Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Stranger in Paradise: All-Male Legong starts a Stampede

Jro Mangku Made Karta of Kuta, chief priest and artist, Pura Dalem Celuk Waru Kuta,
here seen posing in front of one of his shrine paintings.

Late last year discussions raged on Facebook, on the Bali Cultural Discussion page, about the origins of the Legong Nandir, the near-extinct all-boy Legong (classical dance) once popular in Bali.
Professor Adrian Vickers, head of the Department of Indonesian Studies at The University of Sydney, and a closet ballet-o-mane as it turns out, produced convincing arguments for Legong Nandir’s origins in the courts of early 20th century Bali; arguments which were confirmed when a Karangasem princess turned up a photograph of her illustrious grandfather, the last Raja, in legong costume (see photo this page). Denpasar Television dance teacher Ni Ketut Arini (75) remembers seeing a performance by the great Wayan Rindi of Kuta in the 1950s, and Jakarta culture-czar Soedarmadji Darmais remembered being bound in gold brocade at an early age, at the home of Ni Polok no less, and fluttering in front of the   first president, during the 1970s.

The last Raja of Karangasem (seated front, in Legong Nandir costume) with his father (at rear).
 “Originally legong was danced by males,” he says.
I used to do legong class — the ultimate warm up exercise — every morning at the Dance Academy; I even styled myself “first all-male, one man Scottish Legong”.  Tourist visitors to the dance academy would laugh at me and I would hiss and spit.
In 2006 I performed a Condong Merokok (“Smoking Legong”) at a memorial evening for the much-loved Dr. A.A. Made Djelantik, founder of Bali’s Listibia Cultural Heritage Organization, and his Dutch wife Astri; I was laughed at again, this time by a field of Bali expats and officials. The then editor of this magazine refused to published photos of this performance — “Just a man in a dress,” he said — so I resigned for a few days.
Last month saw a revival of Legong Nandir by the great Peliatan Dance Troupe led by A.A. Bagus Mandera and his brother A.A. Oka Dalem, sons of the legendary dance impresario Gung Kak (A.A. Mandera) on the occasion of the temple festival of the Pura Kawitan at Puri Saraswati, a landscape creation of the late great Ubud artist Gusti Nyoman Lempad.
Three days before I had been in the wilds of Kuta, well south of little Perth and the Discovery Mall, on German Beach, just north of the airport, for a trance spectacular featuring the spookiest Rangda and Barong around, those of Banjar Buni and Banjar Taman, Kuta.
Again, I had been discovered this temple via Facebook and had been invited to the climax by one of the barong’s body guards.
I couldn’t refuse.
Now read on:

Priests from Pura Dalem Celuk Waru, Kuta, return from Pura Dalem Ped, Nusa Penida, with special holy water.
(Photo by Wayan Linggar Saputra).
26 January 2013, Tumpek Landep/Purnama, a rare confluence of holydays on the Balinese calendar: To Pura Dalem Celuk Waru Temple for the climax of the Pedudusan Alit ceremonies held once in a generation
It's been 30 plus years since I went to a Kuta Barong bash — since the spooky Calonarang ceremonies  of Banjar Buni in the 1970s — so I was intrigued to see if the Kuta temple community had lost anything of its luster (read ‘he-man horror’ quotient).
At 3 p m I arrived at the chrome barriers beachside in front of the uber-culture neutral Holiday Inn and found thousands of Kuta beach surfies in white temple dress with glistening dark tans occupying ‘German Beach’ (named after Ursula not Himmler) and the lawns of the grim-looking, homo-erotic presidential suite which sat hard on the temple.
26 January 2013:  Pedusunan Alit ceremonies, Pura Dalem Celuk Waru, Kuta
A sweet Semar Pegulingan gamelan with extra flutes was playing as harsh western light bathed, nay blistered, the black concrete walls of the recently renovated (to within an inch of its life) temple complex. Nervous of a less that friendly reception —rare, but I do get the ‘xenophobia vibe’ in Peliatan of late  and Kuta also has that reputation despite its 60 years playing host to horrible foreigners — and of not finding Pak Wayan Linggar, I make a bee-line for the one person I know, the high priest from Geria Toko in Sanur is about to start ringing bells .The other temple priests in the high pavilion are all wearing brand spanking new golden badges and look like security guards at Kudeta, so I go into charm over-drive to win them over. (I needed to rattle around their temple with impunity to make a movie, you see).  The temple courtyard is very tight and very hot and I find myself squashed into soft corners with strong men and women who aren't sweating a drop.
I am soaking wet.
During prayers I am almost appliqu├ęd to the blackest, shiniest man in white who turns out (later) to be one of the main trance dancers but with me he is all coy and speaks lovingly of his six month in Palm Beach in Sydney where he once spent quality time with a Cathy who since died in a car crash. I eventually find Pak Wayan of KFC (Kuta Foto Club) and my old buddy Made from housekeeping at the Four Seasons who is now a full time Kuta priest.  The Barongathon section of the proceedings started at 5 p m and is as amazing as I remember. I mean Kuta has lost NOTHING of its fear factor. The devotion, machismo, glamour, dexterity, showmanship and commercial breaks have never been better presented and more appreciated. The scariest thing however is driving home past BEACHWALK and seeing all the aliens from Planet Seahorse.
Never has the reality of parallel universes in Bali been so pronounced.
For a more complete coverage see my video: http://youtu.be/zN9ZNOb6jl0
28 January 2013: To Puri Saraswati to watch a Legong Nandir
The heavens opened on the finale of tonight's puri premier of Gung Bagus and his brother Oka Dalem's exquisite LEGONG NANDIR at the Puri Saraswati stage. Palace ladies scrambled, party lights were extinguished on the temples gates, but the prima drag ballerinas assoluta danced on as die-hards continued to gape at the dream-like performance. It felt like a durbar for the Dewa Agung, as if something supremely Majapahit   had been transported, magically, into the 21st century.  At the last gong, fully drenched, Gung Bagus and I dashed into the temple where the two Barong Landung from Bhre Selo, south of Taro, were dancing a celestial duet. Picture perfect princes in white satin grazed on red carpets in open pavilions. A line of a dozen Lempad statues spouted water into the moat in front of a golden high altar loaded with the most beautiful barongs and Ratu Ayu consorts I have ever since.
Backstage before the show I had documented the Japanese wardrobe assistants preening the prime ‘puri cupcake’ lady-boys-for-a-night as deaf mutes waved giant white fans in the airless bunker. Saucy misses painted the boys toes scarlet, with true grit, stealing glances at their well-oiled thighs. The two megastar uncles darted in and out, offering advice and last minute mini rehearsals.
After a year’s slavish devotion to the he-men of the south and there machismo I must admit that Ubud tops the tartlet when it comes to glamour and glory. The gamelans, the Majapahit classic costumes, the decorations on the shrines, the silence that descended during the waves of devotional prayers, the delicious simple food served in a corner of the temple, all made for an evening of riches that glittered like Ali Baba's cave.
29 January 2013: To the Gado-Gado, Dyana Pura, Seminyak for Dinner
Driving home I discover that the cross-dressing craze has taken off like wild-flowers! There is more drag on Dyana Pura tonight than on an airborne GAY 380! I mean I didn’t see any of these ‘artistes’ in the audience at the legong, where did they pick up their moves??
Every now and then a willing tourist is dragged up on stage, to do the Frump or the Simulated Colonoscopy.
“What is happening to the world?” says one domestic tourist.