Your Ad Here
Dance and Drama
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Vibrant World of Movement and Sound

Dances and dramatic performances form an important part of nearly every ritual on Bali. They are seen as an integral part of Balinese religion and culture and are employed as an expression of one's devotion to the gods (ngayah) as well as a means of instilling centuries-old values in each new generation of Balinese, through the medium of movement, music and words.

Training and taksu

Balinese children are exposed to dance at a very early age. They are taken to performances long before they can walk, and begin to take dance lessons soon after. Most take great pleasure in this, whether or not they perform, as they are just as interested in the learning experience as in the final product.

There are no warm-ups before a lesson begins, and the teacher plunges right into the dance. The movements are not taught individually; the child stands behind the teacher and follows her movements. When the teacher feels that the pupil understands the basic sequence, she will move behind the student, take her wrists or fingers and move them through the desired positions. The student's body must be both full of energy and relaxed - "listening" to the teacher's fingers as much as to her words, which are sol-fa syllables imitating the music.

After many hours of such manipulations, the movements are said to have "entered" the student. He or she then dances alone, with the teacher correcting from behind as needed. Only after completely memorizing a dance will the student practice with a full gamelan orchestra.

Balance is essential in Balinese dance, as in everything the Balinese do; rarely do they trip or fall. Control is also important - the dances demand control of every limb, muscle and emotion. The dancer must learn how to express the character of his or her role as opposed to expressing one's "true self' (a very non-Balinese concept). One could say that dance involves a displacement of the ego.

The most important aspect of dance is that of taksu or "divine inspiration" - the electrifying presence that mesmerizes audiences and transports performer and viewer to another time and place. Taksu can transform a plain-looking dancer into a great beauty and a technically deficient one into a great artist. A dancer studying Topeng will often sleep with a mask above his bed so he can study and absorb its character. Masks have their own special taksu. One who lacks taksu is likened to a "weak flame" - and dancers pray to the god of taksu before each performance. It doesn't always come though; even the Balinese have "off" nights.

Sacred vs. secular dances

There are literally hundreds of dance forms in Bali, from the starkly simple Rejang to the highly intricate Legong. Concerns about the impact of tourism caused a team of scholars to convene in 1971 to determine which dances were to be deemed sacred and which secular, so as to keep the sacred ones from becoming secularized. The result was that all dances were placed into three categories depending on the area of the temple in which they are performed, and this has now become the standard classification system used for Balinese dance forms.

Wali dances are those performed or originating in the jeroan or innermost courtyard of the temple. It is here that the sacred icons are kept and worshipped, and these forms are often group dances with no dramatic elements. They are considered indigenously Balinese, and as with all Balinese dances, are performed to propitiate the ancestral spirits. Rejang, Baris Gede and Sanghyang trance dances all fall into this category.

Bebali dances are ceremonial - performed in the jaba tengah or middle courtyard of the temple. This is the meeting point of the divine and the worldly, and these are mostly dance dramas whose stories derive from the Hindu-Javanese epics. These include Gambuh and Wayang Wong.

Balih-balihan dances are secular and performed in the jaba or outer courtyard, usually beyond the prescribed sacred space itself (although often this space will be consecrated by a priest before the performance). Into this category fall a number of classical and modern forms like Legong, Baris, Arja, Kebyar, Sendratari and others.

As with most things Balinese, these categories are not rigidly adhered to. Dance dramas may be performed in the jeroan and magically charged sacred dances may be held in the jaba. As the Balinese are fond of saying, everything has a place, a time and a circumstance (desa, kala, patra) and things vary greatly from district to district, from village to village and even from time to time. The performing arts are no exception, which is why you'll see barongs in different villages that are extremely different. This variety is one of the delights of Bali.

Sacred processionals

The most truly indigenous dances of Bali are the sacred rejang, baris gede and mendet, which are considered temple "offerings" in and of themselves. These are usually performed in stately lines by groups of men or women, with an occasional priest or priestess leading, in the jeroan of the temple. The dancers often bear holy water and offerings which they present to the gods.

On the first days of an odalan temple festival, the Rejang and Baris Gede are usually performed in the early morning, sometimes in tandem. The Rejang dance consists of a procession of females ranging in age from two up to eighty. They move in a slow and stately fashion toward the altar, twirling fans or lifting their hip sashes. Costumes range from simple temple attire (Batuan) to elaborate gold headdresses and richly woven cloths (Asak and Tenganan).

Baris dances are rooted in courtly rituals of war; the term baris refers to a formation of

warriors. In the Baris Gede or Upacara, a weapon of some sort is used, while in the Baris Pendet an offering is carried. Various Baris dances are named after the particular weapon involved, and a mock battle between two warriors is often re-enacted. Trance sometimes occurs, and the main function of this dance is devotional - it matters not if the dancers are in unison with one another or with the music, or if they dance with precision. Baris Upacara may be seen in mountain villages near Batur, in the Sanur area, in Tabanan, and now in the Ubud area.

Late at night at the end of a temple festival, a Mendet dance is performed by the married women of the village, though in some cases young women and girls join in as well. The women carry woven offering baskets, holy water, or libations of distilled liquor to offer up to the gods on their divine journey home. A procession is formed and they weave around the temple grounds, stopping before each shrine to offer up their gifts. Mendet, like Rejang and Baris Upacara, is not taught but learned in performance.

The divine descent

sanghyang danceThe word sanghyang means "deity" and performers of the sacred Sanghyang dances are said to be possessed by specific deities who enable them to perform supernatural feats. Their role is an overtly exorcist one - they assist in warding off pestilence and ridding the village of black magic.

Trance is induced through incense smoke and chanting by two groups of villagers women who sing the praises of the gods and ask them to descend, and a chorus of men who imitate the gamelan using the word cak" and other sounds.

There are many kinds of Sanghyang. In Sanghyang Dedari, two pre-pubescent girls (chosen through a "trance test") are gradually put into trance, dressed in costumes very similar to the Legong (many scholars feel that the Legong developed from this form). They are then carried on palanquins or shoulders around the village, stopping at magically charged spots such as crossroads, bridges and in front of the homes of people who can transform themselves into leyak or witches. After this, the sanghyangs lead the villagers back to a dancing arena at the temple or bale banjar, where, with eyes closed, they dance for up to four hours. Stories from the Legong repertoire or dramatic forms based on the Calonarang and Cupak are reenacted. In some villages, the sanghyang dedari execute the entire dance mounted on the shoulders of men, performing astounding acrobatic feats. This part of the ritual is accompanied by a complete gamelan group, who have been thoroughly trained and rehearsed.

Sanghyang jaran danceIn Sanghyang Jaran, a small number of men are put into trance, but their transition is much more violent - they fall, convulsed to the ground and rush to grab hobby horses. During the pre-trance chanting, coconut shells have been lit, leaving red hot coals. The trancers are said to be attracted by all forms of fire and onlookers are required not to smoke. The entranced dancers leap into the coals, prancing on top of them, picking up the hot pieces and bathing themselves in fire. The sanghyangs are accompanied only by a kecak chorus of chanting men.

Both types of Sanghyang may be seen four times a week in Bona, where it is claimed that the performers are indeed possessed, albeit by lesser deities.

Dramatic courtly forms

In the 14th century, Bali was conquered by the great Majapahit kingdom of East Java. As a result, a number of Javanese nobles and courtiers settled in Bali, bringing with them their dances, their caste system and a variety of ceremonies which quickly became interwoven with the rich tapestry of indigenous beliefs and rituals.

The stories of the Gambuh dance drama are principally based on the Malat tales concerning the adventures of a Javanese prince, Panji Inu Kertapati, and his quest for the beautiful princess Candra Kirana. However, the dramatic action centers about the courts and the pomp which infuses royal battles. The ideals and manners of 14th century Java and Bali are thus preserved in this form.

The language of Gambuh is Kawi or Old Javanese, which very few Balinese understand. 'Mere is little clowning, as more attention is paid to the choreography than to the story. Perhaps because of this, there are only three active village troupes left on the island, all in Batuan. Gambuh is definitely worth seeing, as all Balinese dance and musical forms may be said to stem from it. Gambuh is accompanied by a small ensemble in which four to eight men play meter-long flutes. These, along with a two-stringed rebab, provide hauntingly beautiful melodies.

Mask dramas

TopengTopeng literally means "pressed against the face" or mask. All actors in Topeng dramas are masked. Refined characters wear full masks; clowns and servants sport a half mask, which facilitates speaking. Topeng is a tremendously popular form in Bali, as it relates local lore and historical tales concerning the royal lineages in scenes of everyday life. Topeng is also immensely entertaining, as the use of humor and clowns is extensive.

The first dancers to emerge are the pengelembar or introductory characters - three or four ministers at the court. Next to appear is the penasar, by far the most important character in the play. His role is a combination of storyteller, royal servant, stage director, and at times music conductor. He extols the virtues of the king in a sung soliloquy alternating between Kawi and Balinese. As in many dance dramas, form takes precedence over plot.

His younger brother and sidekick Kartala then comes out and the two engage in slapstick antics. Both the penasar and Kartala wear half-masks and speak in colloquial Balinese. The king then appears, moving with delicate steps and thus showing his refined nature. He gestures - as his full mask prevents him from speaking - and the penasar translates for him.

Topeng DanceInevitably there is a kingdom to conquer or a person to rescue. The servants of an opposing king appear and more clowning takes place. Often a series of masked dancers with grotesque features appear one at a time under the guise of joining the king's army or going to pay homage at the palace. Here, the audience goes wild. Masks with three sets of

teeth, burlesque women - even tourists in cock-eyed berets appear on the scene. If the audience is receptive, these antics could go on for hours. Imbedded in the joking, however, are values of religious piety and honesty that the Balinese treasure. Topeng, along with the wayang kulit shadow play, is the primary medium through which Balinese history, values, and even knowledge of current events are transmitted. In the end, the two factions contend, and the "bad guys" admit defeat.


The Balinese love to create new genres by melding together different forms. In the 1940s the king of Gianyar, I Dewa Manggis VIII, summoned his royal dancers and asked them to create a new dance called Prembon, taking elements from the Gambuh, Arja (a kind of operetta), Topeng, Parwa (a no masked form based on the Mahabharata) and Baris.

A night of Prembon often begins with a solo Baris and some other tari lepas (non-dramatic dance). A story of Balinese kings with characters from all of the above forms is then presented, although it most resembles a Topeng performance. Watching Prembon gives the uninitiated an excellent glimpse of all of these genres in a way that is easier to follow than say, Gambuh or Arja. And often it is the best dancers of each tradition that perform these pieces.

Battling the dark side

Every fifteen days, on Kajeng Kliwon, the dark forces of Bali gather to frolic and inflict illness on unsuspecting souls. These witches or leyak are humans who, through the study of black magic, are able to transform themselves into grotesque animals, demons, even flying cars. They haunt crossroads, graveyards or bridges, and this particular day, due to its inauspiciousness for dharma, or the correct path, is auspicious for Rangda, queen of the leyaks. A performance of the Calonarang dance is then often held.

As with many Balinese dance dramas, the story is based on historical sources. In the early 11th century, a powerful Balinese king, Udayana, married an east Javanese princess, Mahendratta. When he found out she had been practicing black magic, he banished her to the forest. No one dared to marry her daughter, even though she was stunningly beautiful - so afraid were they of her mother's magic. To this day the queen, her teeth grown into fangs, her tongue a long flame and her hair full of fire, takes revenge by spreading pestilence throughout the land.

There are many variations on the Calonarang dance, but all involve the Barong - a mythological beast with an immense coat of fur and gilded leather vestments. The most common and sacred is the Barong Ket, a cross between a lion and a bear, although the
Barong Macan (tiger), Barong Bangkal (wild boar), Barong Celeng (pig) and Barong Gajah (elephant) also exist.

The Barong is considered a protector of the village. Of demonic origin, the people have made a beast in his image and transformed him into a playful, benevolent creature. Upon entering, he prances about the stage, shaking his great girth and clacking his jaws. He is often followed by the telek and jauk, two masked groups of men depicting deities and demons, respectively. They fight, but no one wins (a common theme in Balinese performances) Their role is simply to help restore and maintain balance.

The story then begins with the condong (lady-in-waiting) bemoaning the fact that no one will marry her mistress, Ratnamanggali, who then enters and dances. The lights are dimmed and the followers of Rangda enter, holding white cloths whose touch can cause illness. Matah Gede, the witch in human form, then instructs them in deeds of destruction and walks up to her temporary shack on the stage. Two male papaya trees have also been stuck into the ground here, said to represent the kepoh tree of the graveyard, a favorite haunt of leyaks.

The scene then switches to the village, where many people have died. A group of villagers brings a baby to the cemetery to be buried and the slumber of men in the graveyard is comically disturbed by a celuluk - abalding demo ness with bulging eyes. This scene is always played to the hilt, with suggestive gestures from her and lewd remarks from the men.

The king and his minister, Mpu Bharadah, then appear and the king asks for advice on how to stop the horrible pestilence plaguing his kingdom. The advisor suggests that his son, Bahula, marry Ratnamanggali to discover how her mother gains her power. This he does, and it turns out that Rangda has stolen a book of holy mantras and recites them backwards. Bahula steals the book and takes it to his father. Mpu Bharadah then confronts Rangda, and a battle of magical wits takes place. Rangda burns the papaya tree and challenges the priest to do the same. He revives the tree and burns Rangda, but brings her back to life, determined that who will see the evil in her ways. On stage, Rangda can never be killed, only pushed back to the cemetery where she belongs.

The most famous part of this dance drama is the confrontation between Rangda and Barong, involving followers of Barong who attack Rangda with krisses or daggers that are then turned back on themselves. This can also be performed as a separate drama, called simply a Barong dance.

Barong enters, followed by the telek and jauk, and then Rangda appears, challenging him to a fight. He cannot withstand Rangda's evil power, so the "keris dancers" (ngunying or ngurek) rush to his assistance and attack Rangda. In a traditional performance, these ngunying are in a trance of sorts. The players have reported feeling a heat inside of them and a burning desire to kill Rangda. At times, her power is too much and they fall, apparently lifeless, to the ground. At other times, her power makes them convulse and stab themselves. Some men state that there is a spot, usually on their chest, that itches and they feel compelled to stab it. These men are never allowed to get too far out of control if they do, their kerises are taken away from them and they are sprinkled with holy water to bring them out of trance.

Barong moves among them, shaking his beard (next to the mask itself, his most holy attribute). After they have all come out of trance, the performance is over and everyone goes home. To the Balinese, the struggle is real enough to be frightening, and the best actors can actually "invite" leyak to come to the stage to challenge their own magic.

The exquisite Legong

Perhaps the most famous of Bali's dances, the Legong is also by far the most exquisite. Performed by three highly trained young virls it is said to have been the created by
the king of Sukawati, I Dewa Agung Mad Karna 0775- 1825), who meditated for 40 day and 40 nights in the Yogan Agung temple in Ketewel and saw two celestial angels, resplendent in glittering gold costumes. When he finished his meditations, he summoned the court musicians and dancers and taug them what he had seen, calling it the Sanghyang Legong. This was first performed the temple with nine masks, and is still performed there every seven months.

Most scholars agree that the Leg n grew out of the Sanghyang Dedari. All Lego pieces are for two young girls. Some are to ly abstract with no narrative; others tell story and the legongs act out different roles.

In 1932, Ida Bagus Boda, a famous Lego teacher, created the condong or female attendant role, which serves as an introduction the piece. In shimmering costume, her body wrapped like a gilded cocoon, the condo makes her entrance. After a solo of about minutes, she spies two fans on the ground scoops them up and turns around to face two legongs. Dancing in complete unison they take the fans from the condong, perform a short piece called bapang, and the condong exits. It is here that the narrative begins.

The most commonly performed tale is that of a princess lost in the woods of the wicked king of Lasem. He kidnaps her and tries to seduce her, but she spurns his advances. Upon hearing of her fate, her brother, the king of Daha, declares war on the king of Lasem. As they go forth into battle, the condong reappears wearing gilded wings - a guak (crow) or bird of ill omen. The two kings fight, with evil Lasem invariably meeting death at the hands of King Daha.

Other stories portrayed are Jobog, where the two monkey kings Subali and Sugriwa fight over the love of a woman; Kuntir, where Subali and Sugriwa are seen in their youth; Kuntul, a dance of white herons; and Semaradhana, where the god of love Semara takes leave of his wife Ratih and goes to awaken the god Siwa (represented by a Rangda mask) out of meditation. The traditional centers for Legong are Saba, Peliatan and Kelandis. Today one can also see performances in Teges, Ubud and many other villages.

New forms: the Kecak

Kecak danceIn the 1930s, when tourism to Bali was just beginning, two western residents, painter Walter Spies and author Katharane Mershon felt that the "cak" chorus of the Sanghyang dances, taken out of its ritual context with an added storyline, would be a hit among their friends and other visitors. Working with Limbak and his troupe in Bedulu village, they incorporated Baris movements into the role of the cak leader. Eventually the story of the Ramayana was added, though it wasn't until the 1960s that elaborate costumes were used.

The Kecak dance, as it is now called, involves a chorus of at least 50 men. They sit in concentric circles around an oil lamp and begin to slowly chant: cak-cak-cak-cak is the sound they make. Up to seven different rhythms are interwoven, creating a tapestry of sound similar to the gamelan. One man is the kempli or time beater and his "pong" cuts through the chorus. A juru tandak sings the tale of the Ramayana as the drama progresses. Tourists call this the "Monkey Dance," because at the end of the play the men become the monkey army sent to rescue Sita. The cak sound also resembles the chattering of monkeys.

Kecak is performed solely for tourists. One would never see it in a temple ceremony. Even though it has its roots in the Sanghyang trance dances, the Kecak dancers themselves do not go into trance.

Kebyar: lighting strikes

At the turn of this century, north Bali was the scene of great artistic ferment, as gamelan competitions were common and each club vied to outdo the other. In 1914, Kebyar Legong was born - a new dance for two young women who portray an adolescent youth (the prototype for the dynamic Taruna Jaya, chore

choreographed by I Gede Manik in the early 1950s). There was no story - the emphasis being instead on interpretation of the music, a new phenomenon. This form swept the island like lightning, which is what kebyar literally means. The music is equally electrifying, full of sudden stops, starts and complex rhythms.

Four years later, the king of Tabanan commissioned a gamelan kebyar to perform at an important cremation. One member of the audience was so taken with the music that he began to compose and choreograph his own pieces in this style. This was I Ketut Maria (also known as "Mario"), the most famous Balinese dancer of this century.

In 1925 Mario debuted his Kebyar Duduk - a dance performed entirely while seated on the ground. With no narrative to tell, the Kebyar dancer presents a range of moods from coquettishness to bashfulness, and from sweet imploring to anger. Mario himself performed this while playing the trompong (a long instrument with 14 inverted kettle gongs), using theatrics and flashy moves to coax sound from the instrument.

In 1951, Mario was approached by British entrepreneur John Coast and Anak Agung Gede Mantera of Peliatan to create a new piece. They wanted a boy-meets-girl theme for their world tour in 1952. Tambulilingan Ngisap Madu ("a bumblebee sips honey"), now known as Oleg Tambililingan, was the result - created for I Gusti Raka, one of the tiny Peliatan legongs, and Gusti Ngurah Ra Mario's prize Kebyar student. It is a story mimed in abstract terms, of a female bumblebee sipping honey and frolicking in a garden A male bumblebee sees her, encircles her' a dance of courtship and they finally mate.

Into the spotlight: Sendratari

During the political upheavals of the '60 many new ideas in dance and music we ushered in. A team of Balinese artists KOKAR (now SMKI, the High School f Performing Arts) in 1962 created a new form called Sendratari, from seni ("art")-drama-tari ("dance"). Instead of having dance speak their lines, as in Gambuh, Topeng Arja, a juru tandak sits in the gamelan speaks them in Kawi and Balinese. The d ers pantomime the action on stage. Sin then, KOKAR and STSI artistes have create new Sendratari every year for the Bali Art Festival, filling to capacity the open-air teater at the Art Center which seats 5,0 These are lavish spectacles, with casts hundreds. The stories are usually taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The Arts Festival showcases some of best dance and music on the island. The festival begins in mid-June and runs through mid July. Schedules are available from the Regional Tourism Office in Denpasar.

Birds and other beasts

This decade has ushered in new forms, which are adding to the classical repertoire of Balinese dance. These Kebyar style forms may be popular for a year, a decade or a century - one can never be sure with the Balinese. Most of the new forms are being created by teachers and students at SMKi and STSI.

My Photo
Location: Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia
May 2007 /

Powered by Blogger

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]