Bali has served as a phenomenal source of inspiration for theatrical visionaries for decades. Peter Brook, Andre Belgrader, Julie Taymor and
many others have been attracted to and found inspiration in the beautiful island of Bali, Indonesia.
I have had the fortune to visit Bali for extended stays on two separate occasions, the first time while fulfilling a fellowship to study ritualistic mask dancing. Bali, Indonesia is one of my favorite places to have visited in the twenty countries I have toured, to date. The island of Bali sits in the Indonesian archipelago, a string of thousands of islands, most of which are Muslim. Bali, however, is predominately Hindu and has maintained its Hindu origins for thousands of years, making it still further special.
This small island, only about 55 miles long and 90 or so miles wide, I have been told, has around 60,000 temples. Spirituality infuses most aspects of life and I have never, in all of my years of travels, seen a happier, more “smiling people”.
Check this out: Nearly 90% of the inhabitants on the island of Bali consider themselves artists. Contrast that with your own culture, wherever you may be. Many serve as rice farmers by day and artists by night.
Generally speaking, each village, of which there are scores, is dedicated to a different medium of artistry. One village may specialize in painting, another woodcarving, another masks (also of wood), another furniture, etc.
From the moment they awake to their first market sale of the day, to the time they go to bed, their spiritual beliefs are in practice. Truly, the Balinese lifestyle is one that is filled with meaning and, consequently, deeply meaning-full.
I have had the honor to be personally invited, on numerous occasions, to visit holy temple ceremonies, my wife and I typically being the only western people there. One night, the host of the house we were lodging at, invited us to a ceremony that was, we were told, very, very special. “This only happens once every ten years or so and is very special in that the spirits inhabit the dancers and, through them, bless the community”. I have found that such “once in only ten years” type ceremonies occur often in Bali, as there are ceremonies and rituals occurring all the time.
I was thrilled and giddy at the prospect of being invited to such a holy event. We donned their traditional attire (a sarong and head piece) and arrived to find thousands of Balinese, all dressed in ceremonial garb.
Many ceremonies in Bali require a ritualistic spilling of blood—typically translating to mean the slaughter of a chicken. The Brahman, the high priest cast of the community, ripped the head off of the bird and scattered its blood. Following this, dancers emerged, dancing their ritualistic forms—dances they have studied their entire lives. The Brahman, then we were told, were in the holiest part of the temple, inviting the gods to take possession of newly made masks, which master performers would then don and become entranced by and channeled through.
The air of this event was absolutely intoxicating, further made special by our being blessed with holy water by the Brahman.
I cannot claim to understand the depth or ritual of what we were witnessing, but I can attest to having felt a profound sense of spirituality. It was everywhere—in the air, in the thousands of people around us and in my own mind and heart. This event was profoundly moving.
I have seen many temple ceremony performances in Bali and never cease to be amazed by the quality of the theatre. By quality, I do not mean “good or bad”. Rather, I refer to the quality as that of “Necessity”. This is a theatre of need. The Balinese´ theatre also serves to entertain and is often quite bawdy and slapstick. Escapism can absolutely be found there (a quality often present in our western theatre productions). But this theatre also serves as a guide. It gives youth a sense of cultural identity, of time and place, of history.
In our western traditions, we, as artists, typically pride ourselves on innovation. We strive to “break the mold”, to serve as pioneers, to create something new. The Balinese´ tradition, however, is one of repetition. The mask forms they are creating for their ritualistic theatre are forms that have been replicated for thousands of years. For the artist, the thinking goes, “If you can replicate what the master artist has created, you have become a master”. Because of this replication of form, a process repeated, as I said, for thousands of years, the performances have layers upon layers of meaning for the Balinese people and because these mask forms have been replicated by masters throughout the centuries, the quality of the masks are extremely high. I have built masks for about twelve years now and in my best of moments, have never come anywhere close to the quality of their masks.
When a trained performer wears one of these ancient ritualistic masks, the masks come alive. The fixed form of wood upon the performers´ faces seem to morph, to move; becoming animated. These performers believe (and when I say believe, I mean in the fiber of their being) that the gods are channeling through them. These dancers believe that their terrestrial forms (bodies), serve as vessels, through which the divine communicate.
This is why we want to take my students to Bali. Witnessing their theatre and interacting with the culture, as I have been honored to do, has changed my life for the better and given me new insight into what theatre is, has been perhaps forever, and can be. I strive to afford my students opportunities that will give them first hand experience of a theatre of need, a theatre of necessity. It is my hope that they, like theatrical visionaries of past and present, will find inspiration. Then, like every hero is meant to do, return with the treasures of their adventures and share that knowledge (or elixir) with their own, respective communities.
Jim Hart is the founder of The International Theatre Academy Norway