Made Sudarsana has been dancing since he was seven years old. “We learn dancing as a child,” Made explained. “The first dance I learnt was the Baris dance. A master teacher taught me from Petulu Village. I would go to his home for lessons after school.”
Made is now 38 years old and is an artist and painter by trade. He has been learning the Topeng dance for several years and has been dancing at temple ceremonies for the last three years.
“I was compelled to get back to dancing,” Made explained, “because we have a real shortage of Topeng dancers in my village.”
It takes a lot of commitment to learn the intricacies of the various dances, plus you have to be a storyteller, a theologian, a dancer, a bit of an actor and an entertainer.
The Topeng can be performed singly, or by two men, or by a group of men. “The mask represents a different character,” Made told me. “I have nine masks. I could portray an idiot, a village gossip, an old man, a king, a servant, many characters, and one is secret. Did you know a mask dancer can even portray a tourist?”
The dialogue can be very amusing and in Made’s dance style it usually opens with a joking character and some light-hearted entertainment. It is not unusual for the entire audience to break out into side-splitting laughter.
On the more earnest side, Made explained, “One of my mask characters is very serious. I tell the story of the beginning of Bali and Hinduism and where it all began. I am a storyteller and I must have control. I must be serious, in fact I had to give up drinking alcohol in order to learn the serious side of Topeng dance and the religious significance.”
One very significant dance is the one where the dancer makes a connection with God and dances for God. It is a very strong exchange, and for this reason a Topeng dancer has to have a very pious side and must have a deep understanding of Hindu philosophy and feel the reverence of the dance. As in many aspects of Balinese culture, Balinese dance is inseparable from religion.