The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 30, 2004


Cultural Council brings Balinese dance to Carlisle

The dazzling spectacle of a temple performance — masked figures darting about under a moonlit sky. The shimmering sound of distant gongs. The intoxicating smell of frangipani blossoms. Soft, silken cloth. Pungent, spicy stew.

These are the sights and sounds of Bali, a place that is a sensual feast, a place where even the most ordinary activities are imbued with artistic flavor, a place where rites of passage include glorious displays of music, theater, and dance. On any given day, you can find an extended family — or an entire village — gathered together for a performance of one sort or another, be it a cremation ceremony to honor a dead relative or an exorcism to banish evil from a community. Government functions, so full of pomp and circumstance in other nations, often include riotous appearances by the Balinese penesar, or clowns, who poke merciless fun at the powers that be. Art is inseparable from life on this tiny Indonesian island; beauty sprouts up everywhere, from the sculpted rice fields to the elaborate shrines hidden away on narrow, dusty lanes.

Balinese dancer Nyoman Driyana Usadhi (Photo by Patti Hartigan)

Carlisle residents will get a taste of this extraordinary culture next Sunday, February 8, when a family of internationally renowned artists presents "A Celebration of Balinese Music and Dance'' at Union Hall. Produced by the Carlisle Cultural Council, the free event features I Nyoman Catra, a master masked dancer, and his wife Desak Made Suarti Laksmi, Bali's foremost female composer and a master dancer. They are currently living in Worcester, where Suarti Laksmi is a visiting assistant professor of theater and dance at Holy Cross. Catra is pursuing his doctorate in performing arts at Wesleyan University. They will share the stage with their son Nyoman Driyana Usadhi, a seven-year-old prodigy who is such a natural he learned to dance before taking a single formal lesson.

I met this multi-talented couple, who also have 21-year-old twin sons, on my first trip to Bali in 1993. A professional drama critic at the time, I was no stranger to theater. But like most visitors to that magical place, I was awestruck by performances so primal they make you feel as if you're back at that very first campfire when someone decided to sit down and tell a tale. Late one night, I found myself in a temple courtyard immersed in an eerie performance of the Calonarang, a drama that features a standoff between archetypal characters representing good and evil. The crowd huddled together as darkness gave way to dawn and the action became more pitched. Actors leapt about, wagging menacing fingers and wearing startling masks. The tension was palpable; the memory still makes the muscles in my shoulders constrict.

Not all Balinese performances are as visceral — they can be regal or flirtatious, somber or hilarious. Catra often injects local humor into his performances; during previous visits to the U.S., he's been known to crack jokes about presidential politics or the scandal du jour. He and Suarti Laksmi have performed all over the world. He first came to this country in 1980, performing with a multicultural troupe in New York in a piece directed by a young up-and-comer named Julie Taymor. Director Taymor, of course, later incorporated elements of Balinese theater in her celebrated production of The Lion King.

Children in Bali don't have to make a special trip to see such spectacles, though. They see dazzling theater all the time. Catra's young son, Nyoman, absorbed the form as if by osmosis. When he was about two years old, he asked to join in a performance at a temple. He had never had a lesson, never rehearsed, but he danced with a troupe of about 16 people and wowed everyone with his innate talent. Let's just say the boy knows how to work a crowd.

He was born with something the Balinese call "taksu", which is loosely translated as charisma or presence. The concept is so important in Balinese culture that every house has a shrine dedicated to taksu. "It's a very important thing — the charisma of living,'' Catra explains. The whole family will demonstrate exactly what that term means in their appearance at Union Hall. Catra will perform a masked dance called "Topeng." A master of transformation, he shifts from character to character with simple movements. He wags a finger, and he's an ancient storyteller who demands attention. He raises an eyebrow, and he's a vain coquette eager for compliments. He is such a virtuoso one critic described him as "a Balinese national treasure.''

Suarti Laksmi will perform "Dranujaya," a coming-of-age dance in which she plays a young man trying to attract the opposite sex. And Nyoman will perform "Baris," a warrior dance that his father describes as "basic training for little masculine men.'' Catra is certain of one thing: his son will steal the show. The young performer recently danced with the Gamelan Orchestra at MIT, and the director of the orchestra said at the start that he never liked to perform with children — for one simple reason. "No one paid attention to how good the music was, because everyone was paying attention to the little boy who was very charismatic,'' Catra says. "He's cute. He's small. And he steals the show.''

Children are a common fixture at Balinese performances, both on and off the stage. Since theater is a part of everyday life in Bali, people come and go as they please. Children might leave the performance area to go run and play and then return to rest in their parents' laps. The actors are not offended if someone dozes off or sneezes or chats. Folks sit on the ground or rest in the shade underneath the sighing limbs of Balinese banyan trees. There is no so-called "fourth wall," or imaginary barrier, between the actors and the audience. "In Bali, we don't separate the audience and the performers,'' Catra says. "We don't say, 'This is your chair over here, and this is the performance space over here. The audience is part of the performance.'' He has this simple advice for anyone who comes to next week's performance. "Just relax. In Bali, this is the way we live.''

"A Celebration of Balinese Dance'' will be performed at 3:30 p.m., Sunday February 8 at Union Hall, facilities of the First Religious Society of Carlisle, Unitarian Universalist. Presented by the Carlisle Cultural Council, it is free. Children are welcome.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito