O quam gloriosam
The curtain went up on "Çudamani" as it would on "Oklahoma"—it's dawn in a village in Bali, and what we're going to get is a stylized rendering of a day in the life of this community. Nobody's up yet except the rooster, and as the cock crows young women enter with hand-made brooms sweeping the yards and the streets—rhythmically swatting the stage with the straw-ends, and intermittently thumping the heel of the broom on the ground. A rhythm picks up as the young men come in, whittling lengths of bamboo with what look like Bowie knives, clacking the blades against the wood and periodically blowing out the sawdust.
An intoxicating rhythm picks up and takes off pretty much as it would at the beginning of how many Broadway shows. ("Guys and Dolls" sprang to mind). It was like a prelude to the monkey-chant, into which indeed a little later it DID develop—but the thing that was most obvious, to most of us in the house, I think, was how the Balinese artists had assimilated he methods of Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins—they had reverse-engineered their traditional material, separating individual phonemes of their dance and musical language, and re-assembled them into the forms of American popular musical narrative—but without introducing protagonists to focus the audience's hopes. The focus moved over shifting groups and their tasks—the girls cleaning, the boys cooking, some warriors, a priestess—and as the evening came to its climax in the second half, ceremonies in the temple. Rather like an Altman movie, all the "story" we got was a day in the life of a social organism.
The show was episodic but had a secret underlying rhythm that propelled it forward, rather like a piece by Merce Cunningham—sweeping would go on for a while, then whittling, then there'd be a procession of grown-ups with offerings, and so on. The first section that actually looked like a dance didn't happen for a while, and I'm not sure if the gilded xylophones—the gamelan itself—had been unveiled yet when the warriors' section began. The whole show is rather dream-like in effect and though certain images are astonishingly vivid in the mind's eye, the exact sequences would be very hard to reconstruct from memory. Suddenly there were four men who stood like statues in second position, with astonishingly clear turn-out and arches like Baryshnikov's. They had a brilliant alacrity in the suddenness of their movements which reminded me of the way Balanchine liked his pas de bourrées—like the ornaments in an adagio, the quick succession of small steps had a distinctly musical phrasing that functioned as the onslaught to a pose, nearly always in fondu, with the working leg in a kind of tendu with the arch highly raised and the toes relaxed.
Then certainly for a while we were focused on the horizontal array of gold—instruments, musicians, and the dance of their bright hammers, with the dazzling clamor they make. A priest and priestess showed us the Balinese use of the wrist as they sprinkled the stage, the warriors, the gamelan, over and over again with holy water. Each new inception began with a blessing.
There were times when the group would break up its episode with astonishing informality and just fall to chatting—which was surprising to me, since they so often move about the stage in postures of deference, indicating that they know this scene is not "about" them—it was one of the few moments in which I'd become fully aware that I was NOT Balinese, I didn't have any equivalents for these happy outbursts in my cultures of origin.
The second half of the show took place before an altar in the temple and without being a ceremony was intended to give us the inwardness of their spiritual practices: this section had the most "dancing," but was of a piece with the rest in having a subtext of bringing us deeper and deeper into the things that matter most to them—the rituals that connect them with the spirits who set the conditions of their lives. We saw a dance in which two children went into trance, a virtuoso solo with perhaps 6 levels of plié including releve pirouettes by a dancer almost encased in gold, and a rather amusing lion dance. Then they put veils over the sacred objects—the lion, and the crowns, closed up the temple for the evening, and wound us back down.
The most "western' feature of Cudamani is its Aristotelian structure—the introduction, the rising action, the crisis, the falling action, and the postlude—which characterizes not only Aristotle's prime example, the "Oedipus Rex," but also the structure of the Roman Catholic mass, Shakespearean tragedy, and every Hollywood movie. As the end of Cudamani drew near, I realized it had gently gotten under my skin in haunting ways and that I was experiencing something much deeper than entertainment or cross-cultural exchange.
Around the point where they veiled the lion-skin, my friend (who's an ER doctor who plays jazz on the side and had never seen anything Balinese before) leaned over and said "This all feels so Catholic." I'd been feeling the same thing for quite a while, especially when the mothers caught the children as they finished their dance and cuddled them as the priest came along to sprinkle them with holy water and bring them out of trance. When they took the kids back up to the altar, removed the crowns, replaced them upon their stands framing the lion-vestment, and covered the crowns with veils, I had an experience resembling Proust's with the madeleine…. Except that these rituals were not those of MY childhood, and yet they were essentially so much the same.
These artists function in a culture of intercession very much like that of the Roman Catholic world of my family—and in the week where the pope died and was buried, it's been impossible not to think of the spiritual debt of the religion I grew up in, to the magi of the East.
It's SO similar as a way of life: the day began with 6 AM mass whether you yourself went or not, you knew that your grandmother and a couple of aunts did it, and they were part of a process of perpetual intercession going on that kept things in a state of equilibrium. These rituals were as much a part of life as breakfast, and each hour had its own. Every Saturday morning from the age of 6 on, I put on a cassock and surplice and assisted at Mass, with my mother in the front pew saying the responses for me, in Latin of course, which of course, I did not yet know. If something got lost, you prayed to St Anthony, or maybe turned his statue upside-down in the closet till it was found. If your father went into the hospital, your aunt sent a relic of Blessed Claude de la Colombiere to take with you to his bedside and stayed there to help facilitate a miracle, and add substance to the family's prayers.
Such practices were designed to bring the other world into visibility—especially the act of vesting made the world of grace visible. The priest kissed the stole before he put it on,. It was the act which put him in office;without it he was not functioning as a priest.
The crowns the Cudamani children wore made them vessels for an infusion of grace from above. Their religion, like the one I grew up in, believes that children are closer to heaven than the rest of us, and they serve heroically by being ready to be possessed by the god who protects the village. (It's worth noting that Bali lies in the land of earthquakes, not far from Krakatoa, where a whole island may vaporize in a moment.)
For whatever reasons you may bring to Cudamani yourself, the appeal of the show is going to be universal. If it comes your way, check it out.