Sunday, 22 June 2008

Dance of Life

Full moon was waning up in the sky, but its silver light still graced me as I saw several items of Indian dances last night. In Bali, at the Bali Art Festival. Little Balinese girls danced Bharatanatyam with an Indian woman (she's the dancing teacher here), a Javanese woman danced Kathak, ... and ten Indian women and men were supposed to dance an Odissi-Kathak-Bharatanatyam-Balinese drama called 'Bali Yatra'. It was beautiful... but the beauty will have to come later as I tell you what happened as the Javanese woman danced the Kathak.

She was swirling around with her white dress, blossoming as a white lotus as suddenly... the lights went off! Off, darkness all around in the little theatre. A local transformer exploded (power overload), and hence shut down the electricity for the entire building. The beautiful Javanese woman stopped for a while... and then she retreated to the back stage. It seemed that the next dance would have to be cancelled.

People were going home, understandably. Half an hour passed, and I was about to go home when they announced that they moved the dance show to an open stage 5 minutes walk from there.

I went there out of curiosity; just to see if it's worth the wait. I waited for a few more minutes before they resumed the show, an hour after the power outage.

And by the Gods... it was worth the wait.

I've never seen an Odissi dance before. Have you? You should. Bharatanatyam is gorgeous, classical in many senses. Kathak is poetic. But Odissi mix elegance with sensuality of the dancers in their ways of swaying here and there, like Apsaras we see on the temple walls. Suddenly, I could see the ancient dancers performing their services outside the temple garden. What was it like back then, I knew not. All I know was that I was so damn lucky to be able to witness the show. I need not go to India... the show was brought to me here. The Shaktis were with me. Still with me.

It was a complicated drama dance, a mini opera with lots of scenes. The ten dancers had to change costumes more than five times each person, and God I would have fainted midway if I were them. They had to struggle to adapt to new stage, new lighting, new sound system, and oh what a crowded open stage it was, in a mere 20 minutes! The dancers and music had to compete with other performances in the vicinity, and it was hard for them. So hard. But they endured, and they showed the best of them.

I don't know them, but I'm proud of them. And I was happy that I stayed till late to see them. It was worth it.

[On a side note, and as a positive critique, I think they could leave out the part where the Odissi dancers performed Panyembrama, a classical Balinese dance to welcome guests. I think it was amazing that they tried to do that, and over a length of time the Odissi dancers might reach the Balinese pakem (dancing standards), but for this show, the Panyembrama item could be dropped. Or better, replace the gorgeous Odissi dancers with real Balinese dancers who master the Panyembrama dance the way the Indian dancers master their Odissi par excellence. And this realisation just dawned on me that moment: Odissi (and Bharatanatyam, to that extent) have different head movements to the Balinese one. Their eye expressions, though similar, are different too. The Balinese dance - as I observe so far - have more subtle yet still lively expression; there is a benchmark there that is too subtle for Odissi. By the same token, the dynamic movements of Odissi (and Bharatanatyam) would be too fast and forceful for Balinese dancers. And yet, when appropriately combined, a group of Odissi/Kathak/Bharatanatyam can perform well with a group of Balinese dancers. I've seen my old dancer team (Indian Cultural Center Bali & Indonesian Art Institute Bali, under the tutelage of Ms. Nandini Krishna) doing such a collaboration with Ravi Shankar's Manggalam. It was amazingly vibrant and invigorating. I guess in the end, every dancer has to determine her/his own style, unique way of dancing, and she/he should stick to it. But this critique by NO means lessen my respect to the dancers last night. They still did amazing job out there.]

You know, an aware dancer will always pray before dancing, either by touching the earth/ground, looking at the sky and moon, or others. He or she will seek permission first before the performance. It's something wonderful, something beyond words, when you dance and you know, you can do that only because the whole Existence permits you to do that. It's your gift to the Universe, and you are blessed with it.

I haven't resumed my Bharatanatyam dancing lessons for months, and I missed the dances. I guess, I shall be back dancing again.

And I guess... now and then, life presents you a power outage, and your dance has to stop for a while. But real dancers will try to find ways to resume their dance; in whatever situations, no matter how small their audience may be. It's the dharma, the way of life for a dancer... to dance, even with no witness. Even if the witness is just the waning moon above.

So I thank the Universe, and the dancers and their entourage tonight, for presenting me with the dance tonight. It was a Dance of Life, and I was blessed to see it.

And I know now what to answer if someone ask me why I – a Balinese girl – learn Bharatanatyam. Well, first, I also dance Balinese dance, but I won’t claim that I’m the expert. You can see hundreds of Balinese dancers far better than I am on the island. Second, dance is an art… and art goes beyond the boundaries of nations and ethnicity. Art is beauty, and beauty has no boundaries.

Pic 1. A Kathak dancer from ( not the one I saw tonight)

Pic 2. Odissi dancers from ( not the one I saw tonight)

Pic 3. A Majapahit Apsara, from the Arts of Asia (November-December 2000) and Wikipedia (I want to invite one of those celestial nymphs to my house. Can I?)

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