Bali 1928 is an ongoing international and interdisciplinary project established by American ethnomusicologist Edward Herbst in 2002 to “research, find, understand, document, explain, restore, re-release, and repatriate the first published recordings of music in Bali along with rare film footage and photographs of musicians and dance-drama performances from the 1930s”.

With support from the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s Regional Mobility Fund, a packed audience at the University of Sydney was able to get a privileged glimpse of Herbst’s found and restored footage of Balinese dance as filmed by the likes of renowned musicologist Colin McPhee and his anthropologist wife Jane Belo, pioneering visual anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and art collector Rolf dé Mare and art historian Claire Holt. These films, mostly silent (unless dubbed over), were curated by Herbst to centre around the theme of “Gender, Cross-Dressing, and Androgyny in Balinese Dance”, Herbst presented on the same theme to great acclaim at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in 2016.

The visuals, moving in just about every way possible, were accompanied by enthusiastic and engaging “live” narration by Herbst as he regaled contextual information and anecdotes of the films. While it was an evening of many images, the principal image I took away was that of Herbst assiduously combing the corners of the Earth, from archives in Europe and the United States to remote villages in Bali, in this decades-long project. The two hours flew past, and we left under the impression that there was still much, much more to be said.

Photo credit: Natali Pearson

I have little knowledge of Balinese art forms, and struggled a little to keep pace with the immense technical vocabulary Herbst used in his narration (indeed, part of Herbst’s role in this project is to ascertain, with much difficulty and hard work, what specific form of dance or music was documented at the time, and label such detail to future audiences). This did not prevent me and others from being entranced by the stunning choreography – a word perhaps too inflexible in this context – of arched backs, hand gestures, incredible facial expressions, and turned hips. Click below for one of the videos of renowned male dancer I Made Sarin that Herbst showed to us, available on the Bali 1928 YouTube page.