NEW YORK — IT'S been eight years since America last had a visit from a full company of Balinese performers, so the group now touring the this country is a rare treat. Headed by Anuk Agung Gede Oka Kaleran, the group includes a Balinese gamelan orchestra from the village of Peliatan and dancer-singer-actors from other parts of the country. The program offered during a week at City Center here was a smorgasbord of eight dance styles, and I was torn between frustration at not being able to see most of them in complete form and gratitude that I could sample them all. The theory behind doing smidgens of lots of things, I guess, is that American audiences don't have the tolerance for the Balinese intricacies of style and the extended elaborations of plot and character. In short bytes, we'll admire the costumes and not get bored. But I've always thought that living through your boredom is part of the Asian experience, that the spiritual rewards lie on the other side.
The performance begins with a brief orchestral number (Tabuh), where the sections of the gamelan introduce themselves and have little dialogues - medium-range gongs answered by drums, then bigger, louder gongs sounding off.
The interplay between individual instruments and synchronous ensemble reminds me of a jazz band. The gamelan sound is a magical, organized chaos of mellow, steady beat and jangling, driving interruptions; high, skirring flutes and the deepest, resonant gong; monotonous repetition and electrifying pauses and changes. Once you get accustomed to this, as with the dancing to come, you can notice how much variation there is in its rhythm and texture.
Dynamic, often drastic contrast is the lifeblood of Balinese dance. In the Baris, the exemplary dance of noble heroes, done by Anuk Agung Anom Putra, the character struts and draws himself up on his toes, then drops suddenly into a deep pli'e. As he elaborates on this alternation with rhythmic stutters and ritards, interrupts it with pivoting turns and lordly displays of his costume, he seems to be confronting enemies with brave assurance.
Other characters use the movements of the Baris ironically or comically, like the wicked/ funny demon in the Jauk (I Ketut Tutur), who wears a warrior costume, four-inch fingernails, and a buck-toothed, popeyed, red-faced mask. His bravado evaporates into shivers and shrinkings of fear when he hears an offstage flute.
The feminine dance style complements these demonstrative males, and you see it first in the Penet, a dance of welcome, where six women in neat, unison formations sway and glide across the space. The men's punchy assertiveness is matched by minute tics of their heads and broken undulations. At varied speeds they sink with knees decorously bent and rise in fluid zigzags. All the while, their fingers flash like their glittering costume ornaments and flower headdresses.
But males and females aren't rigidly divided in Balinese theater. The nobility of a character's rank, intentions, or both, can determine the style and sometimes the sex of the performer who dances him or her.
In the Legong, an ancient court dance, little girls usually enact the part of princes and princesses. Here, two young women danced the monkey brothers Subali and Sugriva, who battle over their inheritance in a play from the ``Ramayana'' called ``Jobog.''
These stories of good and evil, never entirely isolated in one character, can be quite stylized in formal dances like the Raja Pala, where a princess (Putu Ariani) is courted by a prince (Anuk Agung Gede Oka Dalem), who gets rid of four attendants by a gentle trick.
In the rougher, almost violent mass chanting dance Kecak, the members of the orchestra sit on the floor in a big circle and create gamelan-like music by shouting syllables like ``Chak!'' and ``Chee!'' in dense, fast counterpoint. A narrator in their midst starts telling a story, and characters from the ``Ramayana'' appear mysteriously, as if out of a dream.
The virtuosic qualities of the dancer are featured in the male solo Kebyar Trompong, where Oka Dalem simultaneously dances and plays a set of gongs and twirls the mallets. This piece was created 50 years ago by the famous dancer I Mario and is considered modern in the thousands-of-years-old Balinese repertory.
Clowning, dancing, story, and magic all come together in the Barong, named after the fabulous, lovable dragonlike creature who is one of its two protagonists. Fierce and antic, uncontrollable and benevolent, the Barong wages a perpetual feud with Rangda, a horrible witch who puts young girls into therapeutic trances. In real ceremonies, the Barong exorcises the conflicts of a community.
Having danced in Hamilton, Ontario, and Washington, D.C., the company continues with one-night stands for the rest of April in College Park, Md., tomorrow; Pittsburg, Kan., April 24; Iowa City, Iowa, April 25; Albuquerque, N.M., April 26; San Diego, April 27; Carmel, Calif., April 28; and Santa Rosa, Calif., April 30.