Akil Davis is a director, choreographer, rapper, and dancer trained in the Brahe method of mask work, incorporating traditional masks and original imagery. His performances combine his training in Balinese dance, Thai Classical dance, Modern dance, Butoh, African, Ballet, Jazz, Kabuki, and Noh. At Wanderlust Squaw Valley in 2015 he performed three short dances for us, each featuring a different mask.
Tell us about the masks in these three videos.
All three masks are carved and painted by a Balinese Brahman (High Priest) and all originate in the village of Mas in Bali, Indonesia.
The Jauk (above)—The white the big eyes and smiling teeth. It’s a type of “good” demon. This is a traditional Balinese Mask. There are two Jauk brothers. One softer, and one more coarse. In ceremony they represent the demeanor of a character when then are lower in spirit or angry. In the video I use the softer. The Jauk’s traditional costume is quite elaborate. It spreads its hands wide, repeating movements twice before moving on.
The Angel—The white with green highlights and accents. This mask stimulates divine energy in the human body and clears away negativity; the Angel is a therapeutic mask, giving the body a divine image and clearing negativity. During performance energetic expansion is major. Feelings of serenity roll in like slow tidal waves. I dance this mask when people need catharsis. This is designed by myself and my colleague Per Brahe.
Will Force—The red. Gives the body the image of a strong will power, clears away block to one’s will. The will mask is a personal therapeutic mask and part of my daily practice. A healthy will force is paramount, especially for an artist or “spiritual person.” Performing with it is amazing: Audiences feel galvanized, dance attendees immediately get grounded, go harder, freer, wilder. This one is designed by Per Brahe.
What’s the history of these masks?
Balinese masks represent entities from various stories of the Hindu texts and are used, in tandem with dance and music, for rituals and ceremonies. It’s important to know that Balinese dance and mask are not performance or entertainment-based tools. They are manifestations of spiritual practices and rituals. The idea of performance came with the arrival of Western culture.
These masks are carved from original drawings by either myself or Per Brahe during deep meditation and focus. After they’re carved, the masks go through a sacred cleansing ceremony and are brought to Brooklyn. Through years of work and thousands of students, we see that the mask speaks to the body of the wearer and are provoked to transform. On the way into the physical transformation, all of the muscular and energetic blocks have to get out of the way and come out of the body. This has powerful and positive repercussions.
The Balinese believe that the masks can have spirits that inhabit them. These can go in either good or bad directions. One of the most important ceremonies for masks is done during an auspicious time called Kajeng Kliwon, at which time you clean, sage, and make offerings to the Masks.
How did you discover this type of ritual?
I received my BFA in Theatre from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. My junior year I met Per Brahe, the originator of the Brahe Mask Method, after taking his class. I was extremely gifted with the mask work so Per offered to train me in understanding, using, and designing masks. This meant going to Bali for the first time in 2006, and almost every year subsequently. I began dancing/performing with Masks at Patravadi Theater in Bangkok Thailand (2008). My Thai dance colleagues and I tried it on a whim, but the power we felt was unmistakable and it became part of my performance repertoire.
Why does this type of dancing appeal to people?
People are enthralled by the power of physical transformation, the resulting expression, and the transformation of a human face into an “other” humanoid face that is not only expressive, but fixed. Some people report that the mask freaks them out; I say that means they’re beginning to feel something. Allowing your mind and body to fully receive what is coming to you in the moment allows the truth of what you’re experiencing to come to the surface. You will stop confusing the energetic excitement of a coming feeling for “freaking out,” and finally experience the power of the Mask and what is in you.
Per and I collaborate on a month-long Balinese Training Intensive for Actors and Dancers every August in Bali Indonesia. Anyone is encouraged to attend, even non-artists!
For information on the Balinese Training Intensive, check Akil’s website. You can find more performances of him here. You can be a part of this unique performance by helping Akil obtain more of these rare masks by donating to his GoFundMe campaign.