Friday, 14 February 2014



The Prince of Kesiman, A. A. Ngurah Wardana has grown into quite a patron of the arts.

Apart from running one of the prettiest palace temples in Bali -- the glorious Merajan Agung Puri Kesiman -- and all the palace family's processions, rituals, gamelan and dance schools (the latter run by his lovely wife, a retired legong dancer), he is also an accomplished painter specializing in surrealist, anti-corruption, social concience works which hang in a permanent exhibition in his private art gallery come community hall, the Penggak Men Mersi (Mereng Sibak) or Half-wit Hall. 

He is an eccentric ruler, to be sure, and surrounds himself with a court of loyal sweeties and student radicals. Lead Sweetie, Pak Kadek, who runs the Half-Wit Hall, peppers his conversation with pirouettes, breaking into a Baris dance when challenged about his organizational skills (email requests for info on performances go unanswered as a matter of course because such displays of social conformism -answering emails -- are considered way too mundane).

As a result, catching a performance there is a hit and miss affair --- one takes ones chances. 

I arrived last night at 6.30 p m -- there had been hourly up-dates on the possible start time since 3 p.m. when two bus-loads of Central java's best Reog dancers were deposited at the Puri -- with a party of four to find the hall almost bare save for the Cokorda , chain-smoking and drinking mugs of thick coffee from behind a small government office desk stage right, and 60 Reog performers and musicians roaring to go. 

Despite exhaustion and dis-orientation (they had been dragged to Pandawa beach and Kertalangu Tourist Village of the Damned earlier in the day, but were still keen to visit Jogger t-shirt shop of the damned before going to bed) they looked as ready as the Royal Ballet in the wings at Sadler's Wells. There was a group of very pretty girl JATHIL dancers with white woven hobby-horses in the front row and a battalion of skinny WAROK warriors behind them. Behind the warriors were a small but precise orchestra (all members in black with batik destar and dashingly good-looking) and , of course, three beefy pembarong, the actual REOG (peacock barong fantasy tiger masks) and the 15-strong male choir, also in black with batik trim, looking half-crazed. In days gone by, the JATHIL were boys, called gemblek, who teased the pembarong dancers with sexy movements on stage and were often romantically attached to them backstage. 

Tonight's performance sprang into action with two pembarong performing a trance-like Ng'OBYOG dance not un-like the pas-de-deux by Rangda and rarung that preceeds a barong battle in Bali. The swaying movements of the giant fan-like masks, and even the costumes themselves, reminded me of the Kalathakhi(sp?) dancers of Kerala in South India. At various intervals Jathil dancers would rise and writhe across the stage -- in the spooky, tripped out rubber shoulder arms floating way that girl jathil dancers do -- to have their bottoms bumped by the Reog masks. Through all this, the male choir, the Cengok, were egging on the dancers with wild chants and screams not unlike the SEROAK of various trance-inducing and demon-appeasing rituals in Bali. 

On two occasions the pembarong stopped, climbed out of their masks and did some crazy solo silat posturing cum dancing, choosing a gemblak from the corps de ballet de jathil to rub up against all cozy like was very touching to watch and the gathered Balinese ( now about 30, including a press corps) started to get titillated . 

With mass titilation in Bali and java comes extraordinary dancing in a surreal setting it often seems and tonight was no exception: for the next hour the troupe lifted the roof of the Kesiman prince's dance hall with production number after production number before collapsing into a fit of photo opportunities. 

The Balinese dance experts in attendance were unannimous in their praise: we were all gob-smacked by the verve and prowess of this troupe of humble young dance geniuses.