Bali Island: Theatre created by the Gods

Bali Island: Theatre created by the Gods

Everyone who comes to the Bali Island has the opportunity to admire the local traditional theatre performances. It can even be said that this is a must for every tourist or a traveller. The dance show is worth seeing, so do not refuse if you are offered to visit the ‘pestipal’ - this is how they pronounce the word ‘festival’ replacing the European word ‘theatre’, which is not in their local vocabulary. The local word ‘sesolahan’ does exist, but it does not mean anything to foreigners.

You can go to the ‘pestipal’ just to get an idea what it is, and after the show, you have a chance to take a picture with an actor in the costume of the monkey king Hanuman and be completely happy. But it’s better to come a little bit prepared and have at least a minimum of information.

The Bali Island is an amazing place, at least, because it is not just an island, but the island of the Hindu civilization surrounded by the ‘Muslim sea’. To understand this, take a look at the map and find the Bali Island in the centre of the archipelago making up the vast Muslim state called Indonesia. This name was given to the country by the Europeans, it is thought to derive from the Greek indos, meaning ‘India’, and nesos, meaning ‘island’. Indeed, despite the long centuries of predominant Islamic influence, the country has retained much in its tradition, its national costume and in its culture that has something in common with what we see in India and in the non-Islamic countries of Southeast Asia.

Осипов_Бали_фото 2.JPG

Balinese theatrical mysteries, consisting of singing and dancing, are part of the religious tradition of Hinduism. Before the Bali Island became a mecca for tourism, shows were played in temples to gratify the gods and spirits (including evil ones). The Gods and Demons must be gratified so that a balance between the Good and the Evil could reign in the world. By the way, some performances still cannot be shown to those who do not follow the Hinduism because they are intended exclusively for spirits! For the same reason, the dances in temples do not need spectators as they are not for people. So, those performances that you are invited to are, in fact, not a real theatre, but entertainment created specifically for tourists. Basically, these are ritual dances ‘kecak’(kechak) or ‘barong’, adapted to a foreign audience.

A large group of men (sometimes up to a hundred people) naked to the waist dance Kecak, this is a kind of dervish rites, a mystical trance ritual. The dancers make endless rhythmic movements mainly to the cry of ‘chak-chak’. Against this background, a dance performance is played out with actors in make-up telling one of the Ramayana stories. Unfortunately, kecak is not a 100% Balinese dance as one of its ‘fathers’ is Walter Spies, a Russian German, a primitive painter who moved from the USSR to Indonesia in the early 1920s. At first, he painted interesting pictures with local exotic views (his paintings are worth seeing), and later on, he appreciated the amazing Balinese ritual performances. “The sacred dances are my greatest experiences during my stay in Bali,” he wrote. In the early 1930s, together with Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak he created a performance with a plot from the Ramayana that can be used as an entertainment show.

It should be mentioned that the basis for this show intended for tourists is still a real ritual dance ‘Sang Hyang dedari’ named after the supreme deity Sang Hyang Widhi who created the Universe and the rest of the gods, and earlier, this dance was performed only during ceremonies in temples. But it is impossible for a foreigner to be present at such a marvellous ceremony, and Spies and Limbak made it possible for travellers to enjoy it.

But another popular performance, ‘barong’, is much more like a traditional theatre. It is based on one of the main religious dances on the Bali Island showing the eternal struggle between the Good and the Evil. The symbol of the Good is Barong, a mythical creature resembling a lion or a Chinese dragon and played by two actors at once. The main Barong’s enemy is the witch named Rangda (Widow), a symbol of all evils and diseases. The content of the performance is very complex, with many characters, there are intrigues, murders, and magical transformations ... Therefore, if you are offered a theatre playbill in a language you know, take it, although you can still understand the main thing: after a long and bitter struggle, the evil forces are defeated.

Unlike kecak, which is usually shown in indoor amphitheatres, it’s better to see the stunning barong dance against the backdrop of a functioning or abandoned temple surrounded by jungle. The orchestra, completely Balinese, gives a special charm - both with its Balinese name ‘gamelan’ and with bronze and bamboo musical instruments unknown to Europeans, the blows of sticks make the sounds, but there are also flutes and string instruments. The main musical instrument is a ‘gambang’, a big xylophone whose teak wood plates (usually about 20 ones) are mounted on a wooden box that serves as a resonator. The box looks like a small sofa and is decorated with intricate carvings.

Осипов_Бали_фото 4.JPG

Under the gamelan orchestra, the most beautiful ‘legong’ is also performed, a dance of young deities, and in Europe, it can be called a ‘dance of nymphs’. It is a female dance characterized by delicate movements of the fingers, hands and feet which looks splendid. Girls are taught this dance from an early age, because, according to tradition, it must be performed by young teenage girl dancers. Perhaps, in temple ceremonies this rule is followed, but for tourists, as a rule, the ‘nymphs’ are older.

And finally, if you want to see the whole set of dances the Bali tourists can see, you should get acquainted with a ‘war dance’ called ‘baris’. It can be a solo dance when a warrior wearing intricately decorated armor, sneaks up on the enemy and shows his warring spirit and his warcraft and combat experience. A group baris dance is performed by men lined up in ranks with weapons in their hands - with canjars (daggers) or even spears. Synchronized movements are similar to a military parade. In short, it is quite suitable for the ‘Spasskaya Tower’ military music festival.

You may think that after all, a secular show exists in the form of a ‘baris dance’ on the Bali Island. Actually, this is also an amazing ritual dance like all the other dances because its purpose is to drive away evil spirits. Therefore, it is performed before and during important religious ceremonies. Theatre on the Bali Island is about the higher powers and for the higher powers. Well, a little bit for tourists, too.