Not much toil and trouble in Balinese take on 'Macbeth'
By I Wayan Juniarta
DENPASAR, Bali (JP): Imagine Shakespeare's Macbeth transplanted from ancient Scotland, wearing an ornate Balinese dance costume and speaking the old Javanese court language of Kawi.
The seemingly absurd becomes reality in Gambuh Macbeth, a classical Balinese dance-theater performance scheduled to tour several cities in Germany.
Performed by 68 members of the ARTI foundation, Gambuh Macbeth will open at a newly established art center in Stuttgart. The group will also perform in Berlin, Bonn, and Frankfurt from May 19 through June 6.
The performances have been made possible through the support of German art patron Jongki Goei.
Rector of the Yogyakarta Arts Institute (ISI) I Made Bandem, who is the author of a Balinese dance encyclopedia, said gambuh was an old form of court dance drama.
It existed 600 years ago during the Majapahit Hindu kingdom in East Java.
It was then known as raket mask dance-theater and was familiar among court dancers. The repertoire usually drew East Javanese classical literature and chivalrous tales related to Prince Panji.
It was believed the raket dance theater was brought by East Javanese court members who fled to Bali with the fall of Majapahit.
"There is another source which says gambuh existed in Bali during the period of King Anak Wungsu in the year 1200," Bandem said.
Before gambuh entered Bali, the island was home to myriad sacred dances. However, the new arrival exerted dramatic touches and structures on the forms of theater and dance in Bali.
"Gambuh is considered the 'mother' of Balinese theaters and dances," added Bandem.
It also was the root of other Balinese theatrical forms like Topeng Balinese mask dance, Arja theater, Drama Gong to the delicate legong and prembon dances.
The repertoire always centered on Panji tales dealing with the romantic lives of princes and princesses of the Jenggala, Daha and Kahuripan kingdoms which ruled East Java between the 10th century and 12th century.
It was originally performed by all-male casts, but now women also play female roles and sometimes heroic characters.
For the German tour, director Kadek Suardana experimented with Macbeth.
Suardana set out to stage Macbeth in the gambuh style. Although the play of the Scottish general and his fiercely ambitious wife is set centuries ago, it always seems fitting for contemporary situations.
The marriage of the two styles proved challenging even though Suardana staged Gambuh Macbeth with Sanggar Putih theater group at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta in 1986.
Last year, supported by artists from the ARTI foundation, Suardana set out to do a revamped version.
To gain more ideas, Suardana traveled throughout Bali and sought input from gambuh groups in Batuan Gianyar, Jungsri in Karangasem in East Bali, Pendungan in Denpasar and Anturan in Buleleng in North Bali.
"We shared our experiences and knowledge on this most ancient form of Balinese drama, and I then decided to use the pendungan style of gambuh from Denpasar as my basic choreography for Gambuh Macbeth."
Pendungan might be considered the best style in terms of its artistic and theatrical elements as well as the originality of gambuh theater.
"After I found the most suitable gambuh style, I worked very hard to create a compact and easily absorbed gambuh dance theater," Suardana said.
In the past, gambuh performances, usually held in temples or courtyards, went on for days, but modern versions last only a few hours.
The performance may be composed of series of scenes in which characters present monologs, dialogs, dances and fight scenes.
"The original Macbeth play would last at least three hours to four hours. Therefore, I decided to make a proper combination and cut Gambuh Macbeth to a one-and-a-half-hour performance," explained the 44-year-old director.
In creating a quality performance, Suardana also faced various technical problems. Performers of gambuh must master all dance gestures as well as speak the old Javanese court language of Kawi.
Suardana also eliminated penaser or punakawan comic characters who usually play important roles in communicating the plot of story to the audience.
The dialog and monolog were delivered in Kawi, with the comic servant characters conveying them in colloquial Balinese.
"My concept is in expressing the ideas of the story through dance gestures rather than words," Suardana said.
He honed his concept in more than 50 performances throughout Bali and in Bandung, West Java. The results were encouraging and he believed the audience understood the plot even though the play was performed in Kawi.
Suardana also presented his Gambuh Macbeth in several sacred Hindu temples, including the mother temple of Besakih and Pura Paseh in Pendungan village in Denpasar.
The performances were intended to solicit divine blessings and taksu, a spiritual artistic power.
Suardana's hope is that the performances in Germany will successfully serve up this piece of Balinese tradition in a new form for contemporary audiences.