To most uninitiated Westerners, myself included, the island of Bali seems a Hollywood invention -- a subtropical paradise in which bewitching young women in low-cut sarongs cater to male chauvinist fantasies. In some ways, Suarti and Suarni, the Balinese sisters who presented a dance program at Baird Auditorium Sunday night in the Smithsonian's World Explorer series, fit the stereotype. They are bewitching in appearance and in motion. In a couple of dances at the start of the program, exquisitely embroidered sheaths that left their feet, arms and necks bare set off their caramel complexions, with highlights of peach and rose. The supple flexion of arms, hands and heads, the darting eyes, curvaceously swaying hips and knees, and the sweet flow of the dance designs all conspired in an effect of fragrant sensuality.
The fact is, though, that the rich dance culture of Bali is exceedingly complex in its forms and historical evolution, sprung from Indian, Javanese, Malaysian and native sources. Sunday's program, of necessity, only skimmed a few surfaces, and left as much puzzlement in its wake as delight or enlightenment.
The program offered samples of four dance types, each in a contemporary version; it would take an expert to perceive which elements were traditional and which recent accretions or modifications. An opening "Welcome Dance," gently lyrical, featured a sprinkling of flowers from a silver bowl. "Oleg Tumililingan" was a mating dance of bees in which one noted rapid flutterings of fingers, beguiling anglings of arms and torsos, and vibration of whole muscle groups. "Teruna Jaya" ("Young Prince"), the animated solo that followed, demonstrated, like the bee dance, the female portrayal of male characters. The most "classical" item was the concluding "Legong Keraton," deriving from ancient trance dance and depicting the tale of a queen who transforms herself into a magic bird to dissuade her king from entering a battle she has foreseen to be fatal. The narrative was stylized to such a degree, however, that it proved nearly impossible until the end to tell which dancer represented which gender, much less what actions were transpiring.
Two things might have enhanced the presentation -- a live, instead of a recorded, gamelan (Balinese instrumental ensemble); and clearer, better focused and more comprehensive program notes.