The Sounds of a Gemelan Orchestra will always remind me of graceful Balinese Dancers


Dance and the all pervasive sound of gamalan orchestras drifting through the perfumed air will forever remain for me an enduring memory of the Indonesian island of Bali. I remember the orchestras mainly as an accompaniment to dance and theatrical events.

In Yogyakarta the performers are young girls from the royal family or the nobility.They must be virgins and as soon as they start to menstruate they must retire. As they perform rarely these days some girls will only ever be seen at practice but they will never dance officially in public.

One evening I went to Peliatan village near Ubud for a performance by the Mekar Sari ladies orchestra and children’s dancing group.It is very unusual to have a womans gamelan group. The ladies were in their middle years and obviously loved playing. The girls scattered flower petals to welcome the audience. Then came the Baris (a warrior dance) this time enacted by a boy of about eleven. He gave a magnificent performance. I had seen a performance by a woman at the palace in Ubud.

Then we watched Tari Kelinci which was about rabbits. This is a recent piece created by a graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts. It was perfectly suited to children and had great charm.

This was followed by Tari Tenun which was about weaving. It portrayed how the balinese prepare threads then how they warp the loom.

The finale was Tari Kijang, Kencana about a golden deer. All the children taking part were dressed in beautiful colours and expensive materials. A family has to be relatively affluent to send a child to classes because of the high cost of the costumes.

I also watched a weekly session at the palace.The girls practiced to a cassette recording. To my surprise the teacher demonstrated with her back to the girls and never turned round or corrected them.There were no mirrors so perhaps it was more important that the children learned through watching her back view. As far as I could make out the most experienced girls were in the front line with beginners at the very back. The girls appeared to be in the 5-15 year old range. They wore cloths tied over lycra pedal-pushers and didn’t look in the least bit picturesque. There were far fewer boys to be seen.

In the evening I went to a a village outside Kuta for a Kecak performance. Unusually there is no musical accompaniment but about thirty men established a rhythm by chanting “kecak kecak and this provided the background music.

Sanghyang dedari was performed by two little girls (approximately six and nine years old) who in a trance mirrored each others movements. Their eyes were wide open but we were told that they saw nothing. At the conclusion of the dance they were brought out of by a white-clad priest who sprinkled holy water on them.

There was a very spectacular presentation of Sanghyang Jaran where a young man again in a trance and wearing a hobby horse belt woven from coconut fronds danced on burning embers. The belt featured a woven horse-like head and palm fronds hung down all the way round it. The priest put the young man into trance. He stomped and jumped around in the fire. The burning husks were raked together and he repeated the performance. The third time he actually sat on the embers and rolled around. At some crucial point, not identifiable to those of us watching, he was pulled clear.A fellow performer seated behind held the young man as he came out of the trance.

I have been very interested to learn that there are no clearly defined male and female roles in Balinese dance.Women can perform the Baris whose choreography depicts a warrior and boys can perform Leggong with their female counterparts. Who performs what seems to depend partly on the energies and in the case of boys that they are very feminine in their looks and movements. I have seen Baris performed by a girl and you would not have guessed this from her performance. Only once have I knowingly seen a boy amongst a group of girls. The only thing that made me wonder if the performer was male were the slight difference in height and the larger hands and feet. Otherwise he was indistinguishable.

Balinese dance is fascinating to watch and while unique shows its links to other South East Asian countries. I would love to visit again


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