asian culture – told and retold over the past two millennia in innumerable versions and languages across the continent. In Java it is frequently told through shadow-puppet plays or dance-drama.
During a three year collaboration with choreographer Sunarno Purwolelono, Southbank Gamelan Players and the Sunarno Dance Company presented the Ramayana cycle as a trilogy of Javanese dance-dramas. Ten dancers portrayed the classic Hindu tale of the Abduction of Princess Sinta by the demon king Rahwana, and Prince Rama’s quest for Sinta with Hanuman the monkey warrior.
The sacred Srimpi and Bedhåyå dances were until recently restricted to the inner circle of the royal courts of Central Java. Originally performed solely in the palace on auspicious occasions and for special ceremonies, these highly stylised dances represent the epitome of Javanese refinement.
Topèng (masked) dances have their origins in folk art and are based on a series of romantic legends about the hero Prince Panji. While many traditional Javanese narratives are adapted from outside sources such as the Indian Mahabharata or the Persian Ménak stories, the Panji cycle is indigenous to Java.
Southbank Gamelan Players has collaborated with contemporary choreographers and dancers including Mark Morris Dance Group, Edinburgh Festival (1996); Wayne McGregor, Encoder (part of Shobana Jeyasingh’s Away Game1997); Kenneth Tharp, Songs and Dances from the Tempest with music by Alec Roth (1998 & 2001); Filip van Hufel, Triggered installation with composer Duncan Chapman (2001).