Ni Ketut Cenik - Legendary Dancer of Bali
by Michelle Chin


What can we say about Ni Ketut Cenik, a Balinese woman born in 1922 in banjar Pekandelan, Batuan, Gianyar, Bali? After the passing away of Ni Ketut Reneng, I Gusti Gede Raka Saba and other famous members of the Balinese dance world, Cenik is the only remaining living legend of Balinese dance. She has lived through the eras of Dutch colonisation, Japanese occupation into the current reformation period of Indonesian history. She acknowledges that these days there are professional dancers and artists, art schools and academic institutions where college students study the various disciplines of visual and performing arts. But she also remembers that in the past the study of dance was an activity that took place in the banjar or even in the rice fields surounding the village, and the aim of performing was sometimes as an offering to the gods and at other times simply for the pure pleasure of social interaction.

These days one can be described as a professional performer, and earn one's living from performing. A professional dancer will even be considered to have a position of status and prestige in the community, and "art "is understood to have its own set of criteria, values and these days it even has a fixed price. Cenik does not get involved in all these new-fangled ideas about art and artists, nor does she shrink away from these new phenomena. She herself has been awarded many prizes and awards in recognition for her service to the arts, including the Wijaya Kusuma Award in 1982, Dharma Kusuma Madia award in 1986, and the Dharma Kusuma in 1988.

Her knowledge of Balinese dance spans many decades and several genres of the vast Balinese repertoire of dance and theatre. She studied and performed the classical dance theatre Gambuh as well as many of the Legong Keraton dances. She has mastered the entire range of roles in the Balinese dance-opera Arja.

Acknowledged widely as being an excellent teacher of dance, Cenik is considered to be one of the few expert teachers of the sacred processional dance Rejang performed by women and young girls during temple ceremonies in Bali. She has taught dance all over Bali in villages as far-flung as Culik (Karangasem), Peliatan, Palasari, Tampaksiring and Tegenungan.

Cenik now prefers to focus on her own artistic endeavours, personal growth and development, thereby ensuring a constant involvement in the creative process. She continues to perform with enthusiasm and spirit, and never just "goes through the motions" of the dances.

"These days, dancers are more focussed on being beautiful, well-costumed, elaborately made-up. They don't focus on performing well!" she says in surprise at the current situation, "Now there are lots of dance schools, arts academies, universitites and institutions, but there are very few good dancers in Bali" she commented way back in 1995 when she performed Joged Pingitan Calonarang at the College of Indonesian Art (STSI), Denpasar during the Legong Festival organised by the Walter Spies Foundation.

Her back-stage comments of six years ago remain valid today, even though she was not actually making the comments to anyone in particular at the time. She was neither criticising nor complaining - rather, it seemed as if she was just talking to herself, expressing her wonder and surprise that things could be like that in Bali of all places.

Cenik has been dancing since she was fifteen years old. When she started to study dance, her fellow students all went on stage a long time before she did. She was one of the last to be permitted to perform in public. As a child, she was even thought of as having no talent as a dancer. Her parents preferred that she carry out her duties as a shepherdess for the family's cows. Her family was very poor, and she was kept very busy gathering the grass and hay needed for feeding the animals. She didn't have much time to even think about the normal pleasures of playing children's games, let alone the luxury of actually practising dance.

Born in the village of Batuan which is renowned for various arts such as painting and dance, it was natural that Cenik had plenty of opportunities to watch dance practices, even though they were happening far-off in the distance and she was busy minding the cattle. It's also no surprise that Cenik longed to dance. Although her name "cenik" means "small", Cenik never behaved in a small way! She had a rebellious character, and always revolted against restriction or control in any form it appeared. Even as a young girl, she was openly critical of the dance teachers in Batuan, and because of her "attitude" she never lasted long with any of the dance teachers. Eventually they all refused to teach her, and she ended up studying dance on her own. "So now, who should I acknowledge as my teacher?" is her response to the question of who in fact was her dance teacher?
Cenik is now almost eighty years old, but her age does not slow her down as a performer. She can still perform a full-length Joged Pingitan for 50 minutes or more. She has the physical stamina to perform for a long time, and her performances are always breath-taking and riveting. The audience is always hushed when she is on stage. "I'm poor and I'm small!" she exclaims with a laugh, recalling her childhood, and pointing out that she never imagined that she would end up being a dancer.

Cenik is famous for the dance called Joged Pingitan which is a sub-genre of the legong keraton group of dances. Joged Pingitan uses the same vocabulary of movements as can be found in legong keraton but Cenik transformed the dance by introducing a story into the performance, and thus it developed into the Joged Pingitan we know today. The most popular story used in Joged Pingitan is that of Calonarang.
The entire performance has a wide range of characters and the amazing thing is that Cenik can transform herself so quickly and easily from one character to another. It may be difficult to believe that one dancer can perform this story on her own, considering that the story goes like this:
In the ancient kingdom of Dirah, Sisya Ni Guyang and Ni Rarung appear. They are students of the art of black magic and their teacher is the renowned sorcerer Sira Walu Nateng Dirah. The sorcerer's daughter Ratna Menggali has been promised in marriage to King Erlangga of Daha. They are all awaiting the envoy from Daha who will bring news of the wedding plans.

In Daha, the Penasar and Wijil talk about their work as servants to King Erlangga. The king orders them to take a letter to his minister, Patih Murdi. The letter contains the king's decision not to marry Ratna Menggali because the subjects of Daha disagree with his decision. The people, knowing that Ratna Menggali's mother is skilled in black magic, fear that the daughter may also be a sorceress, and that the King and Daha itself would be in danger.

Patih Madri goes to Dirah where he delivers the letter to Sira Walu Nateng Dirah who is very enraged with the news. She tells Patih Madri to return to King Erlangga and tell him to be prepared for many misfortunes which she will bring upon his kingdom.

On his way back to Daha, Patih Madri meets Ni Rarung. She blocks his way and to demonstrate her magical powers she goes to the graveyard and digs up the corpse of a small child which she brings back to life. She argues with Patih Madri and transforms herself into a garuda bird. They fight and she uses her sharp beak to pluck out Madri's eyes. Madri is accompanied back to Daha, and eventually dies.


Cenik was clever enough to choreograph the dance in such an innovative way that a solo dancer performs all the various parts and characters. Joged Pingitan traditionally used a limited range of movements and set choreographies, but Cenik was able to break through these barriers as a challenge to her creative powers, and she succeeded in adding one new sub-genre to the group of Legong Keraton and Joged Pingitan dances known previously.

Cenik never just performs a dance. She develops the character in all its richness and nuances and has discovered endless possibilities to explore the concept of characterisation in performance. "Anyone can dance the part of Pandung, but not the way I dance it", she explains, adding that dancing is not merely a matter of memorising the dance movements and structure of the choreography.

She sees performing as a sublime way of expressing one's inner spirit and struggles. According to Cenik, dancing and performing are not simply mastering the physically difficult movements and positions of Balinese dance such as tanjek, pileh, agem, uku, tebek. These postures and movements can only be "mastered" through the use of inner strength and power, not by physical exertion and practice alone.

"It is a matter of the heart (unduk keneh or prilaku hati)," she says. "It is not enough to have a pretty face or physical stamina. You need to use your brain, your heart, your feelings and your intuition. Only in this way will your performance be endowed with positive energy. It all depends on your inner self and how to express the spirit with movements which are full of meaning and power."

Cenik has had plenty of years to fine-tune her approach to performing in a variety of spaces. She is never overwhelmed by a huge expanse of stage even though she was brought up in the times when performances in Bali took place in much smaller spaces. In the past it was easier for a performer to quickly establish a feeling of intimacy with those watching, simply because there was so little distance between the performers and the audience. Now, Cenik often has to perform in much larger venues or raised proscenium stages located within buildings rather than performing outdoors with the bare earth below her feet and the wide, open sky above. But in the end it does not matter to her whether she performs in a space as large as a soccer field or as tiny as her bathroom at home in Batuan.

"Don't expect a stage to come in a variety of fixed sizes. It's not the same as asking for a piece of clothing in a certain size!" she exclaims.

Cenik reveals her own personal discovery which has become the basis of her "special tactics" when she is confronted with a large venue. "You shouldn't even try to totally dominate the entire performing area. It's better to focus on performing the best that you can. If the stage is 'too big', don't use the entire area. Create your own space with its own imaginary limits or edges, and don't step over those lines that no-one else but you can 'see'. Just perform your dance in that part of the actual stage."

Cenik is also armed additional more 'special weapons' - she knows how to totally fix the audience's attention. "If the audience doesn't seem very interested from the start of a performance, it is better to shorten the dance and perform for a briefer time than you had actually planned." She always focusses totally at the start of a performance and hopes to create a bond with the audience. Of course, sometimes it happens that the audience is restless or tired or not easily entertained, so she then knows it is better to perform for a shorter rather than a longer period of time.

Close to the age of eighty, Cenik still performs often. She also teaches dance to many students, including her many grand-children, She feels indebted to the world of dance for having provided her with so many interesting experiences - happy times in different places at different times. She has performed all over the island of Bali, and also overseas many times in Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland and Japan. It has been a journey of both body and spirit through space and time. "They keep on inviting me to perform, and I never want to say no to performing!" she exclaims laughing, her eyes lit with joy.

[Text by Michelle Chin; Photographs by Rucina Ballinger]

Published in Bali Echo, April/May 2001