January 20th, 2010
The village of Ubud is known as the artistic, cultural center of Bali, where Kuta and some of the more coastal towns are more beach going, party central. In my mind, you can have Maui or Miami anywhere, but when you can, seek out the truly unique. As the only Hindu island in the multiple island country of Islamic Indonesia, there is an abundance of temples. They seem to be everywhere, composed of aged chartreuse covered stones, emerging organically out of the landscape as if Mother Earth has put them there herself. Walking around, one must be careful not to trip on the small offerings of flowers created out of banana leaves on the sidewalks, streets and doorways. There are also slender stone carvings, about equal to a grown man in height, with what looks like an armchair for a doll on top. These posts also house offerings, and almost every dwelling or place of business has one. Along the streets, I had also noticed these skinny poles that looked like they were made of bamboo, taller than the buildings, that bent over toward the street like a fishing pole with another weaved basket-like offering. Apparently these were from a festival a couple months back. But ceremonies and festivals are not rare occasions; they happen almost daily. There were a number of times traffic resembled Interstate 10 in Houston at 5pm on the narrow dirt roads between the rice fields due to parades and festivals. A trip through the country that should only take ten minutes ends up taking an hour! But no one seems to mind… the Balinese are obviously a very reverent, spiritual people.
In the evening, Jacob accompanied me as I indulged myself in dance. Having had a brief introduction to the style, form and technique of the Topeng, one of the many masked dance dramas in Bali, I had come hoping to take a few classes, or at the very least view a performance. Sitting in the quiet courtyard of Padang Tegal, one hundred shirtless men wrapped in black and white checkered cloth diapers, ranging in age from mid twenties to late eighties, entered humming and clicking and clacking. The first performance of the evening was the Kechak, completely devoid of musical instruments, using only human voices and clapping to accompany the visual. They arranged themselves around what looked like an iron Christmas tree with small flames dabbed on the end of each branch. Soon after the other dancers entered, communicating the age old struggle to balance between good and evil. When learning the Topeng, I was told that to understand Balinese dance, you must understand Balinese belief. Evil is never diminished, it is only temporarily defeated. You must have both good and evil. That’s why the black and white checkered print that is used as a sarong to dress the statues around town and at temples is so significant; equal dark, equal light. Even in dance, if one side of the body is stiff, high and tense, the other is relaxed and released. It all must exist, and it all exists within one being. The second performance was done by a chorus of women (with their tops on, however, Bali is famous for hofkers, beautiful topless women in sarongs) with two tiny girls dancing in the foreground. This Sanghyang Dedari dance is traditionally performed to protect villages from evil with the power of innocence and virginity. The finale was the Sanghyang Jaran dance, Jaran meaning horse. The stage is set up, littered with burning coconut husks. The lone dancer enters atop his elaborately constructed stick horse. Intended to be a trance dance, if the Sanghyang song moves him, he is to dance barefoot in the fire. Here is where my interest peaked… with an audience full of tourists, it is almost as if he is pressured, forced to enter a trance to dance on the fire every night. Which brings me to the question that I often came back to about ritual art; when you take it out of context, and put it on display, does it kill it? Is this right? Compared to when I saw the Monkey King inhabit the bodies of the blood drinking, hyperactive men in Kelantan, this did not seem real, or authentic. Alternatively, without such performances, many tourists would leave completely unaware. I still cannot decide how I feel about the topic, but it definitely provides interesting fodder for thought.