The land around Ponorogo -the pink one on the map- is harsh and fierce. Scratching a living from the soil here has always been a desperate business, and the people of the area have a reputation for being tough, both physically and mentally. The stories and myths of Java describe them as fierce fighters and skilled practitioners of magic, to be feared and respected. While most of the inhabitants of this arid land profess faith in Islam, echoes of much older beliefs still ring throughout the region.
There in Ponorogo, belief in spirits is still commonplace. Traditionally, the peacock and the tiger dance, also known as Reog, was a performance that held to please the dhanyang , the spirit of a village. These spirits often live in a large stones or old trees in a village square, although the outsiders may notice nothing except perhaps a few flowers around the old trees scattered nearby. Although by no means evil, these spirits can be vain and difficult, and must be approached with respect. If flattered and pandered to, they will exert their power for the good of the village. If they feel ignored or insulted, however, the consequences can be dire. When a village is afflicted by bad luck, a ceremony to appease the dhanyang is held. Ceremonies are also held at regular intervals, just to maintain a good working relationship with the forces that count in the supernatural world.
As part of ceremony, members of each household prepare offerings consist of yellow rice, fruit, vegetables, and also chicken or meat. These offerings are laid out in the square of the village for the enjoyment of the dhanyang. Most of the villagers believe the dhanyang consumes the essences of the food, leaving the remainder of be eaten in a communal meat. Usually, from early morning, a gamelan ensemble will have been playing a dull, hypnotic rhythmic music that gets under the skin of the listener the way drums from the Australian’s Aborigin do. As the heat of the day gathers force, people’s excitement begins to mount.
Finally, a group of men wearing the traditional loose black clothes characteristics of the area emerge, bearing a mask depicting a ferocious, snarling, tiger’s head, covered in real tiger skin and also crowned with a gigantic fan of peacock feathers. This mask often weighs more than 5 kilograms, and can cost many thousands of dollars.
The tempo of the music increases as the men prepare themselves for their task. Most of the performers are strong men in the prime of youth, they need to be. Throughout the dance, the principle dancer bears the entire weight of the mask by biting into a piece of wood attached to it. Dancers complain that they can only eat porridge for days afterwards.
The classical form of Reog re-enacts the battle between King Pujanggan Anom of Ponorogo and Singabarong, the guardian spirit of Lodaya, whos emblems are the peacock and the tiger. Like most good stories, this one revolves around thwarted love and a rejected suit, and the battles that ensue. One famous scene describes the rage of Singabarong at the theft of one hundred and fifty tigers from his kingdom. Others show Singabarong in his peacock form, displaying the beauty of his tail to the admiring maidens. As many as thirty dancers take part in the performance, filling the roles of servants and soldiers. In addition to the rhythmic percussion beat, the dance is accompanied by orchestrated growls and roars from the musicians, often amplified electronically.
The climax of the dance involves a parade, in which Singabarong, accompanied by a wild and noisy crowd and the group of musicians carrying their instruments, marches through the surrounding area. This is something of a boundary marking exercise, and infringement on another group’s ‘turf’ can cause as much resentment as it would in downtown Harlem. Fights and jealousies between neighbouring groups and villages aren’t uncommon, and stories of the use of black magic between rival troupes are rife. Thus, the role of the warok, the group’s spiritual leader, is vital. The warok has a special understanding of the hidden world, gained through years of arduous discipline in forest retreats, or so the stories go. He communes with tiger spirits and the spirits of the area, and channels energy towards the principal dancer, providing protection and support. These days, belief in magic is declining, and many warok claim that they do little more than pray to God for the success of the performance. While women often take part in modern Reog, this was not always the case. In the past, strict moral codes forbade unmarried women from mixing with men, and boys had to play female roles. These young transvestites, as known as gemblak, were chosen for their good looks, and often kept as concubines for the personal pleasure of the leader of the group.
These days, such practices form part of the art’s colorful history, and the ritual significance of Reog is overshadowed by its importance as a modern Indonesian art form. A Reog Festival is held in Ponorogo every Independence Day, on 17th August, at which every group in the area competes for the title of champion. Performances are often staged as part of cultural displays held at hotels and elsewhere in Surabaya and Jakarta, and even overseas, where Reog is staged as the representatives East Javanese art form.