Balinese Virtuoso Dance

It is unclear when Balinese virtuoso dance began. While some accounts place its origin in the seventeenth century, such a date is entirely speculative. It seems far more likely that the kind of dance for which Bali became famous began to emerge at the end of the pre-colonial period in the last decades of the nineteenth century when foreign theatre and dance forms, like Chinese opera and Stamboel, reached the island from Java. For it would appear that virtuoso dance was a complex cultural response to political and social changes going on in Balinese society. The old feudal order, faced with defeat by the Dutch, committed mass suicide and Bali became the favourite playground for an international artistic élite and, subsequently, tourists. To meet the demands of these visitors, who expected something similar to their idea of virtuoso dance, such as ballet, the Balinese adapted their theatre and temple dances, by creating tari lepas - 'free dance', that is dance stripped of its historical, literary and cultural context.

The earliest, and still the most famous, of these dances, Lègong, probably dates from the late 1880s when it was danced by males. It was not until the 1920s that Lègong assumed something like its present form and bloomed into a rich genre of which Lègong Kuntul is a beautiful example. Around 1914-16 in North Bali, where the Dutch had first arrived, a brilliant new form of gamelan music, Kebyar, emerged and with it gradually much more dynamic dances. When the Japanese invaded the Netherlands East Indies, including Bali, in 1942, the new military commander commissioned bebancihan, or cross-gender, dance, where young women danced male roles, a genre that has remained popular. Among the many virtuoso dances, one deserves special mention. It is Olèg Tamulilingan, the dance of the bumblebees, which was unique in featuring a male-female duet and was commissioned by the English impressario John Coast for the Balinese tour of the UK and USA in the early 1950s. Since then the number of Balinese dances has burgeoned. Among the new dances two are often performed. Panyembrama (Greeting distinguished guests) is widely used as an opening welcome dance for dignitaries and tourists. Cendrawasih (the Dance of the Birds of Paradise) is a recent creation which makes play with Stravinsky's Firebird. For a good introduction to the different kinds of Balinese dance and something of their history, see Dibia & Ballinger 2004. Balinese dance, drama and music: a guide to the performing arts of Bali . Periplus: Berkeley & Singapore.

© Mark Hobart 2015