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Grains of conflict

In an ambitious project, Rice becomes common ground for artists tracing its deep, shifting influence across a broad swath of cultures.

September 21, 2003|Robert Turnbull | Special to The Times

Pengosekan, Indonesia — To Western eyes, the plays of Asian shadow puppeteers tend to resemble Punch and Judy shows, but here in Bali, wayang dalang, as these puppeteers are known in Indonesian, have an almost mythical status, with mystical powers to balance the essential forces of good and evil.

So when terrorists bombed two nightclubs in the Kuta beach district last October, killing more than 200 people, many Balinese turned to the renowned dalang I Made Sidia for guidance. He responded with a 90-minute piece, performed just yards from the blast site, that touched such a deep chord among those who saw it that it went on to play 40 more venues throughout the island.

In Sidia's vision, victims of the tragedy assembled on the beach to grieve under the gorgon-like glare of Shiva, the mighty Hindu god of creation and destruction. Lurking menacingly nearby was the barong, Bali's fanciful lion-like beast, whose shaggy hide, glaring eyes and snapping jaws traditionally keep demons at bay.

The piece was partly intended to appease locals seeking retribution for the bombing, Sidia says. "At first, there were many angry people, but we know revenge can't provide answers. Good and evil coexist, and we must embrace them both if we are to move forward humanely. This is our yin and yang."

Now, Sidia has embarked on a mission invested with a similar spirit of balance and reconciliation, even if its subject -- the culture of rice -- doesn't immediately suggest a treatment involving leather shadow puppets on wooden sticks.

Produced by UCLA's Center for Intercultural Performance, "The Art of Rice Traveling Theater" brought 10 musicians, actors and dancers from rice-producing nations (China, the Dominican Republic, India, Burma, Japan and the U.S.) to Bali this month to join Sidia in creating a performance piece dramatizing the political, economic and spiritual impact of the world's most widely consumed food.

From Indian Kathakali and Japanese taiko to Chinese opera, the array of theatrical skills and cultural icons was something Peter Brook might envy. A similar range of exotic musical idioms embraced Kenny Endo's Japanese flutes, Kyaw Kyaw Naing's Burmese circle drums and the shimmering metallic gongs of I Dewa Puti Berata's gamelan.

Bali provided a peaceful, if poignant, backdrop. Rehearsals took place in a bale bengong, a traditional "contemplation house" on the fringe of the rice-growing village of Pengosekan. It's a stone's throw from Ubud, Bali's cultural capital of art galleries, stonemasons' workshops and terra-cotta-colored temples.

From Pengosekan, the piece traveled to four venues in Hawaii. It will have its mainland American premiere Saturday and Sunday at the Aratani Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo.

Cultural values challenged

The force behind the project is Judy Mitoma, the Los Angeles-based impresario best known for her stewardship of UCLA's Asia Pacific Performance Exchange. She was also the mastermind behind L.A.'s two World Festivals of Sacred Music, in 1999 and 2002.

A passionate advocate of multiculturalism, Mitoma has long had a reverence for Bali's sumptuous heritage and makes regular visits to the island. The mere fact of "international artists coming here at a time when others are fleeing the place sounds an unequivocal response to the Kuta tragedy," she asserts.

The genesis of the "Art of Rice" project, however, emerged from a simple realization: Rice shapes the social landscape of the overwhelming majority of the East's populations, but the Asian communities organized around the cereal are rapidly being eroded by Western-driven development and the demands of the tourist industry.

"The invasion of foreign capital is seriously undermining previously unshakable cultural values," Mitoma says. "And while communities are growing weaker, human resources and talent are co-opted to provide entertainment, not all of it inclusive." It's little known, she says, that the largest nightclub targeted by the bombers last year had a policy of excluding Balinese nationals.

In mounting "The Art of Rice," Mitoma faced the challenge of transforming an arbitrary collection of anthropological research and personal convictions into a convincing theatrical vision. At the start of rehearsals, the goal was broad, she says -- to create "a dramatic journey, reflecting lives, memories and legends." Proceedings began tentatively, however. The artists demonstrated a willingness to abandon traditionally defined disciplines but nevertheless trod carefully, unsure of one another's limits. Under a veneer of politeness was a sense of unease.

"In Asia, the caste system, seniority, age and gender issues all make a difference," said the Philadelphia-based contemporary dancer Roko Kawai. "When a person speaks out, it's not so much the words as who's saying them that gets noticed." Americans, on the other hand, "are often reluctant to speak out, in case others recede into the background."

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