By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
      Almost like clockwork -- even as the rest of the  world seems to spin rapidly out of control -- if it is the last Saturday night in April, there will be a performance of Gamelan music and Javanese dance in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.  While the mass cultures of the world seem to change by the day, these  vestiges of Indonesian culture have weathered the test of centuries.
      For over 10 years, R. Anderson Sutton,  professor of Gamelan music, and Peggy Choy, professor of Javanese dance, have collaborated with their classes to present "A Concert of Javanese Dance and Music." Javanese dance, a highly disciplined form of court dance from Central Java, Indonesia, dates back to at least the 10th-11th centuries when the Javanese dance style was inscribed in the walls of the temples at Prambanan.
      Peggy  Choy, lecturer with the UW School of Education and Southeast Asian Studies Program, came upon Javanese dance during a renaissance of ethnic culture in Hawaii at the height of the Vietnam War. While studying anthropology with a secondary major in dance at Reed College in Portland Oregon, Choy became disillusioned with modern dance. "I thought it lacked what I, at the time, called the spiritual depth and I was looking for another form that might combine movement with that and cultural depth as well," Choy said during an interview in her office in Ingraham Hall.  "And so, I went back to Hawaii and was immersed in Asian forms."
      In Hawaii, Choy found a plethora of Asian dance traditions that were being rediscovered or discovered for the first time. Among them was Javanese dance. "There was a newly hired university professor at the time who was teaching Gamelan music and Javanese dance," Chou recalled. "He was more of a musician, but he was teaching the dance as well. His name was Hardja Susilo. He brought a fresh excitement and all of us had never seen Javanese dance before. All of us were excited. I took a class."
      Choy was so intrigued by the dance form, that she went with a study group to Yogyakarta in Central Java to study at a conservatory devoted to Gamelan music and Javanese dance. Choy became so enthralled that she stayed at the conservatory for three-and-a-half years. "I didn't come home," Choy said. "So my mom came to the airport and I wasn't on the plane. That's how I was in those days. Much to her frustration, I didn't come home and I stayed there pretty much immersing myself in the dance and music."
      Choy stayed in Java, in part, because of her disgust with the Vietnam War. "I wanted to go outside the country," Choy said.  "So it was between Korea and Indonesia. My own mother urged me to go to Indonesia because it had been an independent nation since the 1950s, which was recent. And in Korea, at the time, President Park Chung Hee was a dictator. In a way, my mother encouraged me, interestingly; go to Indonesia instead of Korea. My intention was to study the dance, but I went to Java instead. And so, that way, my interest was really deepened."
      At a time when there was so much instability in the world, Choy was attracted to this ancient art form. "You had centuries of tradition built into the movement," Choy said about Javanese dance. "Modern dance came into being in the late 1800s and formulated itself more in the 1910-1920s in America. We're talking about the birth of modern dance in America. There were  "pioneers in modern dance" who thought they were innovators where here was a form of Javanese dance that no one was talking about being the genius innovator. It comes out of a lineage of teachers. So that adds depth to it that modern dance doesn't have. So it's furthering a tradition instead of furthering your unique style to contrast Javanese dance with someone like Martha Graham who is devoted to developing her own style, her own choreography."
      Choy came to Java while Javanese dance was also going through a renaissance in Central Java. "My teachers,  particularly Sasminta Mardawa, my main teacher, were responsible for the flowering in the 1970s -- post-war really because the palace had closed down during World War II and was slowly starting to open up to tourists again in the 1970s -- and developing further this Javanese dance tradition in the court of Yogyakarta."
Next issue: The intricacies of Javanese dance
The Javanese dance of Peggy Choy
Precise Expression
May 16, 2007 Archives