Dance is a major part of the cultural attraction in Ubud. The most famous are the Barong, Kecak, Fire, and Legong. Performances for each of them are held regularly throughout Ubud and no visit to this town would be complete without an introduction to these traditional dancing stories.
The Barong dance is a reenactment of good versus evil and depending on where it is performed the degree of violence is adjusted. Basically it is the story of Rangda, the mother of the King of Bali in the tenth century, who was condemned by her husband because she practiced black magic. After she became a widow, she summoned all the evil spirits to retrieve her son. Barong is called to protect the son. However, Rangda casts a spell that makes Barongs soldiers want to kill themselves by pointing their poisoned keris into their own stomachs and chests. Barong casts a spell that makes their bodies resistant to the sharp keris. Barong and Rangda contiue to fight with the eventual winner being good (Barong).
It is said that if Rangda’s spell is too strong, a weak soldier may not be able to resist it, even with the help of Barong. He may end up hurting himself with his own keris. The masks of Barong and Rangda are considered sacred items, and before they are brought out a priest must be present to offer blessings by sprinkling them with holy water taken from Mount Agung, and offerings must be presented.
Years ago my first experience of the Fire Dance was at a small village called Boma about half an hour outside of Ubud. It didn’t seem like anyone really knew what to expect however if they were expecting a performance that would leave an impression they got it.
In the center of the floor a mound of dry coconut husks were set alight. An immense amount of heat was generated and over the next few minutes the husks would be reduced to glowing embers. It is at this point that the dancer appears. It is immediately apparent by his demeanor that he is in an altered state. his eyes are distant and appear hollow, his movements are fluid and hypnotic, and his head (adorned with a traditional mask) jerks back and forth in contradiction to his body. He is fully enveloped in a trance and remains that way throughout the dance. It is only when the shaman enters, holy water is administered, and the dancer is subdued do you as an audience member appreciate the full impact of what you have witnessed.
Walking through fire is not unique to the Balinese culture; neither is dancing in it. When you see it close up though, feel the heat, see the smouldering feet, watch the flying embers, do you refrain from thinking that this is just another trick involving fast footwork that anyone could do.
The Kecak is usually performed in tandem with the Fire dance but its only commonality is that it to involves no female dances. Traditionally the Kecak is made up of 100 men sitting in a ring formation chanting. The Kecak Dance tells the Indian story of Ramayana. Rama, a warrior and rightful heir to the throne of Ayodya, is exiled with his wife Sita to a faraway desert. There, an evil king spies Sita, falls in love with her, and sends a golden deer to lure Rama away. Sita is captured, and Rama rounds up his armies to defeat those of the evil king and rescue her.
The Kecak is a really interesting experience and to get a glimpse I have embedded a You Tube link so that you can appreciate it.
The Legong dance is a story from the history of East Java in the 12th and 13th centuries. A king finds the maiden Rangkesari lost in the forest. He takes her home and locks her in a house of stone. Rangkesari’s brother, the Prince, learns of her captivity and threatens war unless she is set free.
Rangkesari begs her captor to avoid war by giving her freedom, but the king prefers to fight. On his way to battle, he is met by a bird that predicts his death. In the battle that is exactly what happens. The dance dramatizes the farewell of the King as he departs for the battlefield and his ominous encounter with the bird.
The dancers dazzle. Bound from head to foot in gold brocade, it is a wonder the legongs can move with such grace and poise. The dancers flow from one identity into the next without disrupting the harmony of the dance. They may enter as the double image of one character, their movements marked by tight synchronization. Then they may split, each enacting a separate role, and come together again. In a love scene in which they rub noses, for example, the King takes leave of Rangkesari. She repels his advances by beating him with her fan, and he departs in anger, soon to perish on the battlefield.
During a visit to Bali and in particular Ubud these dances can be watched at several venues on differing nights. A night of dinner, dance, and a drink make for a perfect night on the town in Ubud.