Alex Wolman with dancer at ISI. Photo via Alex Wolman

Studying music, dance and art in Bali

So, you have fallen in love with Bali. And you’re loving Bali’s music, dance and art so much that you want to learn how to do it yourself. Well, you are in luck. There are several ways you can study traditional and contemporary art in Bali, and here we will introduce you to four foreign artists who have done just that.

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Kristi Wrolstad in Ubud’s sacred Monkey Forest. Photo via KiKi

KiKi and Kristi: taking private lessons

While many Balinese artists are happy to take on a private student, you usually need to contact them directly. A learning centre in Ubud makes this easier, as masters in dance, music, carving and Indonesian language give private lessons every day. Two ladies booked their lessons online from the US to study art in Bali.

There are several ways you can study traditional and contemporary art in Bali

Kristi Wrolstad and KiKi are two friends from Asheville, North Carolina. Kristi is a professional dancer and KiKi is a musician and sound artist. When we met them they were taking private lessons for just one week before hurrying home for Christmas. The venue was Ubud’s Pondok Pekak library and learning centre, at the back of the soccer ground off the Monkey Forest Road. It offers informal lessons of 1-3 hours in Balinese Gamelan, offerings, fruit & vegetable carving, Balinese dance, silver jewellery making, painting and wood carving.

“I Googled where to learn Gamelan music, and I got really fortunate and blessed to have found such a good teacher through the Pondok Pekak,” KiKi says. “I was trying to kind of find a private more family-style teacher but he’s actually such a good teacher that it’s all been perfect.”

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
KiKi with her teacher I Nyoman Parman at Pondok Pekak in Ubud. Photo via KiKi

“I had not been able to find a teacher in the US so eventually I made my way over to Bali with my friend,” Kristi says. “We had a dream of studying together, her studying Gamelan and me studying the dance. So it’s happening, I’m living my dream and it’s amazing.”

A professional belly dancer, Kristi has also studied Samba and Afro Brazillian dance styles; and several forms of Indian temple dancing. In Ubud she has been learning Legong, a dance form you can see in many parts of Bali, sometimes performed by girls as young as seven.

She says the biggest challenge is understanding the music, which is very different to anything she has ever danced to before.

“That’s why it’s great that my friend is studying the music so she can help me unlock its mysteries,” she says.

KiKi says a friend who had studied Balinese flute turned her on to Gamelan music about five years ago.

“I was just so fascinated by the sounds,” she says.

It stimulates my brain and my being in just a whole different way than any other kind of music I’ve ever found.

At the time she was living alone on a property in northern California’s mountains, listening to Gamelan music every night and amusing herself by making shadow puppets with her hands on the wall.

“Then I found out that shadow puppets exist here,” she says. “It’s like my soul remembers. It feels at home here in the music.”

Claire: studying at a local university

Claire Fassnacht, from Chicago Illinois, is studying Gamelan and traditional Balinese dance at a university in Denpasar known as ISI. ISI stands for Institut Seniman Indonesia or the Indonesian Artists’ Institute. It offers Bachelor, Masters and PhD degrees, but Claire is taking a year-long program in traditional Balinese arts for foreign students wishing to study art in Bali who do not want to enrol for a degree.

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Claire Fassnacht. Photo via Claire Fassnacht

This is her fourth time studying art in Bali – after graduating from Lawrence University in Wisconsin she took private lessons in Ubud for five months before she returned to the states and applied to study at ISI.

“I’m the only American in a group of 25 students in this program,” she says. “Most of the students are from Europe or Mexico, and we have one Japanese student.”

Claire says she realised she wanted to teach Gamelan after sessions with five and six-year-old kids at a US summer camp. She taught them a simple dance movement, and showed videos of dancing in Bali, and pictures of the dancers’ costumes and Gamelan instruments.

“I was kind of delighted about the questions I got,” she says. “Questions I would never have thought about for Balinese culture.”

Having studied Gamelan as part of her undergraduate degree, she was so familiar with the sound of the Gamelan that she had not realised she had so much knowledge to share.

“I’m convinced that I’ll always be pursuing Gamelan and dance for the rest of my life,” she says.

Alex: doing a study tour with an overseas university

Alex Wolman, based in Perth, Western Australia, studied a mixture of Western and Balinese visual art forms as part of an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at the University of Western Australia.

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Alex Wolman. Photo via Alex Wolman

The Bali Studio, coordinated by Assistant Professor Paul Trinidad, is an optional unit the university offers its third year fine arts students wishing to study art in Bali. The format has changed several times since it started six years ago.

“We did traditional (Western) formal drawing techniques – so line, tone, perspective, that sort of thing,” Alex says. “There was photography as well and there was a little bit of printmaking, doing mono prints. Subsequent units have done block printing and wood carving.”

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Learning Kamisan painting at The Bali Studio. Photo via Paul Trinidad

He says they also spent several days learning to make traditional Kamisan paintings – a graphic art form based on Wayang Kulit puppets, with strict conventions for depicting each of the Hindu-Balinese legendary figures. He says he enjoyed learning Balinese art’s symbolism, an aspect he says has mostly disappeared from Western art.

“I found it very difficult because my natural approach is all over the place, very slap dash,” he says. “I really appreciated the precision, the measured-ness.”

He says that in later years The Bali Studio has adopted a focus on the Graphic Novel, which Alex says has interesting synergies with Kamisan painting. Alex now teaches part-time at the University of Western Australia.

So, if you are thinking of studying music, dance and art in Bali, all four students say it is a great experience.

Kristi says she very much enjoys the warm connection with her teacher, the intricate costuming, and the spiritual infusion into the dance.

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Kristi Wrolstad practising her moves at their Ubud hotel. Photo via KiKi

“I love the sacredness – even the head dresses are considered to be very holy,” she says. “I really appreciate that deeper level of dancing where you are dancing not only from your body or your mind but also your spirit, and it’s entrancing. And it’s very strange and sort of weird and I like that too, it draws me in.”

KiKi says one of the best parts is the warmth and support she has had from the local community, and from her teacher.

“I completely adore him,” she says. “He has been so patient with me and so kind and today he actually brought me to his town that he lives in and showed me his group performance.

“It’s just incredible to see how talented they are and how easy they make it look, and it’s so difficult! There are so many different melodies and rhythms happening at the same time. And they’re not even looking any more, they can do it like with their heads turned.”

Claire says it is an opportunity to make good friends.

“It’s nice that I get to hang out with people from all over the world, but I have a fair amount of Indonesian friends from when I lived in Ubud last year,” she says.

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Claire Fassnacht with a Gamelan player at Batubulan. Photo via Jonathan Bailey

Outside of school she has joined an international Gamelan group, with both foreign and Indonesian members, that plays up in Batuan.

“Not all of us have grown up learning Gamelan and some of us have been studying a really short time and some of us have been studying a really long time,” she says. “And of course the Indonesians have been studying forever. The way that translates into a performance is pretty cool.”

Alex, who was one of 25 Bali Studio participants, says they became very close by the end of the four week tour.

“That is definitely the highlight of the trip – you come back and you are best friends,” he says.

“It’s not just a grind academic thing, it has a great social aspect to it as well.”

For the first two weeks they stayed in ISI student accommodation. “That was great because we got to interact with the students there and that was something special. It’s not often in our lives that we get to interact with art students from completely different cultures,” he says.

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Learning Kamisan painting at The Bali Studio. Photo via Paul Trinidad

“There was a romantic relationship between one of the Perth people and one of the Balinese students. That was cute and it was nice seeing how they bridged the contemporary-traditional landscape. In the West it’s more about: ‘it’s gotta be new, it’s gotta be different’. Their approach is ‘we want to make sure we keep things going and then give our own spin on it’. I think it was a really nice relationship.”

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
A Kamisan painting class at The Bali Studio. Photo via Paul Trinidad

The Bali Studio then shifted camp to Klungkung where they learned Kamisan painting. They also visited a nearby village where the local school had closed after funding ran out.

“We were shown the school and it was all run down,” he says. “Like vines growing through the building and then to cap it off there were pigs running through the school. So that was quite sobering and I think the trip became a bit more authentic after that. Everyone became a lot more present and a lot more grateful for everything.”

Grumbles and challenges

Alex says this event changed a few mindsets, as there had been a few grumbles beforehand.

“The conditions aren’t five-star holiday accommodation and I think some of the people were expecting that,” he says. “They were kind of expecting a ‘Bali holiday’ with a bit of drawing. It’s a balance because you want people to be engaged and feel like they’re having an authentic experience, but of course you want to make sure people aren’t completely put off it. The conditions were by no means bad.”

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
Claire Fassnacht with reyong players in Ubud. Photo via Claire Fassnacht

Claire had to be pressed to mention any dislikes about ISI.

“What I don’t like is that my program limits me to only take classes with foreigners,” she says. “I’m not technically allowed to take classes mixed with the Indonesians because I’m not officially enrolled in the school. So I wish I was able to take more classes where I mingled with Indonesian students.

“It can be hard studying in Bali sometimes. Every day when you walk down the street or when you go to eat lunch or when you go to do nearly any activity you’re still treated like a tourist.

“I never really feel like I’m living here. It feels like I’m never going to be completely integrated into the community, which can feel a little bit sad sometimes.”

Two days into their five-day stay at Pondok Pekak, Kristi and KiKi have no complaints.

“There’s nothing I don’t like about it, but it’s very challenging understanding the music,” Kristi says. “It’s different to all the types of dance I’ve studied. So I’m going to have to really work on it.”

Studying music, dance and art in Bali
KiKi practising outside her hotel room. Photo via KiKi

“The sound kind of makes me go into a trance and so it’s hard for me to focus and sometimes it’s like everything blurs together (laughs) and I’m like, hold on, where am I again?” she says.

“But other than that I love everything about it.”

Like all of the students we interviewed, KiKi says the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Outside of lessons she is finding plenty of raw material to sample for her experimental music mixes.

“One of my favourite things in the world is collecting sounds,” she says. “This is like my heaven of sound.”

Claire says her studies continue to enrich her life.

“I don’t know if I’ll always be in Bali but I know I will probably continue coming back to Bali for the rest of my life,” she says.

Alex says the Bali Studio was a life changing experience.

“It opened up a whole new aspect of the world which I hadn’t even considered,” he says.

“The authenticity of the Balinese artists definitely made me care. It was in the semester after that that I had my first breakthrough, producing work that I believed in.”