Has the presentation of Balinese dance changed much over the last 100 years?

Balinese dances have always been a great source of fascination for visitors to Bali and were used to draw tourist to the island. In fact, in the earlier tourism promotion images right up until the 1970s, often young female dancers were portrayed as slim, exotic, innocent nymphs – girls of the South Seas: topless, tanned and tantalizing.  

Before the government arts academies of the 1950s, females danced a limited repertoire of legong and temple dances. Since there was no concept of a raised stage or an amphitheater as we know today, only a few dancers would dance at a time – there were certainly no ‘mass legongs’ that you see now. Today there is a lot of emphasis on dance development at the academies, adopting movements from Java, India, and even western contemporary dance. Costuming has become very important and no expense is spared on creating mass spectacle performances (sendratari) that are performed each year at the Bali Arts Festival.

Make up has changed a lot too, since Balinese once had no access to Western-style make-up. Now dancers always go for the heavy handed look: full-on blusher, and thick blue and yellow eye shadow. I believe that Balinese dancers today could learn a thing or two from the more delicate make-up of Thai dancers, which are less ‘Peking Opera’ and more subtle like the Bali of old.

Female dancers of the early 20th century were taught by men, which meant that they danced in a different way than they do today. Most legong dancers would lean back more than what they do now and that their movements were less stylized. Older people I talk to said that normal a handful of musicians would attend dance practices so that there was live accompaniment before advent of recorded music. In this sense, dancers and musicians alike would have been more ‘in-synch’ with each other since the subtleties of the rhythms and movements may have been modified to suit the performers themselves.

Overall, there has been huge change in the way Balinese performing art-forms are prepared and presented. With a booming local economy, I hope that the tourism industry and government will start to pay more attention to the direction and development of these art-forms that are the backbone of Balinese culture.

© 2015 Vaughan Hatch

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