Performativity in Bulgarian and Balinese Rites. Cross-cultural Aspects

Assoc. Prof. Joanna Spassova-Dikova, PhD.

Insitute of Art Studies, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences


The paper is part of a larger interdisciplinary comparative study of the theatrical masks in the Eastern and Western cultures. The focus of the attention is on some of the Bulgarian rites like lazarouvane, mummers games (Jamal), nestinarstvo and their “analogues” in Balinese culture as legong, Barong, topeng, kecak fire dance. An attempt for providing a cross-cultural analysis of these theatrical ritual forms typical of the traditional cultures of Bulgaria and Bali is made, not so much in the context of their specific folklore, ethnographic or religious aspects (paganism, Christianity, Hinduism), but more in terms of performativity, safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage and intercultural communication.


Performativity, cross-cultural, intercultural communication, Bulgarian and Balinese Rites: Initiation rites, rites for the victory of good over evil and rites for connecting with the transcendental powers


The focus of the attention of my presentation will be on some of the Bulgarian rites like lazarouvane, mummers games (Jamal) and nestinarstvo and their “analogues” in Balinese culture as legong, Barong, topeng, fire dance. An attempt for providing a cross-cultural analysis of these theatrical ritual forms typical of the traditional cultures of Bulgaria and Bali is made, not so much in the context of their specific folklore, ethnographic or religious aspects (paganism, Christianity, Hinduism), but more in terms of performativity, safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage and intercultural communication.

I would like to say few words on the so called “performativity”. Evidently the term derives from the verb “to perform.” It denotes the capacity to execute an action, to carry something out actually and thoroughly, as well as to do according to prescribed ritual. Performance can take place in the real world (as in a wedding ceremony or a court trial) or it can depict fictional events (as in a theatre performance). In my presentation “performativity” is understood as corporeal presentation of action. Performativity is interdisciplinary concept that have emerged in linguistics and the philosophy of language, in performance, theatre and literary studies, as well as in ethnology, sociology and cultural studies, where performativity is discussed in a wider, communicational context.

Another term which I would like shortly to discuss is “cross-cultural”, which emerged in the social sciences in the 1930s, largely as a result of the Cross-Cultural Survey undertaken by George Peter Murdock (1897-1985), a Yale anthropologist. Initially referring to comparative studies based on statistical compilations of cultural data, the term gradually acquired a secondary sense of cultural interactivity. Here I use the term both as an approach to perform a comparative analysis between some Bulgarian and Balinese rites and as possibility for intercultural communication. Important is that there are a lot of similarities in the investigated rites, although the two cultures historically have not influenced each other directly as it is for example more generally with  the Dutch culture, which in a way has provoked the Europeanisation of Indonesian culture.

One of the important Europeans I should mention is the Russian-born German primitivist painter Walter Spies (1895-1942) who lived in Indonesia and is often credited with attracting the attention of the European intellectuals to the Balinese culture and art in the 1930s. He has also influenced the direction of Balinese art and drama. Also the French playwright, poet, actor, theatre director and theorist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) has developed his ideas about the so called “theatre of cruelty” after he saw in 1931 Balinese dance performed at the Paris Colonial Exposition. (Artaud, Antonin. “The Theatre and Its Double” 1938), thus provoking a new trend of ritual “sacred” theatre in Western theatre, connected with the names of Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, Thomas Richards, Peter Brook and others.

I will further make an attempt for cross-cultural overview of three types of Bulgarian and Balinese Rites: Initiation rites, rites for the victory of good over evil and rites for connecting with the transcendental powers.

 Initiation Rites:  Legong and Lazarouvane

In his life one passes through different stages: birth, studying, puberty, marriage, career, retirement, death. These are the boundary, transient, liminal conditions – when a person is in between social categories or identities.

In most of these transitional states people already for centuries have performed different rites and rituals. Liminal state of utmost importance in all cultures is the transition from childhood to adolescence. This period is associated with the process of initiation. The young person must pass from childhood to adulthood by acquiring new knowledge and skills. Ancient people have seen growing up as death of the child in us and the birth of the adult.

Legong in Balinese and lazarouvane in Bulgarian cultures are rites for initiation of the young girls. These identical rites for passage from girlhood to adulthood, although arising as a tradition in two completely different cultures have many things in common. Legong dates back to the thirteenth century and is extremely popular art in Bali. It is performed by women in various ceremonies. During the Middle Ages it was an integral part of the court entertainments. Nowadays, according the tradition, Balinese girls almost invariably begin to study Legong in schools from 4-5 years old.

In Bulgaria lazarouvane is a rite, performed at St. Lazarus day, which is celebrated on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. This is a rite with love-marriage character. It is performed by girls over 16 years (sometimes less), called lazarki, lazaritsi.

In legong and lazrouvane performers are girls in the age of transition between girlhood and adulthood. Both rituals are associated with fertility, with the influx of new vitality, with girlhood as a symbol of purity, tenderness and beauty.

Rites for the victory of good over evil in

Basically in all Balinese theatre forms, commonly referred to as “Wayang orang”, an important element is the mask. “Wayang orang” literally means “people puppets” or “shadow people” from “wayang” – puppet, shadow and “orang” (a human being in Bahasa Indonesia). This name is used both for theatre with puppets (Wayang kulit, Wayang klitek, Wayang golek) and drama theatre with actors (Wayang Wong, Topeng, Barong, etc.) In general, in all forms of Indonesian theatre people are like puppets, and puppets are humanized.

A very interesting and specific for Bali is the masquerade ceremony Barong. This is a special ritual to ward off evil forces and spirits, which brings new vitality and energy. Barong is a strong, big mythical creature with big eyes, jaws chattering, furry, four legged, with large thin curled up tail like a lion, but it may look like a wild boar. Barong could be played by one, but usually by two men in one suit. He is scary, but at the same time he is very nice and he is people’s protector. He is good and fights the evil. Evil is embodied in the witch Rangda – hairy, with big teeth, long black nails and a red tongue hanging from her mouth to his knees. She makes scary sounds, growls and threatens.

The participants in this rite gradually go in trans and stick daggers into their chests. They believe that they will not be hurt by committing ritual murder to expulse the evil from themselves. Barong will save them. They fall to the ground. In a battle with Rangda Barong wins and brings the people back to life.

The mummers – kukeri, named also called chaushi, babugeri, stanchinari, dervishes, surati, jamalari, jamali are Bulgarian carnival figures. They are always men dressed as animals or typical characters, always with masks on their heads, often with bells on their belts and coats with the fir outside. Mummers are held between Meat and Shrovetide (Sirnitsa) in eastern Bulgaria and between Christmas and Epiphany in western Bulgaria. Mummers dance through the streets to scare away evil spirits and to banish the cold. The rite is performed in the sake of fertility and health, where symbolic actions such as plowing, sowing, etc. are made.

The presence of the masked mummers is by the sound of the hanging around their belts copper and lush (cast bronze) bells. Form of these games is the camel (jamal), where appears a camel (ritual figure of an animal, which is made of an wooden skeleton covered with a thick rug, his head is shaped like a camel or deer).

Barong and mummers games are rituals in different cultures associated with birth and death, of good and evil, with fertility, with the beginning and the end. They reflect the eternal fears and longings of people from ancient times until our days. Archetypal images are depicted by the zoomorphic masks of mythological monsters. Barong and mummers bring vital energy of the Earth, defeating evil spirits and demons, protecting people from disasters and evils.

Rites for connecting with the transcendental powers:

These rituals are aimed at moving away from the material towards the spiritual and implementation of a vertical relationship with metaphysical powers. Basic technique here, as it is in Balinese Barong is falling into a trance.

Kecak is known as one of trance dances. It is performed by many men, more rearly by women (over 50). They are almost naked. They wear skirt (sarong) with black and white squares, symbolizing good and evil and a red belt (sash). Behind their ears are pinned two Kambojans (traditional Balinese flower): one yellow behind the left and one pink behind the right ear. They stand in a circle around a candle placed in the middle, dance, clap their hands and sing “Ke-cak-ke-cakt.” In the circle of men enter various characters from “Ramayana” and play different games: women dance in Legong style and men with masks who speak and move in Topeng style. Gradually the male choir falls into a trance.

Another dance is the fire trance dance with a “horse” to break the evil spirits. A fire is made from coconut shells. A rider on a “horse” from bamboo sticks and a tail of palm leaves and wooden painted in gold head comes out. He dances around the fire and then goes into it. Burning coals of fire and sparks fly everywhere. The chorus of men are sitting in the back and sing “ke-cak.” The rider is identified with the horse, it coalesces with it and becomes horseman, centaur, possessed by a supernatural force that helps him to transit through the fire into other world.

Fire dancing nestinarstvo is an ancient Bulgarian and Greek tradition, where people (fire dancers) dance barefoot on coals. According to tradition, dancers play in the evening on the day of Constantine and Elena (on the night of 3 June). The dancers dance, holding flower decorated icon of Constantine and Elena. They are the chosen by the patron saints. The spirits of the saints go in them, captures them and in their name they see in the future and discover secrets.

The fire trance dance rites are of two cultures in parts of the world we live, of two religions: Hindu and Christian one. These are sacred rituals. The contractors who are mediators between the community, the land dwellers and the world of the divine, attribute extraordinary, supernatural abilities. The dancers are possessed by higher powers and are able to sacrifice for the sake of others.

In today’s world, where local cultures globalize and the global looks for its local dimensions, the ancient genetically related performative forms of ritual and theatre undergo new transformations of cross-cultural merging and fusion to form new hybrids of performativity. Since Artaud, after he saw Balinese performance on Wayang Wong Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931, many other European artists were inspired dedicating their lives to the search for new cross-cultural or intercultural performances, for a kind of global ritual theatre, a theatre that leads back to the roots, to the ritual and sacred as a new global form of intercultural communication.


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