World Theatre Traditions – Topeng Balinese Dance Drama

Balinese performances are difficult to categorize because of its dynamic and heterogeneous nature. The varying forms run the gamut from holy ritual to secular buffoonery, with no strict definitions delineating one from another. But there is an underlying unity. Running through them all is the implicit acknowledgement of a profound affinity between the spiritual and mundane worlds. Even the most outrageous popular melodramas contain elements of the divine temple dramas from which they were derived. And even the most sacred rituals possess elements of crowd-pleasing theatricality. This thread that links the ridiculous to the sublime is at the core of Balinese theatre.

The dance/drama which best reflects this special relationship be- tween Balinese clowns and gods is the masked spectacle called Topeng. Performed regularly as part of village temple festivals, Topeng is a vortex of intersecting artistic energies. Music, dance, mime, and song are used to provide a dramatic forum for the mingling of history, religion, and topical events. Topeng achieves this complex synthesis by blending solemn ritual and carnival merriment into accessible popular entertainment.

Jenkins, R. (1978). Topeng: Balinese Dance Drama. Performing Arts Journal, 3(2), p40.

Topeng dancers are expected to study voice, dance, acting, song, and mime. Because Topeng involves sensitive interplay between performers and musicians, most dancers learn how to play all the instruments in the gamelan orchestra which accompanies Topeng. These skills are usually handed down from generation to generation on a one-to-one basis. Older performers select pupils as young as six years old as apprentices.

Once a high level of technical proficiency has been achieved in these various art forms, the Topeng dancer turns his attention to his other responsibilities as a temple performer. He is expected to study ancient religious and historic texts inscribed on palm leaf manuscripts called “lontars.” Familiarity with these writings allows him to weave relevant quotes and moral teachings into his improvised dialogues. Combining his knowledge of religious and historical tradition with a consciously cultivated awareness of topical village problems, a good Topeng performer improvises dramatic situations that speak directly to the audience in terms of their historic and spiritual past.

Jenkins, R. (1978). Topeng: Balinese Dance Drama. Performing Arts Journal, 3(2), p47.

Filmed in 1969 for the BBC, Richard Attenborough narrates a mask maker introducing the different characters of Balinese Topeng.

The master of Topeng I Made Djimat presents more than 10 characters (start – 2:20)

A look behind the scenes at a Topeng performance.