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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 class.

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 and performance.

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 holy water.

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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