And The Gods Play On

There is a home video of my Wayang Kulit teacher’s daughter playing with his puppets. She’s only three years old in the footage and her head barely reaches the bottom of the puppet screen. That doesn’t seem to bother her, though— sitting there at the base of the frame, she swoops one character up into the playing space with a quiet and determined focus. She moves its arm to touch another character’s face. She takes up the other character, too, and is soon pushing them together into an embrace that’s all the more endearing for its clumsiness. Her attention never strays from the puppets. 

This is a girl who, now, a few years older, has become a perennial performer. She actively seeks out cameras, always wanting to show off the newest dance she’s picked up from youtube— and even more interested in subsequently watching herself in playback over and over again. Yet, in this video, as a little three year old, she never once turns to the camera. In fact, nothing about the video feels like an outright performance, at all— and why should it? This isn’t a puppet show for anyone but herself. 

That was the only way he could capture the moment, my teacher interjects as we watch the footage one day. I don’t know how he knew what I was thinking. As the video continues to play, he starts to explain his frustrations surrounding the event: how his daughter would outright refuse whenever he asked her to perform for his friends, how she’d run away when he would ask again. If she’d known he was secretly filming her, she probably would have stopped then, too, he reasons. I tune my attention back to his daughter in the film. Now and again, I can barely make out her voice as it softly alternates between the two figures, creating dialogue and monologue, together. My daughter is fickle, my teacher mutters quietly.

I’m trying my best to recount this scene without over-sentimentalizing it, or, even worse, smothering it all together under too much “adult-speak." (Run, don’t walk, should you read the word “ludic" anywhere in this post.) Suffice it to say, the whole thing was beyond adorable— even as it was an all-together everyday moment. What little child hasn’t, at some point, played with their dolls or LEGOs or stuffed animals or miniature dinosaurs or pieces of fabric or a collection of sticks (and so on, and so on), bringing imaginative life to beloved toys and making everyday things a little more fun and personal?— And what little child hasn’t done so in a way that was near exclusively intended for his or her own enjoyment? Entry into someone else’s imaginary world is rare thing. Such places are expansive but fragile; you must tred lightly, careful not to break any rules you never knew existed— they do exist, they always do, and they’re integral to the reality of the place.


There was a while when I was younger—  though older than three (and post Dog-and-Dog-and-Pillow days)— that my best friend and I got really into professional wrestling. Before we could get our hands on real action figures or any of the video games, we built three dimensional wrestling rings out of construction paper where we’d stage never-ending feuds between hand-made, cut-out paper figures. It was always too complicated to fight each other, so we’d take turns, each getting our own chance to play both characters, ring-side announcer, sound effect man, and crowd all at once. Watching this video I suddenly remembered those wrestling matches for the first time in years. I remembered how close I felt to that friend, how even with another person at my side, those wrestling matches were play, not performance. I wonder if that had something to do with us being best friends.

But my teacher’s home video, as if collaborating with his daughter’s disregard for anyone else, continues to play even as I wander off towards distant associations. I focus in once again and suddenly it all feels different. Here was a three year old girl playing with her father’s puppets, but doing so in a way that just egged at something more. Culturally specific curiosities now peppered the all-too-smooth gloss of universalism. I take note of the skinny character with the elaborate headdress, whose back arm is positioned just right so that its elbow carves a deliberately acute angle back towards its waist. I watch as each puppet enters and exits in precise arcs, following trace forms that I now know are essential for casting expansive shadows upon their backdrop. Seeing everything anew, it hits me: this is play and not performance, but it is also tradition. Sitting at her father’s screen, my teacher’s daughter was acting like any other little girl but also already training to become a dalang puppeteer.


Of all the forms of puppetry I’ve learned this year, Balinese Wayang Kulit puppets are the simplest to individually manipulate. There really is something childlike in the way they move. Built from cow’s hide and manipulated from below, Wayang Kulit rarely have more than three points of individuated articulation. Each puppet is stabilized by a thick rod running up its middle. Some characters’ arms move on their own, with additional, thinner rods affixed to their hands that stretch down long enough for you to hold in yours, and the clown characters can move their mouths by pulling on a string running from the lower jaw to the base of the rod below. But— save a few special exceptions— that’s it. As dalang, you are the show’s only puppeteer. It is your job to bring these puppets, often as many as thirty or forty per show, to life. Should you need to control more than one puppet at once, you’ll usually be limited to a single hand per puppet, further reducing each character’s movement to a vocabulary of full body swings and turns and jumps and shakes. When two puppets fight, it’s not all that far removed from my days staging wrestling matches; figures fly around the playing space, full bodies collide, and only in special, intricate moments, will the more articulate arms come into play, with one puppet grabbing the other and tossing him about.

Artaud once described Balinese actors as animated hieroglyphs but the definition feels far more literally applicable for these Wayang. These are figures forever confined to two-dimensions. Many characters feature designs that straddle front and profile views simultaneously— sideways heads and feet improbably cut by torsos turned directly towards their audience— but even these geometric twists are rendered flat on the cow’s hide and by the shadows they cast.


For all their limitations and lack of dimensions, though, these puppets come to absolute life under the care of a skillful puppeteer. Their shapes speak words and their interplay makes sentences. Up on their screen, broad gestures gain new subtleties. A male puppet’s two arms dance around its waist until suddenly, with a swift diagonal motion, you realize that he’s tying his sash. Soon after, a clown character grows all the more arrogant and absurd through his continued attempts to turn his back on his comedic foil mid-conversation. I know this guy— you think as he moves from side to side, mouth furiously flapping to match the dalang’s snorting laugh. And then there are the shadows; each puppet is in constant collaboration with the fire hung less than a foot behind the screen. With nothing more than a quick shift of a puppet’s orientation to the flame, a single arrow can suddenly fire twenty times at rapid speeds by transforming back and forth from its realistic shape to a jetting streak of black. A worm can grow into a dragon by pulling the puppet closer to the flame, casting a larger, more terrifying figure on the screen. And even when a puppet remains still, it’s base rod affixed into material beneath the screen so it can remain onstage without being held by the dalang, the shadow it casts continues to dance. As the flame moves, so does the puppet’s silhouette.

There is Arjuna, the crafty prince; Hanoman, the monkey king; Twalen, a lazy, overweight servant for protagonists; Delem, the boisterous, over-energetic aid to the antagonists— these are characters known by everyone who comes to see the show. Night after night these characters enact the same stories of princes and demons and animal lords locked in battle, tested by the gods, or spurned by love. Even as the plot varies from show to show, the super-structure remains the same. Protagonists enter from the dalang’s right, antagonists from the left. Love and seduction scenes come early, then travel scenes, then the big battles. The stories play out like animated comic books, fitting all the action within that familiar, rectangular frame, and supplanting all those explosive SMACK, POW, and THUD word bubbles with the percussive sounds of the cepalo, a wooden hammer clutched by two biggest toes on the dalang’s right foot that is rhythmically beat against the side of the puppet box throughout the show.


The use of this cepalo might help to hint at how much more than puppet manipulation a dalang must do. Beyond animating the puppets, during a performance the dalang must voice all the characters, speak in two to three languages, sing in ancient Kawi, relate all scenes and puppet movement to the accompanying Gamelan music, and join in the music by striking the cepalo. Get ready to improvise, too; there are no scripts, and local audiences aren’t too forgiving when they watch over-done gags or hear recycled material. Within the set format, clown characters may pop up whenever they so please, doling out tangential jokes, running vaudeville gags, even providing meta-commentary on the night’s offerings. These are some of my favorite moments in a Wayang Kulit show. The physical humor transcends language my barriers— though whatever they’re saying must be pretty good; I’ve seen audience members laugh so hard they’ve fallen out of their seats. During these moments, the dalang feels almost like a stand-up comedian, one who uses puppets to deliver his jokes from behind the screen (multiple dalang I’ve met work as bondres, masked clowns, as well). These bits can carry on for so long that you almost forget there is a plot, but then suddenly Bima, the warrior prince, comes crashing across the screen in a tussle with a large demon, and the story continues right where it left off.

As you watch Wayang, you’re not restricted to any one area of the performance space. If you’re tired of viewing the shadows, you can get up and walk behind the screen for a look at the dalang as he (or she, though usually he) conducts the evening’s adventure. Despite all the disjointed multitasking, the backstage atmosphere at a good Wayang peformance is strikingly calm. Assistants to the dalang prepare the next puppets for their entrance and tend to the flame while the dalang bounces from character to character, swinging his voice from high and nasally to deep and guttural with astounding ease. It’s easy to run things at a frenetic pace, but the best dalangs can always turn at a moment’s notice, throwing puppets around before stopping all at once to deliver a punchline.


But even watching from behind the screen cannot offer a complete picture of the dalang’s role; though a puppeteer, a dalang is equal parts shaman and priest, as well. He is a conduit of the cosmos. He begins every show with prayers to Gods, seeking permission and assistance in the task of replicating their roles in miniature. The white screen that houses the night’s shadows mirrors the holy emptiness from which the world sprung— a fact acknowledged in a passage of ancient Kawi language that opens all traditional Wayang performances. It’s no coincidence that the vocal inflections and rhythmic patternings accompanying a dalang’s Kawi recitations sound so similar to the Kawi recitations heard at religious ceremonies, weddings, and offerings.

The dalang’s priestly and shamanistic duties come out in full when he is tasked with transforming normal water into tirta, holy water blessed by the gods and sought by ailing individuals who require purification. Following a special performance, specific puppets are positioned onscreen to create a holy tableau that will bear witness to the offerings and transformation. Flowers are placed in some of the puppets’ hands. The dalang performs a series of mantras and incantations while interacting with an elaborate system of offerings and religious instruments. Beginning with his puppet of the God Siva, the dalang stirs the tirta water with the base rods of the puppets in the tableau. Through the puppets, the gods reach the water. When the ritual is complete, the puppet screen is removed to reveal the intended recipients dutifully seated on the other side of the puppet frame. With tirta water in hand, the dalang blesses the recipients across this threshold at once literal and symbolic.


I was completely caught off-guard by the first purification ceremony I witnessed. Armed with a description similar to what I recounted in the previous paragraph, I assumed that the ceremony’s preceding puppet show would reflect the piety of the occasion with an appropriately austere performance. Instead, a massive demon soldier puppet suddenly appeared on the screen with a great spear in both hands and a penis twice as large. This other weapon had its own stick for manipulating and would rise and fall in coordination with the demon’s high pitched cough. For the next fifteen minutres, I watched in hilarious disbelief as one of the clown characters— who, up until now, had been head-butting his enemies in the crotch— tried to figure out how to defeat his most formidable opponent yet. The audience ate it up. Forty-five minutes later, they sat respectfully quiet as the holy water was blessed.

It’s experiences like these that leave me feeling like I’m always at least one step behind whatever’s happening in Wayang Kulit. That’s not at all a bad thing— I should add— and it’s hardly surprising; Wayang Kulit is thought to be the oldest form of puppetry in all of Asia— centuries of culture and tradition have been distilled into these two-dimensional figures made of cow’s leather, shoe polish, and water colors. To study Wayang Kulit is to be thrown right into the middle of it all, and even more so if you’re entering its surrounding culture for the first time.


In the days leading up to my first performance, I felt particularly overwhelmed by all that I was stacking up against. There was just too much to learn— too many disperate skills to practice, too many languages to remember, too many cross-cultural peculiarities to bridge. I kept dwelling on something Jerzy Grotowski once wrote— A Westerner doing “Oriental" theatre is either "free"- and thus like a monkey imitating his master, making pseudo- signs without precision or usefulness, trying to find the “forces" manifested by actor/mediums, etc …. the affective imagination— or else he is a near-perfect Balinese, though not quite so good— except the only part I consistently remembered was that my two options were performing monkey or not as good as local.

The blue meanies, as my Mime teacher used to call them, didn’t consume my attention at all times, but they had a real knack for cropping up at all the wrong times— including just minutes before I was to begin. Their dance got the best of me at the top of the show. As the overture began, my timing was off on a few of my first cepalo strikes. I winced. 

But the show went on, no problem. When you get down to it, it’s really just me and puppets back there— so long as I didn’t complain, no one else could. By the end of the opening scene I had loosened up. Jokes came easily, sudden improvisations surprised even me, and people laughed. This wasn’t so different than my paper cut-out wrestling matches, after all— and “broad humor" is called so for a reason. By the end of the show, my right leg had gone numb from gripping the Cepalo and striking the box. My voice was ragged. A few embers sat in my lap, loosened from the torch when a dragon puppet’s tail swung wildly at its eagle opponent. Never before had I sweat so much while sitting down. But I did it, and it was pure fun.


There’s a whole lot about Wayang that plays out like that. Amidst the whirl of activities and sectioning of brain activity, you get to sit beneath the stars and tell stupid jokes that are somehow much funnier coming out of the mouths of puppet shadows. Characters speak in voices and sounds you stopped making when you turned fourteen and decided to “be mature" (next time you run into me, ask about the Wayang monkey voice). And when it’s all over, you’re just a guy again— most of your audience usually leaves as the show is wrapping, wisely recognizing that all the best parts have come and gone. It’s grounding, even as it’s fleeting, as exhilarating as exhausting.

Most of all, participating in a Wayang Kulit show— be you performer or audience—affords you the opportunity to share in an ancient tradition that is still thriving today.  The performance culture surrounding Wayang Kulit is equal parts respect for its own history and attention to little shifts in local life. Somewhere in every show you will find a quixotic collision of now and forever— a demon from the Mahabharata gets compared to Jet Li, or Siwa’s older brother meets a puppet with jerry-curl who speaks in gibberished skat and finishes every sentence with the word Jazzzzzz. Some things stay from night to night and century to century; others come and go, conceived by a dalang’s imagination, given life or killed off by the public. I think it’s this marriage of the longstanding and the one-time idiosyncratic that allows a three-year-old’s playtime and a holy ceremony to juxtapose so easily within the same evening. Everywhere you go, puppets are serious, religious figures. They hang on walls to invite good energy into a room, they’re have their own temples and holy days, and they are to be treated with respect (whatever you do, don’t step directly over one). At the same time, they’re never treated with the kind of perverted preciousness many religious figurations receive in the West. These are mystical hieroglyphics, but dammit, if they want to fart on screen you can bet they will— and most people love them all the more for it.

Notes from the Body

In Prague I began my Watson year by studying wood carving for marionette construction. It was an exercise of negative creation; you chip away at your material until, miraculously, a figure emerges. In Abian Semal, a small village in Bali, I recently attended a tooth filing ceremony. This was a ritual of blunting revelation; they filed away at your sharpest fangs, rounding off any demonic semblances until, as expected, your more human figure emerged.

In London I met a woman who suggested that the first puppet I ever encountered was my own skeleton.

In Kyoto I met an antique dealer who kept Bunraku heads, arms, and whole bodies among his collection of Japanese relics. Here I explored the inner mechanics of Bunraku manipulations: stick your left arm into the puppet’s back and grab hold of its neck where you’ll find a small network of levers affixed to strings running out into the puppet’s head. Pull the left one and the puppet blinks. Pull the front one and its head snaps into place. Only days earlier in Tokyo, on the recommendation of my friend Daiji, a Butoh dancers, I had booked an appointment to receive a special kind of single-needle acupuncture. It was invasive and intense. The acupuncturist, a former dancer himself, asked, "かんじる?"— do you feel it?— after every insertion. The correct answer was always yes. You were meant to feel the needle enter your body, meant to experience the resulting waves crashing beneath your skin, appearing out of nowhere yet clearly emanating from the tiniest of source points. Stick my right calf and my hip socket throbs. Stick the inside of my thigh and my big toe twitches uncontrollably.

Here in Denpasar, I slightly dislocated that same big toe last week after a night of barefoot Futsal with friends. It wasn’t awful but it was enough to impact my stride and my landlord’s son noticed. He recommended I show it to his father, who I guessed was an expert at this sort of thing based on his son’s broken English and the popping sounds he made as he pantomimed an invisible limb. The next day, his father prepared a small bowl of water and a vegetable that looked like a shallot. He cut the vegetable and mashed it in the water while reciting a prayer, then spread the mixture all over my foot. He pressed and kneaded into my leg. He massaged the top of my foot with his thumbs until the veins shown blue beneath the surface. He pressed into the middle digit of my second smallest toe, sending a searing sensation up my leg and into my face, clouding my vision. Letting go, he placed my two feet together and pressed into the space between my big and second toes with the tips of his biggest toes. From this position, we held hands as I stood up and sat down six times. Finally, he let go and asked how my toe felt. It was perfect. I was able walk as if nothing had happened— and indeed, I understood very little of all that had just happened.

Recounting these experiences, I feel myself growing newly aware of the beguiling honesty buried within the words, “second-nature". I see how the exuberance found in assimilating things formerly foreign can easily obscure an integral truth so clearly contained in the very construction of the phrase— that these are second-tiered masteries, at best. Breathing isn’t second nature, it is nature itself. But movement, our own bodies— these remain questions for me.

If there is any truth to be found in what I was told in London, if our own bodies really are our oldest puppets, it is a truth that I find difficult to comprehend from moment to moment. My own skeleton is hardly a foreign object; it ceased to be so soon after our first introduction. Over time, I grew so proficient at its daily manipulation that I stopped seeing it as manipulation at all. I had swaddled my skeleton. Physically inhabiting space— piloting my own body in real-time— no longer seemed miraculous; it was second nature. But this year has served me a global flow of contrarian reminders. I can no longer brush aside the gnawing fact that something alien lies buried deep in the relationship I keep with my own body. Though our now-twenty-three-year-old partnership feels like an old embrace, only my muscles know its deepest contours. Only they know the secrets resting in those most intimate pockets, secrets that they, too, have swaddled. My muscles have pressed these secrets so firmly against my bones that they are now etched into the calcium as invisibly as the prayer that my landlord silently etched into the shallot-like vegetable when he fixed my big toe.

I already feel that the deepest, most preciously kept answers to these secrets will remain inaccessible, inside me yet forever out of reach. It seems to me that they have been designed so as to be taken to my grave, only to be made visible after all that covers them has turned to dust. Nevertheless, I will continue to seek them out as I live. In my travels, I have found that this search can be an act of positive reverence; rather than hacking away at what we have in search of things buried beneath, we create metaphorical bodies and physical fictions as a way to pay our respects to mysteries at once too foreign and intimate to ever fully comprehend.



Amidst the melodic twang of the Gamelan, a woman wails from somewhere across the street. A moment later, she emerges from the crowd, supported by two men. Her eyes are clamped shut, her mouth looks like it has been pried open, and her hands shake in complex, nearly a-rhythmic patterns. She does not resist the men who guide her towards the temple entrance, but she moves slowly with knees bent at an angle that matches her elbows, now raised above her head.

For a brief moment, the music falls into one of its periodic lulls. My friend Kadet leans over to me and says, “Oni hairu," Japanese for “A demon enters." Kadet doesn’t speak English. We hit it off last week when we discovered that we both speak Japanese. Meeting outside both our communicative comfort zones in mutually foreign language has made for a pleasantly liberating form of conversation here, one that we have enjoyed together over many recent evenings. In the daytime, Kadet plays the Rindik— an instrument that’s kind of like a bamboo xylophone— at a few different hotels around Sanur, but tonight he is playing whatever instruments are required of him within this Gamelan that provides the music for a local Barong dance. He invited me to come along and I eagerly accepted. Long have I wanted to see a real Barong, the ceremonial performance enacting a never-ending struggle between the Barong, the four-legged God with protective powers, and the demon witch Rangda.


A demon enters— which is to say that, across the street from where we sit and Kadet plays, a woman has been possessed by Rangda. She has entered a trance. Before long, three or four other woman have appeared, differently pitched wailings emerging from newly contorted bodies. The village priest, who has stood by throughout the performance like a referee in a boxing match, ushers all but the first woman into the temple. While the Barong and Rangda enter into their climactic fight of the evening, this woman alone remains alongside the entrance to the temple grounds. Her body, still held in abnormal angularity, sways and steps slowly with the music. With little fanfare, the Barong succeeds in temporarily overcoming the demon, and Rangda is escorted back into the temple. Though her eyes remain closed, the woman follows closely behind. As they depart, the two walk with strikingly similar rhythms and movements. The performance is over and the bulk of the audience start to head out. Shortly after, the formerly stricken women emerge from the temple entrance one by one, walking home with not so much as a hint of what had happened just five minutes earlier.

Allow me to play the skeptic for just a moment, if only to get it out of my system… It seems to me that although the movement vocabulary newly produced by these entranced women bore no resemblance to their everyday movement, it was not exactly removed from Balinese daily life. Though I’ve only been here for a few weeks, I already get the impression that the dance, music, and theatrical representations of religious stories are integral elements of the local society. I’ve yet to see a single written document detailing the stunningly complex musical scores, minutely detailed choreography, or ancient Indonesian texts. Everything is memorized, internalized, and then improvised. And so, whether or not the entranced women were formerly dancers or performers is somewhat irrelevant— simply growing up here seems to cultivate a capacity to perform somewhere within you.

Okay that’s done with. Really— its is all I’ve got for the case of incredulity. Be it demonic possession or some other, intangible force, something changed in these women. They seemed to have been taken elsewhere, their bodies gaining new life in the process.

I’ve written about empty vessels on this blog before— indeed, this is often the cardinal strength that human performers seek when they look towards the puppet for inspiration. Striving towards an inanimate ideal, these actors try to develop a powerfully absent presence, one within which audience members may feel more willing to find character, emotions, or even themselves. But this was something different. Manifesting from a place of absence or not, here something else took over, a new presence emerging from a familiar vessel. It was gripping and just a little bit terrifying.


Throughout the evening, the two men performing as the Barong would be periodically changed out for new performers. To do so, the Barong would cross back to its initial location in the street and two locals would quickly run out from the crowd, getting beneath the creature’s costume to support this transition of hosts. The now finished performers emerged from beneath the costume and joined the two new performers at the God’s head for a moment of prayer. Following, the two new men assumed positions within the creature, and the Barong sprang to life once again. There was no attempt made to hide this transition; the Barong was still the Barong, despite its new inhabitants.


Whether or not the same could be said for the women in trance, I just don’t know. Kadek and his friends in the Gamelan didn’t seem too disturbed by the event. They continued to crack jokes and pass around a couple bottles of liquor while hammering away at their musical instruments. They kept wickedly fast tempos. Their music played on until the very end, at which point they, too, packed up their things and we all went home.