Deconstructing Destruction

Pub date October 10, 2006
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

“The shattering of paradise” is how Kali Yuga director Ellen Sebastian Chang refers to the 2002 bombing in Bali in which 202 people from 22 nations died. A series of attacks in 2005 killed 23 more. A world indeed had crashed, not only for the Balinese people but for the music and dance lovers who have made pilgrimages to that magical isle where art is integrated into the texture of daily life.
Gamelan Sekar Jaya was particularly hard-hit. With both Balinese and American members, the El Cerrito–based music and dance group has had an ongoing, close relationship with Balinese culture. In 2000, during its last tour, the group received a Dharma Kusuma award, Indonesia’s highest artistic recognition, never before given to a foreign company. So Gamelan Sekar Jaya wanted to address the tragedy in artistic terms. Its members also realized, says company director Wayne Vitale, that “what happened in Bali is a worldwide problem.”
The result is Kali Yuga, directed by Sebastian Chang and choreographed by I Wayan Dibia, with music composed by Vitale and Made Arnawa. Two years in the making, the work will receive its world premiere Oct. 14 at Zellerbach Hall. “We want this to be a gift to the Balinese people,” Vitale explains.
Working closely with poet-journalist Goenawan Mohamad, a vocal critic of the Indonesian government, the collaborators found the seed for the 70-minute piece in the Mahabharata: during the Kali Yuga — the age of chaos and destruction — a prince, challenged by his brother, gambles away everything he owns, including his wife. From this story of male testosterone and female humiliation arises a contemporary parable about the gambling we do with Mother Earth.
At a recent rehearsal in a warehouse in West Oakland, one could sense a little of Bali’s community-minded spirit. Kids roamed freely around the periphery of the performance space. One of the dancers had a baby slung over her shoulder; another would periodically step out to gently redirect the energy of a particularly rambunctious little boy. For a sectional rehearsal, Sebastian Chang knelt on the floor, coaxing the required laughs and stories from two six-year-old girls. Minutes earlier, they had exuberantly twirled all over the place; now they focused diligently on the task at hand.
The team has conceived Kali Yuga as a conflict between two parallel universes, one visible, the other not. Even in the piece’s unfinished state, it appeared that the dancers were keeping to the parameters of Balinese drama. The villain — who in the original tale humiliates the woman by attempting to strip her naked — is wonderfully raucous; the heroine is soft and pliant.
However, even traditional forms allow for innovation, as Sebastian Chang knows from experience. A writer as well as a director, she has worked within many genres and often with young people, hip-hop artists and the poets of Youth Speaks among them. In conceiving Kali Yuga, she wondered about the people in that Balinese nightclub. They must have been young. But who were they? What kind of music did they listen to on that fateful night? What were the dance moves that those bombs cut off so fatally?
Rhythmic sophistication, she also knows, is not unique to gamelan music. Rashidi Omari-Byrd is an Oakland-based rap artist and hip-hop dancer with whom Sebastian Chang has worked in the past. He had never heard gamelan music. Nor was he was familiar with Kecak, the percussive chanting originally performed by Balinese male ensembles. But the match was perfect. In Kali Yuga, Omari-Byrd — a tall, lanky performer who towers over everyone in the show — raps Mohamad’s poetry and break-dances to the musicians’ snapping heads and chack-chacking chant. (Rita Felciano)
Sat/14, 8 p.m.
Zellerbach Hall
Lower Sproul (near Bancroft and Telegraph), UC Berkeley, Berk.
(510) 642-9988