Dance: A World Language
What language could be used to link the many peoples and
cultures at these fairs? Words would not do in this exhibition Babylon. What was needed were things that could be understood and appreciated by looking and listening such as the work of a craftsman, a musical performance, a finished print or the moving figures of dance. Culture speaks through dance forms. Asian dances with their celebratory spirit and cultural sophistication caught on not just with regular visitors as well as artists. Although they might not know the particular “grammar” and “vocabulary” of a certain dance traditions, the primary channel through which dance communicates is aesthetic beauty. The Javanese dances that were a sensation at many of the fairs were described by critics at the Paris 1900 fair as “the purest of Asia; … calm and chaste and tranquil, with no beginning and no end as the eternal music of the universe.”
“Oriental” Dancers and Performers
The Debut of Khmer and Javanese Dancers
Since 1920s, dancers from all over the world were engaged to perform in commercial theaters in major European cities. Among the most popular was Indian dance. The breakthrough for “Oriental” dance, however, came with the Khmer and Javanese dance troupes in 1889.
Universal Exhibition of 1889, Paris. "The Javanese Dancers in the kampong
(rebuilt Javanese village) on the Esplanade of the Invalides," advance sketch for the illustration in a journal. Paris, Carnavalet Museum, D 5256.
Source: Demeulenaere-DouyeÌre, Christiane. Exotiques Expositions: Les Expositions Universelles Et Les Cultures Extra-EuropeÌEnnes, France, 1855-1937; Somogy EÌd. D'Art, 2010.
One admirer included the artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who had visited the exposition and was fascinated by the Tandak dancers. He went on to create a series of oil paintings and sketches of these individual dancers in their costumes.
The Four Tandak dancers performing in the "Kampong Javanais" at Universal Exhibition of 1889, Paris.
The Four Tandak Dancers
at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris
Tandak is a type of Javanese social dance
performed by men and women accompanied by singing. At the 1889 Paris Exposition, four dancers from the ruler’s court at Solo, Java, were invited to perform this traditional dance at the “Kampong Javanais,” a recreation of a Javanese village at this fair, which formed the backdrop for the dancers.
In a 1913 Revue Systèmes d'Information et
Management article, Debussy writes:
"There used to be—indeed, despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still are—some wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe. Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care, without ever having consulted any of those dubious treatises. Their traditions are preserved only in ancient songs, sometimes involving dance, to which each individual adds his own contribution century by century. Thus Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint which make Palestrina seem like child’s play. And if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus."
— Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy's Pagodes (Estampes, 1904), that may have been influenced by the Javanese Gamelan Orchestra.
The Javanese Gamelan Orchestra, 1870-1891.
Source: Collective Stichting National Museum van Wereldculturen