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Balinese Dance

Balinese Dance
The backbone of Balinese culture is dance, which is performed during temple festivals and in ceremonies of the cycle of life and death. What is performed in hotels and restaurants for tourists is only a small fraction of what Balinese dance has to offer.
From the time that Balinese history was being recorded in written form, its dance has existed. Ninth century inscriptions named the Wayang (puppet theatre) and Topeng (mask dance) as the main entertainment of the day. Gamelan music goes back still further to the Dong Son bronze culture of the first millennium BC. Apart from the trance dances, much of the Balinese dance heritage actually originates from Java.

History of Balinese Dance


After the Majapahit warriors subdued Bali in the 14th century, Javanese mini-principalities and courts soon appeared everywhere, creating that unique blend of court and peasant culture, which is Bali - highly sophisticated, dynamic and lively. The accompanying narrative for dance and drama is to a large extent based on court stories from pre-Majapahit Java. Even the Indian epics, another favorite of the stage, especially the Wayang, use Javanese, complete with long quotes from the ancient Javanese Kakawin poetry So Javanese culture, which disappeared from Java following Islamization in the l6th century, still survived in Bali in a "Balinese form", which became classical Balinese culture.

However, colonization brought about the fall of classical Bali. With the rural courts defeated and with new lords of the land, the centre of creativity shifted to village associations, and to the development of tourism. The 30's and 50's were particularly fertile decades; while the old narrative led theater survived, lively solo dances appeared everywhere, accompanied by a new, dynamic kind of music called gong kebyar. This trend continued in the 60's and 70's with the creation of colossal sendratari ballets, representing ancient Indian and Javanese stories adapted to the needs of modern audiences.

Dance & Religion

Balinese dance is inseparable from religion. A small offering of food and flowers must precede even dances for tourists. Before performing, many dancers pray at their family shrines, appealing for holy "taksu" (inspiration) from the gods.

In this rural tradition, the people say that peace and harmony depend on protection by the gods and ancestors. Dance in this context may fulfill a number of specific functions:
a) as a channel for visiting gods or demonic gods, the dancers acting as a sort of living repository. These trance dances include the Sang Hyang Dedari, with little girls in trance, and the Sang Hyang Jaran, a fire dance;
b) as a welcome for visiting gods, such as the Pendet, Rejang and Sutri dances;
c) as entertainment for visiting gods, such as the Topeng and the Wayang.

In some of these dances, the role of dancing is so important that it is actually the key to any meaning to be found in the ritual. In Wayang performances, the puppeteer is often seen as the "priest" sanctifying the holy water.

As well as their use in religious ceremonies, dance and drama also have a strong religious content. It is often said that drama is the preferred medium through which the Balinese cultural tradition is transmitted. The episodes performed are usually related to the rites taking place; during a wedding one performs a wedding story; at a death ritual there is a visit to "hell" by the heroes. Clowns (penasar) comment in Balinese, peppering their jokes with religious and moral comments on stories whose narratives use Kawi (Old-Javanese).

The typical posture in Balinese dance has the legs half bent, the torso shifted to one side with the elbow heightened and then lowered in a gesture that displays the suppleness of the hands and fingers. The torso is shifted in symmetry with the arms. If the arms are to the right, the shifting is to the left, and vice-versa.
Apart from their costumes, male and female roles can be identified mostly by the accentuation of these movements. The women's legs are bent and huddled together, the feet open, so as to reveal a sensual arching of the back. The men's legs are arched and their shoulders pulled up, with more marked gestures, giving the impression of power.

Dance movements follow on from each other in a continuum of gestures with no break and no jumping (except for a few demonic or animal characters).

Each basic posture (agem), such as the opening of the curtain or the holding of the cloth, evolves into another agem through a succession of secondary gestures or tandang. The progression from one series to the other, and the change from right to left and vice-versa, is marked by a short jerky emphasis called the angsel. The expression is completed by mimicry of the face: the tangkep. Even the eyes dance, as can be seen in the Baris and Trunajaya dances.

The Dances of Bali


Dance is the main art form of Balinese culture and is performed at main temple festivals and ceremonies, especially for the cycle of life and death. Taught and kept in secrecy in villages, halls and palaces, the dances that tourists witness in hotels and specially constructed stages are merely a fraction of the dance scene, although most of the dancers come from village groups.

Kecak Dance
Its name is derived from the sound "cak", pronounced "chok", which is chanted in complex interlocking patterns that are like the rhythmic patterns played on the gamelan. The modern form of kecak originated from Gianyar village of Bedulu in the 1930s as a result commissioned by the German expatriate artist, Walter Spies. He wished to create a performance that could be enjoyed by a small coterie of expatriate artists like himself, as well as friends and guests to the island.

The modern performance of Kecak is a sensational sight to behold. Hundreds of barechested men sit in a circle with a flickering single oil lamp in the middle. "Cak - Cak - Cak", the chant begins and the men start dancing and swaying to the rhythmic reverberation of their own voices. Hands raised to the sky, bodies shaking in unison, the chorus performs the highly structured piece of vocal music for about an hour. This unique dance holds the title of being the most popular dance in Bali.

Barong Dance

"Lord of the forest" and magical protector of Balinese villages, the Barong is a mythical, shaggy half-dog, half-lion creature, with a long mane, fantastic fangs, and bulging eyes. It is propelled by two men who maneuver the costume with whimsical and mischievous movements to express its fun-loving nature. The Barong's opponent is Rangda, the evil witch who rules over the spirits of Darkness. The Barong dance epitomizes the eternal struggle between good and evil. The fight of Barong and Rangda is also a topic of traditional narratives performed in temples and takes various forms. The Barong will snap its jaws at the gamelan, prance around a bit, and enjoy the acclaim of its supporters - a group of kris-wielding men. Then ferocious Rangda will then appear lolling her long tongue, baring her threatening fangs, her neck draped with human entrails...not a pretty sight.

The duel begins. Each opponent tries to overcome the other with magical powers but when things do not look too good for the Barong, supporters will lunge at Rangda with krises to weaken or stall her. In retaliation, Rangda would put them all into a trance with her mystical powers and make them stab themselves with their weapons. Fortunately, the Barong possesses magic that is strong enough to cast a spell on the krises from harming the men. This part would be the highlight of the dance; the gamelan rings madly and intensely as the men rush back and forth waving their krises in a frenzy, sometimes even rolling on the ground in a desperate attempt to stab themselves. Often, there seems to be a plot to terrify the audience in the front row! Eventually, Rangda will retire, defeated. And once again, good will reign over evil.

Legong Keraton

The most graceful of Balinese dances, this is the epitome of classical Balinese female dancing. A legong, as the dancer is known, is often a young girl of eight or nine years, rarely older than her early teens. It was first created in the 18th Century and is usually the first dance to be taught to beginners. There are many forms of Legong, the most frequently performed dance being the Legong Keraton or Legong of the Palace.

The story of the Legong is very stylized and symbolic and one should know the story before actually watching the performance. The Legong involves three dancers - two legongs and their 'attendant', the condong. The legongs are identically costumed in gold brocade, which is bound so tightly that it is a mystery such agitated and rapid moves could be made. With elaborately made-up faces, plucked eyebrows that are boldly repainted, and hair decorated with frangipanis, the dancers relate the story with captivating movements.

A king takes the maiden Rangkesari captive. When her brother comes to release her, Rangkesari begs the king to free her rather than go to war. The king refuses and chances upon a bird carrying ill omens on his way to battle. However, he ignores the bird, meets Rangkesari's brother, and was thus killed in the fight.

The roles of the dancers may change according to the narration. However, the dance usually begins with the king's preparations for battle and ends with the bird's appearance.

Baris

A male equivalent of the Legong, Baris is a warrior's dance. Executed with energetic and warlike martial spirit, the Baris dancer has to convey the thoughts and emotions of a warrior preparing for action as well as confronting an enemy in battle. This dance is performed solo and requires great energy, spirit and skill. The warrior's changing moods have to be displayed through facial expressions and movements; he should be able to depict chivalry, pride, anger, prowess, and a little regret. Baris is said to be one of the most complex of all Balinese dances.
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