The Balinese dancer moves in a vortex of sound, worship, and a peculiar kind of human joy. Diana Darling identifies the particular reasons why it works. Photos by Yaeko Masuda.
Balinese dance is the antithesis of Western ballet. Ballet is all about the illusion of weightlessness; Balinese dance is nailed to the ground. An old Balinese dancer once told me that Balinese dance is like a living plant: legs deeply connected to the earth, the stem flexible, the upper body and head moving with the air like the petals of a flower. As he illustrated his point, this rather ugly old man became, for an instant, a peony.
If the lower body is grounded, the fingers are in constant motion in a scissors-like movement similar to that of coconut leaves in a breeze. Eye movements, too, are very rapid and strictly choreographed. The sledet – a quick sharp glance that takes place on the sixth or seventh beat of an eight-beat gong cycle – contributes to the element of ferocity in Balinese dance.
The point zero from which movement proceeds is an angular, right- or left-weighted stance called agem. It is a highly energised immobility, from which the dance unfurls, or explodes, and to which it returns – rather like the progress of the soul.
The notion of the dancer uniting the earth and the air perhaps partly explains why Bali’s high culture is performed barefoot. Until recently it was also performed on the bare earth – the swept floor of a temple or palace courtyard, or a house courtyard, or at a crossroads. These days most courtyards and crossroads are paved, so dancers are likely to perform on a big cheap carpet. Being barefoot is also the proper state for being in the privileged place of the interior (dalem). People wear sandals to the temple, but take them off to pray. To dance shod would be sacrilegious – for Balinese dance is, after all, a form of offering.
In a world swarming with invisible beings, it is important to keep order. In Bali, communion with the divine is ordered by the ritual guidelines of the community according to a multi-dimensional grid that includes time (hour, day, phase of the moon) and space (vertical, horizontal, and cardinal points) and condition (whether the focus of the ritual is directed mainly at deities, the lower spirits, one’s spiritual siblings, or the dead). When all these matters are properly aligned and accounted for and given expression through minutely detailed offerings, then the doors to the divine may be safely flung open.
So it is with dance: the choreography must be perfectly mastered and the self entirely submerged in the form before the dancer can open himself to taksu, that in-streaming of spirit that we call inspiration.
But sometimes the spirit is somebody else.
Among the oldest dances in Bali, far pre-dating today’s precision choreography, are those called sanghyang (a term that basically means ‘deity’). These are trance dances, and they take many forms – from the angelic sanghyang dedari danced by very young girls, to the demonic, with a few that are startlingly banal: the trancer may become possessed by a piece of firewood or the lid of a cooking pot. Sanghyang trance is generally induced through singing and the smoke of incense. These ritual dances are performed when the particular community feels in need of extra-ordinary help, such as in times of epidemics. In the village of Bona, Gianyar, where sanghyang is performed regularly for tourists, it is said that the practice nearly died out in the 1950s after the introduction of antibiotics. Before then, did the sanghyang help at least a little?
Bali’s most famous trance ritual is that which occurs during the confrontation between the protective Barong dragon (once described to me by a Balinese teenager as God – “Itu Tuhan, Bu”) and the terrifying Rangda, personifying the forces of order and chaos. At the climax, the followers of the Barong attack Rangda with kris daggers; Rangda’s magic makes them turn their daggers on themselves; the Barong’s magic prevents the daggers from piercing their skin. How do they do it? In the end, spiritual balance is restored and everyone feels better.
MAGIC AND COMMERCE
Tourism has put special demands on Bali’s ritual dance culture, with a dedicated performing arts academy to service these demands and a generation of intellectuals to debate them. What is now known as the “Barong & Kris Dance” has become a cottage industry by virtue of its fabulous theatricality; but it has needed so little adjustment to accommodate both the magical and the commercial that no one can tell for sure where the magic ends and the commerce begins.