Duke University’s Institute of the Arts put on what turned out to be a daylong festival of Indonesian art on September 29 at the new and very handsome Doris Duke Center, located at the main entrance of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, where preparations got underway at 9:00 a.m. Public events included two performances by a small band of visiting Balinese musicians, singers and dancers, which shows, given on the veranda of the new Center, sandwiched a free one-hour concert presented by UNC’s outstanding gamelan ensemble. It was touch and go for the presenters, getting the visitors onto the boards, thanks to significantly increased security measures, introduced in the wake of 9/11, and as it happened, two of the touring group’s nine members were not granted visas in time for them to get to Durham, which was the first engagement of the present US tour.

This is not the first time our region has been graced by the presence of artists from Bali. A decade ago, a much larger ensemble visited America, performing in Durham, in Charleston, and in other cities where now, from time to time, CVNC has critical representation. That larger group was a somewhat different kettle of fish, in that there were enough people to make a mighty noise and put across a fairly overwhelming spectacle, such as one might have witnessed, years ago, on the old Friends of the College series. The visitors this time were billed as “Master Dancers of Bali,” and indeed that title seems accurately to describe them. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to think that “international folk dancers” are all young, agile and fresh (and that those long tours, during which the dancers represent the best their countries have to offer before audiences around the world, wear them out quickly, requiring constant replenishment from the “home base”). On this occasion, however, the senior dancer (and, in all likelihood, the group’s duenna), Ni Ketut Cenik, was born in 1920, and several others, whose biographies were included in the program, were clearly in their middle years.

Because the size of the group, already basically a chamber ensemble, had been further eroded by visa problems, a considerable amount of doubling-up was required. From time to time as many as six artists formed the band, and from that group emerged the dancers, singly, in duets, or in larger numbers. The first half of the evening program (an afternoon performance was also given) consisted of six representative numbers, presumably severely shortened (for performances at home are said often to last all night). An orchestral prelude, bright and festive, and louder and more metallic than the sounds of the UNC ensemble, which will be noted in a moment, led to five dances, conveniently described in the program notes. The first, given by two of the company’s younger women, depicted the fights of two monkey generals, although we’re not sure we’d have figured that out without the printed prompts. I Made Djimat, who may have been the evening’s busiest artist, for he seemed to be everywhere at once, playing and dancing, too, was impressive in a warrior’s dance that depicted intense emotion. (One of the advantages of the “chamber” approach to this presentation, and to the intimacy of the seating provided, was that the audience could see clearly every facial expression, which would not have been the case in a larger venue.) The senior “star” proved quite overwhelming, too, in her solo contribution, taken from a larger temple dance. There was considerable subtlety and nuance in a danced depiction of a young Balinese man savoring music, strikingly realized by another multi-tasked artist, Ida Bagus Suteja Manuaba. This section ended with a ravishing courtship dance.

The longish intermission allowed the audience to examine (and in some cases ping upon) the instruments used to accompany the show.

The second half was devoted to an “operatic dance-drama” that related the story of a childless Chinese Queen (!) of Bali and the turmoil that resulted when her husband, the King, took another wife in order to get a child. Ni Ketut Cenik portrayed the deity who intervened in the domestic squabbles and brokered the eventual dénouement. Since “story” ballets are part and parcel of Indonesian (and, specifically, Balinese) cultural life, this large segment was at once significant and welcome to the enthusiastic audience.

Preceding this event, the players of UNC’s gamelan, which is named Gamelan Nyai Saraswati, and which was described in detail in a January feature, offered a program of six works, in varying “modes” (tunings). The group is directed by Sarah Weiss, and its membership is, officially, 27, although several regulars were absent at Duke; she told us that the players include UNC undergrad and grad students, UNC and Peace College faculty, Duke grad students, and various townies from across the Triangle. There were two guest artists, whose names were given by Weiss: Sumarsam, of Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and Barry Drummond, of the Boston Village Gamelan, in Boston, Massachusetts. See that aforementioned feature for a link to a fine gamelan website where illustrations of these wonderful instruments are provided. The only sort of out-of-the-blue instrument in the ensemble is what one audience member called a “string thing,” which resembles an erhu. Weiss told us that it is a rebab, “and its roots are not in the Chinese end of things, although there are erhu in Indonesia used by the large Chinese population, but rather from the mideast, in the form of the rebec, ribec and other two-string loose-bow type instruments.” This ensemble is a true regional treasure, so we urge readers who have not yet experienced it to monitor announcements and GO, at the earliest opportunity. In closing, it may be worth noting that the UNC “orchestra” is Javanese, as opposed to Balinese, so, as mentioned at the outset, the sound is far more mellow and much less “metallic” than the smaller group that accompanied the dancers.