Category Archives: Balinese Dance

Dancing (and chanting) the night away

I’ve been back a month now! And I haven’t been dancing nearly enough. Here are some moments that take me back.

Topeng

In dance class, we tied our sarongs high to simulate the costume we would eventually wear.
In dance class, we tied our sarongs high to simulate the costume we would eventually wear.
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One of the more genial masks of the ones we used in class
Another variation of the keras mask.
Another variation of the keras mask.

After a few weeks of study, we started wearing  a mask and the basic parts of the costume in class.  Both really change the way you move.

We began each class with a review as a whole, then dancing in pairs for greater detail work.
We began each class with a review as a whole, then dancing in pairs for greater detail work.

The costume frames the mask—which is typically carved slightly smaller than a face—in a way such that the arms and shoulders must be held high for it to play correctly. It feels odd at first, but it’s much easier to get a feeling for the choreography  when observing others use the mask and costume pieces.

Some of the costume pieces—the wig, the hat, and the flowers by the ears—we used for the first time before performing for the public. It can be a little disorienting to add things at the last minute, but that’s how it goes. Below is a video of our final dance performance. It should give you a sense of what we were doing. It should be noted that normally the dance is actually done solo, and the music follows the dancer.  Conversely, we danced in a group, and were attempting to follow the music. We got it mostly right.  🙂

(Psst! I’m on the right.)

Kecak

On that night, we ended with our kecak performance.  There are six interlocking rhythms that form the majority of the chant (we each learned one of the six), as well as a bit of singing.  Originally, the kecak was done as a part of a trance ceremony. Since the artistic intervention of Walter Spies in the 1920s, this chant includes the story of the Ramayana when performed for tourists.

The video below is a section toward the beginning of the piece, so unfortunately you don’t get to see the exciting part we chase each other with fire …which we used for the first time during our actual performance. Can you say “trust exercise”?

 

This trip was made possible in part by a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.

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Bali 2014 Photos

Bali 2014 Photos

As promised, more photos!  Click on the link above to see all the photos in the blog and many, many more.  It is such a pleasure to share them with you, and to give a little visual context for all I’ve been writing about.

This trip was done through a program of Dell’Arte International. It was made possible in part by funding from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

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Photos from the Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets

Photos from the Setia Darma House of Masks & Puppets

Here are my photos from our visit to the mask and puppet museum near the village of Mas in Bali.  There are many masks from major Balinese performance traditions of Calonarang, Topeng, and Wayang Wong included. There were also masks from other Indonesian isles and many other countries. I’ve included text from the museum placards (or at least the spirit of it) in the descriptions for each photo.

Enjoy!  Full photo album from the trip forthcoming!

Your friendly neighborhood mask maker,

Tony

 

This trip was made possible in part by a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.

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Things to Remember

The Surprises of Surprise

Wearing one of I.B. Anom's creations the first week in Bali.
Wearing one of I.B. Anom’s creations the first week in Bali.

Re-entry is interesting. And by interesting, I mean full of surprises. Surprise is also, itself, interesting. And therefore surprise is…surprising.

I’m not just playing circular word games.  Surprise, like accidents, cannot ever be fully predicted.  For example, when thinking about my reactions to coming back to the US after studying abroad, I could see some likely outcomes, and was therefore relatively prepared for those. But re-entry is surprising (=interesting (=surprising)). No matter how much I might look ahead or prepare, there will always be something surprising, something I won’t see coming.  Yet somehow I’m always surprised by the fact that I get surprised. And that’s interesting.

Melati Cottages, our home away from home. At the time this picture was taken, Portland was 66 degrees colder than Bali. But that was to be the least surprising change.
Melati Cottages, our home away from home. At the time this picture was taken, Portland was 66 degrees colder than Bali. But that was to be the least surprising change.

It was surprising to me to find the way in which the known parts of my life at home were feeling foreign. Suddenly awake and confused with jetlag at 4am, I looked at everything  in my room.  “This is mine. I chose these things. This is the way they look.”  Somehow it felt all very faraway. Recognizable, yes; but the thread of connection was difficult to perceive.

Nyoman Setiawan and I at the last group class in Pondok Pekak.
Nyoman Setiawan and I at the last group carving class in the Pondok Pekak Learning Center in Ubud.

A few days have passed, and the feeling has largely diminished. And as my home reality takes precedence, I want to record a list of sights and impressions from my trip before they, too, seem distant and difficult to connect with.

Sights and Sites

The second room I enjoyed at Melati Cottages. Much whiter and open than my first accommodations. Aren't mosquito nets ineffably romantic?
The second room I enjoyed at Melati Cottages.  Aren’t mosquito nets ineffably romantic?

(These are in no particular order)

° Sidewalks are segmented, and some stones  have metal handles. The walkway often has several stones which have fallen in, revealing the water channels beneath. These channels are all connected to each other.

Lucy and I in temple dress at a ceremony in Batuan.
Lucy and I in temple dress at a ceremony in Batuan.

° Sarongs, sarongs, sarongs! They are commonly sold in printed, batik, or ikat fabrics.

° Shops that are all selling mostly the same things, right next to each other. Bargaining is the way things are done. “I give you good price, for luck.” Keep your sense of humor.

School children in their uniforms are frequently seen on motorbikes or waiting for the bemo. Very sharp looking crowd.
School children in their uniforms are frequently seen on motorbikes or waiting for the bemo. Very sharp looking crowd.
Amazing statuary at major intersections is very popular. I vote no billboards, more huge sculpture, America
Amazing statuary at major intersections is very popular. I vote no billboards, more huge sculpture, America.

° The lack of idle chatter about first world problems, celebrities, and so on. How refreshing!

Tempe, a favorite of mine for many years, is an Indonesian food that is a fermented soybean cake. As pictured here, it also battered and fried and served with several types of spicy sambal.
Tempe, a favorite of mine for many years, is an Indonesian food that is a fermented soybean cake. As pictured here, it is also battered and fried and served with several types of spicy sambal.

This is not to say I didn’t witness some very odd Javanese game shows and soap operas on mute in the central room at the hotel.

° Coconut, banana, papaya, and jackfruit trees are widespread. There was even a mangosteen tree on the grounds of the hotel! Thankfully durian were more rare.

Daily breakfast at the hotel included fresh fruit (papaya, pineapple, watermelon, lime), some sort of eggs, and ALWAYS banana crepes.
Daily breakfast at the hotel included fresh fruit (papaya, pineapple, watermelon, lime), some sort of eggs, and ALWAYS banana crepes.

° The frequent appearance of the words “spa” and “villa.” These words are replacing the words “rice paddies” with increasing frequency.

° Bottles of petrol for sale on the side of the road. You can buy in either kecil (small) or besar (large). The large fills your motor scooter tank, and costs 1400 rupiah. That’s about $1.

° Very noticeable is the red and grey and black coloration of so many housing compounds and temples.

Much is exposed to the elements in Bali. Many buildings and restaurants and shops have few external walls, if any.
Much is exposed to the elements in Bali. Many buildings and restaurants and shops have few external walls, if any.

° I enjoyed the moments where I started to understand what I was seeing.  Just the beginning of understanding really, like when you’re learning a language, and every so often you recognize a word instead of only hearing sounds.  The positions of the golden statues I’d seen along the road when I arrived were suddenly recognizable choreography.  When looking at  a painting or temple figure,  I could recognize a character or sometimes a part of the story of the Mahabharata or Ramayana. What was aesthetic appreciation at first now carries more context and has more meaning.

Rice paddies along Jalan Bisma.
Rice paddies along Jalan Bisma.

° Black and white checkered sarongs wrapped around banyan trees, signifying they have a spirit and are protected. These sarongs also sometimes appear on certain statues.  Balinese religion is a fascinating mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism. Good and evil are both acknowledged as forces in the world—our purpose is to keep them in balance.

The family temple, as seen from above, of my mask carving teacher. Note the Moe (of Larry, Curly, and) hairstyle of the small towers.
The family temple, as seen from above, of my mask carving teacher. Note the Moe (of Larry, Curly, and…) hairstyle of the small towers.
Dewi Suraswati, the goddess of learning and the arts. Careful observers will note that in this rendition, a toothbrush is in the mouth of the goose. Much debate among international scholars about the relevance of said toothbrush doubtless to follow.
Dewi Suraswati, the goddess of learning and the arts. Careful observers will note that in this rendition, a toothbrush is in the mouth of the goose. Much debate among international scholars about the relevance of said toothbrush doubtless to follow.
Architectural detail. Much of the construction is cinder block. Scaffolding is done with bamboo.
Architectural detail. Much of the construction is cinder block. Scaffolding is done with bamboo.

° Offerings are everywhere. Not just on the front porch, or in a little box at the corner of a building. Even in the middle of the supermarket, there are offerings.

° Wayan Wija talking to us about his role as a dalang (puppeteer). The dalang is also a sort of a priest and philosopher. He often deals in ancient stories that bring to life questions of philosophy, while also providing something for the eyes to enjoy. Wija says that even in Bali, so many now are filled up with material concerns, few have room in them for philosophy.

I.W. Wija lets us experiment with this amazing expressive shadow puppets at his house in Ubud. (Photo by Yavni Bar-Yam)
I.W. Wija lets us experiment with this amazing expressive shadow puppets at his house in Ubud. (Photo by Yavni Bar-Yam)
At least I looked completely inconspicuous and at ease at all times.
At least I looked completely inconspicuous and at ease at all times.

° Parisawata tour buses choke the small, winding back roads… Chinese and Australian tourists wander in downtown Ubud… white people look hot and uncomfortable while some Balinese are wearing jackets, because it’s cold to them.

° The smell of cempaka incense.

° Frogs performing their own version of a kecak or a gamelan. All three—frogs, chant, and orchestra—produce interlocking sounds that are beautifully trance-like and transporting. But how do the frogs all know to cease at same time?

Nyoman shows off his dancing hands. Carvers are also dancers.
Nyoman shows off his dancing hands. Carvers are also dancers.

° Our mask carving teacher talked to us about the meaning of the progression of the characters in the one-man topeng pajegang. The progression of the story mirrors the the entire life of a person. The dancer moves from the rough path of youth with strong will and body (topeng keras) to the strength of mind and experience (topeng tua) to the enrichment of life gained from sharing experience (topeng penasar) to the leadership of others (topeng dalem) and finally to  success and prosperity (topeng sida karya).

The large market is Ubud is a confusing trail of stalls spanning several buildings and multiple levels.  FYI the scent does not improve as you descend.
The large market is Ubud is a confusing trail of stalls spanning several buildings and multiple levels. FYI the scent does not improve as you descend.
Snake deities called naga line the staircases of this temple at Goa Lawah.
Snake deities called naga line the staircases of this temple at Goa Lawah.
Shadow puppets!  They are painted because they are sometimes used in daylight. Also, the paint design helps remind the puppeteer of the feeling of the character.
Shadow puppets! They are painted because they are sometimes used in daylight. Also, the paint design helps remind the puppeteer of the feeling of the character.

This trip was made possible in part by a professional development grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

At left, how the camera captured Mt. Agung on my last morning walk. However, it was much more visible to the naked eye. At right, a highly altered photograph reveals the outline of the peak. Tricksy mountain.
At left, how the camera captured Mt. Agung on my last morning walk. However, it was much more visible to the naked eye. At right, a highly altered photograph reveals the outline of the peak. Tricksy mountain.

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Whittle by whittle

Mask Progress

I write this blog from the airport as I wait for my flight to Portland to board. I wanted to catch you all up on the masks I’ve been making in Bali. In my last post, you saw the old man bondres  I completed.  My teacher pushed me to start two more, so that I could get the hang of beginning from a simple block of wood.

This is a block of pule wood. It is a bit harder than balsa, but softer than pine. I'm excited to see which woods I might work on in the NW.
This is a block of pule wood. It is a bit harder than balsa, but softer than pine. I’m excited to see which woods I might work on in the NW.

Mask 2:  Gajah Mada

For the second mask, I decided to make one that could be used in the dance we were learning.  I sketched a version of the prime minister that I wanted  to create. He’s a warrior, and the first to dance in the topeng.

Evening out the block of wood in the afternoon.
Evening out the block of wood in the afternoon.
After the first rough blocking, we saw our dance teacher Gustu perform his version of this character. I was inspired by the ferocity of expression in his mask. My sketch changed a bit after that.
After the first rough blocking, we saw our dance teacher Gustu perform his version of this character. I was inspired by the ferocity of expression in his mask. My sketch changed a bit after that.

After I showed my sketch to my teacher, he said it was a “Gajah Mada” character. I was confused, as gajah means elephant. (Remember when I went to the Goa Gajah cave? That was fun.) He said it was more of a metaphor, and refers the feeling of strength of the character.

I am taking this one home to Portland to complete the sanding and painting. This mask will have the eyes painted on, and the dancer sees through the shadow-like slit beneath the eye.
I am taking this one home to Portland to complete the sanding and painting. This mask will have the eyes painted on, and the dancer sees through the shadow-like slit beneath the eye.
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This is me performing the topeng keras dance on our performance night. Imagine it danced to firelight if you can. The mask was loaned by our dance teacher, and is very powerful.

Mask 3: The Gentle Giant

Halfway there!
Halfway there!

For my final mask I was to start in Bali, I knew I wanted something a little coarser and with a moving jaw.

Chiseling out the teeth. As I look through his eyes, I realized he a little more dim in the bulb than I originally thought.
Chiseling out the teeth. As I look through his eyes, I realized he a little more dim in the bulb than I originally thought.

While working on this mask, Pak Nyoman stood back and let me figure things out as much as he could, which I appreciated. It can be difficult to willingly dive in to your own inevitable mistakes, but it’s much more worthwhile.

And it’s also a bit slower going! I elected to take a couple of extra classes to get some more guidance.  It was fun to work one on one. We got to talk about mask styles from around the world. Nyoman also mentioned that although he is happy to carve traditional Balinese characters, he also welcomes the challenge of other styles, traditional or modern.

But then again, who wouldn’t?  It’s part of the artist’s work and the human condition to follow inspiration and find those things that feed your soul.

Back in San Francisco, my friend Bird models the latest mask.
Back in San Francisco, my friend Bird models the latest mask.

Though I am en route to Portland, fear not, faithful readers! I will be continuing my blog into the future. There are still some things about Bali to write about, and there will always be more masks I’d love to share with you!

racc_orange_horizThis trip was made possible in part by a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.

 

A Topeng dance

We wait for maybe four and half hours, just outside a new house that will have a blessing ceremony, before any sign of the activities. Our dance teacher, Gustu, is to perform a topeng at the ceremony.  Initially he thought it would be in the morning, then received word that it would be closer to 1:30.

My roommate Jerome by the front gate.
My roommate Jerome by the front gate.

There are related ceremonies happening elsewhere, and the people will not arrive until those are done. Whenever that is.

Yavni explores the house. We didn't know it, but he's walking in what we'll be in the main performance area that evening.
Yavni explores the house. We didn’t know it, but he’s walking in what we’ll be in the main performance area that evening.

We are served a few coconut snacks and coffee as we wait and entertain ourselves.  Word games abound.

A few give up and take their motorbikes home. The rest of us wait it out.  A group of girls, aged approximately 8-10, enter the housing compound. They are dressed in white and gold, and have beautifully ornate headdresses made of woven palm. Their eyes are accented in red, blue, yellow, and black. They sit and wait for others to arrive. Curious giggles arise as one of my classmates begins to sketch one of them.

The young dancers. They had been likely dressed since early morning. They, too, were waiting for the ceremony to start.
The young dancers. They had been likely dressed since early morning. They, too, were waiting for the ceremony to start.
Offerings for the ceremony begin to arrive. Many women are practiced in carrying burdens on their head in Bali.
Offerings for the ceremony begin to arrive. Many women are practiced in carrying burdens on their head in Bali.
Musicians herald the beginning of the evening's events.
Musicians herald the beginning of the evening’s events.

Thirty minutes later, a number of Balinese stream into the housing compound and sit around the various open air bales.  It is just about sunset on this cloudy day. The gamelan players arrive, and one compliments us on our Balinese style of dress with a warm and toothy smile.  Many women arrive in an amazing array of colors in their sarongs and kabaiyas. Offerings are being uncovered near the house temple. Snacks and hot tea are being circulated and the gamelan begins to play.

I take a moment to inhale it all, and think about it less. The percussive melodies of the gamelan are both stirring and trancelike. The sound envelops everything. It is a transcendent experience. The young girls are now dancing a little ways away. There are easily 80 people in the outside area, and I try to understand if it will be respectful to move closer to see.

Umbrellas are everywhere in Bali. One of our choreographic notations in our dance study is "Check Umbrella"-- the umbrella is a landmark for your stage position when you can see very little from the mask.
Umbrellas are everywhere in Bali. One of our choreographic notations in our dance study is “Check Umbrella”– the umbrella is a landmark for your stage position when you can see very little from the mask.

But this is where this kind of performance is so different from watching dance or theatre or seeing a concert in the West.  There is not a defined start time at which point all must quiet themselves and observe—there are children moving around the space, priests conducting a blessing ceremony, and a puppeteer readying his puppets. It is a beautiful mish-mash.  What’s important here seems to be the actions that need to happen: a dance must happen, a puppet show must happen, a series of masks must be performed, offerings must be made… and it’s okay if they overlap or happen all at once. It seems much less about the ego and so much more about what is being offered.

Gustu performs the dance of the Prime Minister first.
Gustu performs the dance of the Prime Minister first.

Pak Gustu is absolutely amazing as he dances the keras prime minister, followed by the old man tua.  These masks are so intense and strong. As they are full masks, all expression derives from the sculpture and movement, at moments sustained and others peppered with quick flicks of the eyes and hands. This is all done on a bit of floor perhaps 4 x 6 feet, surrounded by people on all sides, some watching, some doing other things.

The Tua mask.
The Tua mask.

Children pass through the space as he performs, as do women carrying various offering from the kitchen to the temple.  Following these two full masks are some servant bondres, three-quarter and half masks that speak directly to the audience, relating story line and making them laugh. Some lines he delivers to us in English as well, which we tamu (“guests”) appreciate. Remember there is also a puppet show, with its own music, being performed right next door, as well as some singing elsewhere. The topeng closes with the dance of Sida Karya, bringing blessings of success.

You can see more of the performance context in this photo of a bondres mask.
You can see more of the performance context in this photo of a bondres mask. The gamelan orchestra is seated off to the left in the picture.

The entire time, people at the house have been helping us find places to sit and see. We are more there to see the performance, they to be present at the ritual.  At every moment, we strangers are honored as their guests. We are even invited to a meal with them afterwards, including such dishes as mie goreng (fried noodles and vegetables), hard boiled eggs, numerous meat dishes and sate, and spicy sambal.

It was an experience unlike any I’ve had before. It was not only the complete warmth and openness to strangers that felt so new, but also the relationship of art and performance to the people. It was in some ways casual–people could really choose how they would like to relate to or focus on the performances–yet each element had to happen for the ceremony to be complete.

Sida Karya is a character of a priest from Java who has traveled a long time to bless a village in Bali. Initially, he is rejected for his odd appearance and strange ways. Crops begin to fail, and ruin comes to the village until it becomes clear he is the priest they were waiting for all along.
Sida Karya is a character of a priest from Java who has traveled a long time to bless a village in Bali. Initially, he is rejected for his odd appearance and strange ways. Crops begin to fail, and ruin comes to the village until it becomes clear he is the priest they were waiting for all along.

It is said that in Bali there really isn’t a word for “artist” as we understand it in the West. However, there are farmers and electricians and bus drivers and cooks who also play the gamelan, or dance legong, or chant the kecak, or carve masks or puppets. I saw an integration and appreciation of  the arts into everyday life and spiritual practice that benefited from the collective interdependence of  Balinese life.

It felt so very rich.

racc_orange_horizThis trip was made possible in part by a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.