Another Day Another Dance

Another Day Another Dance


Ni Wayan Murni
Natural Guide to Bali, 2005

Balinese dances – and indeed the other performing arts in Bali – have a religious background.

Dances are offerings to the gods and ancestors – staged to please and entertain the deities at religious ceremonies to which they have been invited by the priests. Visitors to Bali have a very good chance of seeing one and they certainly should.

Dances also accompany rites of passage, which mark a turning point in a person’s life, such as baby ceremonies, tooth-filings, weddings and cremations. There are exciting dances at exorcism ceremonies, held to rid the place of disruptive forces. Sensational dances are performed at times of crisis, such as epidemics, famines and plagues. At these events dancers, and sometimes even spectators, fall into trance.

Some dances have a story, often based on the old Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. It is almost impossible for the first time spectator to follow the plot. Boys dance girls’ parts, girls dance boys’ parts. You cannot tell which are which. Both wear heavy make-up. The same person may dance several roles and scenes change with the barest of announcements. It‘s best just to sit back and enjoy the extreme beauty of the movements, the expressions and the dazzling costumes. Lose yourself in the subtle, intricate, wonderful, percussive sounds of the gamelan orchestra.

Dances are classified into the sacred and the secular. Sacred dances are for the gods and secular dances are for humans. Sacred dances are sub-divided into the very sacred and the ceremonial. The very sacred (wali), like the pendet, gabor, baris gede and the masked dance, topeng pejegan, take place in the holiest, inner court of the temple (jeroan) and the ceremonial dances (bebali), like the Ramayana and gambuh, take place in the middle courtyard (jaba tengah). Sacred and ceremonial dances usually take place when the priest is conducting the rituals and the temple is milling with people. At the same time, a shadow puppet performance (wayang kulit) may also be going on.

Secular dances take place in the outer part of the temple or even outside. Popular examples are the legong, kebyar and the lively solo baris tungal. New dances tend to fall into this category, and although often created initially for Western consumption, the Balinese quickly adopt them as their own. Examples are the famous kecak (monkey dance), which was choreographed by Walter Spies and Katharine Mershon in 1931 for a German movie “Island of the Demons” – they based it on old Balinese trance dances; the oleg tumulilingan (bumblebee dance), created by local choreographer, Mario of Tabanan, for the Peliatan dance troupe’s tour of Europe and America in 1952; and the new genggong (frog dance), a favourite among children.

Balinese dances are not about individuals. The story is not the important thing. It’s the rhythm, the atmosphere and the feeling for space. The characters exist in their own formal, spiritual world. There are stock characters, who represent respected or not so respected qualities. The king and queen are nearly always refined or halus. The king’s ministers may or may not be refined. The witch and the monster are coarse or kasar. They all have their own stylized movements, their own dress and speak in Kawi, an old language that few understand. The only individuals are the clowns, who improvise, joke, and explain to the audience in Balinese what is happening on stage.

The gestures in Indian dancing tell a story, but not in Bali. Faces are like masks. Emotion is underplayed. Gestures are purely abstract, although a few have dramatic meanings. Shading the eyes with the hand indicates weeping. First and second fingers pointing at the end of a stiffly extended arm is a gesture of anger or denunciation. Eyes move quickly from side to side to stress the rhythms and accents.

The best place to see dances and listen to the gamelan is in their proper setting, in one of the many temples. The temple, private or public, will be packed with people in splendid Balinese attire. White-clad priests will be intoning mantras, ringing bells and muttering prayers. Ladies will be carrying offerings of fruit and flowers on their heads and placing them on special pavilions. The moon and the stars will illuminate the proceedings.

Many hotels and restaurants put on tourist dances. These can be enjoyable, but lack the magical, natural beauty of a temple. Many tourist villages also have shows. The best are in the Ubud area. I am from Ubud, so I would say that, wouldn’t I? But, it’s true. The dance troupes in Ubud Palace and Pura Dalem are of international standard and frequently go abroad. There is a policy of rotating them as much as possible to prevent them getting stale

There are dances four times a week in the beautiful Pura Dalem temple, next to my shop, Kunang-Kunang II. The temple is softly lit by small lamps of coconut oil, in the traditional way. There is a great kecak, fire and trance dance on Mondays and Fridays at 7.30 pm, a barong and kris dance on Thursdays at 7.30 pm, and a dramatic jegog bamboo orchestra (with dances) on Wednesdays at 7.00 pm.

Ubud, Bali

Another Day Another Dance