Often charming, often frustrated tale of an impresario in rural Bali and the larger world: Dancing Out of Bali

John Coast was born in Kent, England in 1916. As Britain entered World War II, he left a comfortable post in the City to serve in the Coldstream Guards and then as an officer in the Norfolks. He was one of the few survivors of the Norfolks regiment that tried to defend Singapore against the Japanese invasion and then survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war slave-laborer on the Siam-Burma (Thailand-Myanmar) railroad, experiences of which he related in Railroad of Death (1946) and in the 1969 BBC documentary “Return to the River Kwai.” Coast stage-managed musical productions for fellow prisoners, including some Indonesian ones.

After the war, Coast joined the press department of the Foreign Office in Bangkok and then became press attaché to President Sukarno during the Indonesian struggle for independence, adventures he described in Recruit to Revolution (1952).

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In 1950 Coast withdrew from politics and moved to Bali to write and to encourage the gamelan orchestra of Pliatin led by drummer Anak Augung. They developed some ten-year-old legong dancers and others into a dance troupe that pleased that half-Burmese (half-Javanese) President Sukarno. After endless intrigues with enemies of the president and/or of anything involving a white impresario in Denpasar (the capital of Bali) and Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia) Coast and his Javanese wife Supianti (called “Luce” throughout the book), he took the orchestra and dancers to a sold-out Broadway run after a sold-out but generally unpleasant (for him and for the Balinese) two-week run in London and then across the US to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and finally back through Phoenix to Miami in 1950. His book Dancers of Bali (1953), was published in England as Dancing Out of Bali (1954), and this title is the one used for the 2004 American edition that includes a foreword by David Attenborough (who worked with Coast on several documentaries) and photos that I don’t think accompanied the original publications (especially since the last one was taken in 2004!).

In some ways Coast’s book is a de facto sequel to Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali (first published in 1946), though Coast readily acknowledges a wife actively involved in the project of bringing Balinese dance/music to western attention (Jane Belo whose money made their life on Bali before WWII possible). The Coasts were able to secure the services of McPhee’s (Belo’s) cook and to feature McPhee’s protégé Sampih (who was nine years old when McPhee’s silent movie of Sampih dancing with a gemelan led by Anak Augung that can be seen an youtube was made). Coast and Anak Augung persuaded Sampih’s teacher, the legendary Mario (I Ketute Maria) to train a promising young (12-year-old) female dancer Ni Gusti Raka, who became in effect the prima ballerina.

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The traditional Balinese dances were single-sex (all male or all female, though sometimes having both male and female roles). Coast commissioned a new dance for Sampih and Raka, which became “The Bumblebee,” which is still performed (a clip titled “Lovers Dancing Like This” can be viewed on youtube with the fanwork done by the male dancer). With government sponsorship (and eventual seizure of control for a Northern European tour in the dead of winter), Coast was given the sonorous title “Technical Expert on Cultural Relations and Information for Countries Abroad” and no salary or cut of the (eventual) profits.

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Given that he was making arrangements (living arrangements) for 44 villagers who had never been off Bali before going to Jakarta to perform for the president before a four-day flight to London and some of whom were pre-teens, Coast was necessarily paternalistic (in loco parentis), and was literally a patron of the Balinese musicians and dancers. His narrative does not seem patronizing, though he sounds bemused about finding London prostitutes for some of the adult males in the group and taking them to a New York burlesque show. And the envy for the group that was going abroad was literally lethal (Sampih was murdered after his return). Coast had some friends in high places from his time in the Indonesian government, but also many, many would-be saboteurs of the endeavor, especially in Denpasar (officials feeling passed over by sponsorship form Jakarta and condescending to the rural villagers while proffering Denpasar troupes that performed what Coast considered very watered-down tourist art).

Coast’s memoir of the great Balinese western adventure is bittersweet. The palace intrigues (in an ostensibly socialist and very nationalist palace—in a predominantly Muslim nation in which Hindu Balinese were regarded with good reason as “feudal” and different) dovetail with the portrayals of the new order before the New Order of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the premier Indonesian writer who was also disappointed by how little improvement of life (living standards and dignity) Independence brought Indonesia. (Pramoedya and Coast were both active in the independence movement after the attempted reimposition of Dutch colonialism.)

I don’t know if he presumed that readers would have read his two previous memoirs (his POW one was a best-seller in the UK), but it seems to me to lack introduction particularly of his consort (there were major official obstacles to marrying, though they were married before the trip to London) who is just there. Bits of his own background in the government build up. That the first word of the book is “we,” a pronoun with no antecedent is, I think, revealing of being tossed into the story of his life on Bali, though I’ll gladly stipulate that with some digressions the book pretty much proceeds chronologically from Kuta Bay (his first home on Bali) to Miami (where he saw off the troupe for its government-sponsored European tour without him and his wife).

Although I don’t think that Coast was as good a writer as McPhee, and clearly not as informed an ethnomusicologist, I think that Dancing Out of Bali is informative about Balinese worldview, what George Foster called the peasant “view of the limited good,” Balinese dance, and the perceptions of Anglophone cities by rural Balinese ca. 1950. BTW, they found Bob Hope hilariously funny and were especially charmed by Olivia de Haviland in their Hollywood visits.

There are a lot of illuminating photos. The glossary could be more helpful. It seems to me to include words not in the text and not to include some Balinese words that are in the text. The “short bibliography” was inadequate even for work in English about Bali published before 1953: including Vickie Baum’s romantic novel A Tale from Bali, but not the 1942 publication by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Balinese Character. Along with additional photos and captions, I think the bibliography could have/should have been augmented to include books by Jane Belo, Hildred Geertz, Adrian Vickers, Fredrik Barth, and Unni Wikan.

©2017, Stephen O.Murray

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