Training and Makeup Go a Long Way

When comparing performance styles, it is difficult to find similarities between them without diminishing the cultural and unique qualities that each country brings. Years of historical and socio-economic change have shaped these styles into the art of today’s landscape and so, it is essential to realize that each performance aesthetic merits its own exploration. Nonetheless, there are themes that tie these styles together when discussing international performance.

For example, in the Sacred Dances of Balinese performances, referred to as Wali, the dancers must use their bodies to display certain hand gestures while balancing headdresses atop their heads. This movement takes hours of practice to build the dexterity and posture required and in all honesty, a regular person off the street would not be able to perform this. The dancers need their bodies to be perfectly aligned, and therefore, they require a level of physical capability. This concept of well-defined performers is equally shown in Kathakali training throughout India. Learning exercises for the hands and face, sometimes starting at the age of ten years old, and developing an intense scale of athleticism ultimately leads these kinds of performers to mold their bodies to fit the demands of the training. They must work hard to reach this level of performance quality, often getting up early, and that is very admirable.

On the other hand, there is a common thread among entertainment performance, particularly the Balih-Balihan of Bali and the Jingju in Chinese Opera. Due to the requirement of exaggeration, the onstage performers must use makeup to shade and contour the outlines of their faces. The audience is so far away, and therefore, will not be able to view the interesting facial expressions or changes in emotion if the performers do not involve the use of excessive makeup. From up close, this artistic choice may seem hyperbolic and “clown-ish”, but it is crucial in guiding the audience towards understanding the piece of art. Balih-Balihan performers use makeup to express a more charming quality of movement, but it is still very important for the overall picture they are trying to present. Likewise, the Beijing Opera incorporates a character named “Painted Face” wherein the performer presents elaborate face make-up covering everything but his eyeballs. Each colour represents important characteristics for the narrative, and without this added feature, the character’s heroic attitude would just fade into the backdrop.

In terms of parallels to the Western notion of theatre, there are many traditions that have been translated overseas to North America. In the Sacred Dances of Bali, specific hand gestures and wrist movements are akin to the gestural forms of Western contemporary dance. Many contemporary dances will display dancers standing relatively still while they use their forearms, fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders to create movement. This concentrates the rhythm to only a few body parts rather than the entire body and helps the audience know where to put their focus. Wali dancers exhibit their hands to show musical interpretation to the audience, and this kind of performance reminds me that simple gestures can engage an audience just as much as a complicated piece of choreography. As well, in Balih-Balihan, the Balinese dancers are trained at a young age to be double-jointed and flexible in their hands, back, and legs. In a like manner, young ballet dancers are taught to have lean, agile bodies to meet the technical and physical requirements of ballet. Considering this, Balih-Balihan introduces the young dancers to maintaining a strong disciplined attitude towards their training due to the detailing of the choreography.

Throughout these past weeks, I have been immensely inspired to create my own work with this amount of care and dedication that has been shown. My piece that is being presented in Choreographic Works this coming March is about telling a narrative. I choreographed this piece by pulling from the Broadway musical “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown”, but making sure to personalize the story of four kids trying to write a book report. I was inspired by the Indian performance style of Ramayana to allow theatricality to be displayed onstage from the primitive source of text and literature. My dancers and I have been researching the various fables of the Peanuts characters to try and find ways that movement and acting can evoke moments of comedy and relatability for the audience. I plan to dive more into this concept of narrative, and I am excited to learn about other cultural and aesthetic performance styles as we continue on in this class.