Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Balinese Theatre Workshop

by Alex McKirgan

On Friday 26th June, members of the Year 12 IB cohort and from Year 8 were invited to participate in a Balinese Topéng Workshop run by the very famous Margaret Coldiron and an ethnic Balinese Topeng Dancer Puja.

The workshop began with all of the students discussing various types of theatre  we had experienced over the years, with the replies ranging from The Lion King to The Book of Mormon. It soon become apparent to us that this type of theatre was something none of us had ever witnessed and the rhetoric of a Year 8 student accurately reflected the mindset: this was something so different. Waves of excitement and energy began to emerge in the groups as we began to wonder what this workshop would entail.

After Puja and Margaret introduced themselves, we were treated to a brief history of the Balinese culture and how the  art of Topéng came to be. It was  an enriching experience to learn about a culture which was so different to our traditional Western culture and in particular, how Balinese Topéng is not a special event which happens only on occasion, but is embedded in the daily lives of the citizens of Bali, being performed as a communal ritual rather than a form of entertainment. Some  of the IB cohort  had not watched any form of theatre in over three years so we really appreciated it and it helped to give us the international awareness that is part of the IB course.

After a brief period of reflection, we began to learn the basic steps of the male Topéng dance. However, we could not begin to learn until we did the necessary stretches before hand. Having demonstrated our physical capabilities by performing handstands at the start of the workshop, our flexibility was well below that of our instructors who pushed many of the students to their physical boundaries with their elementarystretches. Puja informed the Year 12 students about how the Year 8 students had found these stretches much easier than we did, with an elderly sentiment emerging amongst the senior students. However spirits were not dampened and we were eager to continue. We then took our positions and mimicked Puja as best we could to try and submerge ourself in the art of Topéng. Whilst some failed to copy the elegance of Puja with their heavy feet pounding around the Gatehouse, others managed a decent attempt. 

Nevertheless, the aim of the workshop was not to see who was the best at Balinese Topéng. It soon became apparent that all students from Year 8 and Year 12 gained a personal insight into the Balinese culture which developed their understanding of the world outside the stereotypical boundaries. For example, Nicholas Gatenby of Year 12 said:

It was an amazing experience and despite my lack of physical abilities, I gained knowledge about a culture that I would have otherwise not known about.

 Anushka Kar of Year 8 said whilst dancing, I learnt a lot about religion and I gained knowledge which was very interesting.

After learning the Topéng moves, we were introduced to the most entertaining bit of the workshop, the masks. Whilst we had worked with masks during our first year of drama at PGS, these masks were very different. They had been hand crafted by Balinese families and this tradition dates back to the ninth century. Puja explained to us how each mask represents a different character and how certain masks can only be used in certain performances because of the theme set by the music. The masks that we were allowed to wear reflected more sinister characters with red faces and angry expressions, accurately reflecting the moves which Puja had taught us. At first these masks were quite intimidating and Anna McMurrugh in Year 8 described them as: scary for me.

 After discussing the purpose of each mask, it was time to perform to our peers. It was the ultimate test to see if we had listened and understood what we had been taught in the workshop. To our surprise Puja and Margaret were very happy with our performances and were relieved that we had enjoyed the experience. According to Puja:

I was worried at the beginning because I was not sure if the students were going to enjoy the workshop or not. However as soon as I found out that all the students were enjoying it, I to began to have a good time and felt it was worthwhile.

Overall the workshop was an amazing experience for both Year 8 and Year 12. Whilst for the students of Year 8 it was a fun and interesting way to develop their theatrical knowledge outside that of the Western world, it gave the IB students the international awareness that they needed as part of the Diploma. Whilst thanks must be given to Puja and - for giving up their valuable time to help enrich the students of PGS, Ms Filho must also be praised for her ability to organise this unique and lively experience. 

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