I was first exposed to Indonesian music and dance by my good friend and mentor, Carlos Carvajal, founder and director of San Francisco Dance
Spectrum. In the 1970's, Carlos arranged for artists of various cultures who were visiting the Bay Area to come and perform on showcases at Dance
Spectrum's studio, and encouraged the members of his company to view the frequent exhibitions of the many styles of performing arts that were being
presented then. Javanese and, especially, Balinese music and dance quickly became among my most favorite styles, and I never missed an opportunity to see performances of this exciting and electric art form.
I have studied both Balinese gamelan music and Balinese dance, first at the Center for World Music in Berkeley with I Nyoman Wenten, the master of the Baris (warrior dance), and later in New York City with Islene Pinder, founder of
the Balinese-American Dance Theater, and an expert Topeng (masked) dancer. In 1979 I had the good fortune to travel to Java and Bali while performing with
the Nikolais Dance Theater, from New York. Besides sightseeing the most beautiful scenery on earth, we spent our days giving lecture demonstrations and
master classes of our dance style to the students of ASTI, the Indonesian School of Music and Dance, and being rewarded in turn by their lecture demonstrations
of Indonesian dance. On evenings when we were not performing we had the thrill of seeing some of Indonesia's best dancers perform both traditional and new dances.
Lithe Spirit is a homage to Indonesian gamelan music. It uses no specifically Indonesian techniques (except for a Western approximation of Indonesian
instruments and one of the Indonesian scales), but conveys the spirit that I feel and enjoy when listening to Balinese and Javanese music.
The music for Lithe Spirit was originally called Jalan Kekiri Kekanan (Indonesian for "Walk to the Right and the Left"). It is dedicated to Marsha Wales Brown, who inspired me to finish it, and was written to accompany a dance of the same name which I had choreographed. The music was written after the dance, and the irregular meters come from the rhythms of the dance ó
alternating between starting on the right foot and on the left foot automatically produces an odd number of beats.
Neither the dance nor the music started out to be Indonesian, but after deciding to limit myself to a five-note scale while composing, I realized that the pitches I
chose were a Balinese scale squeezed into Western tuning, and went back and modified the style of the dance as well.
The structure of the piece is definitely Western. The only technique which is "borrowed" from Balinese music is not apparent either to the ear or the eye
(when reading the score), but can be felt by the hands of the performer: The canons at the time interval of a sixteenth note feel very much like playing an
Indonesian metalophone, where the left hand has to stop each key a sixteenth note after the right hand plays it.
I was never happy with my own choreography for Jalan Kekiri Kekanan. At a concert of the San Francisco Bay Area's well-known Gamelan Sekar Jaya, I had
the pleasure of seeing the performance of an impressive and charismatic dancer, Ni Luh Kompiang Metri Davies. I asked her if she would choreograph my
music, and was very happy when she agreed to do so.
The Balinese love artistic novelty. In fact, in the 1930's, many of the old music and dance pieces would have been forgotten except for the influence of Western
musicians, especially the composer Colin McPhee, who persuaded the Balinese to preserve them. Certainly the current generation of Balinese composers and
choreographers, while maintaining the excellence of their traditions, frequently collaborate with artists of other cultures, and borrow elements of our music and
dance to incorporate into theirs, or use Balinese techniques to express new subject matter. But the Balinese character is so strong and their artistic genius is
so great that even the newest works show an unmistakable continuity with the history of Balinese art.
Balinese dance emphasizes character delineation and expression of quickly changing psychological states, expressed in movements which are dynamic,
riveting, and eye-catching, but always graceful and beautifully designed. In Lithe Spirit, Kompiang Metri has choreographed a dance using movement vocabulary
from the traditional Balinese (and some Javanese) dances of which she is an expert interpreter.
Kompiang's Indonesian title, Wanita Desa Berjuang Melawan Adat Istiadat, means "A Village Woman Fights Against Tradition." The dance portrays the
conflicts of a woman who is caught between her obligations and her desires. She enters a temple to pray and to perform the ritual offerings which are required of
her. She is fun-loving and spirited, though, and as she looks around herself and sees the world and the activities of the people in it, she wants to be free to enjoy
participating in them. But something holds her back -- a feeling perhaps of fear, or of the awe she feels in the temple, and a realization that the duties of her
position as a woman limit her time and the things she is allowed to do.
The title Lithe Spirit not only describes the woman that the dance is about, but is also a summary of all Balinese dance: strong, but supple and graceful, and
spirited in several senses -- very animated; portraying the spirit of an individual; and aware of the presence of the spirit world and the spirits which possess the
dancer as she becomes the character she is portraying.
NOTE: An Indonesian audience would not expect to follow the story in the dance. They would merely be entranced by the beautiful detail of the movement
and the exciting changes of the dancer's character and expression.
In 1997, I was asked by Irene Herrmann, of the Santa Cruz Chamber Players,
to arrange the work for a quartet of Western musicians: piano, celesta, violin, and percussion. (The original work was first a piano solo and then a synthesizer
version.) On this occasion the dance was performed by a beautiful Sundanese (West Javanese) dancer, Sri Susilowati, and the music was broadcast on Santa Cruz's radio KUSP.