Children of Bali Charm Americans

As they crossed the continent in a month, youngsters got a taste of new and different culture

ON a rainy September night in Washington, the audience in the concert hall at Kennedy Center is dressed in American black tie or traditional Indonesian finery for the official opening of the Festival of Indonesia [see another festival story at right]. The program, a four-part preview of the year-long extravaganza of performing and fine arts that is scheduled to be seen all over the United States, opens with a formal sacred dance and a stylized dance of warriors, from the Court of Yogyakarta, Central Java. It's rarefied enough to fit anyone's preconception of classical art in an ancient high culture.

As it ends, a rapid, peremptory drumbeat cuts through the audience's respectful reverie. People look toward the stage, but no one enters there, and the drums get louder, reinforced by sonorous gongs and clattering cymbals.

At the back of the hall a strange crablike figure appears. He is dressed in a white, gold-trimmed kain (sarong), white short-sleeved jacket and headcloth, and he carries a tray of flowers and incense high in the crook of one arm.

He stalks down the aisle, knees raised high to the side, feet flexed, glancing around at the audience, then behind him where, as if from a genie's lamp, a troop of splendid creatures is emerging: boy and girl dancers in gold wrappings and towering headdresses, musicians in dark jackets and red, woven kains, two little girls borne aloft like princesses on palanquins by bare-chested attendants, and at the end, men carrying the big four-foot gong on two poles.

The Children of Bali started all their performances with processions, but the one at the Kennedy Center was the grandest, with supers added from the community, and even some borrowed three-decker umbrellas.

Bali is a land of festivals. Almost daily, processions wind through the villages, their clangorous, insistent music luring the audience to follow them into the temples, where even more spectacular and beautiful performances will take place. They had a similar effect on American audiences, whether in the parklike outdoor Sunset Canyon amphitheater in Los Angeles, the modern auditorium at Montclair State College in New Jersey, or Boston's semi-reclaimed rococo Emerson Majestic theater.

The Children of Bali tour, crossing the continent from west to east and back in a month, was under the aegis of the National Performing Arts College (STSI) in Denpasar, the capital of Bali.

Auditions were held island-wide for the 22 dancers and gamelan players who made the trip. The group started rehearsing several months ago under artistic director Ni Swasthi Bandem and musical director I Wayan Rai, who put together a touring program that sampled several facets of Balinese performance.

IN addition to the scintillating percussion of the gamelan orchestra, there were the two basic classical dance forms: Baris, the dance of male heroes; and Legong, the dance incorporating a story from the Ramayana, which is ideally done by pre-pubescent girls. Steps and postures from these two forms are found in almost all other Balinese theater. Even the priest leading the procession had the raised shoulders, wide arms, and sudden startled stares of a Baris dancer.

A 12-year-old named I Made Bagus Basuki Mahardika has already performed Baris in North America, on an Indonesian tourism program last year in Vancouver. But the two legongs - Ida Ayu Sindi Sucitra Dewi and Putu Eka Yuni Mahendra Dewi, both 10 - and the condong who introduces their story - Ida Ayu Gandayukti, 11 - had not left Indonesia before.

Nor had most of the other performers. Still in high school or junior high, they'd all had extensive performing experience. Ida Bagus Putra Kenaka Wedana, 13, who dances the sensuous Kebyar Duduk, has won several dance competitions, and when he wasn't dancing he doubled as a gamelan player. The lead drummer, I Putu Silayasa, 13, organized his own ensemble of 28 children at home, and besides conducting the gamelan with a professional's flair, he danced in the group piece Janger.

Watching this extraordinary group of showpersons during the first half of their tour, I was equally impressed with their charm and skill onstage, and their adaptability offstage. The ``Bali kids,'' as they were affectionately known, not only gave regular stage performances. Their tour was especially planned so that they would be able to meet and interact with American children.

In the community center at Plaza de la Rasa in Los Angeles, they watched a modern piece and a Mexican folk dance by local teenagers, then learned a few basic steps and taught the Californians some of their own.

Los Angeles was the first stop on the tour, with three performances and several informal get-togethers. Always well-behaved, the children seemed shy and stayed close to their teachers. Taken into a crafts exhibit at Plaza de la Rasa, they pounced on the rattles and other small musical instruments. On their long-awaited trip to Disneyland, they quickly discovered which were the wildest rides and headed straight for them.

Their next stop was New Jersey where their sponsor was Montclair State College, which had arranged visits for them at two nearby schools [see story at left]. This stop was followed by one in Boston, at the Emerson Majestic, where the group looked more confident than ever. Putu led the cymbal players in raucous, counterpoint improvisations, and the second night he suggested they perform a Kecak as a farewell to the sold-out audience.

Saturday morning, after more Kecak and shared games in the Faneuil Hall marketplace, I got a chance to talk with Dr. Bandem, director of STSI and a member of the artistic board of the Festival of Indonesia. He was glowing with pleasure, praising the curiosity and creativity of these indefatigable children.

They liked American food, he said, especially hamburgers and hot dogs - once they understood real dogs weren't involved. They were eager to try everything from pianos to video arcades, and they liked traveling by bus, where they could see the American countryside.

The group will stay together on its return to Bali, performing for visiting dignitaries and at festivals. They've been invited to Osaka, Japan, next summer. Bandem sees the Children of Bali tour as the basis for future cultural exchanges. The gamelan will be left at the University of Hawaii, where he hopes to develop a performing arts program along the lines of STSI, and Montclair State would like a Balinese contribution to its World Cultures program.

As I was leaving the group, Made showed me his new Ninja Turtle watch, and Putu, who hadn't seemed especially fluent in English when we met him in Bali lest summer, was coolly holding an informal interview with two admiring young women.

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