Saturday, December 24, 2011

If you neglect your pious duties in Bali, the spirits may out your misbehavior to the whole village. Just as I was pondering my thus-far secular appreciation of the arts on this visit...

This was from a ceremonial performance earlier this month, but in the same (acoustically faulty) pavilion where three dancers from different dances, all of whom had gotten costumed at the house where I'm staying, fell into trance. It was a routine performance for tourists at the hotel.

I first noticed something when, at the start of a mask dance, Pak Terip left his instrument and hurried backstage. His body language told me something was amiss, but I thought maybe the mask dance wasn't going well and he wanted to check in with the other dancers. Another dance later I saw him just behind the curtains talking to someone with the arm of a dancer pressed against his back. It was actively following the accents of the dance onstage. I assumed they were just being playful.

But during that very dance, Wirabuana, one of the pair of unison dancers flared out with exaggerated movements at extreme positions; at the final gong, the other dancer closed her stance and exited while she arched backward like a scorpion's tail, hands still fluttering -- her fan dropped and before she could follow, two men stepped forward out of nowhere, caught her, and carried her backstage.

A long-time German expat next to me remarked that trance often happens here. I tried to gracefully end my sound recording and go backstage in case I could be useful. Backstage a lot of men and women rushed about, though calmly. After a few moments, Terip's son Putu left his drum to come backstage and shouted something at the top of his lungs before entering the little house where one of the women was trancing out.

If you haven't seen it before, trance is more like a grand mal seizure than anything else you've likely seen. For these dancers, the movements alternated between that, wild crying, and traditional dance movements. It can be distressing for a foreigner to witness, and is why I at first thought she was fainting from illness.

After the concert ended and tourists went back to their cottages, Pak Terip and Putu spoke in high Balinese with the spirits, finding out where they had to make offerings, and promising to do so.

It was common knowledge among friends and family that these two sometimes forgot to pray, as the commentary ran through the night. Terip admitted it last happened to him at the Arts Festival in Denpasar when six dancers fell into trance after exiting the stage. He admitted to a feeling of apprehension when he sat down to play last night and realized he had neglected to pray for some time. And the dancer whose head he held backstage was the calmest of the three, he claimed because he was the one the spirits wanted. They are direct descendants of a priest, and in combination with taksu, likened to the inspiration of the Greek Muses, are vulnerable to "miscommunication" (Terip's word choice) with spirits.

So, before you listen, I suggest, for pious types, setting right your practice. [Link is coming soon]

Here's the women's gamelan which won last year's competition at the island-wide arts festival.

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