Bali Takes Center Stage

By Susan Bauer


With the mere mention of the word “Bali,” images of lush, green rice terraces and dancing maidens often come to mind. Though just one of over 17,000 islands that make up the archipelago of Indonesia, Bali has become the centerpiece of Indonesian tourism, with its international image having been carefully cultivated over the years through the influence of Western visitors, Dutch colonial occupation, and its own Indonesian government. How then, can we come to know and understand Bali–and its unique Balinese Hindu rituals and artistic practices–on its own terms, apart from the stereotypical and romanticized images of the paradise created that have been mass-produced for close to a century? This is the daunting task being taken on by San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum during a full 8 months of programming that began in February–featuring an exhibit of over 130 diverse artworks, along with an extensive multimedia tour, (such as videos of village performances and live shadow puppet plays that can be seen on an iPod), public workshops, lectures, hands-on art making, and performances that that include over 30 guest artists from Bali and represent both classical Balinese arts, as well as Balinese artistic innovation–an ambitious program entitled “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance.”

Tradition and Innovation
While the Asian Art Museum’s performance program includes some aspects of what would be considered classical Balinese dance and music, such as the classical female form of Legong, interestingly most of what has been commissioned is actually the creation and performance of new, collaborative works by Balinese and non-Balinese artists. In this way, it represents a vision of Bali that is not “merely a storehouse of past culture,” but is a living, evolving culture of tradition, change, and adaptation. A fascinating example of this is Bay Area dancer and choreographer Kompiang Metri-Davies’ Purification Dance, performed at the exhibit’s opening in February, by her dance troupe Gadung Kasturi. The piece is related to the concept of nyapuh jagat (sweeping the world), and represents the ritual cleansing of the self and the environment necessary before an important Balinese Hindu ceremony or event.

Kompiang, who came to the US from Bali at the age of 26, drew her inspiration for the piece from watching the process of a traditional ceremony in her village in East Bali, “I remember this wonderful dance that would happen in the temple after we had swept and cleaned off the old offerings to prepare for the temple ceremony. In one of the sacred dances, four priests in white cloth would walk into the inner area from each direction, north, east, west, and south to perform the offering ceremony to the God and Goddess, represented by two little dancing girls. It was so very moving to me and I wanted to create a dance piece that told the story of the process of this ceremony from my village.”

Of course as Kompiang acknowledges, ritual ceremonies and wali dances (“offering” dances of the inner temple) are not meant to be performed outside the temple. Therefore, she created her own blessing dance for a performance context: eight women (to represent the 4 directions plus those of northwest, southwest, northeast, and southeast) with choreography influenced by both Balinese and Javanese styles, as well as newly designed costumes and new music she composed. She also added the recitation of a Balinese blessing prayer, which she sings as she dances. To her, this dance represents a bridging of the sacred and secular, to become both a staged dance piece and an actual blessing ceremony appropriate for the context of the opening of the museum’s event.

While the temple ceremony that inspired her was performed for the Gods without a human audience, this new performance is a public event. Yet in accordance with Balinese custom, there was also a non-advertised event an hour before this opening celebration, which the Balinese community organized to properly initiate the space with ritual offerings and appropriate ceremonies. Clearly, negotiating traditional culture in a 21st Century light is a complex prospect of both internal and external negotiation.

Shaping the Exhibit
Equally fascinating is the intercultural artistic dialogue that has been instigated by the curators of this exhibit, beginning when the museum’s Associate Curator Natasha Reichle and Director of Education and Public Programs Deborah Clearwaters took a 2-week research trip to Bali in 2008. They met with over 15 key Balinese artists and scholars and attended local rituals and performances in their villages–many of which were videoed for inclusion in the educational aspect of the programming. Recognizing the many sensitive and interpretive issues in translating cultural material, Clearwaters decided to gather an advisory council of volunteers that included an impressive array of local experts, including I Made Moja (painter and dancer), I Made Surya (masked dancer) and Judy Slattum (author of Masks in Bali and leader with Made Surya of Danu Tours), Kompiang Metri-Davies (dancer and choreographer), Larry Reed (director of ShadowLight Productions), several members of Gamelan Sekar Jaya (the Bay Area’s internationally acclaimed ensemble of Balinese music and dance), and members of the Indonesian Consulate.

The advisory council meetings–which most Balinese I spoke with referred to simply as community meetings–met several times over a period of a year to discuss all aspects of programming and presentation, helping to shape the exhibit. Yet, Clearwaters acknowledges that not everyone was always happy with the museum’s final decisions. Controversial topics included the museum’s idea to commission the creation of a Balinese cremation tower (which it was finally decided was not appropriate, given the lack of a true purpose for its creation) and the editing of certain videos of village performances (such as a particular video of shadow puppetry, which had to be redone when it was decided that the order of the scenes had been mixed up enough to render it meaningless). Nevertheless, a strong community of artists and scholars seems to have been reinforced through this dynamic process.

Ramai and the Creatures of Balinese Mythology
Whether the Balinese themselves will enjoy this exhibit is another matter as well, for what is perhaps hardest to capture in a formal museum context is the very integration of the arts that generally exists in a truly ramai or ‘busy’ fashion, as noted in Balinese Dance, Drama, and Music, “Almost every ritual has some type of art form associated with it. A temple festival has gamelan music and probably a shadow puppet play and mask dance. A wedding might have a Joged (flirtations social dance), and cremations have marching gamelans accompanying the procession to the cemetery. The Balinese love anything that is ramai (festive, full, and colorful), and the more the better. It is not surprising to have at least two different types of music happening at the same time at a temple ceremony.”

With the need to present various distinct aspects of the arts in an orderly manner, this type of boisterous and overlapping ‘messiness’ of the ramai–that is so warmly characteristic of Balinese events–may inevitably be the one missing link in the museum’s otherwise elaborate attempt to engage its audience in Balinese culture. Coming closest to this perhaps, may well be the March performance of The Creatures of Balinese Mythology, a major new collaborative work by I Made Moja and Gamelan Sekar Jaya. With over 30 performers, this piece investigates complicated characters such as Khumbakarna, a conflicted beast who feels compelled by a sense of duty and circumstance to go to war, although his conscience weighs heavily on his being–a dilemma both timeless and timely. The work intertwines paintings and shadow imagery, new works for Balinese dance and three distinct live gamelan ensembles–gender wayang batel (music for shadow puppet theater), gong kebyar (known for it’s explosive and fiery energy), and gambuh (the oldest classical court dance genre in Bali). Ramai sekali (very ramai)!

In any case, surely the exhibit will be worth a visit, if not several, to experience and appreciate it all–and engage with the living culture of art, ritual, and performance that is at the heart of life in Bali.

Resources: Balinese Dance, Drama, and Music: A Guide to the Performing Arts of Bali, I Wayan Dibia and Rucina Ballinger (2004).

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of In Dance.

Susan Bauer, MFA, RSMT/E, is a dance/somatics educator living in the Bay Area. She recently lived in Bali, where she studied Balinese dance and mask-making as a Fulbright scholar. She serves as Adjunct Professor at University of San Francisco, where she teaches a course in Balinese Dance and Culture, and as tour leader to Bali for the Travel Program at California Institute of Integral Studies.