on 10 June 2004
Dancing Out of Bali
Dancing out of Bali tells the story of how a young Englishman, John Coast, brought a troupe of 44 Balinese dancers and musicians from a remote village in Bali to London's West End and New York's Broadway. This was in 1952. It is the account of a man's burning ambition and a brilliant piece of anthropological, historical and cultural writing. And a great introduction to anyone visiting the island.
When he was a Japanese prisoner of war, John staged Indonesian dance performances in the prison camp to entertain fellow prisoners. After the war, he returned to England. Restless and bored, he left for Bali at the age of 34. Indonesia had just won independence from the Dutch after four long years of fighting. This was 1950.
I remember hearing about a white man, Tuan Coast, living in the area where I was going to school. I used to see him driving about in his battered jeep. There were not many jeeps, and even fewer foreigners in those days. I had no idea what he was doing. I now know he was fulfilling a lifetime's ambition.
There was turmoil at that time in Bali between those for and those against independence. On a visit to one of the Balinese princes, John once spotted a cocked revolver in a briefcase. The prince had supported Dutch colonialism. That was not popular with the independence fighters and they were the ones now in control. Even John slept with a gun under his pillow.
The leader of the freedom struggle was the charismatic, half-Balinese Sukarno. He became the country's first President. He had many political enemies. Sukarno supported John's mission and John thereby became embroiled in Indonesian politics.
He lived simply on not much money, like a real Balinese. He learnt the language and ran a small guesthouse. He understood Bali's culture and beautifully describes Balinese ceremonies, dances and music. He did not shy away from controversies in the book, such as the role of the caste system in Bali. Many of the controversies are still hot topics.
John supported Indonesian independence. The new Indonesian government appointed him press agent and gave him the grand title of "Technical Expert on Cultural Relations and Information for Countries Abroad." He knew President Sukarno and describes what it was like to be with the great leader and attend his rousing speeches.
The last time the world had seen Balinese dance was in 1931 at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris. It was a great success. It was John's passion to make sure that the world would once again experience the breathtaking beauty of Balinese dance, costumes and music.
He revived the moribund Peliatan dance troupe and brought in new dancers. A 12-year-old Balinese girl named Raka, who was a beautiful legong dancer, became the star. He sought out the retired dancer and choreographer, Mario, and persuaded him to create a new dance especially for Raka. It's still danced today. It's the Bumblebee Dance.
The book is full of tales of persistence against the odds. It is impossible to imagine the difficulties in the early 1950s of arranging theatres, publicity, stage settings, tailors, hotel bookings, visa applications, flights and a million other things. There were no faxes, few telephones and no e-mail. The 44 dancers and musicians were not interested in any of this. The most important thing, as far as they were concerned, was a special dish made with rice and chillies, three times a day, every day. Also on the shopping list were clothes for 44 assorted Balinese who were not used to anything less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The group, who had never left their remote village, departed Indonesia on 21 August 1952. It took 4 days to fly the 8,000 miles from Jakarta to London. They danced in London at The Winter Garden Theatre the day after they arrived. It was a full house. There were rave reviews. The leading dancers of Saddlers Wells came. Little Raka was a star overnight. She was invited to Covent Garden and photographed with Frederick Ashton and Margot Fonteyn. Mrs Churchill came to the show and wished them well.
In September, they flew to New York. The Fulton Theatre, Broadway, was sold out for seven solid nights. Dancers of Bali was the first Broadway hit of the season. Everyone courted them. Richard Rodgers, who put on South Pacific with the famous Bali Hai song, came to the show. Mrs Theodore Roosevelt invited them home to meet her grandchildren. Ed Sullivan televised parts of the Bumblebee Dance and the Monkey Dance to an audience of 30 million.
Then they were off to Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St Louis, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where the legongs got seven curtain calls.
They met Bob Hope and Bing Crosby just after they completed the Road to Bali movie, and became instant friends. The girls met and adored Olivia de Havilland. They saw Fred Astaire and visited Walt Disney in the Disney Studios - he was busy designing Disneyland at the time.
It must have been overwhelming for my countrymen and a steep learning curve. One of the dancers said,
"Now that I know how movies are made, I dare go see them and enjoy them. I used to think that real events were filmed, and I always felt so sorry for the people who were shot or killed."
John's companion and my great friend, Laura Rosenberg, arranged for Periplus, the leading publishers on Indonesia, to reprint Dancing out of Bali to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the English edition. Sir David Attenborough, who worked with John, has written a perceptive introduction. There are recently discovered photographs and detailed captions.
I first met John and Laura in the early 1980s. John died in 1989. Laura still visits Bali. It is a great service to John's memory and Bali that this important piece of history is in print again.
I enthusiastically recommend the book.