This dance form has the special purpose of enlisting the help of the Gods in protecting the village from pestilence and danger. The word sanghyang means “deity” and performers of the sacred Sanghyang dances are said to be possessed by specific deities who enable them to perform supernatural feats. A chorus of men sing a hypnotic chant that summons the spirits, till each dancer falls into a swoon of trance. There are variety of Sanghyang dances, named according to the type of spirit they humour : Sanghyang Dedari, performed by young virgin girls go into trances on the shoulder of older men is a dance of angels.
Sanghyang Jaran, a small number of men are put into trance, but their transition is much more violent they fall, convulsed, to the ground and rush to grab hobby horses. the pre-trance chanting, coconut shells have been lit, leaving red hot coals. The entranced dancers leap into the coals, prancing on top of them, picking up the hot pieces and bathing themselves in fire.
The wayang puppet show is perhaps the most famous show in Balinese theatre, albeit the most difficult to understand. Basically an epic narrative, it is the key to Bali’s unique world of myths, symbols and religious beliefs.
The puppet master or dalang tells his story by projecting the shadows of the puppets he manipulates behind a white screen and a large lamp. He plays several characters at once, shifting from Old-Javanese to High-Balinese, singing and hitting a box to mark the rhythm. A good dalang is a one-man-show, being in turns smart, funny and melancholic.
The dalang borrows the frame of his narrative from the great epics of the ancient Hindu tradition, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, although other stories may sometimes be used. He then creates his own episodes, usually concerning a hero’s quest for a magical weapon, heavenly secret or partner. The hero, accompanied by buffoons, succeeds eventually after tortuous adventures in the wilderness and fights with evil giants. The two sets of puppets – the heroes on the right, villains on the left – symbolize the eternal struggle between good and evil. But for the audience, the dalang’s ability to poke fun at everyone through the mouths of the buffoons is no less important than the narrative.
The Joged Bumbung is one of the few exclusively secular dances of Bali in which the brightly dressed dancer invites men from the crowd to dance with her in a pretence of seduction. The music is made with bumbung (bamboo) instruments. This dance is very popular with tourists.
The dance begins with a long opening sequence by the female dancer. Then, long shawl in her hand, she selects a man from the audience by either pointing with her fan or touching his waist. He (the pengibing) comes on stage to hoots from the audience and is expected to be as adept at teasing as the woman dancer. The beter he is, the louder the cheers and roars from the crowd. He may try to pinch her, dance hip to hip with her or even behave like an angry lover and try to hit her.
‘Topeng’ means mask and the mask dance relates the tales of Balinese and Javanese ancestors returning temporarily to inhabit the mask. Nowadays, the main stories with their princes and clowns are preceded by set of solo mask dances of the ‘strong warrior’, the ‘topeng tua’ – a fantastic dance showing the advance of old age in the king’s old counselor, and the ‘topeng dalem’ – showing the king in all his glory with enough clowns to fill a circus.
The Gambuh is the oldest classical dance in Bali, probably introduced at the time of the Majapahit culture. At a hauntingly slow tempo, the gambuh dance drama tells episodes from the story of Panji’s search for his beloved in the kingdoms of Eastern Java. Now retained in only a few villages (notably Batuan and Pedungan), the gambuh combines the best of both female and male Balinese dancing. An unusual feature is the use of long bamboo flutes instead of the complete set of gamelan and gongs.
The famous Legong Dance is the epitome of classical female Balinese dancing. A court dance, it was created in the 18th century in the circles of the principality of Sukawati. According to legend, in the mid-18th century, I Dewa Agung Made Karna who was meditating for 40 days and nights saw two dancing celestial angles. After his meditations he passed on what he had seen and heard to his court dancers and musicians. The Sanghyang Legong was born.
Now including a variety of modern ‘free creations’ (tari lepas), the legong is usually the first dance taught to beginners, Months of training are needed to master the perfect mix of posture (tangkep), movements and mimicry. Three dancers in glittering costumes, one condong lady-in-waiting and two princesses whose roles change according to the narrative usually perform it. The ancient legong used to have a storyteller’s accompaniment, but these days they only dance performances.
The Barong is the magical protector of Balinese villages. As ‘lord of the forest’ with fantastic fanged mask and long mane, he is the opponent of Rangda the witch, who rules over the spirits of darkness, in the never ending fight between good and evil. During the Galungan Kuningan festivals, the Barong (there are many types including barong ket, barong macan and barong bangkal) wanders from door to door (nglawang) cleansing the territory of evil influences.
The fight between Barong and Rangda is also the topic of traditional narratives, usually performed in the temple of the dead. The most famous is the story of Calonarang, a widow from Jirah who is furious because she can not find a suitable husband for her daughter Ratna Manggali. All the eligible young men are scared of her black magic, so she gets revenge by wreaking havoc over the kingdom of Daha. The king, Erlangga, tries to punish her but all his attempts fail. She kills all the soldiers he sends to destroy her. Then Rangda decides to destroy Daha. She summons all her disciples and in the still of night they go to the Setra Gandamayu cemetery to present offerings of dead flesh to Durga, the goddess of death. Durga agrees to the destruction, although she warns the witch not to enter the city of Daha. But the witch does not heed Durga’s advice and the kingdom is soon hit by grubug (a plague) and the villages quickly become cemeteries, people dying even before they can bury their dead. Corpses are scattered everywhere and the stench is unbearable.
The only person who can defeat the witch is Mpu Baradah. At the king’s request, Mpu Baradah sends his disciple Bahula to steal Calonarang’s magic weapon. Bahula pretends to ask for Ratna Manggali’s hand in marriage and while the witch is away, Bahula steals the magic weapon with the help of Ratna Manggali. Then he gives the stolen weapon to his teacher Mpu Baradah. The weapon turns out to be a manuscript containing the key to ultimate release (moksa) which has been used upside down by Calonarang.
Bharadah goes to Daha to challenge the witch. With the help of the Barong, she is defeated. Before being killed, she asks to be released from her curse and purified.
This obsessive sound (resembling the chattering of monkeys) of a choir from beyond the dust of ages suddenly rises between the lofty trees. Darkness looms over the stage. Hundreds of bare-breasted men sit in a circle around the flickering light of an oil lamp chandelier. “Cak-Cak”. They start dancing to the rhythmic sound of their own voices, their hands raised to the sky and bodies shaking in unison.
This is the unique Kecak, commonly called the “Monkey Dance” by tourists.
Originally the kecak was just an element of the older Sang Hyang trance dance. It consisted of a male choir praying obsessively to the souls of their ancestors. At the initiative of painter Walter Spies, this religious choir was transformed into a dance by providing it with a narrative. The ballet is the Ramayana epic. The prince Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Laksmana are exiled in the middle of the forest. Rama goes hunting a golden deer at the request of his wife, who saw the strange animal and has asked him to catch it. While he is away, she is kidnapped by Rahwana and taken to the latter’s island kingdom of Alengka (Srilangka).
Rama allies himself with the monkeys and in particular with the white monkey Hanuman. They build a bridge and cross to the island. War ensues until finally Rama defeats Rahwana and is again united with his faithful wife.
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