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Topeng Betawi: The Sounds of Bodies Moving
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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) 260-267



Debut Panel Paper

Topeng Betawi: The Sounds of Bodies Moving

Henry Spiller

Henry Spiller takes us to northern West Java, Indonesia, to explain a local form of theatre called topeng Betawi. Focusing on a transitional comic segment in the performance that comes between its dance-oriented opening and its dialogue-oriented end, he contends that this segment contains stylistic conventions that effect a modulation from movement to word and back again "by representing movement in words--by speaking the sounds of bodies moving."
Henry Spiller is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His paper was selected as one of the three winners in the annual debut panel competition of the Association for Asian Performance and was presented at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education Conference in San Antonio, Texas, in the summer of 1998. The other papers chosen were by Kei Hibino, a Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate School, and Mai Naito, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University. (Their papers were not submitted for publication.)

Topeng Betawi is a theatre genre performed in the outlying areas around Jakarta, in northern West Java, Indonesia. The word "topeng" usually describes theatre and dance forms in Java and Bali involving the wearing of masks; in northern West Java, however, topeng is a particular type of theatre that does not necessarily involve masks. A topeng performance consists of several distinct segments, each of which comprises a different mix of dialogue, song, comedy, drama, dance, and music. In general, the opening segments emphasize dance, with almost no spoken words, while the later segments emphasize dialogue, with little dance. This essay focuses on a transitional section between the dance-oriented segments at the performance's beginning and the dialogue-oriented [End Page 260] sections at its end. This transitional segment features comedy performed by a female singer-dancer and a male clown. I argue that the stylistic conventions of this segment effect a modulation from movement to word (and then back to movement again) by representing movement in words--by speaking the sounds of bodies moving.

Various Malay immigrants to northern West Java have become, over the years, homogenized into a unified hybrid culture called Betawi. The name "Betawi" comes from "Batavia," the old Dutch name for the city of Jakarta. Betawi people speak a dialect of Malay called Betawi, are usually Islamic, and live at the bottom of the economic scale. Until recently, topeng was performed at markets and other gathering places by wandering extended-family troupes of actors and musicians. Spectators could offer money if they enjoyed the performance; otherwise, the performers would move elsewhere. This style of performance was called ngamen (Muhadjir 1986, 167; Probonegoro 1987, 22; Yampolsky 1994). More recently, people have hired troupes to perform at family celebrations and community festivals. Although originally an entertainment for the lower class in urban centers, topeng (with a self-conscious emphasis on its identity as "authentic" Jakarta/ Betawi culture) is becoming popular as a middle-class entertainment as well (Probonegoro 1987, 28).

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Topeng performances include music provided by a small ensemble of bronze idiophones, drums called gendang, and a two-string spike fiddle called a rebab. 1 (See Color Plate 8.) Performances typically begin with an overture called tetalu (or tetalok). After the tetalu, a young female dancer called the kembang topeng performs one or more dances, which may be masked dances. (See Color Plate 9.) Following her set dances, she sings a special song while she dances; she is soon joined by a male clown (bodor), and the two engage in amusing repartee. Next the kembang topeng might dance with men from the audience or perform a prepared couple dance with one of the men in the troupe. Following this, plays (lakon) begin--one or more short dramas, usually about contemporary situations. The actors work from a plot outline, which they flesh out with formulaic dialogue and action. The final lakon often is about Bapak Jantuk, a father figure who wears a half-mask. This performance overview, along with an indication of...