Not many New York dance performances begin with the sound of frogs, stray birdcalls, and the swish of grass brooms against the floor. But the 26 expert musicians and dancers of the Balinese ensemble Gamelan Çudamani want us to see a stage’s wooden floor as earth in a temple compound. This group, formed in Pengosekan, Ubud, is touring the U.S. with a program, Odalan Bali, that brings to life a village ritual. The piece—conceived by dance scholar Judy Mitoma and created by the collaborative ensemble led by musician I Dewa Putu Berata (Mitoma’s son-in-law), assisted by his wife, dancer Emiko Saraswati Susilo—makes attempts by various other companies to turn a theater into a community seem phony.
The piece’s artful combination of naturalism and stylization works magically from the outset. As women decorate the space, a small girl lifts a cloth that covers one of the instrument racks; a musician who’s been sleeping underneath emerges grinning. Other drowsy men assemble, chatting amiably. Rhythms (designed by Berata) develop amid unhurried comings and goings with flowers, holy water, and other objects. The women sing, while the men, preparing “food” for the ceremony, chop and shave fat lengths of bamboo. An exhilarating web of sound created by the clack of knives and sticks against wooden disks is augmented by the men’s jabbering vocalizations as they break into an impromptu snatch of a kecak, or “monkey chant.” Several don hats and collars and strut forward with bent-kneed stride and wide-eyed alertness for the baris gede, a ceremonial warrior’s dance. Later, in an ingeniously staged cockfight (minus birds), the crouching bettors convey a vivid, rhythmic drama of anticipation, disappointment, and delight.
With the uncovering of the gamelan, the stage becomes a glinting golden space, alive with musical notes that jitter and clink and clang together as brightly as light glancing off water. The gilded costumes for the ceremonial dances also shimmer—not so much in the stately rejang for the village women, but when two young girls (Ni Wayan Pebri Lestari and Gusti Ayu Suryani) perform a legong, side by side, their fingers fluttering, their eyes darting, and especially when beautiful Dewa Ayu Eka Putri dances Truna Gandrung, a festive, virtuosic solo in the kebyar style created in the 1930s. Every inch of her flickers and shimmers.
Before it’s time to chant the final prayer for peace, I Made Mahardika and Dewa Gde Guna Arta take the great Barong (lion-dragon) mask from its stand and make it dance to invoke the spirits that protect the village. Of which we are briefly and gladly a part.