I spent 10 days in Ubud, Bali last March and attended no less than four dance performances in three different venues. Ubud is the cultural centre of Bali, and the music and dance on that island are my favourite aspects of that culture.

Dance performances in Bali are beautiful, colourful, complex, and fascinating. Like everything else in Balinese life, many dances have roots in the religion practiced here, a variety of Hinduism intertwined with spirit worship. They are stylized theatrical rendition of historical stories, or Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with their well known characters and creatures. The costumes, make-up, and ornaments are intricate, and every hand gesture and facial expression has a meaning.

The accompanying music is called gamelan, a type of orchestra composed mostly of xylophone-like instruments that use only five tones (pentatonic scale). Drums, a flute, and vocals complete the soundscape. The resulting music is unique and wonderfully exotic to the western ear.

The dance shows produced for tourists in Ubud involve a combination of several dances performed by a rotating roster of dance companies, all of very high quality. Below is a short description of the dances shown in the video that I put together to give you an idea of what it’s all about.

Legong: Traditionally performed by young girls to entertain the king, this dance is characterized by intricate finger movements, complicated footwork, and expressive gestures and facial expressions. There are more than fifteen different traditional stories in the legong repertoire. The ones I saw were the Jobog (two king brothers turned into monkeys) and Kraton (King Lasem kidnaps princess Langke Sari).

Warrior dance: Called “Baris” in Indonesian, this dance depicts the courage and virtues of an admirable Balinese hero who is going to war. It may be performed by either a boy or a girl.

Bumblebee dance: This dance is performed by two dancers, a boy bee and a girl bee, who fall in love in a beautiful flower garden. It symbolizes the courtship ritual of two young Balinese in love.

Barong: This dance is a character study of the powerful and benevolent Barong, a magical creature danced by two people sharing one costume. He fights Rangda, the demon queen, in a representation of the eternal battle between good and evil.

Ramayana: One of the great Hindu epics recounting the  story of Rama (an avatar of the Hindu supreme-god Vishnu), whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka (current day Sri Lanka).

Kecak: This “dance” is accompanied by chants only (no gamelan) and performed by a large group of men in checkered sarongs, sitting in a circle, lit only by firelight. The one in my video depicts an episode of the Ramayana called “The Death of Kumbakarna”. (Kecak has roots in a trance-inducing exorcism dance. In the 1930’s, a German expat adapted it as a drama based on the Ramayana, to be performed for Western tourist audiences).

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