Three dancers rehearse in an unfinished industrial space in downtown New York. The concrete floor is painted with an elaborate pattern of circles and squares that simulates the Balinese tika calendar.
With each step, the performers seem to be playing with time and space. They are not doing Balinese dances. They are performing traces of Bali that have survived the trip from the Island of the Gods to the island of Manhattan.
There are fragments of the Baris Gede dance, staged with construction pipes instead of spears.
Quivering fingers evoke the flapping wings of Garuda. As in a Balinese temple ceremony, multiple events compete for the spectator’s attention. A procession. A pas de deux. The ringing of a priest’s bell.
Musicians run amok outside windows facing Wall Street. Recited texts float in and out of comprehensibility. In Bali, they might concern mythical figures like Calonarang or Kebo Iwo. In New York, they cite American legends like Tituba and Paul Bunyon.
As performed by choreographers Jennifer Lacey and Wally Cordona and their team of dancers featuring Rebecca Warner, the performance kindles the kinesthetic memories of anyone who has visited Bali and stirs the curiosity of those who have not.
The music by Jonathon Beply, Megan Schubert, and Randy Gibson contains teasing echoes of kecak chants and gamelan percussion without actually recreating those inimitable sounds.
“We cannot really bring Bali to New York,” explains Lacey, who created the dance with Cordona, in response to an exchange with Balinese master artist Nyoman Catra. “The best we can hope for is to evoke an odor that suggests our experience in Bali.”
The new work, titled The Set-Up: Nyoman Catra, premiered on June 26 in New York City’s River-to-River Festival. The collaboration between Catra, Cordona, and Lacey was sponsored by grants from the Asian Cultural Council.
“We met as strangers,” says Cordona. “That is very powerful. I am influenced by Catra’s character, the kind of person he is and how he sees the world. He sees things through the lens of a Balinese master artist, but there is also something unique in him. There is a lot of movement, and I don’t just mean dancing and physical movement. There is a lot of psychic movement that is very deep and very fast.”
Catra demonstrates that intersection of mental and physical agility when he discusses how the room where the dance is performed has been transformed into a three-dimensional tika calendar. “The piece created by Jennifer and Wally is not a Balinese dance,” he says, “but it has a structure that is influenced by the circles and repetitions that are built into a tika calendar.”
After guiding Cordona through a circular movement sequence across the tika calendar painted on the floor, Catra continues. “The Balinese calendar is composed of seven overlapping calendars.
The one-day ekawara calendar, for instance, consists of a single day called luwang that repeats itself daily. Luwang means emptiness, but it can also mean something that is full of things: Empty space, space, space. Time, time, time. In this calendar luwang is emptiness that appears every day with the potential to be full.”
Cordona does not try to communicate the specifics of Balinese philosophy in his dancing, but he knows his work has been transformed by his short-term immersion in the culture. “We are all tuned in a certain way. And I know that by meeting this other person, going to this other place, having this intimate exchange, our tuning begins to change in a deep way.”
Catra also feels that his work will be transformed by his encounter with Cordona and Lacey. “’When they were in Bali, they asked many questions that made me want to look for answers. When I go home I will create a new opera with the children in my village. The gamelan musicians will get up and dance as characters in the play and then they will go back to being musicians. There will be no division between traditional roles. There will be no curtain. We will break the rules. We will show the process, not just the result. That will be the set-up.”