Not one but two gamelans rocked from the stage of Kresge Auditorium a week ago Sunday as MITís Gamelan Galak Tika inaugurated a series of concerts to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Gamelan can signify both a set of tuned percussive instruments and the ensemble of musicians who play them. Gamelan Galak Tika was started in 1993 by Evan Ziporyn and two Balinese artists who were doing graduate work in the Boston area. The group now numbers 29, plus dancers who are part of every performance. For this concert, the founder-mentors, Topeng dancer I Nyoman Catra and musician/composer Desak Made Suarti Laksmi, now based at Wesleyan University and Holy Cross College respectively, returned to appear with the group.
Indonesia is particularly rich in species of this musical marvel, from the muted, meditative Javanese court gamelan to Baliís excitable, clattering village orchestra. A Balinese gamelanís main components are marimba-like instruments that play in interlocking counterpoint. Theyíre very resonant, and each key is damped by the musicianís other hand immediately after itís hit so the sound wonít blur in the fast, rhythmic mix. There are also tuned metal bowls, big gongs, and smaller beaters and shakers.
At Kresge, in addition to the house band, members of the group played a smaller gamelan from East Java, the angklung caruk, which consists of six small and two large marimbas, gongs and drums, and its special feature, two tall hanging glockenspiels made of bamboo, on frames carved in the shape of dragons. The angklung had a much rougher, ruder sound than the Balinese gamelan, its racing rhythms seemed more unified and less contrapuntal, and its pentatonic harmonies sounded almost Chinese.
Besides the angklung number, the program offered a generous, 45-minute solo Topeng performance by I Nyoman Catra and a sampling of other instrumental and dance numbers. There were contemporary pieces for the gamelan by members Dan Schmidt and Rebecca Zook, and Gambang Suling, a piece composed in the 1960s for gamelan and solo flute, two flutes actually, one the size of a piccolo and one the size of a clarinet, both played by Eran Egozy.
Cynthia Laksawana danced Kebyar Duduk, a flashy, flirtatious dance usually done by a man. Kebyar style originated in the 1920s, when Bali was beginning to experience an influx of foreign tourists, and it expanded and desacralized the already elaborate traditional dance idiom while affording solo opportunities to its creator, the dancer I Mario. In Kebyar, as in other dances, the performer first treats the audience to a display of decorative hands and fluttering fan. Then Laksawana sat on the floor and continued her scintillating gestures and seductive glances. A few times she circled around her spot in a squat, and before leaving she went up to the leaders of the gamelan and acknowledged them playfully.
Four women did the welcoming dance Panyembrama, swaying and angling in a unison formation and finally, as an offering, tossing flower petals out of the bowls they carried. Balinese dance originated in the temple ceremonies that are still an essential part of life on the island. It can be transposed into less ritualistic venues, but it always takes place under the auspices of the gods.
In Topeng, the Balinese mask dance form, the dancer puts on a series of carved and painted masks, taking on the character that inhabits each one. There are supernatural and demigod grotesques, servants and other down-to-earth folks, and aristocrats who have benign white faces and do not talk. Sometimes Topeng is just a procession of characters, but it can also be a bravura drama for one or more actors, with a lot of improvisation allowed. The masks represent specific types, but the performer can infuse the character with his own ideas, so weíre not just looking at static symbols.
Catra appeared first as a fierce character with a rakish moustache and beard who did a brief rendition of the traditional warrior dance, Baris. His place was taken by an old man with flowing white hair and bent-over shaky steps who breathed heavily and had trouble keeping his balance. An effeminate person made exaggerated references to the provocative gestures of the Kebyar and threw kisses to the audience; that was followed by a prime minister, a king, a bucktoothed bumpkin, a sexy woman dancer, and a benign monster with six-inch fingernails.
For the Kresge concert, a benefit for the victims of the recent nightclub bombing in Bali, Catraís characters waged a polemical battle against terrorism, and they consigned the bombers to face their own Karma. The dance ended with a strong spiritual message endorsing the arts as the way to keep life in balance.