INTERVIEW with Balinese Dancer, Performer NI MADE PUJAWATI

Panyembrama (The Welcome Dance)Ni Madé Pujawati started dancing ever since she can remember. Born in a remote Balinese village with only paraffin lamps at night, she crept away from home at night to learn dancing. As she was so talented, she was admitted to the Indonesian Conservatory of Music before going on graduate from the Indonesian Institute of Arts. So she learned music and acting, as well as different Indonesian dance styles, both female and male.
In 2000, Ni Madé Pujawati moved to live permanently in London, UK, where she set up her own dance company. She also brought over with her one of Bali’s most beautiful old gamelans, the rare seven-tone Semar Pagulingan, Puja Semara Kanti, and senior dancers and musicians to teach and perform in the UK.
Because of the range and unusual quality of her performance, Ni Madé Pujawati has been in increasing demand as a performer, now usually going on tour of Europe, the USA and Asia every year, performing a wide repertoire which includes not only classical Balinese and Javanese dance, but Balinese theatre, adaptations of Greek tragedy and, more recently, a range of contemporary choreographies and cross-cultural pieces which blend Balinese, Javanese and Bharatanatyam styles. She has also explored performing Balinese dance-opera in English to make it accessible to Western audiences.

Puja 5

You are a dancer. What does a Dance mean to you personally? What qualities does it express through you whenever you dance?

I started dancing when I was a little girl – so small I cannot remember quite how old I was. Then I performed mostly for temple festivals with lots of other girls and boys. Learning dances, practising and performing together have always given me great pleasure. When I was in a secondary school I had a dream of being a dance teacher. Then I went to KOKAR (The Indonesian National Conservatory for the Arts) for 4 years and then to The Indonesian Institute of Arts, the place where all the leading Balinese dancers train, for another 4 years, which gave me my degree in dance.
When I was a little girl dancing for temple festivals I simply felt happiness and joy at dancing. But those feelings have changed since I started at KOKAR. I started to think what the character of the dance was whenever I danced. There are so many different kinds of dances. They ranged from friendly ‘Welcome Dance’ when your job was to appear sweet and charming to angry, strong or aggressive dances. My point here is that, when I dance, I have to transform myself into the character that the dance is about. I am not myself any more. I have become the figure in the dance.
The qualities that I express through dance depend on many considerations. First, it depends where I am performing and for what reason. Second, it depends a lot on my mood that day, and especially at that very moment. Third, what happens depends on the audience, the environment at the time, what is going on in the world at the time, even the weather. None of this is predictable. Balinese recognize this and say such matters are to do with désa kala patra – place, time and circumstances.

Cendrawasih (The Bird of Paradise)What is Balinese Dance?

To satisfy the demand of tourists in the twentieth century, dance had to be radically re-imagined. What is at issue is nicely encapsulated in the Indonesian name given to this genre, tari lepas ‘free dance’, that is dance which has been separated from all the cultural contexts of its original performance. This ‘free dance’ came to be branded and franchised as uniquely and authentically Balinese. The amusing thing is that eight years later, local people have come to think of these dances originally for tourists as what makes them Balinese.
It is in this sense that I use ‘dance’ in what follows, as against ‘theatre’, which are the kinds of dramatic stories Balinese performed for themselves. This leaves what Europeans – and now sometimes Balinese! – understand by dance interestingly problematic. For example, Baris (male war dances), Topèng (masked dance), Jauk and Tèlèk (both taken from religious performance to ward off supernatural dangers) were taken from theatre and religious rites. Other dances such as Panyembrama (the Welcome Dance) and Olèg Tamulilingan (The Dance of the Bumblebees) were choreographed for western audiences, the latter at the request of the English impresario John Coast for his famous tour of the UK and USA in the 1950s. Some, like Lègong (dances traditionally by pre-pubescent girls) were so stripped down that it is difficult to know quite what relationship they bore to their precursors.
Dance is a Western word. Balinese just talk about sesolahan (in High Balinese) and Igelan (in Low Balinese). That just means ‘performance’. As all theatre in Bali is ad lib, nothing is fixed, but is re-imagined on the spot. What I think you are calling ‘dance’ is what Balinese perform mostly for tourists. These are fairly set pieces and involve a degree of improvisation in facial expression, but the formats are set and it is mostly about performing the technical moves correctly with style and flair.

Mara's fury at being unable to disturb Buddha's concentration

What Balinese Dance can offer to the dancer and to the watcher?

Dance can offer to the dancer things such as pleasure and satisfaction, if the dancer can dance with joy and is able to satisfy the audience. But much depends on what the audience itself expects and wants. Children tend to like slapstick; teenagers like romance as do some adults; the older you get the more spectators want a point to the story, i.e. what can it tell us about the human condition? However, audiences in Bali vary from village to village and it is the job of the first actor on stage to feel what that particular audience feel like on that particular night.

UrvashiPlease tell me, is it hard to tell the story when dancing? What ways and expressions do you use in order to tell the meaning of the story?

In Balinese theatre the performers tell stories through songs and dialogues. Balinese dance is completely different, for example, from Indian dance where every gesture has a meaning. Balinese dance movements are abstract. That is dance is based on unusual movements that we do not use in daily life. However, we adapt some from daily movements with exaggeration such as pointing, getting heated, stubbing, kicking etc. Also we adapt expressions such as happy, charming, angry, romantic, sad and so on, but rework them for the stage, so that the audience can recognize and engage with them. So we try to fit in that sort of imitation of daily expressions whatever is the theme of dance to relate it to the audience.
Quite often a whole performance lasting up to an hour can be summed up in three or four sentences. When there are several dancers working together on stage, it requires a great deal of experience to get the performance to flow, to come to life, to ‘take off’ and to engage the audience so that they forget their daily lives and join in what we create on stage. You cannot do that if you have a script, because it is like being chained by the leg. You cannot fly.

How did you come to begin incorporating Balinese dance into English society? Where did it all begin for you here?

When I arrived and settled in London I was so surprised to find out how many Gamelan groups there were in the UK. The famous ones were the Balinese gamelan, Lila Cita, and the Javanese Southbank Gamelan Group. Lila Cita invited me to come to their rehearsals and I did. Soon after, I was performing with Lila Cita. Also I was invited to teach Balinese dance at SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). At the same time I received many enquiries to give private dance lessons.

Puja 2

Do you have a group of people that you personally teach Balinese dance? If yes, how does that work with your busy schedule?

Yes, I have a group called Lila Bhawa that I formed in early 2003 and which I have been directing ever since. Before I set up Lila Bhawa I had a few dancers who were taking private lessons from me and they were good enough to perform with me. So we ended up performing together quite often. One day, in early 2003, Roehampton University asked us to perform and they needed to know the name of our group, so I discussed this with my dancers and we came up with the name of Lila Bhawa, which means – ‘elegant movement’. If we have a performance coming up, then we rehearse as a group pretty much every weekend for at least a month or so beforehand. Quite often Lila Bhawa performs to recorded music; sometimes with the Lila Cita gamelan. It depends on the budget. Since 2004 we have been performing twice a year at the London Symphony Orchestra’s second venue, at St. Luke’s Jerwood Hall.

Life of BuddhaAre there any other dances you do besides Balinese dance?

I feel very fortunate that when I was at KOKAR and the Institute of Arts in Bali I was required to learn a whole range of National Dances as part of the curriculum. Because of that I learned lots of different dances from different islands/places in Indonesia, from Java, Sumatra, Sunda, Sulawesi, Kalimantan etc. Three years after my arrival in London, I started to perform with the Southbank Gamelan Players, which plays Javanese gamelan. Five years after my arrival in London I started to work with a well known artist, Hi Ching Lim, who directed a company called River Cultures. There I met many different dancers from all over the world. I found the way they worked very interesting. All the dancers contributed different movements from their own repertoire of dance styles to make the choreography look more interesting. In that way all the dancers would have had to learn those particular movements such as Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissy, Ballet, Flamengko (Spanish dance), Bollywood, Balinese and Javanese dance styles. Our last two productions were very interesting. All the dancers were performing on stilts.


Performing on stilts? How long did it take for you to prepare yourself for such a performance? Did you perform like this only once or many more times?

I started 3 years ago. I was very scared the first time I tried. I managed to walk; but I was not comfortable performing or doing any dance movements. However, about a year ago River Cultures was doing a production where all dancers had to dance on stilts. The title of the production was Nature’s Icons. It was about the Goddess Durga in her battle against Mahisha, as they battled for control of nature. It was an exciting outdoor production for Melas (that is Indian festivals) and funded by The Arts Council. Partners were Southampton Mela, Crawley Mela and Emergency Exit Arts (EEA). They invited me to join them, but I said ‘No way’. At first I absolutely refused to dance on stilts, but then I became curious. Eventually I decided to give a try. All the performers were great. Seeing them comfortable dancing on stilts inspired me to do the same. I used the short stilts first called ‘the baby stilts’ as they were only 20cm high. After 10 minutes of practice, I felt sufficiently comfortable to give a try to the tall ones, which were 90cm in height. It was scary but it felt great. So, I have been performing on stilts with the group ever since. I performed with the group in Melas around the UK in summer 2009 and 2010.

Puja 7

The work you do sounds incredibly interesting, artistic, rich of various experiences and possibilities. What are your plans for the end year of 2010 and the new year of 2011? Are there any more performances planned for this period of time?

I have quite a number of projects coming up in 2011-12. At the moment, I am rehearsing with my group, Lila Bhawa, for their forthcoming performance. Lila Bhawa will be performing at The LSO St Luke’s in March 2011, also several performances are planned for the Horniman Museum for their exhibition on Bali Dance (April 2011-March 2012). In fact I am consultant to the Horniman for that exhibition and shall probably be doing a whole range of workshops there. I am also teaching at Essex University’s acting college, East 15 and at SOAS. Perhaps the most exciting is that I am involved in a project to reimagine Balinese engagement with Westerners and Western intellectuals, which has been so important to the creation of the modern idea of Bali. It is called Bali: after the End of the World. We have just finished filming the prologue, which is about the actor and theatre writer Antonin Artaud’s famous encounter with Balinese dance at the Paris Exposition in 1931. With luck we should be shooting the whole film in Bali in July and August 2011 with an international cast of actors and dancers.

If you would like more information of all the performances and upcoming events, you will find them on these websites: and .

Gambyong Paréanom with the Southbank Gamelan Players in the Royal Festival Hall Ballroom

Gambyong Paréanom with the Southbank Gamelan Players

in the Royal Festival Hall Ballroom

NOTE: The Interview was done in 2010.

Copyright © Jolita Kelias 2013
All Rights Reserved

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