This last week of 2016 has been greeted by many as a welcome end-run to something of a global Annus Horribilus. But Monday and Tuesday saw two very special cultural events in Ubud, a hint of the mirabilis. One was about repatriating historical archives, the other with bringing a century old historical Legong form back to life.

 by Rio Helmi

 photos ©Rio Helmi except where indicated.

 

On Monday at the charming Little Talks café Marlowe Bandem and Wayan Juniartha presented their latest updates and acquisitions for their laudable Bali 1928 archives project. Bali 1928 (www.bali1928.net) has compiled rare treasures: photographs, films, and recordings mined from academic archives around the world by the tireless curator Ed Herbst, and restored digitally to a high standard.

The star presentations of the evening, which commenced with a live tembang (traditional Balinese sung poetry) performance, were a series of film clips, previously unseen, by various 20th Century foreign legends of Bali: Colin McPhee, Jane Belo, Walter Spies, Covarrubias, Gregory Bateson.

It was wonderful to see footage of the near mythical Brahmin priest Pedanda Made Sidemen – priest, scholar, architect, poet, and inspiration to mid 20th Century Bali – performing his puja, his hand mudras so eloquent. Then there were scenes from rare ceremonies and dances – an enormous mass ‘cremation’ for “Jero Ketut” (a Balinese euphemism for rats) as part of a ceremony to ward off a near-epidemic of rats; a Baris Melampahan dance which no one present (and the crowd included Balinese cultural experts such as Pino Confessa and Ketut Yuliarsa) had ever seen and in which one could clearly see a degree of improvisation sadly lacking in many of today’s performances.

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There was even a clip of Katherine Mershon performing a slightly racey dance floor number to Balinese music, much to the bemusement of the 1930s village crowds, and one of Walter Spies and her doing a ballroom dance performance to gamelan. All just a tad surreal set in a Balinese village in the 30s. Just a tad.

The project has already become a huge resource for young Balinese seeking to know more about their culture and who want to access it online. Academics and Bali specialists around the world are paying close attention. This fact, and the improvisations we saw earlier sparked a conversation on the flexibility and adaptability of Balinese culture.

Bali 1928 is physically based in STIKCOM, the tech college in Denpasar, but relies on donations for its funding and is open to contributions in the form of rare photograhs, film clips, and recordings. If you would like to make a donation or contribute rare material please go to www.bali1928.net for Indonesian or www.edwardherbst.net for English (the two are in the process of being merged under www.bali1928.net) .

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The other quite delectable cultural event was the third series of the Legong Nandira Project which is co-produced by the Gekko Club Japan and the Genta Bhuana Sari group. In a way it was perfect segue to Monday night’s film clips, which showed several Balinese dance performances that were extraordinary.

Legong Nandira is a male Legong performance created by two sons of the legendary Gung Kak Mandera, AA Bagus Mandera and Anak Agung Oka Dalem. It was peformed at the Balerung stage in Br Teruna, Peliatan. The evening was dedicated to the late Made Wijaya, a.k.a. Michael White, who was a great supporter of the project and whose passion for Balinese culture is famous.

There is compelling evidence that Legong originated as a dance performed by young men in the courts of the royal palaces of Bali in early part of the 20th Century. This recreation is an attempt to evoke that spirit from the past – the project has been ongoing for at least half a decade. AA Bagus Mandera Erawan has been inviting me for a couple of years but the timing has never worked out, and by now my curiosity was well piqued so I was pleased to be able to finally see it.

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I was already familiar with the male Legong history, and am quite used to the Balinese tendency to weave myths into their dance or vocal performances (Ramayana is a big favorite, but this was going to be about Gadjahmada et al). But I wasn’t quite prepared for what came next.

Somehow I found myself giving a short speech before the crowd that included elders of Peliatan royalty, the Consul General of Japan Hirohisa Chiba, the Consul for Italy Pino Confessa who is also an expert in Balinese dance and culture and performer, Bali-expat cultural blackbelt Rucina Ballinger (the only foreigner in history ever to be Kelian Adat Isteri in a Balinese banjar as well as a very respected performer of Balinese dance and theater) various leading Balinese artists and performers, Japanese culture vultures, some of Made’s closest Balinese friends, and a smattering of western tourists.

This honor was more due to four-decade long friendship with Made rather than any expertise on my part regarding Balinese dance. Awkward, what with me blustering on about all kinds of things I know little about in front of such an audience. However I soon ran out of steam, the audience very politely clapped, and the show finally started. Phew.

And what a show. The gamelan was very tight, despite one or two very small technicalities (I’m not sure if Pino and I imagined it, but there seemed to be a couple of keys on one of the gamelan instruments that were just a tiny bit out of tune but barely noticeable, and the kendang drummers should never be anywhere else but up in front as the gamelan tends to drown them out otherwise). But they performed fantastically well.

After an instrumental and vocal intro, the dances started. First up was a baris performed by the granddaughter of the reknown shadow puppeteer, Dalang Sija. It was a tad soft for Baris. But the actual legong that followed totally made up for it. I have to say these young men must have trained very hard, their performances were excellent, and it is a great piece of choreography by Anak Agung Oka Dalem. Rucina Ballinger, who has spent a good four decades studying and performing Balinese dance concurred: “It’s the best choreography he has ever produced!”.

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photo ©Rucina Ballinger

Rucina added: “It was mesmerizing. I was asked to translate the Japanese brochure into English and came across a line that said ‘men can embody the feminine better than women’ and I raised an eyebrow at that. But after last night’s performance, I woke up this morning thinking actually in this case it’s true!”.

There was definitely something surreal yet entrancing about watching young men performing women’s roles impersonating mythical male characters. Where to put in the punctuation? I have as yet not quite been able to describe the tone of this visual double entendre (wait, is it triple?). I think Rucina’s ‘mesmerizing’ gets close.

May 2017 be Annus Mirabilis for you all!