For a perspective on the state of dance in Bali today from one of its top dancers, many tourist shows in South Bali hotels offer a smorgasbord of dances – a little Kecak, a taste of Legong and some Barong to round it off 舞蹈課程. Some of these performances can be pretty abbreviated with just a few musicians and a couple of dancers. Balinese love a blend of seriousness and slapstick, and this shows in their dances. Some have a decidedly comic element, with clowns who convey the story and also act as a counterpoint to the staid, noble characters. Most dancers are not professionals. Dance is learned by performing, and carefully following the movements of an expert.
It tends to be precise, jerky, shifting and jumpy, remarkably like Balinese music, with its abrupt changes of tempo and dramatic contrasts between silence and crashing noise. There’s little of the soaring leaps or the smooth flowing movements of Western dance. Every movement of wrist, hand and fingers is charged with meaning; and facial expressions are carefully choreographed to convey the character of the dance. Watch the local children cheer the good characters and cringe back from the stage when the demons appear.
Probably the best known of the dances, the Kecak has a ‘choir’ of men who provide the ‘chak-a-chak-a-chak’ accompaniment, imitating a troupe of monkeys. In the 1960s, the tourist version of Kecak developed. This is easily found in Ubud and also at the Pura Luhur Ulu Watu. Kecak dances tell a tale from the Ramayana, one of the great Hindu holy books, about Prince Rama and his Princess Sita. The evil Rawana, King of Lanka, lures Rama away with a golden deer (Lanka’s equally evil prime minister, who has magically changed himself into a deer). Then, when the princess is alone, he pounces and carries her off to his hideaway.
Hanuman, the white monkey-god, tells Princess Sita that Rama is trying to rescue her and gives her Rama’s ring. When Rama arrives he is met by the evil king’s evil son, Megananda, who shoots an arrow that magically turns into a snake and ties Rama up. Fortunately, he is able to call upon a Garuda (mythical man-bird creature) who helps him escape. Finally, Sugriwa, the king of the monkeys, comes with his monkey army and, after a great battle, good wins out over evil and Rama and Sita return home. Throughout the dance the chanting is superbly synchronised with an eerily exciting coordination. Add in the actors posing as an army of monkeys and you have unbeatable spectacle.
This rivals the Kecak as Bali’s most popular dance for tourists. Again it’s a battle between good (the Barong) and bad (the Rangda). The Barong is a strange but good, mischievous and fun-loving shaggy dog-lion. The widowwitch Rangda is bad through and through. The story begins with Barong Keket, the most holy of the Barong, enjoying the acclaim of its supporters – a group of men with kris (traditional daggers).
Then Rangda appears, her long tongue lolling, terrible fangs protruding from her mouth, human entrails draped around her neck, and pendulous parody breasts. (In fully authentic versions – which are rarely seen by visitors – the Rangda is covered with real entrails from freshly slaughtered animals. ) The Barong and Rangda duel, and the supporters draw their kris and rush in. The Rangda throws them into a trance that makes them stab themselves. But the Barong dramatically casts a spell that stops the kris from harming them.
They rush back and forth, waving their kris, rolling on the ground, desperately trying to stab themselves. It’s all a conspiracy to terrify tourists in the front row! Finally, the terrible Rangda retires and good has triumphed again. The entranced Barong supporters, however, still need to be sprinkled with holy water. Playing around with all that powerful magic, good and bad, is not to be taken lightly. A pesmangku (priest for temple rituals) must end the dancers’ trance and a chicken must be sacrificed after the dance to propitiate the evil spirits.
This most graceful of Balinese dances is performed by young girls. It is important in Balinese culture that in old age a classic dancer will be remembered as a ‘great Legong’. Peliatan’s famous dance troupe, often seen in Ubud, is particularly noted for its Legong Keraton (Legong of the Palace).
The very stylised and symbolic story involves two Legong dancing in mirror image. They are dressed in gold brocade, their faces elaborately made up, their eyebrows plucked and repainted, and their hair decorated with frangipani. The dance relates how a king takes a maiden, Rangkesari, captive. When her brother comes to release her, Rangkesari begs the king to free her rather than go to war. The king refuses and on his way to the battle meets a bird with tiny golden wings bringing ill omens. He ignores the bird and continues on, meets Rangkesari’s brother and is killed.
These dances were developed to drive out evil spirits from a village – Sanghyang is a divine spirit who temporarily inhabits an entranced dancer. The Sanghyang Dedari is performed by two young girls who dance a dream-like version of the Legong in perfect symmetry while their eyes are firmly shut. Male and female choirs provide a background chant until the dancers’ slump to the ground. A pesmangku blesses them with holy water and brings them out of the trance. The modern Kecak dance developed from the Sanghyang. In the Sanghyang Jaran, a boy in a trance dances around and through a fire of coconut husks, riding a coconut palm ‘hobby horse’. Variations of this are called Kecak Fire Dance (or Fire and Trance Dance for tourists) and are performed in Ubud almost daily.