Balinese Theatre

Balinese theatre and dance are intimately linked. Indeed Balinese use the same word -  sesolahan - for both. Until the conquest of Bali in the early twentieth century and the arrival of Europeans, almost all performance was dramatical, often involving a combination of dance, singing and acting that went on all night, and drawing upon a vast literary canon which included Indian and Indonesian epics and stories from elsewhere. Europeans however wanted short attractive pieces without narrative or dialogue that required no cultural background or understanding. So Balinese distilled pure dance from the existing theatrical and religious performance, and choreographed entirely new pieces - so creating one of the world's most vibrant and spectacular virtuoso dance repertoires.

Although now virtuoso dance is widely taught at the national conservatoires, it is the many genres of theatre that Balinese themselves watch. And many of the great dancers come from a theatrical background, most notably Arja, Balinese dance-opera which is exceptionally demanding as it requires performers to be first class singers and actors as well as dancers. While it little known outside Bali, it is theatre which provides the vast and dynamic reservoir of talent and ideas which drives Balinese performance as a whole. 

The range of theatre or drama genres in Bali is remarkable. Perhaps the best known is shadow theatre, Wayang Kulit, which usually draws upon the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Among the older forms are Gambuh, plays with chanting set to music using distinctive long flutes; and Wayang Wong, masked drama drawing upon the Ramayana. There are also various forms of Topèng, masked theatre, which use a wide range of literary sources. Of a more religious nature, Calonarang stories are used in temples and at times of public danger or pestilence. Among Balinese audiences though three genres are widely popular. The most long-lasting has been Arja, dance-opera or sung dance-drama, noted for its arias sung in a range of classical metres with unique haunting tones. Arja is highly versatile and can draw upon classical texts, popular stories or even Greek tragedy. Drama Gong is popular theatre in colloquial Balinese which sprang up in the late 1960s. The most spectacular form, also dating from the 1960s, is Sendratari, mass ballet, suited for large stages with big casts who mime movements to dialogue by a dalang, or 'puppeteer'. Although often danced to big gamelan (orchestras), Sendratari may equally use Kècak, Balinese interlocking vocal chant.


© Mark Hobart 2015