[Essay] Kadek Dewi Aryani

Kadek Dewi Aryani

Arriving in Tokyo

The trip from Bali to Japan was very enjoyable. It was a special trip, as a number of Indonesian artists were invited to Japan as part of a project by the Japan Foundation under the theme, “Power of Tradition”. It was as if I were enticed into the world of ancient Japanese traditional arts through this journey, where I learned about dance and theater with luxurious costumes, puppetry that uses difficult techniques to manipulate the puppets, classical music that captures the sounds of the Orient as well as unique voice techniques and characteristic narrative methods. Visiting many different places, traveling from city to city to see the Japanese traditional arts, was a very special experience for me. Just imagine carrying a suitcase that weighs 32 kilos from Tokyo to Yokohama, Hiroshima, Kyoto and then to Osaka. Not even the weight of my suitcase and the winter cold with occasional sub-zero temperatures could dampen my spirits during this tour of the Japanese traditional arts. Traveling as a group of Indonesian artists, joking with each other along the way, our friendship deepened as the journey unfolded. I represented Bali dance, and Anon was a specialist of traditional music from Yogyakarta. Catur specialized in shadow puppetry from Yogyakarta, whereas Nanang participated as an artist representing wayang kancil (wayang with kancil, the mouse deer) and wayang purwa (the original wayang). A sense of friendship and goodwill was nurtured not only among the Indonesian artists but also with Japanese artists and the tireless Japan Foundation team. The team members looked after us very well, taking care of matters from trivial to the more serious. They showed us how to turn on the heater or use the washing machine and also how to talk to famous Japanese artists. They not only planned our trip but actually took us to see performances of Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku, Kagura and Japanese dance. They also introduced us to a more modern style of Kabuki and a contemporary play by a famous Japanese theater company. In addition, there was an opportunity for cultural exchange between Indonesia and Japan. The Japan Foundation organized a workshop where we learned about the Japanese arts, and in return, we introduced our different forms of art. During our experience of the Japanese arts, as it was difficult to understand the storyline in the Japanese language, we were given lectures by specialists before watching the actual performances. To help our understanding, we had interpreters as well. Based on our experiences, there were many hot topics that came up during our “Power of Tradition” discussion, which took place over a cup of tea and coffee. Our intention is not to push the traditional arts aside but to create a new form of art based on the traditional arts. In other words, for us, tradition is not something that is old and stale. On the contrary, the power of the traditional arts can be used as a foundation for creating a new art. Allow yourself to gain as much experience as possible and aim for higher skills. At the same time, do not forget where your roots lie. As long as your roots are firmly grounded, the tree will not be blown over by strong winds. This is how I think a work of art should be created. “My roots lie in tradition”. As a creator of art, it is very important to know your roots. How do you see my roots in my work, and how do I see your roots of your new tree? These are the ideas that I would like to share with you in this journal.

Enjoying Noh

As soon as we arrived in Narita, we quickly made our way to Yokohama where the Noh theater was located. This particular performance was very special, as it was a collaboration between Noh and Kado, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. The combination of the two evoked a beautiful atmosphere as if we were watching the Noh stage in the midst of spring. The Kado specialist was arranging the flowers with intense spirit as if in a ceremony, as if there were a special meaning to every single flower. In this country of the cherry blossoms, the well trained technique of arranging flowers is recognized as a rare and special talent of the Japanese people. When the specialist finished arranging the flowers, the Noh performance began. The movement of Noh was slow, heavy and powerful, gliding through the stillness for over an hour. The audience seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere that was created from this form of art. It seemed as though we were taken back a few hundred years in time to the old ages when people still believed that nature possessed mysterious powers. The supernatural power oozing from deep inside the Noh actor’s heart appeared in front of us in a sophisticated manner, touching every single space on the stage. Through the languid tempo of the music that became fast at times, we were able to spread our imagination to the age when nature was open to all people and human civilization still maintained its purity. I felt the soft wind, the birds singing and the deep valley. I felt as though I were standing in a bamboo forest. The religious music made my heart tremble, and I sensed that this music was a votive offering to other creations or beings that made up the world. I could see that many people in the audience were lingering in this quiet and peaceful atmosphere. Tokyo is a bustling big city where everything happens fast, but when you experience a Noh stage, it seems that Tokyo slows down and returns to its zero point. The Noh costumes are very luxurious and tell the history of a long period of cultural exchange with different countries and dynasties many centuries ago. Furthermore, you can see that Noh had a political relationship with many countries and dynasties. In the past, famous Noh actors were valued as dancers for the aristocracy. Noh developed rapidly during the Edo period among the entire aristocratic class. Each group of aristocrats had its own independent performance style, which resulted in the birth of many different styles of Noh. There are different variations of chanting in Noh, and it is said that Noh actors need to learn a few hundred songs. To suit the wide repertoire of songs and plays, luxurious Noh costumes in various characteristic styles were created. Originally, Noh was performed for religious rites under a Japanese cypress tree. Later, the style of the Noh stage changed due to western influence. The stage props, influenced by and adapted from the European style, have been handed down to this day. The story is very simple, so I was able to understand what was happening. I was particularly impressed by the scene where a monk, on his way to meet Buddha, is obstructed as he tries to cross a long bridge. The story unfolded very gently, and the music was slow. The whole atmosphere changed as if the interior of the building were filled with a peaceful spirit, and we were in the open air, surrounded by nature. The fact that the tickets are among the more expensive does nothing to prevent the Japanese audience from coming here to enjoy this performance. I was surprised that the ticket cost 5,000 yen, but the price just shows how much respect the Japanese people have for the traditional arts. If tickets for traditional arts performances in Indonesia were this expensive, I wonder if the Indonesian arts would move forward in a better direction. That is difficult to say. However, what is important for me is to think about the ways in which we can help the traditional arts survive in the modern era and how they can be integrated into our society.

Watching a Kabuki Dance and Play

On the subject of ticket prices for traditional arts performances, Kabuki tickets in Japan are even more expensive. It was my second time to watch a Kabuki performance. The land price in Ginza, where the Kabukiza Theatre is located, is the most expensive in Japan. Did you know that the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza is owned by one private company? Can you imagine that this company is very wealthy and pays a respectable fee to its Kabuki actors? The management of Kabuki performances is very stable and independent. Looking at the history of Kabuki, this traditional art was started by a woman called Okuni by the side of a river. Kabuki was simple, but its costumes and form of expression were very unusual. From its very beginnings, there was trouble surrounding Kabuki, and women were eventually banned from dancing. However, it is completely different in the modern days. You will encounter both female and male actors performing Kabuki. Having said so, at the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza, all parts are played by men on a lavish stage. At the theater, souvenirs based on famous Kabuki stories are sold. Let me tell you that you should never replicate these souvenir items because every single design related to Kabuki is registered as a trademark. The stage family names and family names of superstar Kabuki actors are registered as well. This is totally different to the situation that traditional artists in Bali and other regions in Indonesia face. Traditional dancers in Indonesia offer their artistic work as a volunteer activity and not out of self-interest. This is why many Indonesian artists dislike standing out, however talented they may be as dancers.

The Tradition of Appreciating Kabuki

If you see people among the audience wearing kimono, there is no doubt that they are passionate Kabuki fanatics. They pride themselves in wearing the expensive, traditional Japanese outfit in a very elegant manner. As for food, there is a great variety of snacks and sushi lunchboxes that we can enjoy during the intermission. There are many different plays in Kabuki, some of which have been derived from Bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theater. What impressed me in particular was how the scenery and the seasons changed so quickly and in such an orderly fashion on the stage. I also appreciated how the music, movement, voice, costume and even the make up for each actor’s part in the play are specifically defined. It is not easy to become a Kabuki actor. You need to learn many skills. You may be asked to play two completely different roles, such as a beautiful princess and a valiant lord. It is not unusual for a single actor to play two such contrasting roles.


We hear the singing voice of a narrator. He is talking about the puppet show that is about to begin. This is followed by the sound of a shamisen that heightens the atmosphere on the stage. Every single melody played by the shamisen shook my heart. The stage rotates between 180 and 360 degrees as the narrators and shamisen players make their appearance. Each narrator breathes life into his puppet, and the puppeteer manipulates the doll in the same way as the Wayang Golek of Sunda. This puppet show is performed on a proscenium stage. What makes Bunraku unique is the fact that more than one puppeteer is needed to move one doll. One puppeteer moves the doll’s head while the others control the feet, hands and other small movements. In order to move one puppet, the puppeteers need to synchronize and move at the same time. During a comical scene, we could hear laughter from the audience, while there were others who simply let themselves wander inside the story or those who felt sad when Tamate Gozen died. We were given the very enjoyable opportunity of trying to manipulate the puppets, which was extremely difficult. I was also impressed when we saw how the puppets were manufactured following a very sensitive process. There were so many different Bunraku puppets for various parts! The professional puppet makers gave us a very interesting explanation of how the dolls are made. Puppet manufacturers, puppeteers and narrators are not allowed to interpret the unique characteristics of Bunraku puppets in their own personal ways. The story, lines and how each role should be played have all been written down in the seventeenth century, and modern style adaptations may not be added. It has always been this way, ever since Bunraku was born. This is totally different to the situation of Indonesian puppetry. Bunraku puppets are not like the characters in Mahabharata, which are played in various ways depending on the interpretation of the puppeteer. If you go to Yogyakarta, you will find that the Arjuna in Jogja is different to the Arjuna in Bali. Everything from the movement of the puppet to the way it talks is completely different. However, there is a common understanding of Arjuna’s character, that he is elegant, handsome and a kind and brave warrior. In the modern world, Arjuna may be riding a Ferrari instead of a horse. Interesting, isn’t it? In other words, the important message that the audience should receive from the performance is the philosophy of good conduct that lies behind the story.

Japanese Dance

Suddenly, a woman dressed in kimono appeared in front of me. I was so astonished by how elegantly this woman wore the kimono that I ended up buying one for myself before going back home. The kimono that I bought was second-hand, but you could see that its fabric was of good quality. The price was fairly reasonable, so I somehow managed to pay 10,000 yen out of my pocket money. This beautiful woman introduced us to the Japanese dance. The movements were beautiful, and every movement had a meaning. The fan, used as a prop to portray different things, is very special to this dance. The movement of the fan depicts the rain, sunshine or river. I found this very interesting. In the traditional dance of Bali, the movements of the fan also have names, but each movement is very abstract and bears no particular meaning. Apart from her role of introducing the Japanese dance, this beautiful woman, although very young, had a PhD and specialized in researching and analyzing the breathing and body movement of dancers.

The Dynamic Kagura

Upon arrival at the village of Kagura, I was able to feel the closeness of culture. After a four hour trip, we received a warm and friendly welcome at the Kagura sightseeing village in Hiroshima. Although it was snowing, it felt as if it were summer. This dance mainly consists of stamping your feet in circular steps. The masks are varied to suit each story. The origins of the dance can be traced back to a very famous myth. Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess, hides into a cave, and the world becomes dark all day, all year round. The people offer prayers, play their instruments and dance in front of the cave. The sun goddess is pleased and reappears, bringing light back to the universe. Kagura does not need a big stage. It began as a ceremony to pay respect to nature and developed into a form of public entertainment. A Kagura festival takes place on certain days when different Kagura troupes are invited from various regions in Hiroshima. I was fortunate to have been able to experience this energetic festival of Kagura.

Kinoshita Kabuki

Kinoshita Kabuki is full of creative ideas. Mr. Kinoshita experiments with new styles based on his deep knowledge of Kabuki, which allows the modern Japanese audience to enjoy the classical Kabuki in a contemporary and more modern style. We were greatly inspired by the videos of Kinoshita Kabuki performances.

Modern Theater

The sound effects were impressive in the modern play performance. The stage props were different to those that were used in other performances that we had seen. I will never forget the sound of the rain, which was so real that I thought I could almost feel the raindrops. As the performance was in Japanese and there were no subtitles, I could not really understand what was happening on stage. Quiet sobbing voices could be heard from the audience, so the show must have been a reasonable success. The reaction of the audience is proof that the performance reached out to people’s hearts.

Traditional Arts Workshop

Finally, it was our turn to introduce our very own traditional arts. I was very happy to have been given such an opportunity. My theme was how the Balinese traditional arts could be developed as a contemporary piece that would also be accepted by and performed in the temple. Since customs and tradition have a strong influence in Balinese society, it is difficult for people to accept contemporary dance that goes against old customs and conventional practice. The purpose of my artistic activities is not only to develop tradition but also to preserve and maintain the Legong dance, Topeng (mask dance) and other classical arts. The theme, “Power of Tradition”, perfectly matched the theme which I am working on at the moment. I started learning the Legong Peliatan from the age of six and was taught by Raka from the Peliatan Royal Palace. She was the one who raised me as a dancer in the Peliatan style. With a fan in my hand, I used to walk regularly for one kilometer to my teacher’s house with my friends and younger sister, Ayu. My teacher, who was very persevering, taught me each movement and every step until I was able to perform. This stage performance continued until it became a regular Wednesday performance at the Puri Saren Palace in Ubud. My parents contributed to my artistic activities as much as my teacher. They were the teachers and critics of their children’s artistic progress. I was taught the Topeng dance at home from my father, a true artist who had also inherited Topeng from my grandfather. My father would often tell me about his experiences of accompanying my grandfather from village to village to dance. In 1956, my father was already dancing Topeng as my grandfather’s assistant, even though he was only 13 years old. Our house in Junjungan was always welcome to anyone who was interested in and willing to interact through any form of art, from the traditional to the modern and contemporary. To be open in this way was not only a mission assigned to us as children of the family but also that of our ancestors, who had inherited the art over the centuries. After graduating from the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, Denpasar, I learned contemporary techniques from a European choreographer named Arco Renz and became a choreographer by profession. In 2010, I had the opportunity to choreograph an opera at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), New York and in San Francisco. In New York, I performed as a dancer in Bob (Robert) Wilson’s “I LA GALIGO”, and I also joined a workshop with Chen from China to create a dance. Recently, I have been working for Gus Teja World Music, choreographing many of its stage performances such as “Golden Mask”, “Blessing”, “Prayer for Mount Agung”, “Danau Suci” and “Sundara”. Apart from these pieces, the following is a list of some of my other work. “Tari Nrittadewi”, “Tari Rejang Asep Sari” (dance dedicated to the people of Junjungan), “Tari Candrawangi” (this dance is performed every Saturday at the Water Palace in Ubud), “Tari Daradewi” (dance created for Dewi’s dance company, “Sanggar Tari Nrittadewi” and can be seen when the company performs), “Tari Sunari Dewi”, “Dance Drama Green contemporary”, “Dance Drama Kang Cing Wie” and “Tari contemporary ‘Merah'”. There are also other small pieces that I have created.

A Journey That Sent Us Back and Forth

My 21 day trip around the country of the cherry blossoms was so enjoyable that it felt like only a few days. The Japan Foundation team supported our travels tirelessly. Everything about this journey has a meaning and will become a part of me from now on. Thanks to many new experiences, creative ideas have come to my mind. I am hoping that these ideas will one day be realized and become my work. This is what I have written down in my heart. Hold on tightly to tradition as if you were planting a new tree with deep roots. The deeper the roots, the stronger the tree. Let us learn from nature, and may tradition continue. Long live the “Power of Tradition”!