Monday, July 16, 2012

Why can't I do backflips too?

In Jogjakarta our wonderful host (Nadya!) had gotten us tickets to the Ramayana ballet, which only plays once a month during the full moon in the Hindu palace complex of Prambanan. (You can read a synopsis of the ballet here.)

There are many animal, superhuman, and human characters in this ballet. I really enjoyed the overall atmosphere of the ballet and the technical skill of the dancers, but I couldn't help noticing that male dancers could play so many characters in comparison to female dancers: kings good (Prabu Janaka) and bad (Rahwana), princes (Rama and Laksamana), an acrobatic monkey (Hanuman), a birddemigod (Jatayu) , and smaller monkeys and giants (Kumbakarna).

The Giant Kumbakarna

Demigod in the form of a bird, Jatayu

Hanuman helping Rama and Laksamana
A close-up of Hanuman because he's so awesome
Rahwana disguised as a beggar to trick Shinta
Monkey soldiers danced by young boys

The leading female character Shinta is a beautiful woman considered to be the reincarnation of a goddess, while other characters played by women or girls are: an entire bevy of court ladies, a flirtatious, delicate, and graceful deer (actually a man named Marica in disguise), and another goddess that helps Shinta.

Court ladies, some danced by girls
Shinta led away by Rama

Rama distracted by the deer

Many types of classical dance prescribe specific steps for women and for men. For example, male characters often stand astride, taking up more space, and lift up their legs to indicate presence and strength:

while female characters such as Shinta and the court ladies had a piece of cloth trailing in between their legs; flicking it to the left or right before placing one foot behind the other.

Having a sarong, or skirt wrapped rather tightly around the legs, further illustrates how female characters had no need to make strides bigger than half a metre. The only exception to this was the kijang kencana or the deer who leapt about actively, who was a man in disguise anyway! Other than the leaping, the deer still articulated seductive head, eye and hand movements.

And as a final point on how limited and limiting the characters available to female dancers were: after Hanuman rescued Shinta from the evil king Rahwana, Rama did not trust that she had not been disgraced in some way (read: lost her virginity). Shinta was asked to burn herself to prove her purity -- which she of course survived and become even more beautiful afterwards.

I however recommend you dump anyone who asks this of you

As a dancer who has trained in both classical and contemporary styles, I imagine that I would be so frustrated if only two female characters and only certain movements were available to me. It is not that the male characters had movements that were impossible for women (gymnasts can do Hanuman's backflips too!), but it is the social construction of gender that created these dance roles for women and men.

I still remember fondly my secondary school Malay dance instructor Abang Ram, who choreographed more contemporary than classical dances for us. I went to an all girls' school, so there were some dances where we could play a man's role and therefore be allowed to somersault or stand with our feet wide apart, carry spears or lift another dancer.

I also never realised how gender-neutral he made some of his pieces: there was one dance where we danced in heterosexual pairs with gender-specific movements in the first half (small and graceful for the girls, large and protective for the boys), before breaking out into expansive, active and strong movements for everyone! Both girls and boys also dressed similarly in a top and trousers with a belt and short kain samping (possibly different colours by gender, or size).

So I'm lucky and glad that I had such opportunities to explore all kinds of movements big and small through dance because it is socially acceptable to embrace what is masculine, although I realise that not all male dancers could have the chance to explore small and graceful movements typically regarded as feminine, without experiencing some kind of disdain or having his masculinity questioned for having embraced the feminine.

1 comment:

Sya said...

Interesting answer. I'm thinking the same way as you.

What's the point of fasting? I think we have to live our 'normal daily' life, just like we do when we are not fasting. Of course we are a little bit slower etc.. :)



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