I don’t what it is about Bali that captivates me so much. Maybe it’s the enchanting allure of the exotic Asia of yesterday, back in the times when Bali was a relatively unspoiled paradise in the minds of so many Western visitors. I’ve actually never been to Bali, but I’ve been transported there through literature, most notably after reading Colin McPhee’s outstanding A House in Bali memoir a few years ago. But seeing as how that book detailed McPhee’s life in Bali in the 1930s, I doubt that I’d find many vestiges of the old Balinese culture if I visited nowadays.
I recently read another book that could be considered as a companion to McPhee’s memoir, Dancing Out of Bali by John Coast. The British-born author was interned by the Japanese during WWII, where he was sent to work on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway, an experience that he later made into a film for the BBC. After the war he moved to Indonesia and became a press attaché to President Sukarno. Moving to Bali a few years later with his Indonesian wife, he became friends with many of the same people that McPhee had known during his time there, including dancers such as Sampih and Mario. Inspired by the unique Balinese dance styles, Coast came up with the idea of forming a new dance troupe and taking them on tour overseas. Thus, the “Dancers of Bali” was formed.
In Dancing Out of Bali, Coast writes about his experiences in Bali, ranging from humorous and heartwarming moments to more harrowing incidents. Of particular interest is the way he befriends the locals and discovers more about Balinese culture and traditions. Eventually, he manages to get them excited about his plans for the new dance troupe, although a few people needed some gentle persuasion. At the time of Coast’s arrival in Bali, the legendary Mario was retired from dancing, spending more time gambling at cock fights than working or staying at home with his wife. But Coast talks him into teaching some of the young local girls a few of the traditional Balinese dances. Sampih, who had been one of McPhee’s young “discoveries,” had also stopped dancing, but became a close friend of Coast and the male lead in the new dance troupe.
The final chapters of the book describe the preparations — along with the frustrations, complications, and politics — involved in organizing the 1952 “Dancers of Bali” tour, a journey that took the village dancers to Europe and the United States, and back again to Europe. Coast writes engagingly about his experiences both in Bali and on tour. He also has a good ear for dialogue and some of the conversations that he recounts are quite funny. As you can imagine, trying to supervise a large group of villagers, making their first trip overseas, was quite challenging, packed with plenty of funny moments.
Dancing Out of Bali also includes many Black & White photos taken in Bali and during the various overseas tours. It’s pretty cool to see some of the dancers posing with celebrities such as Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Sukarno. We are also treated to photos of one of the star female dancers in the troupe, Ni Gusti Raka, both as a 12-year-old and later as a grandmother in 2004, when she is teaching a new generation of dancers in Ubud.
Coast dedicates this book to Sampih, who was tragically murdered in February 1954, only a few months after the dancers had returned from their latest tour of Europe. The book has some photos of Coast with Sampih’s son (named Belge by his mother after she received a postcard from Sampih from Belgium) and Ni Gusti Raka in 1983. Coast passed away in 1989.
If you haven’t seen it, there is an amazing video of Sampih dancing as a child, taken by McPhee in the 1930s. You can find it on YouTube:
Bali: I Sampih dancing Igel Jongkok 1930s
And another vintage video from the 1930s, this one featuring Mario:
Bali: I Marya dancing Igel Trompong with Gong Belaluan