From graceful court and temple dances to charming folk dances and boisterous play, the performing arts of Indonesia offer an astounding range of types and styles for the visitor to study or enjoy, reflecting, as they, do, the soul and traditions of the various ethnic groups who perform them. Music, dance and drama are very often intertwined, as in the ludruk transvestite theatre of East Java and the lenong folk theatre of Jakarta, both known for their slapstick humor and early Shakespearean simplicity in their stage settings. An important form of indigenous theatre is puppetry, of which the most celebrated is the wayang kulit shadow play of Java. These plays are magical and mysterious, and have often been seen as roads to the true heart and soul of Javanese culture. They are performed with leather puppets held by the puppeteer, (dalang) who narrates the story of one of the famous episodes of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. The play is performed against a white screen, while a lantern in the background casts the shadows of the characters on the screen. Most the audience sits in front to watch the shadow figures, but it is also possible to sit behind the screen and watch the dalang at work. A traditional performance can last from dusk till dawn, but shorter vertions catering to a western sensibility are available in many cities.
The puppet theatre has many forms and employs a variety of media. In West Java, for example, the most popular form is the Wayang Golek, using carved and panted three dimensional wooden puppets. Both the Wayang Kulit and Wayang Golek take their repertoire from the classical Indian epics but in Central Java, the wooden puppet theatre traditionally revolves around stories derived from popular folk legends and the spread of Islam. The oldest form of “shadow” play is probably the Wayang Beber, in which the dalang or puppeteer simply unrolls a scroll bearing the scenes and figures of the story while he delivers his narration, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. A popular contemporary form of wayang theatre is the Wayang Wong, is which actors or dancers represent the characters in the story, presented on a conventional stage.