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Gamelan Sekar Jaya

Kawit Legong: Prince Karna’s Dream

by Karen Drozda

March 25, 2003 -- Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

Balinese dance is a prayer, a ritual, and an integral part of life in Bali. Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s performance at Zellerbach Hall expressed all these qualities and more. The evening-long extravaganza combined gamelan music, legong dance, and wayang shadow puppets in a performance both quintessentially modern and deeply rooted in the traditional.

It is the nature of classical dance movements that they are passed down unchanged from generation to generation. In Bali it is equally traditional that the dance is modified to suit the occasion or location. "Prince Karna’s Dream" was presented as a world premiere by Cal Performances in 2001, and epitomizes this synthesis of tradition and innovation.

"Kawit Legong: Prince Karna’s Dream" is an original composition based on the legend surrounding the birth of the famous legong dance of Bali. It is said that a 19th century prince went into a deep meditation and witnessed a dance of divine beauty performed by two celestial nymphs. Upon awakening, he summoned the local musicians and dancers to recreate the vision he experienced in his dream.

Two young maidens, danced by 11-year-olds Luh Widi Anggarawati and Ida Ayu Kade Rani Dwiputri, perform the first legong dance to the admiration of the villagers. While dancing, they fall into a trance and a spirit speaks through one of them to warn of evil demons wreaking havoc in another part of the kingdom.

Witches gather, sowing death and destruction. Prince Karna arrives to fight the evil forces led by the witch Rangda. A battle between good and evil ensues. The force of good finally prevails not by the sword, but by the legong dance which restores balance in the seen and unseen worlds.

Gamelan Sekar Jaya cleverly crafts a compelling story, accessible across cultural barriers, that provides insight into many important aspects of Balinese culture. The shadow backdrop creates a mood and setting for the action of the dance. Judicious use of super-titles tells the elements of the story, enabling the audience to follow an ancient and highly ritualized dance.

The most popular type of gamelan orchestra consists of two lead drums, cymbals, bronze gongs, flutes and metallophones (keyed metal instruments). Each instrument is paired with another, and each of the metallophone pairs are tuned to a slightly different version of the same note. When struck together, the notes combine to a single quavering tone that creates the unique gamelan sound. Interweaving musical rhythms are punctuated by drums and symbols, weaving a tapestry of sound to which the dancers move.

The dance teacher in the performance is played by Ni Ketut Arini, one of Bali’s most revered teachers and performers of classical Balinese female-style dance. In the scene of recreating Prince Karna’s vision she moves and molds each girl’s body with her hands as the student dances, singing the rhythm of the music and saying the drumbeats which signal sharp changes in eye or hand movement. This is the way young dancers are actually taught, through the hands of their teachers.

With artfully bent ankles and fluttering fingers, these young girls perform a graceful asymmetrical dance wearing masks and elaborate headdresses of gold, flowers and incense. Their bodies are so tightly wrapped in brightly colored layers of silk and brocade that it is a wonder they can move at all. Their hands perform the symbolic language of mudras from ancient India, and their heads move from side to side as if they were not attached to their necks.

Male dancers wear stiff layers of cloth that make them appear much larger and more powerful. Their shoulders and elbows are raised almost up to their ears, and they walk with bent knees and feet in an exaggerated bow-legged swagger. Their faces form fierce masks with popping eyes and wild hair.Body position for female dancers is a lower stance with knees bent and together, bare arms weaving gracefully. Their faces also tend to be mask-like, but with coy eye movements and smiling mouths.

Warang shadow puppets are also an ancient tradition, but one not usually performed in combination with legong dance. Thanks to Larry Reed’s Shadow Light group and their skilled blending of shadows from puppets and live dancers, the backdrops came alive and promoted the narrative without overshadowing the dancers.

Gamelan Sekar Jaya started as a six-week workshop in El Cerrito more than twenty years ago. A group of local artists invited a group of Balinese artists to come over for a workshop. Nobody could have foreseen that out of this collaboration would emerge a mature performance group composed almost exclusively of volunteers. Traveling extensively and even performing in Bali, they became the only foreign group to win Bali’s coveted Dharma Kusuma award for artistic achievement. Wayne Vitale, now the group’s general manager, was part of the first workshop.

Vitale speaks with enthusiasm and knowledge about the structure of the music, what it is like to play in a gamelan orchestra, and the role of music and dance in Balinese life. In Bali, performance and art are integral to people’s lives. Their response to evil, such as the October 2002 terrorist bombing, is still an impulse to restore balance and order in the universe through ritual, music and dance. It is fascinating to see how an ancient art form can be so deeply traditional and yet so utterly relevant to contemporary life.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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