Balinese Dance (part II)

>Balinese dance-drama is the signature cultural experience of most visitors to this island paradise. Last month we wrote about the history, tradition, significance, and structure of this engaging art form. This month we want to elaborate on the dances themselves. There are at least a dozen different performance travelers can attend. However, most visitors attend the 4 or 5 most commonly performed dances. Those include the Ramayana, Kecak, Barong, Legong, and Baris dances.
Most Balinese dance-drama has its origins in the classic Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The Ramayana ballet is a regular offering. In the Ramayana the good Prince Rama loses his betrothed, Princess Sita to the evil Ravana, King of Lanka. Ravana lures Rama away with a golden deer and then carries Sita away. Hanuman the good monkey king joins with Rama in his quest to rescue Sita. Hanuman tells Sita that Rama is trying to rescue her and gives her Rama’s ring as a token. He then assists Rama in catching up to Ravana. When Rama arrives he is met by Ravana’s son Megananda, who shoots an arrow that turns into a snake which binds Rama. But Rama calls on the magical bird Garuda who helps him escape. Hanuman’s army of monkeys joins Rama in a great battle where Ravana is defeated. Good triumphs over evil and Rama returns home with Sita.
Best known to tourists, the Kecak (Monkey) dance is performed all over the island and is quite a spectacle. A choir of dozens to hundreds of men provide rhythmic, percussive, a cappella, accompaniment to the drama. Lit only by torches, they sit in large concentric circles and the drama takes place in the center. The rhythmic “chak-a-chak-a-chak” chanting literally sounds like a troop of monkeys – hence the name. The men sit cross-legged and while they chant they throw up their arms or sway and bend from the waist, all in rhythm. The Kecak had its roots in the sanghyang trance ceremony for exorcisms. It takes its story from the Ramayana when Hanuman leads his armies against the evil Ravana. Kecak is truly living theater, a blending of motion, voice, gesture, and narrative.
The Barong (sometimes called the Lion dance) is another good vs. evil drama. It is among the most sacred and important of dances and features spectacular costumes. Evil and good are represented by Rangda and Barong, though in typical Balinese mysticism, neither is wholly good or bad. Rangda is a witch, queen of the underworld. Her appearance is truly terrifying with a necklace of human entrails, large breasts, claws and tusks, and murderous eyes and laugh. Barong is Rangda’s counterpart and enemy – not really a lion, rather parts of many, mythical beasts. He is huge and splendid, is played by 2 men, and has a long beard invested with great power. The masks of both characters are invested with sacred magic and are treated with respect and reverence. They are specially wrapped (a magic shield) and stored in temples between performances.
Barong usually appears first doing kind deeds and enjoying acclaim from villagers. Rangda appears like a fury and they rush at each other and battle mightily. Eventually Rangda succeeds in stuffing her weapon (anteng – strip of white cloth) into Barang’s mouth. She shouts and celebrates but the villagers join in the attack. Barong recovers and rejoins the fight. Rangda waves her anteng above her foes sending them into madness – turning weapons upon themselves. But the attacks are not harmful because Barong has protected them with his magic. Soon all retire from the scene. Rangda retreats but the fight is inconclusive. Everyone knows the drama will be reenacted over and over just as the struggle between good and evil continues in everyone.
A fourth dance, Legong is the archetype of delicate expression. The divine dance of heavenly nymphs, it is elegant, refined, and very restrained. There are three dancers, all girls in rich costume, heavy makeup, and headdresses. The story is based on a Hindu epic poem. The Princess Rangkesari is kidnapped by the arrogant King Lasem. Rangkesari spurns Lasem’s advances so he threatens to kill her father. Rangkesari still refuses and Lasem becomes furious. A battle ensues, during which a blackbird flies in front of Lasem (a bad omen) and he is killed. The three dancers enact all the characters and the story in abstract pantomime, with stylized actions and gestures.
The Baris dance is a fighting dance using spears. It is the opposite of Lagong, powerful and masculine. The performers never wound but fight fiercely for the beauty of combat. Tumultuous but also harmonious, the Baris is a devotional dance that reenacts the traditional offering of weapons to the gods to invest them with power. A dozen warriors, heads covered with flowers and bearing magic scarves and feather-tipped spears, dance in two opposing lines. They grimace and strike heroic poses until the music becomes animated. They then enact a battle. The dancers use their facial expressions to depict their passions: admiration, wonder, surprise, rage, pleasure, and even tenderness. The music builds and the dancers become more tense. They call out, make threatening gestures, draw their krises (ceremonial daggers) and approach each other. They stop before clashing and then engage in a stylized, ballet-like duel. Eventually one side is routed and the dance ends.
The dances discussed above are the most common in tourist venues. But there are many others. They include the Barong Landung (giant puppet dance), the Oleg Tambulilingan (the bumblebee dance), Topang (mask dance), Pendat, and Cupak. Additionally, there are several trance dances, though most of those are performed on ceremonial occasions and not for tourists. The most famous are the Calonarang and Sanghyang Dedari. All are worthwhile and worth seeking out and a meaningful part of a visit to Bali.