I Wayan Lendra, instructor of a UCLA Extension course on the arts and culture of the Indonesian island of Bali, sat cross-legged on the auditorium stage and asked students to give each other flowers and fruits they had been instructed to bring to class. The exchange of gifts seemed trivial to some, but Lendra used it to make an important point about Balinese art.
In Bali, he told the 20 students who are taking the seven-week course, dance and music are viewed as gifts to the gods, and the performing arts require the same sincerity and care that go into giving a gift to someone special. Lendra said the Balinese have a word for such artistic sincerity: ngayah .
"What is important is the feeling that is coming into it (gift-giving)," he said. "That sense of gift-giving is important. . . . If you do not have the sincerity of gift-giving, that is not an offering."
Since the course began four weeks ago, Lendra and his wife, Leslie, have been introducing students to the mystical dance forms and music for which Bali is famous: the Baris , a warrior dance; Topeng dances in which the performer dons wooden masks and imitates kings, clowns and other traditional Balinese characters; the Taruna Jaya , a love dance; and the distinctive Balinese music called gamelan .
First of Its Kind
Extension spokesman John Watson said the class is the first of its kind given through UCLA Extension, which offers courses for students not enrolled in the university's main curricula.
Lendra, 34, moved from his native Bali to the United States in 1976 and obtained a master's degree from UCLA in dance ethnology. He is working on a Ph.D. at the East West Center in Honolulu. Lendra has also collaborated with Jerzy Grotowski, founder and director of the Polish Laboratory Theatre, which is known for its provocative experimental reworkings of traditional dramatic styles.
In addition to teaching, he and his wife host cultural tours of Bali, a former Dutch colony that is now a province of the Republic of Indonesia. They tentatively plan to take a group of UCLA Extension students to the island in December.
Lendra does not teach students how to dance Balinese-style, because the dances are usually taught in childhood and take years to learn. Instead, the course combines dance presentations with lectures to give students a sense of the relationship among the arts, culture and religion in Bali.
The class has no homework or exams. Lendra told students simply that they should "go home, think about it and dream about it. That's the way to learn it."
Lendra said the purpose of the course is to teach students to appreciate the spiritual basis of Balinese performing arts and to impart new ways of thinking about performance art in general. Instead of focusing on the technical aspects of a performance, Lendra wants his students to concentrate on the spiritual content of art and to use art as a means of self-discovery.
"When you watch a performance, you should not judge intellectually, but you should allow yourself to be empty, non-judgmental, to be open," he said. "When you open your original nature, your inner self is out and capable of being touched. When you judge by using your brain, you block your inner self. That's what I want the audience to know."
Lendra said performers, like their audiences, miss the meaning of art if they focus too much on technical precision.
"If you see a Balinese performance . . ., you see the presence of the performer," he said. "That presence is not technical presence, but some kind of energy."
During a recent class, guest performer I Wayan Dibia demonstrated what Lendra meant with a Topeng mask dance featuring imitations of a Balinese clown and a king. By changing his body posture and movements according to the different masks he donned, Dibia transformed himself into the characters he portrayed.
'Make Him Alive'
"I have to learn what particular movements this man (depicted by the mask) liked," Dibia said. "I have to make him alive. As soon as I put on this mask, I'm not Dibia anymore."
A performance by Lendra of a Baris warrior dance held the students spellbound while the repetitive rhythms of gamelan music played in the background. The music and dance gave students the impression that they were transported from the UCLA classroom to a Balinese village celebrating a military victory.
Lendra said he learned to dance the Baris while a boy growing up in Bitera, a village of about 1,000 people in the southern Balinese district of Gianyar. He said he gave up boyhood dreams of becoming a doctor when he was one of 15 village children chosen to be official village dancers.
Lendra described Gianyar as "very beautiful, very artistically inspiring and generating a lot of creative thoughts and creative energy."
According to Lendra, many of the students in the class, which meets every Thursday night, want to apply Balinese concepts of performing arts to their own dance or drama styles.
"I'm an artist, and I get some feeling about my own spiritual essence" in the course, said painter Dawn David, a student. "I feel close to myself and my own creativity when I see the performances. It's very exciting."