Please excuse my belated appearance on our new editors’ blog – I’ve been away honeymooning in Bali for the last three weeks.
For the same reason, I’m unusually out of the loop when it comes to goings-on in UK theatre, so my inaugural offering is going to cover a subject a little bit out of my own comfort zone: Balinese dance.
Yes, despite finding myself on the other side of the world, I still found time to sample the theatrical delights on offer. Although, to be fair, it would have been almost impossible not to: performance is woven into everyday life in Bali in a way that it just isn’t in the United Kingdom, or to think about it, pretty much any other country I have visited.
Dance and music are all-pervasive, forming a crucial part of the island’s Hindu culture. Performance skills are taught to all children from a young age – indeed many of the performers are children – and what we might term amateur dramatics is a central part of every Balinese Hindu’s upbringing.
Much of Balinese life outside work revolves around temple ceremonies and celebrations, and these revolve around music, dance and story-telling. Indeed, many of the dance performances take place in temples, during village celebrations. We were visiting Bali during the important full-moon celebrations and almost every day there seemed to be a different dance performance in our local village temple.
The three most famous forms of dance in Bali are Barong, Legong and Kecak. I managed to catch the last two of these while I was out there.
Legong is a stylised, elegant dance performed by pre-pubescent girls wearing elaborate costumes. It revolves around twisting hand and foot movements, accompanied by percussive gamelan music. Meanwhile, the dance tells various Balinese stories in broad-brush strokes: legends and folk stories.
Kecak is quite different: featuring a chorus of 50-odd bare-chested men, who chant rhythmically, it is an altogether more vigourous affair, with a story that bears more than a passing resemblance to our pantomime, with a slightly camp baddy, audience participation and special stage effects – including a particularly impressive fire scene.
Its similarities to Western performance tradition, though, are less surprising when one learns that while Kecak grew out of a traditional Balinese religious trance ritual, it was formalised in the 1930s by the German musician Walter Spies (a Balinese expat) with the intention of marketing the performance to Western tourists.
But what I found particularly fascinating when considering Balinese dance in the context of our own performance culture, was the seeming lack of distinction between amateur and professional. Even in the more overtly commercial (and ticketed) Kecak performance I watched in Uluwatu, the performers were what one would describe in the UK as a community group – they were local villagers, not “professional” performers.
As professional UK companies like the RSC embark on innovative community / amateur projects like the Open Stages programme, it is a reminder that elsewhere in the world, the line between professional and amateur is already gossamer thin – or indeed, non-existent.