During an intensive three-week program in Bali this past January, students were immersed in traditional dance, masked performance, instrument performance, shadow puppetry, and mask carving, to explore new possibilities and expressions of the performing arts.
“When I first went to Bali in 2009 my definition of what performing arts were and what they could be was significantly altered,” said Assistant Professor of Theatre Chris Hatch, who led the group on the expedition to the Indonesian island. “In the United States the performing arts are rather compartmentalized in relationship to other institutions. We go to one building for a performance, we go to another building to worship, etc. In Bali the performing arts are much more ingrained into the culture. Religion, art, the environment, and even political discourse all meshes together in a vivid and exciting manner.”
During the trip, students attended classes not only with Hatch but with master artists at the Mekar Bhuana Conservatory in Depansar, which uphold traditional practices of Balinese performing arts. At the conservatory, students explored a variety of traditional dance styles, gamelan (traditional Javanese and Balinese music), mask carving, puppetry, and language, and mounted a fully-realized final performance featuring traditional costumes and makeup.
“We learned so much about traditional Balinese culture in such a short period of time, I’m still trying to process it all,” said Megan Soule ’15, who majored in public policy and doubled minored in media & society and English. “We learned Balinese dance and gamelan from some of the best instructors in Bali. We loved watching our instructors perform gamelan and all sorts of Balinese dance styles. We all have so much respect for the amazing talent they all have and were willing to share with us. Bali was everything I hoped it would be. The drastic cultural differences provided us with an opportunity to step outside of our norm and learn to appreciate the island of Bali and its people.”
“One of the most exciting aspects of the trip has been watching students change their definitions of what ‘performance’ can mean,” said Hatch, a professional actor and member of Actors’ Equity Association who specializes in, among other areas, masked, movement-based theatre, which is what initially drew him to the Balinese performance traditions.
Outside classroom and studio work, students attended professional productions of various Balinese performing arts to experience them at a professional level and see the deep bond between the performing arts and other aspects of Balinese culture. Led by Hatch and ethnomusicologist and gamelan expert Vaughan Hatch, the excursions throughout the trip introduced students to gong smiths, flute makers and puppeteers, exposed them to the Balinese mask museum, historic temples and a variety of traditional performances.
“Being a dance major with a passion for traveling, the Bali program seemed like the perfect fit for me,” said Katerina Núñez ’17, who is also majoring in media & society. “Having the opportunity to travel during a break while receiving college credit seemed like the perfect way to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience while staying on track with my course requirements for my majors. Academically, I was so excited to become a more versatile dancer by learning the art of Balinese dance. While it was challenge to get the technique just right, and it was completely different than the ballet technique I am used to, it was rewarding to see everyone’s hard work pay off at the final performance.”
As the arts tradition in Bali does not always overlap with Western-based sensibilities, Hatch saw an opportunities to incorporate influences that “are often harder to represent on campuses,” he said. “My hope was that this program could provide another meaningful non-Western based performance experience for students of music, dance and theatre along with providing an interesting course options for other disciplines such as religious studies, Asian studies, etc.”
“Professor Hatch has been a huge influence during my time at HWS and I was so excited to spend three weeks in a country so different from the United States studying performance,” said Sara Winant ’15, who was a history major and theatre minor, and was heavily involved in the performing arts as a member of the Chorale/Cantori and the co-ed a cappella group, Perfect Third. “Being able to experience an entirely different culture has been unbelievable. Interacting with the people and seeing how the arts play such a major role in their everyday life is really beautiful. One of the most inspiring moments of the trip was getting to watch our teachers at Mekar Bhuana perform.”
“As an artist anytime you can expand your own ideas of what performance can be, it has a positive effect on your own work and I thought it could be a worthwhile experience for students,” Hatch said. “In Bali many of the arts are learned by observing and then trying to copy what was observed. This was a challenging and, at times frustrating, style of learning but it was great to see the students accept and eventually thrive under the different style.”
Beyond the cultural immersion, what stood out for many students was the optional sunrise hike to the top of Mt. Batur, an active volcano.
“It was a difficult hike but the challenge was well worth it when we reached the top of the mountain,” said Núñez. “It was a great reminder that anything is possible!”