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Balinese Theatre and Dance
Transcript of Balinese Theatre and Dance
Art and religion are very closely tied in Bali, Indonesia, and Bali dances reflect that notion.
Balinese dance is expressive, exact, angular, mechanical, and methodic. “Nothing is left to chance or to personal initiative” (Artaud).
Dance as an art is taken quite seriously in Balinese culture, and most dancers begin training at a very young age.
The roles in Balinese dances are predetermined to fit the characters in ancient stories. A vital step to becoming these characters is to wear a ceremonial mask. When the dancer puts on the mask, they fully become the character.
“We are watching a mental alchemy which makes a gesture of a state of mind...” (Artaud).
After having read about the origins and meanings behind various Balinese dances, it is much easier to attempt to understand what kind of experience the performers are having at any given moment. And, I believe the experience fluctuates widely depending on the dance.
A Further Study in Description
Theater art, at its roots, is a religious experience that the Balinese have been practicing for centuries.
Vocal language is not prominent in Balinese theater, but that allows theater to convey a deeper, more existential message that can’t necessarily be translated into language.
“Until the conquest of Bali in the early twentieth century and the arrival of Europeans, almost all performance was dramatical, often involving a combination of dance, singing and acting that went on all night, and drawing upon a vast literary canon which included Indian and Indonesian epics and stories from elsewhere.” -BalineseDance.org
“The drama does not develop as a conflict of feelings but as a conflict of spiritual states...“ (Artaud).
“The themes are vague, abstract, extremely general” (Artaud).
These masks require a high level of expertise to craft, and are intentionally made to show the character that a given dancer is portraying. The challenge of this lies in the fact that dancers must go through a wide range of expressions.
-They say “the mask should clearly reveal the emotions and even the facial expressions of the dancers, though the face remains hidden from view.” Understanding Balinese Dance-TravelSourceVideo (YouTube)
In Legong for example, only young women who have not yet reached puberty are able to perform the role, so practice begins when the girl is about five years old.
In this particular dance, the girl is adorned in colorful, intricately patterned golden fabric, a bright crown of flowers, dramatic makeup and holds a collapsible fan.
Optional link to YouTube video of a young Balinese girl performing the Legong dance:
In response to the following Baris dance video sample:
The dancer is representing a demi-god and is depicting the feelings of a young warrior just before his battle. Every movement and gesture is, in essence, a word within the story that the young man tells. And as every strong story carries a range of emotions, the dancers feels those passions as he emits the tale through his body.
“In Balinese dance, the movements are a language of their own. There are 30 names for the movements of feet and legs, 16 names for the arms, 19 names for hands and fingers, 14 names for the trunk, 20 names for neck and shoulder, and at least 16 for the face.”
Understanding Balinese Dance-TravelSourceVideo (YouTube)
His movements are tight, stuttering, and sharp. Even the ticks of his eye are precisely on the beats of the music. They are very expressive and telling. It is clear when he is surveying his surroundings versus when he is alert and ready to defend. At first each step is small but purposeful. But as the story continues, they proceed to grow in size and occupy more space.
This particular video may only be an example of a non-ritual Baris war dance because it is performed as a solo, and is perhaps exclusively for human eyes rather than for those of the spirits. However, bebalih performances “are addressed simultaneously to both the human audience and the gods of the inner sanctum”(Lansing) are taken very seriously as they are in invitation to the spirits for contact through trance.
“Trance is unpredictable and possibly dangerous, because it allows supernatural beings like witches to temporarily occupy a human body. But it also establishes a moment of contact between the members of the congregation and the unseen world”(Lansing).
J. Stephen Lansing,
Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology: The Balinese
;1995 Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Understanding Balinese Dance
All photographs are of Ni Madé Pujawati. ©Mark Hobart 2009
The Theater and its Double; Calder, 1977
Here, I imagine a dancer or performer would feel an assortment of sensations (perhaps heat, tingling, coolness, emptiness, serenity, etc.) leading up to a sort of out-of-body experience if they do indeed fall into a trance. Maybe the dancer will be conscious of all of their actions, but no longer feel in control of everything they do—as if another power has taken residency in their corporeal body and they are left only to feel and observe.
Far from the Western form of theatre that many of us are used to, Balinese performances are deeply spiritual and not originally created for entertainment purposes.
Dance & Cultures