Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Legong Dance Lessons at ARMA in UBUD, and some thoughts about Theatre Schools in China and Bali.

When I was a child, there was a lot of possibilities for fun in the field of art, but only two were taken as seriously as the beginning of a career in piano or ballet. Those were not entertaining games where doodling or playing with dough became art, there you were going to study something with discipline, you would use a technique, a particular technique, to advance, a technique which, if you didn't follow within certain parameters, you could be rejected . So, not wanting to be a pianist or a dancer I amused myself by painting and wanting to be an actor, pretending to direct orchestras, writing melodramatic dialogues and organising theatre plays among my friends say, at a very high level of improvisation and fun.

It was not until my teens that, when beginning professional acting studies, I discovered I could have started my acting career in my childhood, with the same seriousness as that in ballet or music, but not in my country but in the Far East. The stories of the wonderful Chinese and Japanese players came to my ears: great actors who began their studies at 6 or 7 years old and spent 10 or 15 years working with their masters to attain their first important role in a production; actors who learned a physical and vocal technique not through exercises as such, but through the "imitation" of their master (1). And so I also discovered how this educational process in the performing arts was a common situation in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and, of course, Bali, the theatre island or, rather, the island of the performing arts.

China showed me the first live examples of these "serious" schools for children where there is no way to achieve perfection but through discipline and following for years a rigorous technique of imitation and repetition from the beginning. I could observe and see not only how these children were being educated, but also their results on stage after 8 to 10 years of study (before they began their professional life), and then I could understand why the technical grandeur of these actors in their youth (in their twenties and thirties). In the same way and through the direct testimony of young artists who had just entered the professional world I could hear their questioning of such a rigorous and cruel education which, in today's China, would give them a profession would that barely cover for their minimum financial needs when, in the past, it would have given them wealth and fame (2).

(click to go to the video)

(click on the link above to go to the main page of Reuters)

Unlike their Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Balinese artistic education is much more relaxed; the same principles of imitation, repetition and practice are followed, as well as the beginning of education from early childhood, but not so the tremendous discipline demands (like boarding-schools, between 10 and 12 hours of practical study, etc.) nor the violence by which several great masters of the north are known. In Bali itself children are still taught to dance and act for the Balinese, for their religious festivals and temples, for their entertainment and for the tourists who support the economy of the island, all in the same way as Miguel Covarrubias observed and filmed in the 30s of the last century.

Learning in the Balinese performing arts is a learning based on physical contact. Most of the dancers-actors begin their learning between 6 and 7 years old. At first, the student stands behind the teacher and imitates his movements. The teacher sings the melody of the dance, or uses a boom box, and follows the beat of the gongs marking a pace and giving directions based on that rhythm. Once the choreography is learned in its basic, the teacher changes and moves on par with the student, behind him, and manages the student body like a puppet. This allows the student to feel exactly the inclinations and movements of the wrists and elbows, plus the position of the back and hip. No mirrors are used, so the student follows by imitating the teacher or the teacher moves the student's body to show through physical contact the total energy and rhythm to be danced. With his voice, if that's the case, the student imitates the singing or recitation of the teacher.

In 1930 Covarrubias filmed a couple of girls learning and dancing together with their teachers. In the tiny scene (20 seconds) we can see direct imitation where the teacher handles the trainee like a puppet, and repetition is a component of teaching (the narrator's voice was added in 2004 and is not part of the original).

In the following two pictures we see I Ketut Mario, one of the greatest Balinese dancers and choreographers from the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, and I Nyoman Kakul, in 1974, teaching their respective students. It is very clear how physical contact between teacher and pupil happens.

In my last visit to Bali in July 2009 I photographed and video-recorded a class at the ARMA Museum in Ubud, where the teacher, Nyoman Suastini, was working on a Legong Kratong piece with a group of girls; once again we note here the continuous practice, repetition and imitation of the movements of the teacher.

I do not pretend to explain the education in oriental performing arts, but to stress, by exposing them in a document, some of their essential characteristics and thus bring the reader of this blog closer to them. The differences with my personal educational experience in the field of acting are extreme, and I'm sure they are so when it comes to the educational experience of actors in most of the Western world, hence the importance of their presenting as a document. Once exposed we can pose questions, with knowledge, to our educational systems for theater, and propose possible changes to them, new avenues of exploration, or simply an enjoyment of what seems part of the weird and unknown.

Following with my experience in Bali, I can now turn to the surprising dances that I witnessed at the Royal Palace of Ubud.

(1) The film "Farewell My Concubine" has a very long and accurate sequence on the demanding education in Peking Opera in the late nineteenth century. In the following link you can see some images of drawings that show a school of Peking opera in the early twentieth century:


(2) This is one of the greatest cultural challenges in today's China, the glorification of western entertainment culture at the expense of their traditional culture. (Until the late forties of the twentieth century Peking opera was as commercial as any other current entertainment, but at present it is only a theatrical vestige of the past).

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