Overlooked No More: Ni Gusti Ayu Raka Rasmi, Balinese Dancer

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

PELIATAN, BALI, Indonesia — She was a tiny 12-year-old girl with wide, darting eyes and a big headdress, undulating across the stage in the graceful, highly stylized dance of Bali.

Her arms floated and twined, as if they had no bones or joints, as she dipped and rose to the urgent syncopated gongs of a gamelan orchestra.

It was 1952 in New York, and almost no one in the land had experienced anything like it. It had been more than 20 years since the world had seen a live Balinese dance performance, at the Colonial Exposition, an event in Paris that was created to showcase the arts of the European colonies.

The young dancer’s name was Ni Gusti Ayu Raka Rasmi. She had never before left her home village, Peliatan, with its small, mud-walled houses surrounded by bright green rice fields.

Now she was the star of the Bali Dancers, a troupe that had traveled more than 10,000 miles into the alien worlds of the United States and Europe.

The troupe included two other female dancers about her age, Oka and Anom, and an accomplished young male dancer named Sampih.

“I was the smallest,” Raka Rasmi exclaimed in an interview at her home in Peliatan in 2008, as she paged through an album of pictures from the trip. “I was the cutest!”

The dancers were accompanied by a 40-piece gamelan orchestra in which players used mallets to produce rapid, rhythmic and hypnotic music on banks of percussion instruments.

Balinese dance, with roots in Hindu and traditional folk rituals, is central to the island’s culture, performed in temples and courtyards for both religious and secular occasions.

It is characterized by slight, pivoting gestures of the head, hands, fingers and especially the eyes, which are virtually performers of their own, round, intense and expressive.

“When the music is dynamic you have to have a fierce look. You open your eyes wide. You can’t smile,” Raka Rasmi said. “When the music is soft and sweet, your eyes are also soft and sweet and you smile.”

Brilliantly colored costumes and elaborate headdresses add a ceremonial feel to the performances.

On the tour, Raka Rasmi performed a delicate new dance called the Oleg Tamulilingan, or the Bumblebee, in which a male and female dancer circle each other as if courting.

Audiences were ecstatic. The performances received as many as seven curtain calls.

In reviewing the show, The Wall Street Journal called the dances “an exotic elixir of sound, color and movement” led by “a 12-year-old virtuoso who brought down the house.”

John Martin, writing in The New York Times, called Raka Rasmi “an utterly lovely wisp of a girl, as serious as an owl until her smile breaks through.” Her dancing, he wrote, “was truly superb, technically and dramatically.”

Ed Sullivan featured them on his Sunday-night variety show, “Toast of the Town,” just as 12 years later he would feature the Beatles on their concert tour of the United States.

The world tour would catapult Raka Rasmi into a lifelong career in dance. By the time of her death, at 79, on March 17, 2018, she would be known as one of the greatest Balinese teachers and performers of her generation.

In the years after the 1952 tour, Bali grew in popularity as a tourist destination and Balinese dance took its place as one of the world’s distinctive dance forms.

“Ibu Raku was an excellent teacher and dancer, still performing till the day she died,” said Rucina Ballinger, a dance ethnologist and promoter of Balinese dance who lives in Indonesia. (Ibu Raku is a common honorific for an older woman.)

“As a teacher she was feisty and strong-willed,” she added.

She embodied a quality the Balinese call “taksu,” which Ballinger described as “charisma, spiritual power, something that exceeds technical brilliance and is seen as a sort of divine energy.”

Well into her 70s, Raka Rasmi continued to train students and to perform on special occasions, though she said her aging knees forced her to modify some of the moves.

She was training a student in front of a cracked mirror in her garden during the interview in 2008, her hands fluttering and twittering as she moved, as supple as a girl.

“It’s difficult to be a good Balinese dancer,” she said, and she demonstrated one of the exercises with her student.

“They pull your shoulders back until you choke to make the bones in your back narrow,” she said, pressing a knee into her student’s back and pulling on her shoulders, “like that.”

Raka Rasmi raised herself on her toes and wiggled her feet to demonstrate a movement. “That’s what the doctor told me not to do,” she said.

Ni Gusti Ayu Raka Rasmi was born on March 10, 1939, to a family of farmers and raised with no electricity and no radio link to the outside world.

She first learned to dance when she was 10. She was playing near the rice fields where she helped her family by shooing away birds in the planting season and joining in the harvest.

“I was looking for grasshoppers when the teacher came by and said, ‘Raka, come here, why don’t you hang out with us, why don’t you learn to dance,’ and we danced around,” she said.

At first her parents were against it, she said. “‘Why are you putting on makeup and not helping on the farm?’” she recalled her father asking her. “Sometimes they didn’t give me food.”

But, she said, “After I started bringing in money, they were happy. I was free then. They loved me again.”

In 1952, John Coast, a retired British diplomat who had taken up residence in Bali, came to her village and proposed organizing an international tour for a troupe of dancers and musicians.

An executive of Columbia Artists Management, Frederick Schang, who would finance the American leg of the tour, came to see the dancers, and Raka Rasmi received her first rave review.

“The little darling — oh, the little darling!” Mr. Coast quoted Mr. Schang as exclaiming in his book “Dancing Out of Bali” (1954).“Ni Gusti Raka — that’s your star! She’s great. She’s so sweet I could eat her with a spoon. All the little darlings — the American public will go crazy about ’em.”

In America Raka Rasmi discovered snow and Coca-Cola and vanilla ice cream. She met Walt Disney on a visit to Disneyland. During the tour’s first stop, in London she met the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn at Sadlers Wells. Later, she said, she shook hands with the actress Grace Kelly.

A high point of the trip as she recalls it was a visit to Hollywood, where together with the other two child dancers, she performed for Frank Sinatra, and he sang for them. “He was great!”

He invited them to his home, where she met Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, who had just completed the filming of a jokey movie about their homeland called “Road to Bali.”

The girls found the film hilarious, Coast wrote. “The movie had nothing of Bali in it, but everybody, and especially the little girls, loved the film,” he wrote “‘Itu Bob!’ they exclaimed to one another helplessly — ‘That Bob!’”

In her photo album Raka Rasmi saved a picture of Bob Hope in a ski cap and Bing Crosby in a funny hat mimicking the gestures of Balinese dance, with three Balinese girls watching them and laughing.

Decades later, in 2008, she said she still practiced two or three times a week, in the morning and sometimes in the evening, to keep her body flexible, and to make her happy.

“If I couldn’t dance I would cry, because I love dancing,” she said. “I do it without music because I already have it in my head. I’ve memorized it. And even in bed, it’s still there in my mind when I’m sleeping.”

Sari Sudarsono contributed reporting from Peliatan.

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