Music and Dance of Bali
A fluttering hand mirrors a rapid musical figuration; a sudden eye movement falls with a deep gong tone. In Bali dance plays a central role not only in sacred activities, in a temple or at a sacred spring, but in secular ones: No full concert is considered complete without dance. In GSJ, we carry forward this tradition by offering programs comprised primarily of dance works, from solos to duets to larger group choreographies.
Balinese dance is learned through years of intensive study. Often a teacher will convey movement to the student by physically adjusting the student’s body postures, while singing or talking to her/him. Thus, dance is learned not through simple imitation, but via a direct transfer of information and kinetic sensation. The student can actually feel the energy that the teacher puts into a particular movement. The teacher might smile sweetly to show a gentle feeling of movement—or send bolts of lightening from their eyes to convey a strong or aggressive mood.
A good dancer must develop a deep understanding of the form of the music, and be able to cue the musicians to start and stop, speed up, or make an accent. As they train students, dance teachers sing a kind of “vocal gamelan,” a reduction of an entire phrase or piece, that includes all the essential musical features—gong strokes (“sirrr,” “pong”), drum accents (“ka-pak-ka-pak-DET!”), and melodies—that animate or organize the dance composition. In that way teachers continually relate dance movements to the music that accompanies them, so that they are fused in the dancer’s minds and bodies.
Balinese dance tells a story, but not by literally miming it. A dancer’s skill lies in how well she or he can portray a character, or a character type, from a particular or archetypal story found in Balinese legends, mythology, or folklore. A masked dancer portraying a prime minister, for example, might appear in many stories. Everything about the dance supports the portrayal of this character: the movement, the costume, the facial statement or mask, as well as the musical accompaniment. Even before someone starts dance study, his or her teacher will look at the body to decide what character this person should portray. Perhaps this person is suited in face and body to become a classical refined legong dancer. Another dancer’s body and attitude might be ideal for the dramatic and flashy Kebyar Duduk. Characters are considered either halus (refined) or kasar (coarse), or something in between. Likewise, there are distinct female and male postures and movement vocabularies, which can be taught and performed by either men or women, as well as androgynous forms that combine both male and female aspects.
Sacred and Secular Contexts
Dance and music are performed in a variety of sacred and secular contexts. During ceremonies, a performance is actually considered an offering to the gods. Dancers in the inner temple face the alter and gracefully waft incense; others may dance backwards through the temple gate, welcoming holy water brought from a sacred spring. The simple movements of rejang might be performed by women of all ages and levels of skill as a devotional communal expression; while the highly demanding solo masked dance suite, Topeng Sidhakarya, is explicitly required to conclude certain rituals.
On the other end of the spectrum, you might still find (in remote areas of Bali) an entire bamboo ensemble set up in the road, accompanying the flirtatious and participatory joged dance; or witness martial arts movement forms combined with the powerful tones of a jegog ensemble in Western Bali. You might see a mixture of normally sacred and secular forms presented in a tourist performance. It is important for outsiders to remember that sacred and secular were originally foreign concepts in Bali, and are often intermingled or unexpectedly shifted. Witness, for example, a gamelan group praying for success in a competition, a Barong dancer falling into trance during an international tour, or a piece created for tourist consumption performed in the temple, thereby acquiring a sacred aspect. Desa-kala-patra (“place, time, identity”)—the view that context is paramount—remains widely held in Bali.
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