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Of Kings and Clowns

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In the second part of her reflection on Balinese performing arts, Dorothy Max Prior looks at the inter-relationship of mask, dance-drama and puppetry

‘The mask can tell the stories, say controversial things that an actor couldn’t,’ says our teacher Surya in his introduction to the art of topeng, the Balinese masked dance-drama. ‘You can say, “It isn’t me, it’s the mask!”’

I Madé Surya is one of a team of Balinese artists who are lending their expertise to the Dell’Arte Abroad programme – the four-week module held in Ubud, Bali being an integral part of the American Dell Arte School’s MFA Ensemble Based Physical Theatre programme – but the course is also open to professional practitioners of dance, theatre, puppetry, and mask. The mix of postgrad students and professionals at various stages of their career is a good one, making for a healthy balance of experiences and abilities.

It’s a month-long intensive (and by ‘intensive’ I mean that we have twelve-hour days, and that this timetable is excluding visits to temple, evening performances, and other extras) and a cross-artform introduction to Balinese performing arts – which are in essence cross-artform practices anyway – taught mostly by renowned Balinese artists, with warm-up morning sessions by Dell Arte faculty members, and additional sessions by guest teachers from elsewhere – including, for 2010, Mexican mask expert Alicia Martinez Alvarez.

So here we are, at the beginning of this month-long process, learning a little more about the artforms and modes of practice that we will be studying…

We learn that ‘mask’ in Bali can denote anything from a simple cloth covering of the face through to the extraordinarily large and complex whole-body-masks worn for the sacred barong dance. But perhaps best known is the topeng dance-drama (topeng literally just meaning ‘mask’), which can be performed by one person taking on up to twelve characters through different masks, or with a number of performers taking different roles. This is the form that we will study.

Topeng masks can be full-mask (gods, kings, priests and other higher status characters), or three-quarter/half mask to allow for singing and talking – storytellers and clown characters will often be in direct conversation with the audience, acting as interpreters and go-betweens. We are introduced to some of the topeng masks: sidha karya is a full mask, off-white with wild eyes and a menacing set of teeth (real pig’s teeth, we are told) – without him, the show can’t end (his name means ‘completing the ritual’). A three-quarter mask in reddish-brown is the storyteller –the first mask out, he sets the scene and puts the audience at their ease. The king is a pearly white-faced mask with refined features, sporting a jewelled band. The tua is a whiskery old man (Denis Healey eyebrows made of real hair!), and the topeng keras (‘prime minister’) is another whole mask – more detailed than the storyteller, but of obvious lower rank than the king: the character this mask depicts is a Polonius type blusterer who takes charge of everything in a pompous manner and is over-deferential to the king.

As with the wayang kulit (discussed in part one of this article in Animations Online 30), the various masked dances and dance-dramas of Bali are essentially part of the religious life, although they have also strayed into the secular world, the tourist shows being a popular draw in Bali. Surya talks of the masks’ original sacred functions, and specifically their history as ‘symbols’ or replacement temple offerings, referring to the days ‘before transport’ when it would take ten to twelve days to cross the island for a major ceremony, and the offerings of flowers, fruit or rice would have died en route.

Our hour-long introduction is a fascinating lead-in to the world of Balinese mask, and we are now eagerly awaiting the next day when we can begin our classes…

Our programme is a full one. Some classes are taken by the whole group, and some are chosen modules. For example, in the mornings there is the option of studying (unmasked) women’s traditional dance, or the ‘male’ topeng masked dance (or for some of us, perhaps foolishly, both!). In the afternoons, we split into mask-carvers and puppet-makers/manipulators, travelling on a perilous bemo (minibus) to our teachers’ homes and studios; and in the early evenings, we all come back together to learn the famous kecakor ‘monkey chant’ (a six-part acapella song-form that also involves physical actions such as heave-ho boat rowing, running around brandishing live flame torches, and – for the more advanced – walking on hot coals).

The first few days in Bali are spent acclimatising, learning a little of the Bahasa Indonesia and Balinese languages, and gathering in the wantilan (a roofed but sideless pavilion building with a wooden floor) for the introductory sessions. Then it is off to buy sarongs – essential for class and for temple – and we are ready to start our topeng class.

But before we can even take a step, there is so much to learn: how to tie your sarong the ‘male’ way; how to breathe to avoid ‘hot breath’ trapped between you and the mask; how to open the ‘gate’ and enter at the centre-back of the space (‘Don’t move, wait! Let the mask do its work! Let the audience make the drama!’); and, most crucial, the agum or basic stance (permanent demi-plie, feet turned out, toes raised, elbows high, wrists bent, neck long, head held steady so that the body and the mask can do their work). Then, once we start on the choreography, there’s so much more: starting and stopping on the ‘gong’ (‘It all sounds like gongs to me,’ says one participant), the basic walk, the difference between ‘long angsals’ and ‘short angsals’ (types of pauses and direction changes); how to ‘look to the umbrellas’ at the corners of the space (‘What umbrellas? Oh, the imaginary umbrellas. I see’).

Learning topeng with Surya is an entertaining process, as it is often less of a dance-drama class than a fascinating Balinese history and culture lesson: we start in on our topeng keras, then get sidelined into a discussion of types of coconut leaf carvings for offerings, cremation structures (all of life’s rites of passage are very public in Bali – anyone can turn up to a cremation or a teeth-filing ceremony – as long as you are dressed for temple, you are welcome). We learn that the Balinese say that ‘we are here to balance the world’, and that the black-and-white checked cloths we see everywhere denote the eternal relationship between good and evil: ‘the best we can do [in life] is manage the balance of the two,’ he says. This philosophy is borne out in the various masked dance-drama stories – usually, the ‘baddies’ get to live and fight another day; the moral of the tale is that evil has to be constantly addressed and accommodated, it is not something that we can just kill off.

In Bali, traditionally no stage lights are used and performers are on the same level as the audience, who are seated around the edges, with the musicians on the fourth side / back wall – although sometimes the performance area is long and thin with the audience sat in traverse. In many situations, especially the lively temple celebrations, the audience are everywhere: around the edges, perched up with the musicians, hanging onto the columns, or in neighbouring courtyards chattering loudly with half an eye on the ‘show’.

We luckily have the opportunity to experience many different settings for performance. At one extreme, there are the ‘tourist’ wayang kulit (shadow puppet), legong and other dance, and kecak shows in downtown Ubud, and at the other the whole-village ceremonies and feast-days, including one at the village of Mas at which all the women dance together. We get a special invitation to see a version of the Frog Prince story, traditionally performed for children’s ceremonial events; and an opportunity to see the marvellous barong dance at a special temple ceremony to initiate a new mask (the barong involves archetypal fights between good and evil acted out by large puppet-mask creatures – lions and dragons and the like). We are honoured to be invited to a wildly funny birthday party topeng performed by our multi-talented shadow puppet masters, Mardika and Kadek, who, like many Balinese, have a grasp on all the performing arts disciplines (they are musicians too). The relationship between puppetry and masked dance is seen as a given, and the Balinese struggle to understand why, in our Western performance practice and trainings, we differentiate: ‘Extend your puppeteering hands further and you have the dance!’ They say. Here, the two of them play all the characters between them, with multiple costume and mask changes – and some of the costumes are so elaborate it is a wonder they get in and out of them so quickly.

On another occasion, we get to see a wayang wong (‘human puppet’) performance presented at the wonderful Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets, which not only has a fantastic collection, but also is committed to the performance of the mask or puppet – knowing that the artefacts only really live when animated by the human performer. An interesting aside here is that I learnt that in Bali secondhand puppets and masks are more expensive than new ones: the logic is, if something has been animated, it is more special than a brand new construction that is, as yet, lifeless.

In the wayang wong form, some of the main characters are in whole-body-mask costumes, with other characters ‘merely’ masked. The story depicted in the wayang wong (a human version of the wayang kulit that plays on the notion of people playing puppets) is taken from the Ramayana, and features a great many animals, and a lot of battles. On this occasion, golden deer, dragons, monkeys and birds fill the stage – along with a turquoise-clad yellow-faced goddess (this may well have been Sita), Rawana the evil king, Hanuman the monkey king, and various witches and penasar (clowns). The performers in wayang wong mode are extraordinary, ensconced as they are in their extremely bulky ten-foot-high puppet-mask constructions.

Setia Darma House of Mask and Puppets is somewhere we are luckily able to return to on a number of occasions. The magnificent display of puppets and masks, set out in Javanese-style pavilions (joglos) amongst beautiful gardens, includes examples of many sorts of puppets from across Indonesia and beyond. There are suket woven grass shadow puppets, and cirebon leather puppets in lovely subtle browns and reds; gold-embossed wayang kulit of many different styles, ancient and modern; and wayang golek marionettes of various sorts, rod and string. There are also puppets from China, Cambodia, Malaysia and Japan.

The mask rooms are equally impressive, introducing us to many variations on the topeng stock characters. Items purchased from or donated by mask-makers and collectors in other countries allows for comparison, and there is, unsurprisingly, a great deal of crossover between cultures – the most obvious reason being that the archetypes are universal, but there is also a history of cultural exchange going back many centuries that is too complex to attempt to document here, even if I had a thorough grip on it, which I don’t. My conversations with experts such as Hadi Sunyoto, the curator of this magnificent collection, and with Pak Newman (longterm Bali resident, renowned Commedia leather mask-maker and one of the Dell'Arte Abroad facilitators) lead me to believe that should I want to get to the bottom of that puzzle, I’d have a lifetime of study ahead of me!

In one bizarre example of cross-cultural collaboration, we find ourselves invited to perform in a re-enactment of a Day of the Dead ceremony, devised by Alicia Martinez Alvarez to hand her Mexican mask collection over to the Setia Darma. Our audience is mostly Balinese, here to honour the arrival of the new masks – but there’s a fair spattering of tourists, who are perhaps slightly bemused by it all!

In another interesting outing, we get to see the workshop of IB Anom, renowned maskmaker and teacher/leader of the kecak singing group we work with. Oh, and of course he is also a topeng dancer: ‘You must first understand the dance and music for the mask,’ he tells us. ‘How can you make a good mask if you have never worn a mask?’ In his workshop, he sits (as is the norm) in what we’d call ‘tailor position’ with his mask-to-be – currently just a section of a log – placed between his feet. He talks us through the process: chop off the bark; make a rough face ‘sketch’; use mallet and chisels to make the basic shape; find the mask’s expression with the knife; refine; scoop out the back; do the nostrils and the eyes; sandpaper… with a ‘here’s one I made earlier’ sleight of hand mask-substitution, we see each stage of the mask emerge from the wood. He makes it look so easy, but that’s a lifetime of experience we are witnessing (he tells us that he made his first mask aged 12, and that his father threw it away it was so bad). Anom’s carvings are beautiful, his masks full of life even before they are worn.

Anom’s sentiments on the performer to mask-carver relationship are echoed by Tjokorda Raka Tisnu, who we meet on another workshop visit – this time to see the creation of the large-scale barong and other special puppet-masks and sacred masks. On this occasion, we learn about the notion of ‘sacredness’, an accumulative process for a mask involving a number of factors: the choice of wood; when and how it is cut, carved and painted; the offerings made; where it is stored (not at home!); its purification by a priest; and the purification process for dancers before they touch the mask. A sacred mask is never touched by anyone other than the maker, the priest and the dancer.

T Raka Tisnu is a formidable presence. A maker, but also a professor of dance at the Institute Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of the Arts), the product of eight generations of mask-makers and dancers. ‘Performance,’ he tells us, ‘is about and for the ancestors, who are a medium to the gods.’ It is no surprise to learn that his favourite topeng character to perform is the king, and also that he is a long-term collaborator with Eugenio Barba.

As seems so often the case with Balinese artists, he does not understand the Western boundaries between actor, dancer, and mask-maker. When asked by one young mask-maker how he could improve his carving skills, the reply is unequivocal: ‘If you want to carve well, become a good dancer.’

Dancer, actor, mask-maker, puppeteer, musician… For the Balinese, it is assumed that to be one is to be them all. We use terms like ‘cross-artform practice’ and 'interdisciplinary arts' as if we have discovered something new – but it was all already there to be discovered in Bali, as many generations of Western artists have found out… I’m just the latest in a long line.


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Dorothy Max Prior attended the Dell’Arte Abroad programme in Bali, Indonesia January–February 2010. The next dates are 6 January – 4 February 2011, and applications are now being accepted here. The Bali programme is open to actors, musicians, designers, dancers, mask-makers, directors, teachers, and anyone who is interested in Balinese culture and performing arts. For further details see www.dellarte.com

For further on Balinese arts, and information on coming events, see: www.baliculturegov.com

I Madé Surya is the eldest son of a Hindu priest and has been dancing at temple festivals since he was child. He works as a cultural guide through Danu Enterprises, and also teaches mask-dance and carving in Bali, the US and elsewhere. For more on Surya’s work with Danu, see www.danutours.com/bali_menu.htm

For Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets see: www.setiadarma.org or the Setia Darma Facebook group

Newman is a leather mask-maker who has made performance and training masks for Cirque du Soleil, Teatro Zinzanni, The Central School of Speech and Drama, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, amongst many other institutions throughout Europe, Australia, Asia and the Americas. See www.commediamask.com 

Alicia Martinez Alvarez is a mask-maker and performer, director of the Laboratorio de la Mascara in Mexico, and an expert on Day of the Dead ceremonies. See www.laboratoriodelamascara.org.mx

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Top image strip: images of Balinese topeng performance.

Body images top to bottom: Balinese mask; mask-carver Avom; Balinese cremation; Balinese mask; Balinese cremation; Balinese museum puppets; I Madé Surya teaching a topeng dance class.

Bottom: spectators at a topeng performance.



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