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Flash Dispatch, 6-19:
Crash Immersion in Bali
Of White Monkey Gods and Burning Coconuts
By Jay Weissman
Copyright 2001 Jay Weissman
UBUD, Bali -- When we
bought the tickets for our first Balinese Dance and Gamelon performance,
we were very excited, as was the hotel clerk who sold them to us.
"This is a new piece," he said, although clearly tourist dollars
are an end and the means is often not as relevant. In this case,
however, and with the performances in Bali in general, I am pleased
to report they are the best deal in town.
When we arrived at the
show the ticket taker gestured towards the immense courtyard consisting
of large ponds with lily pads, walking bridges, a restaurant and
an enormous temple that sprawled across the entire complex. We traversed
the walkway all the way to the temple, where chairs were set up
facing a stage made of two-foot risers. Already a mood was set:
Subtle lighting highlighted the temple's dramatic pillars and ornate
architecture in the pitch black night. Smoke poured into the sky
from fires beyond the temple gates, rivaling the best smoke machines
technology has to offer. The production values and tightness of
the performance were immediately revealed to be first rate, world
The first piece, "Tabuh
Kreasi" (music creation) was a brand new composition, "Cerukcuk
Wana," inspired by the eponymous bird's unique calls. The work itself
incorporated the western-related septatonic pelog scales in the
context of Balinese orchestration and traditional harmonies. The
piece was composed by a hotshot percussionist, an STSI University
student who conducted the orchestra as he played with his exaggerated
percussive arm, wrist and hand movements. The orchestra was brilliant;
even the musicians' movements were seemingly choreographed and synchronized.
Intricate unison lines, call and responses that shot through the
ensemble, poly-rhythms and gesturally delicate cadenzas, shocked
the audience. Even more amazing still was the artists' scoreless
and generous performance. The gamelon orchestra, divided stage left
and stage right, almost simulated the friendly competitions which
are the custom between each Banjar (neighborhood)'s orchestra. The
virtuosity seemed deeply rooted in discipline and tradition.
Once the dancers made
their entrance for the second piece, "Tari Penyanbutan" (the welcome
dance) it was clear that the dance was the personification of the
music. Tiny subtleties, down to the extensive eyeball gestures,
occurred in unison and canon, and contrapuntally. Immaculate make-up
and costuming punctuated the movement. Lightly powdered white faces
with blue eyelids, red streaks below each brow, and the black outline
of the eye itself complimented the most animated and choreographed
facial expression. Purple baggy costumes tapered at the shoulders
and waist. Wrists and ankles accentuated the most delicate yet deliberate
hand and foot positions.
The third piece was the
"Kebyar Terompong," which translates as "explosion" or "flash of
lightning." The title is meant to capture the virtuosity of the
performer, who simultaneously plays the Terompang (an instrument)
while executing the virtuosic Kebyar style of dance. The instrument
is a series of horizontal pot gongs played almost like a xylophone.
In the gamelon orchestra, often it is played by four men side by
side; it's a very long instrument. Its resonance is remarkably similar
to the Fender Rhoades used on many jazz fusion recordings of the
1970s by such keyboardists as Herbie Hancock and Jan Hammer. The
Kebyar Terompang is essentially a Terompang concerto, with its familiar
relationship to the full ensemble. The dance itself captures the
teenage plight -- an onslaught of contradicting, fickle emotions.
The facial expressions of the dancer personify these transformations
-- "flashes from strength to refined delicacy, courage to coy flirtation"
-- in rapid fire sequences. The combination of playing and dancing
clearly illuminates the performer's mastery of both disciplines;
this is no musician trying to dance or dancer trying to play --
he does both, beautifully.
Although the program
is divided into seven separate pieces, in sequence, the order outlined
a perfect show. From an overture into a dance introduction to the
ultimate in virtuosity, the show continued to include interpretations
of traditional legends (Legong Semarandhana), battles and adventure
(Tari Satya Brasta) comic relief (Topeng Tua -- the old mask dance)
and a love story (Oleg Tamulilingan).
We remained in Ubud,
the cultural capital of Bali and saw our next two performances,
the Kecak dance and the Wayang Kulit (the shadow puppets). We continued
on our crash immersion in Balinese culture: music, dance and drama,
three entities that seem to always merge here. The exceptions have
been rare; only in restaurants and hotel lobbies have there been
musicians playing the wooden xylophones of the gamelon Jegog in
pairs, sometimes with a flute and even rarer still, solo. The only
time we witnessed dance without musical accompaniment was during
a rehearsal. We saw fifteen teenage girls and a young dance director
who was giving corrections and teaching in an uncannily familiar
manner (I joked she needed to be holding a can of Tab). No music
played but she hummed through the melodies the way every Balinese
we've talked to could casually sing the appropriate music for any
dance we discussed, or could emulate the cartoon-like voices of
the characters in the Wayang Kulit.
The Kecak dance has no
gamelon accompaniment, only the voices of a chorus of about 70 to
100 men. The Kecak is truly something special -- it tells the epic
legend of the Ramayana. The chorus chants and sings with an inexplicable
mix of scored precision and folk-like tradition pulsating through
the performers' veins, passed down from generation to generation,
all combined with ceremonial dance movement to tell their ancient
tale. 100 voices sectioned like an orchestra grooved and traded,
changed tempos and corresponded to the main dancers in the center
of the circle with radar and precision. The men emerged in tribal
uniforms, shirtless with black sarongs, tied in such a way to create
pant legs that ended just below the knees. A black, white and gray
buffalo plaid patterned cloth fastened with a red sash on top and
with red trim on the bottom covered the men's mid-sections almost
like aprons. Although their look was similar to contemporary surfers,
the significance of the black and white cloth symbolized the struggle
between good and evil, depicting what the next hour would entail.
Singers with an assigned
voice kept tempo, traded with a colleague, and changed the base
of the music, as layer upon layer responded, created patterns and
beaded above. The chorus of men used simple movements and positioned
their physical beings to create set changes on the concrete floor
of the simple Banjar structure. At one point, two concentric rings
of men formed, one spreading to the outside, while the other surrounded
the dancers. They interlocked between each other's legs, almost
in the formation of a giant group massage, their torsos swaying
back and forth simulating, beautifully, a serpent.
Hanoman, the white monkey
god, was played by an exceptional dancer. This character, like others
in the story, also exists in the Ramayana Ballet. The telling of
the two tales overlaps. Hanoman is always portrayed as a ham. One
performance even had him negotiating trees that surrounded the stage,
incorporating them as if they were set pieces designed for his amusement.
In this particular Kecak dance, Hanoman re-enacted perfectly the
gestures and movements of the real monkeys we had seen in the monkey
forest days earlier, scratching himself and lowly walking side to
side. His movements became exaggerated and more animated, at one
point including a breaking and popping-like solo that would make
any B-boy proud.
The story line in the
Kecak, the tale of the Ramayana, is about as well-documented as
any epic legend could be -- in paintings, wood carvings, etchings
and masks. It preoccupies the majority of Balinese art. Its telling
through the Kecak is of course somewhat cryptic, but even without
having read the specific story before the show, I was able to piece
much of the puzzle of this version together from just being in Bali.
Afterwards I read the synopsis of the tale and learned that it originated
in India and contains thousands of pages.
Another Indian tale,
the Mahabarata, was masterfully re-enacted in the Wayang Kulit (shadow
puppets). It is a Balinese opera. Recititives, leit-motifs, singing
and live music illuminate the white screen as much as the burning
torch behind it. The fire gave life to the shadow puppets, two-dimensional
metal figures (which we only see in silhouette). Some of the characters
and cartoon-like voices seem to remain consistent between the Wayang
Kulit and the Kecak. The gravelly, expanding belt of one voice mixed
soulful bayou blues with the klezmatic whine of a Yiddish folk song.
Again, an immaculate performance and production aesthetic raised
the question of whether it was quantitatively rehearsed and performed
or just ingrained so deeply in generations of traditions, ceremonies
I had two inclinations
toward the latter conclusion. The first is something my gamelon
instructor said to me. In Ubud, I was taking lessons on the Gangsa,
a xylophone-like instrument of the gamelon orchestra, with a two-octave
pentatonic scale (10 bars total). The keys are struck by a hammer
with one hand and dampened by the other. As he taught me we faced
each other, his instrument mirroring mine. I copied his motions
as we played; the complicated part was dampening the last note played
by the left hand while simultaneously striking the new note with
the right. It did not escape my attention that in order to teach
me in this mirrored fashion my instructor had to master his instrument
backwards. He taught other instruments too, at the school, and displayed
a mastery of them as well. His main instrument was actually a Kendang,
a hand drum. I inquired about his musical history and he told me,
"I have been playing since I was seven, but I didn't study too hard.
I didn't have to, it was all around me."
The religious and ritualistic
functions of music and dance are part of the Balinese everyday life.
They truly live their art. As I studied gamelon, across from me
my wife, Rebecca, studied Balinese dance. She learned from her instructor
without the benefit of a common verbal language. She was learning
the Pendet dance, with its hand and body positions contradicting
every western principle she had studied since her own childhood.
She sweated under the Indonesian sun, carefully learning her new
vocabulary and sequences. Later we walked the streets of Ubud and
found a jewelry shop. We made a purchase and spent time with the
proprietors of the store. Conversation shifted toward dance and
upon mention of the Pendet, the owner's five-year-old daughter launched
into the dance. As her mother continued to converse, she absent-mindedly
corrected the hand and arm positions of her daughter.
The second inclination
I have towards believing the complexities of these art forms are
ingrained into the Balinese psyches comes from seeing the Sangyang
or trance dances. The first of the two we saw involved two young
girls. This adaptation of the original was created for an audience
in a proscenium setting, whereas the original was done throughout
the streets of the village. Two young girls are entranced and dance
in perfect unison with their eyes closed. Although the original
contained levitation, their synchronized movements were just as
impressive as they were beautiful. When they finished the dance,
they were awoken by a priest who ritualistically splashed them with
The other sangyang dance
we saw was the horse dance. A man danced with a wooden horse between
his legs, with a massive braided straw mane in front of him and
a bushy long tail behind. Before his entrance two men dumped a large
sack of coconut shells in the middle of the eerily dark concrete
floor. They proceeded to douse the pile with a fluid and then lit
the bonfire, sending waves of heat into the audience. The horse
danced virile yet elegant movements. He jumped around the fire,
then through the fire. CRACK! He kicked the fire with an explosion
of embers, the burning coconuts flying towards the audience and
spreading all over the ground. The audience, especially the first
row, was genuinely shocked and most definitely terrified. Gasps
and yells were let out as many people began to sit with their feet
off the ground; one family even sent their children back one row.
The man-horse continued to dance on and through the burning hot
coals. The men who lit the fire periodically swept the coals together
to form another pile which would ignite itself after being collected
and then CRACK, they kicked it again, terrorizing the crowd anew.
Amazingly enough, the glowing smoking shells always stopped right
at the crowd, never actually hitting anyone. After this was repeated
several times, two men put the horse-man down, and he hit the floor
with the force of a man fainting. The priest again blessed him with
the holy water, as the audience applauded and dispersed. The chairs
in the which the audience sat were collected and put away, but we
couldn't leave. The man who did the horse dance remained in the
same spot with blackened feet, seemingly unburned -- as dumbfounded
and bewildered as we were.
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