Joomla project supported by everest poker review.

Yana Zarifi-Sistovari

Setting classical Greek tragedy as Indonesian dance drama - with reference to Euripides' Hippolytos

Zarifi-Sistovari, Yana: “Setting classical Greek tragedy as Indonesian dance drama - with reference to Euripides' Hippolytos”, 13th International Congress on Dance Research, Athens, 7-11/7,1999.

During the last year we set Euripides' Hippolytos as a type of Indonesian Topeng with Javanese dance. This formed part of my enquiry into the relationship between selected choral passages of Greek tragedy to extra-theatrical song/dance occasions such as adolescent initiation or marriage ritual. Reconstruction of the dance and music of classical Greek plays is impossible and the social context of Athenian drama has obviously disappeared. However, even though two of the three elements of Greek choral lyric - its dance and music - are irrecoverable, the third - its poetry - survives. The music that was composed for the odes of the Hippolytos follows the original choral lyrics with their metres and thus preserves the vital sense and emotional value of the choral songs.

I believed that something of the spirit of the dance - the third element of Greek choral performance - might be restored if one turned to performance traditions which have not lost their religious associations. Thus the application of principles from Indonesian masked drama and dance to another dramatic form - to classical Greek tragedy - was not purely eclectic - it was based on common ground. Despite dissimilarities in the essence of Greek and Indonesian drama there are points in common - both forms of drama have evolved in a polytheistic culture, performances generally take place in a religious context and involve the enactment of myth through the use of speech, recitative, song, dancing and masks.


a. The centrality of music

In both ancient Greece and Bali a deep-seated relation is felt to exist between stylized musical forms of performance and the fundamental conventions governing social and religious life. Music and dance lend coherence to all events affecting the community - life crises such as birth, puberty, marriage and death; seasonal agricultural events, temple anniversaries (in Bali) military and athletic victories (in ancient Greece) are confirmed and shared through dance and music. Age-old traditions of songs and dances familiar to everyone from childhood are a means of assimilating events, of affirming existing social values, a means of education and also the medium through which mortals can relate to their gods.

b. Ordinary citizens in a ritual setting

Furthermore, the singers/dancers of the tragic chorus in Greece were not professionals. They were ordinary citizens like the performers of all these other musical events of the dithyramb, the athletic victory songs, the performers of the various hymns to Artemis, Aphrodite, Apollo and so on. As in Bali today, most citizens would have sung and danced in some form of choral performance, in the rituals of birth, adolescence, marriage, and death, or in local cults and festivals. And, as in Bali, these citizens or members of the community would have witnessed the songs and dances for all these occasions since childhood as part of their common inheritance.

Similarities and differences:

a. Narrative dramatization of myth

Apart from traditional appeals to the deities of their pantheons, in both ancient Greece and Indonesia much of the dancing and singing is narrative. The performances draw material from the mythical repertoire of their cultures - and either enact or narrate fragments of stories from familiar epic cycles such as the Iliad from Greece and the Mahabharata from India.

What is different and indeed characteristic of Greek drama is the specificity of these portions of myth. They are self-contained: they have a beginning, a middle and an end, in contrast to Indonesian dance drama where the ‘stories’ consistently remain fragments of the larger story. Equally these fragments are danced repeatedly on different occasions and in different locations with different types of dance such as Kecak, Legong, the masked Topeng or Tjalonarang. The Greek tragic chorus is created specifically for the occasion and is in this sense innovative. While the fragments of a Greek tragic choral ode may have been recognised as familiar by a contemporary audience they would have appeared in a different combination and in a new and specific context of the particular plot.

b. Greek tragic odes are adaptations of actual ritual songs

These were sung in a ritual setting - at the festival of Dionysus. The choral odes in Greek tragedy are often adaptations of ritual songs (hymns, victory, healing, marriage and funeral songs) performed outside the theatre. This enabled me to find cultural parallels in Java and Bali not only in the detail of some gestures (suggesting invocation, sacrifice, prayer, etc.) but also in the fundamental motif of the play - the sacrifice of virginity (represented by Hippolytos’ allegiance to Artemis) to adult sexuality (represented by Aphrodite). The third stasimon (525-564), a hymn to Eros, with its traditional invocation giving the god's parentage and celebrating his power and with its imagery of sacrifice and prayer was readily 'translated' into Javanese dance movements.

There are many continuities and similarities between the tragic choral songs (like those of the Hippolytos) sung and danced at the festival of Dionysos and songs and dances performed at festivals of other gods (such as Apollo) or songs and dances performed on other religious or important social occasions. The opening prayer to Artemis (61-71) for example, might well have been sung at one of that goddess’ many sanctuaries in classical or archaic Greece. Equally songs about myth - about the doings of gods and legendary heroes (like Phaëthon and his sisters) are not unlike poems composed by Stesichorus and Bacchylides sung at other festivals, or songs by Pindar celebrating athletic victories at the birthplace of the victor. Myths are narrated also in the non-tragic choral performance of the dithyramb - dedicated to Dionysos which also formed part of the same festival in his honour where tragedies and comedies were performed.

However, there is an important difference between tragic song/dances on the one hand and Indonesian and extra-tragic Greek choral song/dances on the other. This may be illustrated by the last verse (161-169) of the parodos where the young married women of the locality ask Artemis, the goddess of childbirth (as well as virginity) to assist them in giving birth. In what way would it be different to a similar song being sung at a temple of Artemis? There are interesting ramifications to the obvious differences that the choral ode is part of a story and that it is being sung in the theatre of Dionysus as part of his festival as opposed to the festival of Artemis: the women of the chorus praying to Artemis in Troezen are also, at the same time, male citizens (probably known to many people in the audience) performing at a Dionysiac festival in Athens (as opposed to an Artemisian festival). The song and dance acquired an additional dramatic dimension—instead of singing about giving birth, the singer/dancers are representing women singing about birth.

In conclusion, then, there is a cross-over between ritual and theatrical performance in both Indonesian and ancient Greek cultures. However, drama in Indonesia and in extra-tragic choral performance in Greece is not separated out from the ritual as it is in Greek tragedy. We thus gave the performance an 'epic' flavour by setting the Hippolytos scenes as Topeng dance drama and the Greek choral odes to Jaipongan dance in order to render the eastern and Greek styles more consistent with one another.


This is a narrative masked dance-drama which continues to be performed in Bali &Java today as a part of the worship at a temple festival, during personal life-cycle rituals and as entertainment Topeng performers may use a variety of masks[1] and draw from a large repertoire of stories relating quasi-historical feats of kings, ministers and high priests. The masks are coded, largely according to degrees of refinement, and the characters depicted represent historical figures—actual ancestors of contemporary Balinese royalty and nobility. The highly stylised features of the genre and its association with a relatively recent semi-legendary past lends a vivid theatrical quality to scenes from a Greek drama which involves the worship of gods (Artemis and Aphodite) and the doings of a royal household (Theseus - king of Athens and legendary hero, Phaidra, half-sister of the Cretan Minotaur and Hippolytos, son of an Amazon). For example, Theseus enters (790) showing his rank by performing characteristic gestures such as arranging his armlets and indicating a symbolic crown. Hippolytos on the other hand, appears wearing a refined mask that properly belongs to a female character, Sita, to indicate both his allegiance to Artemis (who also wears a similarly shaped mask in a different, more refined and god-like colour) and his adolescence (Hippolytos, characteristically, never reaches manhood). Hippolytos' dress and movements are basically those of a Baris dancer - Baris is a warrior dance most frequently performed by young boys.

Javanese dance

Javanese dance is more closely linked to the Javanese sense of their own identity than any other of their arts. It is associated with religious practice both through its origins and through the social and religious context of festivals and ceremonies, in which a rich variety of dances continues to be performed. These dances emerged in a Hindu tradition before the advent of Islam.

The religious dimension of these dances is manifest not only in the aesthetic principles of movement which emphasise Javanese virtues of physical control, self-effacement and restraint, but also in the more representational gestures which are associated with quasi-dramatic ceremonies. Dances take place at court, at influential houses and at important sites in the villages. They are performed on state occasions, to celebrate the founding god of a particular place, or as part of community ceremonies such as those of circumcision (which marks a boy’s transition to manhood), wedding and harvest. Of the abstract (as opposed to dramatic) dances, there are elaborate highly refined dances developed by the Javanese courts as well as many styles of ‘folk’ dances which belong to particular regions.

Some dances, such as the Sundanese Jaipongan - to which we set the Hippolytos choral odes - allow for a mélange of styles, while others insist on purity. However, regardless of the degree of precision that is required or of the mixture of genres which is allowed, the movements of Javanese dance are coded. This is another aspect of Javanese dance which influenced the decision to use it for the present performance. A predetermined symbolism justifies both the shape and the execution of gestures and poses. For instance, the Serat Wedhataya, a sacred treatise on the art of dance, describes how the act of joining two middle fingers represents a meeting of the left (bad) with the right (good), and how the right hand must then obscure the left, and how each hand must then regain its proper place. Also, natural phenomena and animals often lend their names and their forms to various gestures and poses: dance patterns for the body and feet have names such as ‘drifting waterweed’ (the sole of one foot tipped upwards as the knee is flexed) and ‘buffalo firmly standing’ (the legs step forward with the sole placed in a straight line, the sides chest and neck erect).


Jaipongan is made up of a rich mixture of styles: it draws from the earlier forms of the Sundanese social folk dances, ketuk tilu, and integrates dynamic movements from the martial art called Pencak Silat with classical elements of the strictly codified Sundanese tari kerseus dances, the iconic puppet-like wayang wong and a very fast-moving Sundanese variety of the masked wayang topeng. The most recognizable elements of Jaipongan are the postures and movements borrowed from the martial art of Pencak Silat, which often represent animals such as the cobra or the peacock. Pencak Silat is frequently performed in rural areas at the important circumcision ceremonies which celebrate a boy’s entry into manhood. It is also sometimes used as a healing ritual.

In the Hippolytos, Javanese dance movements were used not only for the choral odes as described in the earlier part of this paper, but also to deepen the dramatic scope of the lengthy narrative of Hippolytos' destruction. Instead of the traditional 'messenger' speech (1173-1254) that relates the emergence of the bull and the tidal wave that sent Hippolytos' horses into a panic, we drew on the rich repertoire of the symbols and images of Javanese dance. The tremors of the earth and sea were represented by waving traditional scarf, the sampur, and the movement of feet 'walking through the sand', wedi-gengser. Hippolytos rides through the chorus dancing the hobby-horse trance dance.

A dramatic re-enactment of the emergence of tragedy from the chorus

Finally, in our adapatation of the Hippolytos, the members of the chorus put on masks and costume which transform them into actors in front of the audience. Tragedy almost certainly differentiated itself from choral performance as the leader, the exarchos, of the chorus separated himself from the group and impersonated an individual - that is, he became an actor - with whom the chorus, impersonating a group, could engage in spoken and sung dialogue. The transformation of choral dancers into actors is thus calculated to suggest the emergence of theatre from choral performance. Also, it was hoped that the chorus' constant presence on stage as performers, actors, musicians and spectators would evoke the ubiquity and communality of the ancient Greek chorus.


1. The play was performed in Cambridge in July, in London as part of the Interface - an intercultural festival - in November and last January in the only Noh theatre in England in Surrey. I directed it, Margaret Coldiron directed the Topeng movement, Untung Hidayat was the choreographer and Jamie Masters composed the music.

2. For a history of the attempts to reconstruct the dance of classical Greek drama, see F.G. Naerebout, Attractive Performances, Amsterdam 1997, p. 60-105.

3. The important difference between communally based drama-as represented by the Greek chorus - and hierarchical forms that appear in the Hindu dramatic tradition is too lengthy a subject for this paper.

4. The choral song dedicated to Dionysos.

5. This is part of Aristotle's definition of tragedy in his Poetics.

6. Line references are from Euripides' Hippolytos, with commentary by W.S. Barrett (ed.), Oxford 1964.

7. 735-40.

8. Pindar, Stesichorus and Alcman probably all composed poems for choral performance. Also Bacchylides.

9. She is known to bring sudden death in childbirth while she also presides over virginity. When a woman is giving birth she is leaving the realm of virginity. One should always give dues to the god whom one is leaving. Death in childbirth (not an uncommon occurrence in ancient Greece) would be considered as Artemis' punishment for not having been adequately worshipped before leaving her domain.

10. The masks used in this production, like the traditional Balinese Topeng masks on which the designs are based, are made of wood from the sacred Pulé tree (Alstonia Scholaris). This wood is soft, close-grained and light in weight and colour, making it easy to carve and ideal for theatrical masks. The masks are mostly based on the traditional archetypal figures of the Dalem (refined king), the Patih (strong prime minister), Putri (princess) and Sita (faithful wife of the mythological hero Rama) and are idealised portraits of deified ancestors and gods. The movement language of each of the masked characters is derived m that which is traditional for these types and falls roughly into two styles: alus - refined and delicate, or keras - strong, and rough. The alus style, represented by the Dalem, Putri and Sita masks, is characterised by sinuous, graceful movement which nonetheless possesses the strength and authority of a divinely-empowered ruler. The keras style, exemplified by the Patih mask, is vigorous and peremptory, a powerful and imposing warrior.

11. Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java, p. 283 f., Chicago, 1960.

Yana Sistovari-Zarifi


Articles View Hits
Monday the 27th.