The annual concerts of Indonesian music and dance mounted by the U-M Center for Southeast Asian Studies are a local resource of rare value, and townies are starting to catch on: offered for free in Hill Auditorium, the concerts in recent years have just about filled the great hall. Performed by U-M students and community members, both Southeast Asian and otherwise, they’re created by visiting Indonesian artists–choreographers, dancers, composers, puppeteers–who generally appear in the performance as well. Due to the longstanding ties between the U-M and several institutions on the Indonesian island of Java, these visiting artists tend to be unusually interesting, bringing works that would be novel and compelling even for Indonesians themselves. In the U.S., events like these occur almost nowhere but Ann Arbor.
Javanese classical dance, an ancient and superlatively elegant tradition, draws local audiences all by itself with its deliberate and hypnotic beauties. But this year’s presentation, “Love Flows: An Islamic Dance Drama with Gamelan,” offers a new take on the tradition. Most Javanese court dances are based on two Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, that came to the Indonesian archipelago around the 7th century C.E. This dance, as the title indicates, tells a story that comes out of the more recent wave of influences from the Islamic cultural sphere. Indeed, the story was first made into a dance by this year’s visiting artist, the renowned Javanese choreographer F. X. Widaryanto.
The story concerns Amir Hamzah, a historical individual–he was an uncle of the prophet Muhammad–whose life has been embroidered by a centuries-long line of storytellers stretching from ancient Persia through India and the Malay Peninsula, and finally to Java. The enduring attraction of this story has perhaps resided in its mixture of spiritual and romantic aspects. In this new Indonesian version, to be presented at Hill Auditorium on March 27, Amir Hamzah is a Sufi holy man whose compassionate nature attracts two Javanese princesses, Kelaswara and Adaninggar. As the story unfolds, the commonality between human and divine love emerges. The dancers will be accompanied by the U-M gamelan, the traditional Javanese orchestra of tuned gongs of different sizes.
“Love Flows” is intended by its presenters to exemplify the generally peaceful and positive aspect of Islam as it has existed in Indonesia, and that would be reason enough to go: this religion of one and a half billion adherents gets a bad rap in this country because of the actions of a very few evildoers. The dancing, if past performance is any guide, should be gorgeous. Beyond these points of interest are others that suggest why a number of people in our community have become permanently fascinated by Indonesia. One is the fact that Widaryanto, the creator of this Islamic dance drama, is Christian. The attentive viewer will notice plenty more.