Characteristics of Balinese Dance
On Bali dances is a living, popular art form, most active in the villages. A dancer is an ordinary villager with unusual skill who performs pleasingly before the gods-for community prestige, for the entertainment of friends and family, and for tourists for money.
Balinese dance is much influenced by Javanese dance movements, which are a mirror of the Javanese wayang kulit theater in which all emotion is expressed through rigidly controlled gestures, the eyes unfocused, the lips closed, and the face fixed and mask-like as if the actor were a marionette.
In both female and male dancing, the limbs form angles with the head sinking down so far that the neck disappears. At other times, the eyes flicker and dance.
In Balinese classical dance, all movements and limbs are very expressive-the face, fingers, wrists, neck, eyes, hips, knee, feet, ankles. Unlike in India, the majority of Balinese dance movements-a tilt of the head or twist of the fingers-are decorative and do not carry any specific meaning.
The exceptions are the pronounced gestures that convey anger or prayer; nose kissing, greetings, and impassioned speeches, which have their inherent emotional meanings or those that obviously represent daily tasks, such as opening a curtain, holding a cloth, or weaving.
The names of a few basic gestures describe an attached meaning in metaphorical terms. These gestures are often taken from nature, usually from flowers or animals-a sudden whirl might be named after a tiger defending himself, the flutter of hands after the flight of a bird.
Sudden changes of direction and precise, jerky accentuation mark Balinese choreography. Each basic posture (agem) evolves into another posture through a succession of smaller, secondary gestures (tandang).
The transition from one series to another is marked by short steps (angsel). A typical posture is legs half bent, torso shifted to one side, elbow raised and then lowered in a gesture displaying the suppleness of the dancer's hands and fingers. The torso is always shifted in opposition to the arms-if the arms are to the left, the shifting is to the right, and vice versa.
In the celebrated, acrobatic Sanghyang Dedari, entranced little girls perform acrobatic backbends (ngelayang) that defy logic.
Balinese dancing is nearly as preoccupied with the upper half of the body as European dancing is with the lower half. In certain dances, like the Kebyar, the legs don't move at all. The Balinese don't dance upward and away from the earth, but move along its surface in slow, horizontal zigzagging circles or in movements describing lines and rows.
The leaps, runs, lifts, and spins so familiar in Western ballet seldom appear in classical Balinese dance. In fact, only demonic and bestial characters jump and move in a broad and brusque manner. Noble characters move with refined gestures.
Balinese dance is subtle, drawing the audience into the dancer's world. Simultaneously, it is blatantly erotic. Female postures are characterized by bent legs held close together, open feet, off-center shoulders, and spines curved to sensuously push out the buttocks.
A dance teacher can often be heard reminding her students to strike provocative poses, 'Tits and asses! Tits and asses!' she'll exclaim over and over.
In men's dancing, legs are arched and shoulders pulled up, with sharper gestures meant to give the impression of dynamic power, reinforced by the male's strong, broad features. While women's dancing is pure form, in men's dancing the content of the dance is more open to interpretation.
In contemporary dance, women play numerous male roles, for example, the prince Rama and Laksmana in the Ramayana story.
The easiest way to recognize masculine from feminine forms is by the costuming. Male dancers or male impersonators have a short sarong or pants down to the middle of the calves, with a long tongue handing down between the legs. Female dancers wear a long sarong, the end of which often drags a meter or more on the dance floor. Women have long hair while men wear crowns or headdresses.
High, square-shaped crowns are attributes of kings, claw-shaped crowns of princes, and the lower-castes wear simple headdresses. Women wear flower crowns.
Although movement between dancers is highly synchronized, rarely in traditional dance do two dancers come in contact with each other. Mockery and stylized violence may, however, be shown on the Balinese stage, though they would never be permitted in real life.
The complete lack of emotional expression on the dancer's face can be likened to a state of trance, a frame of mind which seems to render dancers immune to fatigue. Few show any trace of exhaustion after dancing for hours on end.
Entranced dancers, considered to be in contact with the spiritual world and thereby holy, are left free to express themselves, always under the guidance of a temple priest and the protection of several strong guardians, ready to intervene should the trance get out of hand.
The Balinese dance with a mesmerizing intensity, as if they're always being startled. Like their music, Balinese dance is abrupt, dramatic. All the excitement gives Balinese dance an air of spontaneity, yet hides a mastery over a highly technical set of motions and a rigidly stylized technique.
Precise directions are laid down for seledet or nyledet, those quick eye flicks to the right and left, up and down, which convey so much expression. Eyebrows often lift and eyeballs roll sideways either slowly or extremely quickly.
In the whole of Indonesia such energetic eye movements appear only in Balinese dancing; without these movements Balinese dancing would lose much of its allure.
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