At the Bali Arts Festival: On Two Types of Art Performance
On July 3, 2005, I saw at Taman Budaya, in Denpasar, two complete Ramayana stories, back to back. One was danced by a Yogyakarta group, and the other one — right after the first one, in a miraculous double-header — by a Balinese group.
They were both very beautiful, each in its own way. And very different.
The Javanese version was slow, elegant, decorous, fluid and meditative; it is a true royal art, a ballet for the king’s court; the Balinese was mincing, nervous, frantic, full of crazy stops and starts, and — hilarious; a folk art: sophisticated but popular.
The Javanese had a wonderful demon jack-knifing like a wayang kulit puppet (and, when defeated by Rama, just dropping sideways lifeless like a leather puppet thrown down carelessly on the ground by the hand of the puppet master, with a hard clunk); a breathtaking scene at the harem of Sri Lanka, the women stately, white, pointy-faced, pouty-lipped, beautiful like stalks of reed swaying in the wind on a moonlit night; and a huge set-piece battle scene with lots of perfectly coordinated pirouetting and high-kneed stomping at slow-tempo by huge men in gigantic headgears. Their outfits were colorful and rich, but with predominance of solid colors — a solid Chartres blue sarong, say, with a solid gold sash and a purple bodice to contrast better with the white skin.
The Balinese had an extraordinary, super-charged, restless Hanuman, his arms constantly milling about him now like huge sails, now like engine gears flying out of control; a hilarious battle scene between him and five lumbering, bald, pot-bellied demons in striped pajamas, stupid and cowardly, the last of which (ungainly and hastily looking for some kind of exit from the stage) Hanuman strung up with invisible string on an invisible tree; and coquettish, flirtatious, graceful prancing deer in yellow outfits with yellow fur anklets and dainty feet. Their outfits were like their dance: busy, every smallest space covered with gold perada paint or embroidery.
Both performances were magnificent. To have them back-to-back like this was really quite a feast.
On the way out I fell in with an acquaintance going back the same way, and we talked of the performance and his (apparently limited) ability to enjoy it. “I didn’t understand it”, he confessed. “Oh, it’s like the opera,” I explained, “you don’t watch it to find out what happened”. “Well, yes, but I do like the sur-titles in the opera house.”
I realized then that this is precisely the thought which troubles those who ask me at the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theater): “But do you understand it?” And of course, having not a word of Balinese, not to mention Kawi (the sacred language of Java, a sort of Latin in this part of the world, in which the kings and gods speak), I don’t understand it.
That is, no, I don’t know what the fool is saying right now, for example. But that, of course, does not matter, does it?
There is something else to understand here. How do I explain to my interlocutors that I love the performance despite not knowing exactly what the fool is saying, that I don’t need to know, and that I actually don’t care all that much (after all he is only a low caste fool) — and that I enjoy myself tremendously all the same? That there is something about the excitement of the music, the beauty of the flickering flame, the magic of the shadows trembling on the canvass, the gentle swaying of the dancing puppets, the singing of the puppet master (when he has a good voice, as he usually does) which holds me glued to my seat, my soul glowing with pleasure?
And that there are the conventions of the art — the stock characters (the noble king, the strong king, the wily prime minister, the honest knight, the noble attendant princes, the evil wizard, the witch, the fool, the retiring princess, the loyal lady in waiting, the virtuous maids of honor, and so forth) which are all easily recognizable by their dress, speech and manner — and followed?
And that there are certain dynamics in their encounters which are easily deciphered even if we don’t know just what precisely it is that they are saying. That, for example, an encounter between a sage and a fool is entertaining even if we don’t know exactly what the fool is saying. It is clear enough to the attentive viewer that the sage is initially confident, calm, and forbearing, but then gradually starts losing his temper, while the fool at first seems an innocent idiot but in time turns out to be a shrewd prankster making cruel fun of the sage.
You don’t need to hear the words to see and hear this dynamic. It is there, in gestures and voices. It is already implied in the character of the figures.
I try to explain it sometimes, but I get a blank stare. Perhaps I do not explain well. Or perhaps the best explanation would go amiss anyway, because we have different brains?
Because it really does seem to me sometimes that there are two types of audience personalities, when it comes to performing arts, and two types of performing arts that correspond to them. (Or rather, perhaps, two extreme ends of a spectrum of possibilities, most performances falling somewhere in between?)
One type of performing art is the thoroughly modern, efficient, purposeful art of story telling: it’s format being, essentially, “and then… and then… and then”. Its chief virtues are suspense, surprise, and speed. Its point: what happened. Its concern: the plot and its resolution. Hollywood is huge on this type of work.
Most of it strikes me as somewhat… utilitarian. Perhaps I should say: prosaic.
And then there is the other type of performance art: the one which is more interested in a certain aesthetic effect than telling a story. In fact, the story is no more than a nail on which to hang the performance, and none too stable one, either. The story is often told quite sloppily, if at all, much happens off stage, much is represented by allegory or metaphor or symbol, there are considerable longueurs dedicated to song and dance and description. In this kind of performance art, what happened is not important. What is important is how it felt then — to the heroes – and how it feels now — to the audience.
The focus of this second performing art is not the story, but the internal life of the people involved — both the heroes but also, in a certain sense, of the audience.
This second category is where most of Balinese and Javanese performing art falls. Since everyone knows the stories told, nobody really cares if something goes awry or isn’t included because of lack of time, or a missing actor, or because someone somewhere made a mistake, or if the play just ends inexplicably before the boy gets the girl because one has run out of time. They all know whether he did or not, Mahabharata and Ramayana have been known to all since childhood for several thousand years. What they — the Balinese and Javanese audiences — are here to watch is the pain and joy, the longing and the ecstasy, the terror and the courage. They are here to enjoy the show rather than the story.
It is actually (once you give up the irrelevant need to know the precise words somebody is mouthing) an easy art for a foreigner to follow. “What’s going on?” you might ask. “Ramayana“, they might answer. And that’s all that’s needed. If it is Ramayana, then you know this character (the noble and retiring prince) is probably Rama and that one (a cowardly monkey) – Sugriwa.
That is all that’s needed, really. Look, watch: this is how treacherous Sugriwa conducts himself, how he dances, how he sings. And this is Rama: noble, retiring, fine, gentle, shy. This is how Rama comports himself. This is how he speaks. This is how he holds his bow. This is how an encounter between Rama and Sugriwa would unfold, it would have to unfold that way, it’s in their character that things would fall this way and not that.
This is also, of course, how most of European Baroque opera is constructed. Everyone knows the stories (and, anyway, it’s always one and the same, isn’t it); much happens offstage; the plot is usually a small extract of the whole story, without beginning or end; and the telling of it is entirely unrealistic. (I mean, who, what burly knight in the battlefield, in face of charging enemy stands, takes off his helmet and delivers a 7-minute aria da capo in a castrato soprano?)
Because, of course, the point is not a realistic representation of what happened and how. The point is what the hero felt when it happened, what brought him to his straits and how he negotiated them within his bleeding heart. The concern is with the inner life of the heroes. Are they noble and courageous? Or treacherous and cowardly? Are they refined and sensitive? Or healthy and rude? And what happens when the two meet? And of course, by extension, with the inner life of the viewers.
Is there anything interesting one could say about this distinction? I will try to say some things that come to my mind and leave it up to you to decide whether it makes sense.
First, one could interpret the difference between the first art (shall we call it “purposeful art”?) and the second art (“the aesthetic”?) as reflecting the difference in tastes between the purposefully employed and the idle.
The purposefully employed, which (counter-intuitively, perhaps) include all the CEOs of all the corporations in the world, all the doctors and lawyers and marketing executives, all those people who work for a living, who spend their busy days pursuing results, whose pay, lifestyle, and social status depend on their ability to get results – and daily — they might be interested in the purposeful art. It may be their natural inclination to want to know what happened and how and why.
The idle on the other hand don’t care such a great deal for results. They are, after all, idle – and it won’t make any difference to their lifestyle or social status whether they fish or needlepoint. They do not care perhaps such a great deal for what happens. They are free to seek other kinds of knowledge, different thrills. They may want to know what it feels like, for example: they may be interested in the aesthetic thrill. (It is perhaps the ultimate luxury in life: a waste of time).
Or one could say that the difference is also one of times. The kings, princes, nobles, and bishops of the ancien regime, and the leisurely rich of the 19th century – the Walpoles and Ruskins and Enrico de Borbones — were idle. Well, they weren’t exactly idle, with all that hunting, and partying, and crusading, and traveling, and collecting; but what they were not is — employed. They did not care for results. They didn’t have to produce them. They left the question of results — bringing in the crop? discovering and populating America? – to others. Perhaps this tended to turn their minds to a different sort of performing art, one which didn’t care for results.
One could also observe that the royalty and nobility everywhere — in Europe, in Java, in Japan, in India — justified their social position by appealing to their “quality”, their “virtue”. We, they said, are the noblest, bravest, most chivalrous, most refined, most civilized, most moral people in the nation. And therefore we reserve all these advantages to ourselves: because we deserve them most.
(Well, that was the ideology, anyway. You can see it everywhere, take for example our Shakespeare: Edmund (in King Lear) and Richard (in Richard III) are villains, they do not possess virtue and — they fall. They fall because hey do not deserve the power they aspire to. In the ideology of the times, power is reserved for those who deserve it by dint of their superior character).
Perhaps this is why the art which interested them most took interest in “quality” – that is, in the character of the man, in his inner life. More than it cared about the outcomes of his actions. Take care of the character, they thought, and the outcomes will take care of themselves.
Or one could say that the idle simply have lots more time to devote to the consumption of their arts.
(And they certainly take their time with it. In 1686 Lully’s Acis and Galatea was given five times in the course of three days to the same group of hunters gathered in a hunting lodge. They all felt, clearly, that something worth watching once was worth watching again. And then yet again. Clearly, knowing the plot — what happened — had nothing to do with their enjoyment of the work.)
People who have time to devote to the consumption of an art, have the time to learn it, to develop a taste for the flickering of the flame, for a certain quality of voice, for a particularly difficult musical technique. They learn to understand and appreciate its technical intricacies as well as their own emotional response to them. When these people are then confronted with a performance in a foreign language, of which they understand nothing, they are not bored. They have other things to appreciate: the mood, the technique, the lighting, the colors, the trembling play of their own emotions.
Such people tend to be bored to see a straightforward story. A friend expressed this boredom once when summarizing an action drama he was forced to sit through: “They killed him and he ran away.” He meant: who cares what happens? He meant: where was the poetry? Where was the depth of feeling? Where was the superior technique?
But some people need to have the surtitles in the opera house. So they can understand what is going on, what happened and why. And to the extent that the idle — the royal courts and their courtiers, the land-owning gentry and the armed nobility, the monastic orders, the mercenaries, the professional beggars are all disappearing from the planet; and the positions of power are everywhere grasped by the hands of the working meritocracy, we have more and more of the purposeful art. The art that tell us what happened, and how, and why.
Gawain du Lac lives in Thailand and writes about classical arts east and west.