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Avant-Garde Gamelan

Avant-Garde Gamelan

In their latest performance Odalan Bali, the percussion ensemble Gamelan Cudamani fuses actual components of a Balinese temple festival with artistic interpretations.

By Margaretta Soehendro

Bali. The name evokes thoughts of sun, sand and surf. But for those who have been to the island paradise -- even those who rarely stray from surfing the waves and trolling the restaurants, bars and shops of Kuta Beach -- it's hard to deny the prevalence of the Balinese' Hindu faith.

Sometimes known as the "Island of the Gods" and sometimes as the "Island of a Thousand Temples," Bali teems with temples big and small, and ceremonial worship, with its music and dance, has been swept up by the tourist industry.

But in 1997, in the small village of Pengosekan, south of artistic tourist enclave Ubud, a group of young musicians and dancers decided to form Sanggar Cudamani in order to provide a space for artistry to connect to religion and community once more. Over the decade, through classes, workshops, and rehearsal spaces, old traditions have been preserved while artistic vision and creative revolution were fostered.

The professional ensemble group arising from the sanggar, Gamelan Cudamani, is currently touring North America and presenting its latest work, Odalan Bali. The performance mixes actual components of a Balinese temple festival with artistic interpretations, from the opening section recreating the physical and spiritual preparations to the ceremonies attending to the lower spirits and the high god.

"What we're trying to convey is that the reason Bali stands alone, really, above all of the other cultures I can think of is the fact that ceremony, devotion, underlies the practice of music and dance," says Judy Mitoma, director of the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance and a professor of dance in the Department of World Arts & Cultures, in a phone interview. "And this show is conveying that. It's trying to explain it, trying to contextualize, and that's what makes it a really different show than anything else that's come out of Bali."

Mitoma is coordinating Cudamani's current tour and has been traveling with the group for the past four weeks. Of the 60-member music and dance ensemble, 26 are on the tour.

She says the collaborative spirit of the Cudamani members mirrors the communal spirit of a temple festival. While the group has an artistic director, Dewa Ketut Alit, Mitoma says the members organically created the program, considering the elements of a temple festival and how to carry those elements across through a theatrical presentation.

According to Mitoma, the "true ensemble" spirit combined with each member's great command of music and dance distinguish Cudamani from other gamelan groups.

"This is a very young, vibrant, new generation of Balinese artists, both in terms of their dancers and their musicians... That this group actually has somehow managed to not just maintain, but to elevate the threshold, to create a higher level of accomplishment -- both technically and in terms of the range of their creativity -- this has never happened before," she says.

According to Mitoma, Cudamani's dancers and musicians achieved such levels of talent through parents who are accomplished artists themselves, schools of performing arts where a number of them earned bachelor of fine arts degrees, and the gamelan school the group created in Pengosekan to structurally train boys and girls for free.

She says Cudamani is also unique because its members include both dancers and musicians. Since gamelan refers to an Indonesian percussion ensemble, most gamelan groups do not have dancers.

While elements of Odalan Bali are traditional with specific and complicated musical pieces, there are also new pieces that have a spontaneous dimension considered avante-garde for a gamelan group. The freedom of space is perfect for the group which Mitoma sees as genuine and evolving.

"They are not static. From my own experience, this is what makes working with these people so gratifying... That makes every performance different and that makes it possible for somebody like myself to see this performance 20-30 times and still be riveted by what's going on the stage because it's never the same," says Mitoma.

Cudamani ends their month-long tour with a performance at UCLA's Royce Hall on Sunday, Nov. 18, at 7pm and a workshop at Pomona College on Monday, Nov. 19.

Asia Pacific Arts