Dance and Drama in Ubud

Dance and Drama in Ubud

It’s showtime

More on Ubud

Traditionally the true intended audiences for cultural performances in Bali are celestial, an offering to the Gods and ancestral spirits, usually performed as part of a temple ceremony. However that doesn’t exclude more terrestrial beings from enjoying a show, and in Ubud you have the opportunity almost every night of the year (bar one, Nyepi, the silent day).

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In fact, you could spend weeks in Ubud and watch a different performance every single night from traditional dance and gamelan performances, to wayang kulit, shadow puppet plays. Due to the patronage of the Ubud royal family, the most talented dancers and dance teachers have been attracted to Ubud since at least the early 1900s to entertain the royal courts.

Legong dance performers in Ubud. : Sally Arnold.
Legong dance performers in Ubud. Photo: Sally Arnold

The wealth of talent enticed the likes of foreign experts to Ubud too: Canadian musicologist Colin McPhee was one of the first Westerners to study Balinese music, and his book Music in Bali was the first analysis of Balinese music published in English, although he is more widely known for his less academic book A House in Bali.

Many of the performances take place in wonderfully atmospheric venues, such as temples and palaces around Ubud. However don’t expect a theatre — it’s usually an open courtyard and plastic chairs. Shows are modified for tourist taste i.e. they’re relatively short, but the talent, though variable, is generally worthy of the Gods. Visitors are welcome to watch performances at temple ceremonies too as long as you wear full pakian adat (traditional temple clothes): ask at your accommodation exactly how to dress. The temple shows can last several hours, but it’s not considered rude to come and go (quietly).

Many of the performances are based on stories from the Hindu epic tales the Ramayana and Mahabarata though some are from Javanese folk tales and some simply have no story. You are generally offered a printed explanation before each performance, however many of the translations are questionable, and you’ll be none the wiser. Obviously this won’t be the case for a performance at a temple. Even if you know the stories backwards, sometime the show is hard to follow.

Amazing eyes. : Sally Arnold.
Amazing eyes. Photo: Sally Arnold

To add to the difficulty of following a story, Balinese have a tradition of men performing women’s roles and women performing men’s roles, sometime in the same dance. One way to tell is that female characters generally have open shoulders and male characters have their shoulders covered, but this is not always the case. Best to just enjoy the colour and movement. While Balinese dances can be incredibly intricate and slow moving, there’s an element of almost slapstick humour in some of the dances and performances.

The Balinese believe that a performer is physically and literally transformed when they take on a charter: Masks, costumes, make up, puppets even props like the kris dagger all undergo on an altered state during a performance, this is particularly evident in forms of trance dance such as Sanghyang most commonly performed by two young girls dancing in unison usually with their eyes closed; as well as the popular fire dance. Performances begin with a priest sprinkling holy water on the instruments / performers / puppet as the spirits move between the unseen (niskala) and the seen (sekala).

Quality of performance troupes vary, but if you’re new to Balinese dance it probably doesn’t matter which you see, however a bad Kecek is better than a bad Legong. If you are keen to see the best, ask for advice at the Ubud Tourist Information as this changes from time to time. We were recommended to watch the Panca Arta group at Ubud Palace (Wednesdays and Thursdays at 19:30) performing the Legong and Barong / Legong and Paradise Dance (100,000 rupiah), and the Kecak at Pura Puseh Ubud performed by Krama Desa Sambahan on Sunday and Thursday at 19:30 (75,000 rupiah) along with Wayan Kulit at Oka Kartini Sundays and Wednesdays for Mahabarata and Fridays for Ramayana, all starting at 20:00 (100,000 rupiah). Not sure which to see? Here is a brief description of the most popular performances:

Masks play an important role. : Sally Arnold.
Masks play an important role. Photo: Sally Arnold

Legong is the embodiment of feminine divine beauty. Intended to be performed by prepubescent girls, these days performers are usually a lot older, however the gold leaf costumes and floral headdresses along with intricate finger movements and darting eyes still conjures the essence of celestial maidens. The frenzied clash of the gamelan accompanying the dance adds to the quiver and shake.

Famous Legong dancers are the pinnacle of Balinese society, fame that continues way past the time they have stopped dancing. Several of Bali’s early expat artists married (much younger) Legong dancers. Legong performances are often accompanied by the Baris dance, a warrior dance performed by men and boys. This is regarded as a sacred dance, and some forms are only performed in temples. Eyes darting (looking for imaginary enemies) squatting and posturing along with a shaking headdresses of shells and a costume with flailing strips of fabric, spears and bows and arrows, the dancers appear larger than life, like warriors not to be messed with.

Kecak is one of Bali’s best known dances. We first came across it in the 1992 film Baraka—in fact seeing this dance possibly inspired our first visit to Bali. Also known as the “Monkey Dance”, this voice chant produces a cacophony of sound and has no accompanying orchestra. The chak chak cak sounds of the chorus produce rhythmic melodies reminiscent of the gamelan — it’s a tremendous multi-layered soundscape.

Wayang kulit at the ready. : Sally Arnold.
Wayang kulit at the ready. Photo: Sally Arnold

The dance was developed in the 1930s as an entertainment for tourists (although there are a couple of versions as to its true history), but its roots are in the Sanghyang trance dance and the story is based on an episode from the Ramayana when beautiful Sita is kidnapped by the evil giant Rawahna and her husband Rama has help from the monkey god, Hanuman and his army of monkeys (the chanting dancers) to rescue her. The circle of swaying dancers are not only monkeys, they become the wind and fire among other non monkey images.

Sometimes Kecak is accompanied by other choral forms such as the Jenger, often performed by seated women who turn their heads from side to side and flick fans while singing. The original significance was to induce a trance state in dancers. More often than not a Kecak performance will include a “fire dance” element. This is sometimes a separate dance, or combined into the Kecak itself.

Based on the ritual trance dance the Sanghyang Jaran, or hobby-horse dance — coconut shells are spread around the stage, set on fire, and when suitably glowing, a hobby-horse-riding dancer who is in a mesmerised trance state, kicks and dances on the hot coals. It’s rather impressive, and can be a little dangerous if you get too close — we once saw a dancer’s sarong catch on fire! At the end of a performance, a priest on hand brings the dancer’s back to this world with flicks of holy water. Dancers then often sit with their charred feet towards the audience in order to gain tips.

Working behind the scenes. : Sally Arnold.
Working behind the scenes. Photo: Sally Arnold

The Barong dance is possibly the most commonly seen in Bali — everyday busloads of tourists watch the morning performance at Batubulan, just south of Ubud, but more intimate options are available in the evenings around Ubud itself. Barong is the classic good guys versus the bad guys. The good Barong, a playful lion-like creature considered a deity to the Balinese, fights the evil witch Rangda. It’s full of black magic, trance, sometimes humour and (always) spectacular costumes.

The origins of the Barong are considered to predate Hindu influences in Bali and represents either ancestral or nature based spirits although it’s quite possible the influence for the character at least is Chinese. All sorts of mythology surrounds the Barong — the masks are kept in temples covered with cloth marked with sacred symbols. Some are considered so powerful, only certain people can touch them.

Between the Balinese Hindu festivals of Galungan and Kuningan (a celebration of good triumphing over evil) many children perform Barong dances in the street. Balinese believe each person is born with four siblings (kanda empat) or “guardian angles”, represented physically as various fluids and the placenta. Interestingly, one of the kanda empat’s alternative forms is the Barong, the placenta no less.

Making the magic. : Sally Arnold.
Making the magic. Photo: Sally Arnold

If music has more appeal than dance, a gamelan performance may be the ticket, although most dances are accompanied by a gamelan anyway. Gamelan is not one instrument, but a traditional percussion ensemble, so it’s really a tautology to say “gamelan orchestra”. Originating in Java, the gamelan is a collection of gongs, xylophones and drums but sometimes adds a stringed instrument (rebab) and flutes. As well as the metal form, there are also bamboo gamelan.

The music is cyclic and textured, and no two gamelan are alike — the whole orchestra is tuned as one at the foundry, so you can’t chop and change individual instruments from one gamelan to another. Musicians spend hours practising and one of the joys of Bali is to wander the streets and hear the gamelan permeating the background.

Like everything in Bali, it’s not just about music but multi-layered: the scale relates to the elements, the cardinal directions (plus the centre), deities, numbers, colours, and each instrument correlates to a part of the human body. A performance is a delight — tight, yet frenzied, building with crescendo after crescendo. The dynamic waves of sound are said to represent inhaling and exhaling to induce in the listener a feeling of the presence of God. As well as traditional men’s gamelan groups, Ubud has a female ensemble, the Chandra Wati group who perform Tuesdays at Pura Taman Saraswati at 19:30 (80,000 rupiah).

In the shadows. : Sally Arnold.
In the shadows. Photo: Sally Arnold

Wayang Kulit or shadow puppet shows are not for just for kids in Bali, and are perhaps the embodiment of Balinese society — what you think you see may not be there, or mere shadows, and the good guys don’t always win. Perhaps why the image is used so often as a metaphor for Bali (and Indonesia). With the stories comes philosophy and sometimes humour and political comment.

Although there are typically many characters in a wayang kulit performance, there is only one dalang or puppet master. The shadows are seen as shadows of deities and spirits, living energy, not toys and the screen symbolises life or the universe, the banana trunk into which the puppets are stuck is the earth, and the flickering lamp (or fluro), the sun. Traditionally the lamp would be lit with three threads — red, black and white representing Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Hindu Trimurti, or trinity.

Good characters sit one the right side of the screen, and bad on the left. Colours represent different personality traits (Balinese learn these meanings early). Every chiselled curl of the leather has meaning. The language used in the show is Kawi, an ancient Javanese form that most Balinese don’t understand, but clown-like characters translate (as well as make jokes). The “Kayonan” tree of life denotes the beginning of the show, and the end, and is considered the most sacred of the puppets. As with other forms of drama in Bali the stories are generally based on the Mahabarata and Ramayana, and most dalang would have the set for both.

Strike a pose. : Sally Arnold.
Strike a pose. Photo: Sally Arnold

As an interesting aside, in the Balinese calendar, a special day is dedicated to Wayang — Tumpek Wayang. A child born during that week will usually have a Wayang Kulit performance at their three-month ceremony and people born on the actual day must have a special ceremony at some point in their life. Even though there is much layered meaning that the casual viewer couldn’t begin to understand, a show is fun to watch regardless. In Ubud, the shows for tourists usually add a few jokes in English, and are well worth adding to your list of must sees.

To check the schedule for performances around Ubud, visit Ubud Tourist Information diagonally opposite Ubud Palace, on the corner of Jalan Raya Ubud and Jalan Monkey Forest or check their website Note that sometimes performances will be cancelled due to temple ceremonies although you may have the chance to see one then anyway as part of the festivities.

The most popular performances, Legong, Kecak and Wayan Kulit are performed somewhere every night, other dances may only be performed once per week. If you buy your tickets from the sellers in the street, you help them earn a living, it may seem dodgy, but they pocket the commission and the ticket won’t cost you any extra. Take your camera, but flashes are distracting to performers and annoying to the audience (as is standing up in front of someone for a better shot), oh and switch your phone to silent too.

Tickets are priced between 75,000 rupiah and 125,000 rupiah and if the performance is in an outlaying village, the ticket includes transport from Ubud Tourist Information (check the pickup time to ensure you don’t miss out). Start time is between 19:00 and 20:00, and performances are generally one to two hours long. Arrive early for a prime position as seating is unreserved. Usually a few drink sellers wander around before the show, so you can enjoy a (sometimes cold) Bintang while you watch. There’s usually a toilet nearby, ask someone where if it’s not obvious and pocket a tissue just in case.

Reviewed by

Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.

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