Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Spring 2013
Twenty four days. That’s all it took for Maria Dreeszen ’14 to realize she didn’t entirely get it before Bali.
"I gained first-hand experience of the role of religion in Bali by actually attending rituals and participating in them,” said Dreeszen, a pre-dental religious studies major. “I was living their spiritual way of life, rather than just solely reading a book about it, writing a paper on it or watching a video. And now I get that you really can’t understand something until you actively live it.”
Between Nov. 26 and Dec. 19, 2012, Dreeszen and 11 other students participated in Union’s inaugural Bali mini-term in performing arts. Developed and led by Jennifer Matsue, associate professor of music, director of the Asian Studies Program and director of the World Musics and Cultures Program, the term fully immerses students in Balinese culture through the performing arts.
“The arts are vastly important to understanding culture—any culture,” Matsue said. “Music and dance don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist in a culture and express the culture in which they exist.”
“You can learn so much through music, for instance. You can learn about political and spiritual beliefs, about gender and race, about history, economics, technology,” she added. “And there’s no better place than Bali to experience this deep relationship between arts and culture.”
The reason: life is lived through art in this Indonesian country.
“For almost every milestone in life, there is a ritual performance—everything from the first time a baby’s feet touch the ground to cremation ceremonies and temple celebrations,” Matsue said. “You can’t understand daily life in Bali without an awareness of gamelan (Balinese orchestra) and dance—they are integral to so many events.”
Colin Turley ’13, a physics major minoring in music and electrical engineering, certainly found this to be true.
“Unlike in the West, music and performing arts are integrated into everyday life. So to understand Balinese culture, we had to start by understanding art,” he said. “By studying and practicing their arts intensely for a few weeks, we received a window into Balinese culture.”
And they didn’t just study one art form; they studied many of them. And not just from a scholarly standpoint either. Students were expected to become proficient enough to perform in the Balinese tradition, for the Balinese.
“This is a truly interdisciplinary mini-term, during which students study gamelan, dance, Balinese puppet-making, suling (Balinese flute), Balinese painting and Balinese drumming (kendang),”Matsue said. “In addition, they study some Indonesian language and participate in lectures about social issues in Bali.”
To be asked to do so much in so short a time, with art forms that were just weeks ago unknown to them, was difficult for the students. But they never shied away from the challenge.
“Performing these arts was both exciting and intimidating. I was intimidated because my novice understanding was not even level with Balinese children, and I was scared I would offend the Balinese with how much I was struggling to perfect these art forms,” said Caroline Aldrich ’14, a visual arts major minoring in mathematics. “But I knew I’d never again be able to experience or learn these things, so I did the best I could.“And happily, everyone was pleased with our final performance, so I know the Balinese felt we had done a good job.”
They were able to perform well, in part, because of the instruction they received and experiences they had. Learning from Balinese masters and witnessing real Balinese performances honoring the gods in temples—and even attending a royal cremation ceremony—made it possible for Union students to do what few other visitors to Bali do.
They did what the Balinese people do.
Their dance and music lessons, and the temple celebrations and important rituals they attended, were not of the tourist variety. All experiences were traditional and authentic, and shared with the Balinese themselves.
“Learning Balinese performing arts was extremely difficult at first, and my having been trained in ballet, tap and jazz since I was three, didn’t help much at all,” Dreeszen said. “The way I had been trained to dance with my core contracted and my rib cage closed counteracted Balinese instruction, which is more focused on creating bent lines.”
“This completely different dance style felt unnatural initially, and I struggled mentally and physically,” she continued. “But our teachers were nothing but supportive and patient. They helped us all feel like real Balinese performers by the end.”
This accomplishment left these young men and women much changed. Aldrich, for one, knows that amassing possessions won’t amount to contentment or a sense of fulfillment.
“The Balinese live with so little, yet they are the happiest, most vibrant people,” she said. “Their kindness and true desire to help anyone they can taught me that material things aren’t going to make me feel happy or complete, but being comfortable with who I am, and helping others, will.”
Dreeszen too will strive to find more balance in her life, and she’ll call on this experience for a very long time.
“I want to be a pediatric dentist one day, and I am confident the lessons of cultural awareness I learned in Bali will serve me well in terms of patient interaction,” she said. “A better understanding of how to interact with people who are different is invaluable; it’s something everyone should have.”
Matsue couldn’t agree more, which is why she remains dedicated to growing Union’s World Musics and Cultures Program. It highlights jazz, and the music and culture of Africa and Latin America, with Associate Professor of Music Tim Olsen, and East Asian and Southeast Asian studies with Matsue.
In 2006, Matsue oversaw the acquisition of Japanese drums (taiko), and a gamelan. The same year, she arranged for a Fulbright scholar to give courses on Balinese music and culture. In 2011, two masters in Balinese performing arts taught at Union.
Union’s gamelan, named Gita Semara or “Song of Love,” is the only one in the Capital Region. It also figures prominently in Matsue’s dream to build a college and community gamelan ensemble.
“Gamelan is so wonderful, partly because students can learn to play so quickly,” she said. “Without a Balinese gamelan master, we can’t give perfect instruction, but it’s a start. Hopefully we’ll be able to hire a master in the future.”
Until then, though, she’s thrilled with the progress made so far.
Students can officially minor in World Musics and Cultures, or can create their own organizing theme major incorporating many of the program’s offerings. And of course, there’s the Bali mini-term. It took two years to build and launch, and will be led again in 2014 by Miryam Moutillet, senior artist-in-residence in Theater and Dance.
“Our World Musics and Cultures program has grown a lot. It’s all the more impressive because it’s relatively rare to have so much world music in such a small liberal arts environment,” Matsue said. “It augments Union’s interdisciplinary approach to education in a remarkable way, engaging students with cultures and globalization in very immediate and theoretical ways.
“All the issues we study in different departments across campus—history, economics, gender, race, technology—can be learned about through music and the arts.”
This kind of interdisciplinary and intercultural learning, to Dreeszen, is imperative for one big reason.
“All people of all cultures laugh, dance, speak, eat and seek happiness in unique, amazing ways,” she said. “An appreciation of other ways of life contributes to social justice and makes everyone feel accepted. It adds a sense of peace to the world.”