UCLA Bali Theater Study Tour to Resume in Summer 2004

UC Students were unable to travel to Bali to study theater this summer, and they knew what they were missing.

This article originally appeared in DB Magazine, a publication of the UCLA Daily Bruin, July 28 - August 4, 2003

Courtesy of Patricia Harter
Performers don elaborate costumes in a demonstration of Balinese mask dance, part of the curriculum of a UC summer travel study program that was canceled this year.

By Rhea Cortado

In Bali, everyone is an artist. Participation in the performing arts is, according to the tenets of the Hindu religion, essential to the spiritual well-being of each individual in the community. Farmers sowing seeds in rice fields, politicians hammering out legislation, and shopkeepers displaying merchandise in windows each have an obligation to make an artistic contribution to their community.

Every summer Asian theater specialist Professor Patricia Harter introduces a small group of UCLA students to an academically rigorous culture shock by taking them to Bali for three weeks to study the performing arts. Students normally hear from speakers specializing in such types of theater as gamelan orchestra music, mask dance and trance while also participating in workshops and living in the cultural environment.

Due to the political climate in Bali and the United States, plus the SARS scare through Asia, UCLA students were not able to attend this summer. But Professor Harter is determined to take students next year, in time to observe an elaborate festival that occurs every 210 days.

One of the many ancient art forms that the students see is shadow puppetry. Two dimensional cutout figures represent Hindu gods behind a sheer fabric-like screen illuminated by candlelight. The puppets act out familiar religious stories, complete with stock clown characters and slapstick comedy, garnering laughs from children in the audience.

Though only the smoke-colored shadows of the god figures are visible through the screen, the puppets are painted gold with vibrant colored accents and intricate design. To an untrained puppeteer, maneuvering the sticks proves awkward, and the delicately hinged limbs move in a gangly way. A Balinese puppeteer makes the movement look fluid on the screen the same way his ancestors did before him.

"Everything in Balinese Theater is very set in ritual," said Melissa Shunk, a theater graduate student who went to Bali for her thesis on theater education. "There is no improvisation; there are no solo moments where you make it up on your own. It's about putting your spirit into the details,.

Putting spirit into the details is exactly why theater in Bali has survived for so long. "Here in the West, theater is a cultural appendage," Professor Harter said. "(In Bali) performance is very much a part (of) and integral to society in that performance is efficacious. Every person is involved in performance because it is a gift to the gods."

The potent culture of Balinese theater can exist because of the island's small population and because the individuals are all Hindu, leading to an integration of religion and art.

However, the island's tradition of theater doesn't exist in a vacuum. As tourism flourished around Bali and the surrounding islands of Indonesia, a new direction for theater developed.

Wood-sculpted masks modeled after the Hindu gods and demons were traditionally only used for temple performance and required a lengthy process of ceremonial purification. The tradition of sacred masks remains, but in addition masks are now carved in a non-ritualistic fashion solely to sell to tourists. Performance space was made outside of the temple and performances were created for the tourists.

"The quality of performance isn't very high because they do it every day of the week for tourists," Shunk said. "I think primarily it's to make money. (Another possible reason is) some Balinese might find it easier to choreograph for the tourists because the dances are not sacred or ritualistic, so they have more freedom to create."

Though the students can witness sacred the Balinese performance tradition in a way the typical tourist visiting the island never can, there is no denying they are tourists. A major reason Professor Harter brings students to Bali is to demystify the "exotic" feel of Asia. "For all of us here in the United States, anything to do with Asia tends to be exotic. When something is exotic, you think of it as the other and you place it at a distance. The more you understand the culture and the belief system, the less exotic it becomes and the more you appreciate it."

Published: Monday, July 28, 2003