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Balinese Dance "The legend Gus Aji and Taksu"

Updated: May 8, 2023

Memory of the legend, Ida Bagus Oka Wirjana

I had been immersed in studying butoh with my teacher Yoshito Ohno for years, but it was becoming more and more clear that it was time to depart from my teacher, and I was looking for new inspirations. In that time this photo above in some Japanese magazine shot by Doddy Obenk captured my heart and pulled me to Bali.

After about a month in Bali, I finally heard of an event where the man in the photo was going to dance. Some days later, driving the rented motor scooter with great excitement, I arrived to a performance event where several Balinese old maestros presented their dance. All of them were impressive, but nothing comparable to the last one, Ida Bagus Oka Wirjana in his early 80s, a legendary dancer of a style called Kebyar Duduk. When he walked in the stage from behind, white-yellow luminous body was getting close to the audiences. I am not a fun of exaggerated esoteric expressions, but it was simply what I saw. Androgyny beyond man and woman, bewitching, blissful and so sharp. Ecstatic joyful face and Pa!!! suddenly wrathful red eyes... It seemed right and left eyes were moving in different directions like a chameleon, arms and hands were capturing big space as sky. He was certainly in contact with something sacred. After finishing to dance, he bowed to audiences like a shy humble little girl and disappeared... I shortly greeted him after the performance, and visited his house in a village called Blangsinga in the next days.

I brought a basket of fruits as a present, but when I left his house at the end he tried to give me back some of them, “It is too much, you should also eat some fruits.” He told that I can study with him and stay at his house, for which he never asked any money. By that time I had already found amazing teacher Agun Anom Putra and was studying with him, so I had some hesitation to study two different dance style from two different teachers in a short period. Anom was teaching me a dance called Jauk Manis, a dance of demon with strong male energy, but he actually advised that it could be a good idea to study Kebyar Duduk to soften the movements, so I started living and studying with Ida Bagus Oka Wirjana, or everybody called him affectionately Gus Aji. He didn't speak any English, so our communication was through my very poor Indonesian with a dictionary in hand or his little Japanese. Our verbal communication was thus limited, but his entire presence was talking enough. Wherever we went, I was always following him from behind, attracted by his elegance represented in his back of the neck. His gentleness filtered through his shoulders and back, the way he walk was so soft, full of grace and humbleness, history was inscribed in his hands with long fingers and long nails, his voice was deep but sweet like Balinese mango. He repeated that the real richness in life is not money but to have authentic friends, the message he was told by the former Indonesian president Sukarno, and he was actually always visiting his friends, just to greet them or to bring some foods to sick ones. With his friends or shop keepers, he was always making jokes and laughed big. He was certainly one of the most respected artist in Bali, but was just one member of the community. His entire life seemed very simple, but was wrapped in elegance. Only with his dog, he was so severe and I always felt a pity for this dog!

Besides the time of practices, he took me to many different places. One day was a ceremony to celebrate the arrival of new set of Gamelan (Balinese music instrument). Another day was some family ceremony (he had 4wives, 16children, 34grandchildren and 17great-grandchild, family meeting was like a festival of a town!). In such occasion, one of his granddaughter started dancing Kebyar Duduk, and Gus Aji's lesson started spontaneously. Another day we went to see the cockfights together. I was surprised to see this cruel fights together with this elegant man, but such reality of cruelty of life might be also an important part of his dance. I started feeling as if he was my grandfather, and loved the time to stay in his bed room. The memory of him playing with Balinese masks moving comically and making jokes comes in my mind still vividly. His pink bed sheet with some Japanese manga character was apparently not fitting with him and was totally surrealistic. One time in his bed room, I showed him a DVD of Kazuo Ohno, assuming that he could be impressed with this another old androgyny legendary dancer from Japan. But he was acting like indifference, and I heard his inner voice “ok,,, but my dance is better!” I softly smiled within. There is a question that I have been always asking myself, “how can dance and art truly be benefit for the world”, so I asked him what is his role in his community. His answer was that he was born in a highest caste family and his actual social role was to be a Hindu priest. But he did not want to be a priest and just liked to dance instead. His very first motivation was probably a simple joy and admiration for dance rather than anything else.

The most important concept in Balinese dance and art “taksu”

As many other traditional cultures, Balinese traditional dance keep changing, evolving, and being updated. Kebyar Duduk is a relatively new dance style that was created by I Ketut Mario in the early 20th century. Gus Aji told that he saw the dance of I Ketut Mario in his childhood that captured his heart, but never studied with him directly. He said he did study Baris dance which is quite different style from Kebyar Duduk, but then, he self-taught Kebyar Duduk just following the memory of what he had seen and became the legendary maestro. He said that the character of the dance is the brother of Hanuman from Hindu Mythology. But what was important in his dance for me was not some story or meaning of character, but his whole presence that was transformed into distinctively extraordinary state on the stage. The most important concept in Balinese dance is called “taksu”. There is probably no exact translation for this word in English, but it is sometimes translated as “spiritual energy” or “charisma”, etc. and people consider good art not just by highly developed techniques and forms but by the intensity of taksu the work of art is blessed with. For a dancer with strong intensity of taksu, a sense of ordinary “I”ness or feeling that “I” am dancing is very much loosened and rather feeling that dance has come, or I am danced. However, it is very important to distinguish from being possessed by spirits or ghosts in uncontrollable trance, and rather the dancer is in a state of being very much awake and aware. We can also witness such possessed state in Balinese dance such as Barong and Kris dance, but it is distinctively different from what is happening in the dance of maestros. Of course in our contemporary performing art scenes, something beyond techniques and forms are also searched and emphasized, that gives reality, intensity and stage presence. But taksu is something more than that in the sense that it is coming from much subtler layer of existence. Gus Aji said that “you shall never forget who makes you dance, otherwise the dance becomes something boring with just techniques”. Or once I asked him “How can your dance so much fulfilled with taksu?” his answer was very simple. “I pray sincerely, 'Please come down to me. Bless me and audiences' ”

Such things are not just a matter of Eastern esoteric mumbo jumbo, bur rather we can take it as critical issue for our contemporary art practices. Current contemporary dance might find the concept of taksu too much “spiritual” or scientific materialists might say that such phenomenon is just a delusion. But a picture is worth a thousand words. In the dance of Gus Aji, taksu was so lively apparent. His bodily movement was surely very impressive, but if we look at current performing art scenes in the world, there are dancers who has as impressive movements as his. But what was truly exceptional and exquisite in his dance was the intensity of taksu, and that was something I had never seen and I have never seen till now. It is not a matter of how to elaborate interesting concept, neither to surprise audiences with new way of movement, but rather a fundamental question of existence. When Gus Aji was dancing Kebyar Duduk, he was not merely acting and representing a mythological character that has nothing to do with himself. But rather, through embodying the mythological character, his whole being was transformed, and deeper and subtler dimension of existence was emerging in front of the audiences. His dance made something invisible visible.

Ida Bagus Oka Wirjana has passed away on 3rd February 2017 at the age of 87, and I have heard that he kept dancing and teaching until several months before his death. Hearing the news of his death, all the memory with him is flashing back and his sweet voice is echoing in me. May his legacy continue to inspire successive Balinese artists and the wide contemporary art practices.


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