Sacred Dance, Magic & Transformation:
Duality and Symbolism in Balinese Performance Art.        

Cian Kerrisk (2002)

 Balinese performance art is spectacularly elaborate and colourful while simultaneously embodying the core religious, psychological and cultural principles of the society. These fundamental principles permeate the underlying symbolic structure of dance or drama. By investigating the replication and reflection of this structure within the Barong and Rangda dance and within the wider Balinese world-view, a greater insight and culturally specific symbolism of the Balinese people is possible.

The role of tourism in cultural performance, social change and transformation raises certain issues in relation to tradition and 'authenticity' as well as inside/outside knowledge and agency that are imperative in any anthropological or psychological investigation of Balinese culture and art forms. These issues will be addressed in relation to the performance of the Barong and Rangda dance and the adaptations that the interaction between the Balinese "culture bearers" and the foreign tourists create. Through this approach, the forms and symbolism of cultural performance art will be looked at within the Balinese cultural context while stressing local creative control and agency.

The Barong and Rangda dance is one of the most popular and well-known performances in Bali and epitomises the rich cultural tapestry of drama, dance and music as well as the layers of religious and magical belief. The Barong is described as "a mythical monster with a long, sagging body" which is covered by various sorts of material according to the animal whose mask it wears (de Zoete & Spies, 1973:90). Essentially, the dance/play consists of a magical rivalry between this bearded dragon-like figure and the destructive widow-witch Rangda who is depicted in gruesome demonic form (Belo, 1966).

During the performance, the actors may "become" the gods that they are personifying and "the spiritual power (sakti) or soul (roh) of Barong and Rangda" could descend into their bodies (Lansing, 1974, cited in Lansing, 1995). The culmination of the ritual performance consists of a group trance in which the male performers try to attack the witch queen Rangda but are restrained from doing so by her magic spells (Herbst, 1997). This discordant section of the Barong and Rangda is climaxed by a frenzied altered state of consciousness in which the performers then stab themselves with their kris knives yet remain uninjured from the blade. De Zoete and Spies (1973:67) explain this trance state when they state that "the personality of the dancer is to some extent disassociated during the dance, and his consciousness becomes of another kind" (de Zoete and Spies, 1973:67).

It has been stated that "when movement and gesture reach the point where they coincide with rhythms, melody and metric construction, then like well conditioned reflexes, the dance has 'entered' the dancer" (Spencer, 1985:10). De Zoete and Spies (1973) believe that to a certain extent, all Balinese performance art is associated with this trance-state. This altered state of consciousness experienced by the "kris dancers" shows a Balinese distinction between mind and body and can be seen to have important implications for understanding Balinese culture and their philosophical world-view.

The Barong and Rangda dance ends not in one character overcoming the other, but in a balancing of good and evil forces in a form of synthesis or external balancing reminiscent of an individuals intrapsychic goal in Jungian psychology. There are no winners in the battle, and there cannot be, as both forces that are embodied are seen as necessary parts of life that must be kept in balance (de Zoete and Spies, 1973). Rangda or the 'shadow' does not die but is kept in equilibrium as she relates to the necessary, destructive side of the goddess (Durga), "the wife of Shiva in her dread aspect" (Belo, 1966:18). The duel between the two characters is said to represent the "daily and lifelong conflict between good and evil and the overcoming of the later by balancing forces" (Jensen & Suryani, 1992:81). This is a reflection of Balinese conceptual frameworks of understanding life where "all things have two sides (rua bineda): the good and the bad" (Jensen & Suryani, 1992:80).

In the performance Rangda is aided by leyaks, who are said to be capable of 'shape-shifting' and transforming themselves into the form of animals and birds, yet apparently only at night, for during the day according to local magicians "it is obvious who they really are" (Personal notes, 1998). These leyaks who are thought to be "incarnations of black magicians", although feared and seriously dreaded in everyday life, they are often the cause of much laughter and humour when they are enacted in performance (de Zoete and Spies, 1973:69).

Cultural symbolic systems can therefore be seen to provide a "shield for terror" (Kertzer, 1988:4). By personifying fear and death in the form of Rangda, the Balinese can exert some control over an otherwise uncontrollable, abstract force of destruction. In this way the ritual performance brings under control certain aspects of terror and fear and transform them into a manageable situation in which the emotional response is reversed. Belo (1966) reiterates this point by stating that the Barong/Rangda dance acts in a cathartic manner to allow an outlet in which the forces of good and evil may act out in a controlled manner. She states that "after such a performance everyone goes home feeling perfectly great and at peace with the world" (Belo, 1966:12).

Stutterheim (1935, cited in Belo, 1966:29) relates how Rangda is also associated with the historic personage of a Javanese princess of the eleventh century. Alternatively, Belo (1966) proposes that the rivalry between Barong and Rangda in the Balinese play might symbolically relate to a conflict between the Hindu religious beliefs with prior Buddhist (or possibly animistic) forms of belief and practice. Some hint of older pre-Hindu animistic and magical practices being retained in the performances might be indicated by the popular village priests (pemang koe) presiding at such occasions rather than the Hindu priests (pedanda). Saying this however, a certain amount of syncretism is active in this transference of character, and as Belo (1966:20) explains "the influence is there, but it can only be accepted and understood by the receiving culture according to its own lights and in terms of its own experience and characteristic structuring of the natural and supernatural worlds".

'Rangda' in Balinese also means "widow" and the figure is associated with graveyards and crossroads and the goddess/demon is considered to be the Queen of the witches (her followers being the sons/daughters of the widow). It is my own opinion that the aspect of the goddess personified in Rangda is not Durga in the standard sense, but rather the tantric personification of the goddess in the form of 'Dhumavati', who is portrayed as a widow and "a witch or hag" (Frawley, 1999). A description of the Rangda mask utilised in the plays states that it has "immense protruding eyes, and huge white teeth and fangs that curve upwards to her forehead" (de Zoete & Spies, 1973:96). In likeness of Rangda, this form of Dhumavati is said to have messy hair, sagging breasts, fangs and even long fingernails.

Bloch (1974) discusses the role of ritual as a "form of traditional authority" in which political and religious control are exerted through the act of formalised speech and movement. In Balinese performance, this assertion of power through dramatized ritual enactments is evident, but this restriction is balanced with the other extreme of complete lack of restriction through frenzied trance states. Neither the overtly controlled and formal, nor the chaotic are the normal existence of everyday Balinese life and the norm lies somewhere in the middle. What is reflected however is the constant balancing between two extremes in all aspects of life and particularly in religion.

Through ritual, which Kertzer (1988:9) defines as "action wrapped in a web of symbolism", the understandings that people hold about existence and life are formed, established and transformed into new conceptualisations. In this way symbols are seen as a means of constructing cultural meanings and interpreting the inner and outer worlds of our existence. The dyadic balance of creative and destructive forces epitomised within the characters of Barong and Rangda, order and chaos, are reflected in the contrast of structured, restrained dance/acting and the unstructured and uncontrolled trance states in which the performers attack themselves with knives. This view holds to the idea that "for every good positive, constructive force, there is a counterbalancing, evil, negative, destructive force" (Dunbar-Hall, 2001:177) and that both are essential polarities in the ordering of the universe and the Balinese world.

Barong and Rangda, although personifying opposing forces do not however equate to good and evil in the Judeo-Christian sense, in that they are both underworld beings, the Barong being utilised for protection and won over by offerings (Belo, 1966; Lansing, 1995). This destructive force, although feared is seen as essential so that deceased ancestors can be reborn again usually within the same family lines so that the perpetual cycle of life and death may continue. Belo (1966:59) emphasises this by stating that "Rangda, in her connection with death, destruction and disease, is but the ugly counterpart of living, procreation and well being".

Balinese culture is defined by Boon (1986:239) as being "a system-in-motion of signs and symbols that establish senses of equivalence and contrast in diverse sectors of experience". The reflection of a greater ordered system is evident in the underlying frameworks of symbolism embodied within Balinese dance performances. These concepts mirror the fundamental structural concepts, which are the foundation of all aspects of life in Bali. Spencer (1985:37) maintains that when "some inherent pattern of a particular dance shines through the superficial changes in fashion like a dominant symbol as in Balinese dances, this persistence invites a Structuralist explanation".

From a Structuralist perspective it could be seen that performance art in Bali "provides a visual embodiment of underlying cultural and spatial order" (Rubinstein, 1993:71). The meaning in various aspects of the Barong and Rangda dances arise out of "those underlying structural concepts, that are reproduced on different surfaces, and replicated in different artistic media and cultural domains" (Rubinstein, 1993:79). This replication of underlying structural frameworks of meaning in art and wider society is also shown in other studies conducted on the Indonesian island of Sumba (Adams, 1975) and on the Yap outer islands of Micronesia (Rubinstein, 1993).

Structuralist theoretical approaches (Levi-Strauss, 1987, 1993) assume that human constructions such as dances and plays can show patterns of binary opposites in thought and myth. Underneath every set of binary oppositions are thought to exist deeper and deeper dualities such as left and right, up and down and nature and culture. Needham (1973) explains that this primary duality is expressed also in distinctions such as right hand and left hand, clockwise and anticlockwise, positive and negative and black and white. It has been stated that "because the whole universe is understood as a reflection of this structure, all things are for the Balinese part of this universal view" (cited in Napier, 1992:50).

Boon states that "since the mid nineteenth century, scholars have documented Bali's religious organisation of space, which interrelates directional qualities" the choreography of ritual processions and both horizontal and vertical axis (Boon, 1986:247-248). In Balinese cosmology, three realms of existence are perceived, the higher realm of the gods (swah); the plane of humanity and the everyday existence (bwah), and the chthonic underworld of lower astral entities and demons (bhur) (Lansing, 1995). The performer in Balinese dance/drama is a mediator between these worlds of humankind, the gods and the underworld forces.

The Balinese also hold to a similar symbolic cosmology as other Hindu's in that they see all of creation as having originated from a central mountain called Mahameru. In Bali, the mountain is seen as the realm of gods and ancestors corresponding to the higher realm, while the sea is perceived as corresponding to the netherworld and is the place of "witches, demons and tourists" (Napier, 1992:49). This symbolic mountain of creation is, according to Napier, the Balinese "axis mundi, the auspicious domain of everything good" (1992:49).

Belo (1970, cited in Lansing, 1995) explains that the inner and outer worlds of the Balinese are divided into kaja (towards the mountains, usually north) and kelod (towards the sea, usually south). It is explained that in relation to people's physical bodies an individual's head is associated with kaja and the feet with kelod. Despite this perceived dichotomy, Lansing stresses that "it would be wrong to conclude that for the Balinese, upstream (kaja) is good, and downstream (kelod) is bad - kaja and kelod are viewed as complimentary opposites" (Lansing, 1995:22). All performances in Bali are orientated in relation to these concepts and directions and the dancers/performers will generally face kaja (towards the mountain), while the audience of tourists will face kelod, (towards the ocean) (Herbst, 1997:132).

Balinese religious tenets are reflected in symbolic form through performance which acts to stress equilibrium and the balancing of opposites. It can be seen that an important correspondence exists between these inner and outer directional attributions and the way in which society operates on all levels that is reflected in the Barong and Rangda dance (Lansing, 1995). These directional distinctions of north and south, good and bad, creation and destruction, are reflected in the roles of Barong and Rangda. In the performance these polarities are also shown in the utilisation of ordered structure and chaotic anti-structure as male and female, and the emphasis on alternate black and white colour systems. This duality has been reinforced in the statement that the dance "mediates a story symbolising the opposition of beneficent and destructive forces through music and dance" (Dunbar-Hall, 2001:177).

This duality of north/south, creation/destruction, life/death, spirit/matter is shown in colour symbolism through the black and white stripes on the Rangda costume. This colour association is also extended to systems of three where the colours white red and black are widely utilised in religious contexts in Bali. The three gods making up the Hindu 'Trisakti' are Brahma, Wishnu and Shiwa who amongst other things are representative of creation, preservation and destruction and are also meant to relate to these colours (Personal notes, 1998). In some Balinese ritual ceremonies the four compass points are related to different god-forms, colours, aspects, sounds, elements and so forth, with the centre encompassing all aspects and colours (Lansing, 1995; Personal notes, 1998).

Nordholt explains how this symbolic universe is manifest within the Balinese temple structure and that the three realms and the directions of kaja (mountain) and kelod (the sea) are all represented in the temple layout. He states that the temple is "surrounded by a ditch with water (the sea), the temple consists of a forecourt (the earth) and at a higher, artificially raised level an inner court (the mountain)" (1991:151). The

Balinese aesthetic locus can therefore be seen to exist within the temple, as this is the focal point around which music, dance, drama, visual art, architecture and sculpture revolve. Napier (1992:69) insists that although being paradoxical, the dyadic oppositions and tantric reciprocity that is central to the conflict of Rangda and Barong are "encoded and expressed within the ritual enactments that take place within the walls of the temple" and indeed all aspects of Balinese life (Napier, 1992:69).

Herbst explains that the figures of Barong and Rangda and also included in the Calonarang (or Calarong) performance, which is described as "a dance of great magical and spiritual power, including masks that are always considered sacred and magically charged" (1997:129). Mediation between the opposites is also evident in this dance/play, which is usually held in temple grounds at which tourists may be present (Dunbar-Hall, 2001). The spatial layout of the performance area shows that the sacred and restricted courtyard area of the temple is set apart from the profane pavilion area of the grounds where the tourists sit. The intermediary performance area in which the play occurs mediates these two areas of opposites.

This arrangement replicates in a physical and spatial context the role of the performance in restoring cosmic order between the dualistic forces. A certain amount of liminality is evident in this temple dance when it is explained that, the dancer comes forth through the curtain or gateway to perform and is said to "enter" the curtain when leaving the stage (Herbst, 1997). This act is said to suggest that the performer comes from another realm (as if the certain was a veil between the worlds) onto the stage in this present reality. This liminality is depicted through the character lingering in the gateway looking from one space to the other trying to decide whether to manifest (Herbst, 1997:87).

It has been said that through acts of ritual performance and dance, people are able to "re-experience, re-live, re-create, re-tell, re-construct and re-fashion their culture" (Bruner, 1986:11). This is certainly true for the Balinese people and the cultural dance/play acts as a mediator not only between the creative gods and the destructive demons, but also between Balinese past and future. Changes in traditional Balinese performance art are intricately connected to transformations at a societal level (Herbst, 1997). Just as the underlying encoding of symbols within the dances relate to core Balinese conceptual understandings of the world, so too do changes in the way the dance is performed reflect contemporary issues, power relations and themes in Balinese life.

Art acts as an expression of Balinese culture to the outside (tourists) and in that process re-defines and emphasises internal cultural norms, beliefs and values. In this way the Balinese people can interact with and benefit financially from tourists, while at the same time controlling the ways in which the performances are conducted and restricting certain aspects from outside consumption Dunbar-Hall, 2001). According to Bruner (1986:12) "cultural change, cultural continuity and cultural transmission all occur simultaneously in the experiences and expressions of social life".

The role of dance and theatrical performance in Bali has changed, and while still embodying important religious, cultural and historical information and acting as means of spiritual experience, they are also used to construct identity and to give form to societal experience. This may be seen in the way that the use of performance art to portray culture to tourists who are on the "outside" also has a reciprocal effects on how Balinese people understand their own culture and art forms.

Just as performance art in Bali has multiple meanings, commercialisation has meant that multiple forms of performance art have been opened up to western tourists, and in the process many have changed and adapted to the new circumstances (Babcock, 1999). The changes however do not invalidate the form, as the traditional is changing and non static. The terms "culture" and "traditional" are not fixed and the influence between performance and culture is reciprocal. This can be seen in the resurgence of dance and music forms that were close to extinction being revitalised through the demand for performance by tourists (Dunbar-Hall, 2001).

There has however been concern over the changing context and purpose of sacred dances and religious symbolism. Although traditional dances embody the magical, religious and cultural tenets of the Balinese people, they are increasingly being utilised as performance pieces for tourist amusement removed from their original context and purpose. The sites in which the performances are enacted have changed with this emphasis on tourism, and plays and dances previously focused around the temple and village are now performed on purpose built tourist stages or in hotel grounds. This can be seen in the occurrence of "ritual performances involving trance and magical activity" being performed on a nightly basis, not for the deities or supernatural forces, but for foreigners with money (Herbst, 1997:127).

Colourful cultural displays of the "exotic other" propagated within glossy travel brochures are seen by some as exploitation, although the agency of the Balinese in controlling their own cultural treasures while benefiting financially must not be ignored. Although tourists may sample snapshots of Balinese culture through condensed, customised performances, they are also unknowing participants in an act of cultural transformation. This removed, set apart presentation of "traditional" Balinese culture often does not match the everyday reality of Balinese life. Picard (1996, cited in Dunbar-Hall, 2001) emphasises that tourist performances of Balinese dance/drama are tailored to meet the needs and expectations of the audience.

Such circumstances of adaptation and change in cultural performance do raise certain questions in relation to the notion of "authenticity", however it is usually the non-Balinese observer who tries to dictate and decide whether something is 'authentic' or not. These changes in performance, although possibly not seen by outsider critics as "authentic" are definitely perceived as embodiments of Balinese tradition by the locals. In relation to such issues of authenticity, Babcock (1999), states that "in recent decades forms and scale of particular rituals have changed considerably, yet are seen by their Balinese participants as prime exemplars of the traditional"(Babcock, 1999:135).

Change and reconstruction of older material and concepts into new frames and forms of performance is not contrary to Balinese "traditional" culture, but rather expresses its unique belief that "flux is inherent in all things" (Hobart et al, 1996, cited in Dunbar-Hall, 2001:176). Dunbar-Hall stresses that apart from the "otherness" of dances such as Barong and Rangda, the audience is actually witnessing another important aspect of the culture, namely Kreasi Baru, the concept of artistic development and new creation in performance. He emphasises that "sound and image are obvious signs of culture which tourists witness (while) other less apparent aspects of culture are also present in the form of actualised cultural ideologies" (Dunbar-Hall, 2001:179).

The symbols that exist in Balinese performance art are polysemic, in that the Barong and Rangda dance in Bali may have very different interpretations among tourists (the outside) and the Balinese (inside) audiences. The experience and attribution of meaning may even vary amongst the Balinese depending on their own experience and position (Bruner (1986), and even within the culture various levels of access may exist. An example of such difference is shown in the gender restriction in which only males may enact either Barong or Rangda. Belo (1966:40-41) explains this by stating that Rangda is always played by a man and that in the performance "men draw krises and attack the witch; then overcome by her power, they turn the krises on themselves".

Napier (1992:71) explains that "based on a sacred and secret language to which few Balinese even have (full) access, these rituals are, paradoxically, open to all and yet highly esoteric". I would argue that Balinese performance art has both "inside and outside" knowledge categories in relation to performance art. Although such conceptual terms were utilised by Howard Morphy (1991) in a study of Australian aboriginal 'Yolngu' society, many of the ideas are relevant in this different context and culture.

The translation of Balinese performance art from one sphere to another has meant that 'boundaries' and 'frontiers' to deeper levels of cultural knowledge have had to be constructed. Dunbar-Hall (2001:173) has defined these means of restricting knowledge as situations where "tourists are restricted from or allowed entry to levels of insider experience and potential knowledge". Sometimes this restriction of knowledge is actually enforced through the inability of tourists to attend some religious performances, as is stated in a written declaration from a Balinese village "at times, outsiders are not permitted to attend ceremonies" (Desa Adat Ubud, 2000, cited in Dunbar-Hall, 2001:179).

When tourists witness Balinese performance as part of the audience they are generally accessing only the exoteric levels of meaning or "outside knowledge". The deeper levels of meaning and the encapsulation of the paradigmatic elements of structure underlying the enactments would go mostly unnoticed by non-Balinese (Levi-Strauss, 1993; Morphy, 2001). Dunbar-Hall emphasises that "through the situation of entry to or restriction from knowledge this creates" the interaction between performance art and tourism is seen as "a map of boundaries and frontiers between culture bearers and tourists" (2001:173).

These factors are said to "become the means of constructing tourist presence in accordance with Balinese agendas" through which, boundaries are defined and tourist participation is controlled (Dunbar-Hall, 2001:179). Contrary to arguments of cultural exploitation for Western tourism, I would argue that the decision of when, how, where and why cultural performances are enacted leads to Balinese power and control of their own knowledge and artistic systems. Through acts of transformation and interaction with tourism it can be seen that the distinction between "inside knowledge" and "outside knowledge" is also reflected in the positioning of stage or the layout of the temple and in relation to the distinction between north (the mountain) and south (the sea). A homology can therefore be seen to exist in which the same structure based on the symbols, concepts and values underlying the religious and cosmological frameworks of Balinese society are mirrored in performance art. This underlying cultural principle is reflected in the multiple occurrences of dyadic opposites and the reconciliation of their balance in life, art and religion. The Barong and Rangda dance can be seen to epitomise these wider binary oppositions throughout all of the culture in the form of a sacred dance performance.


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