BALINESE art, including painting, sculpture, woodcarving, and performing arts than deserves its global reputation. The gamelan produces highly developed and varied indigenous music. Popular Balinese dances include pendet, legong, baris, topeng tua, barong and kecak. Perhaps the most famous of Bali’s performance arts, wayang or shadow play theatre draws audiences of all ages to the dramatic, fiery display.
A musical ensemble of Indonesia origin, the gamelan typically features a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums, and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings. Vocalists may be included as well. The word "gamelan" comes from the Javanese word "gamel", meaning to strike or hammer, and the Malay-Indonesian suffix "-an" makes the root a collective noun. The musical term refers more to the set of instruments than the players of those instruments. A gamelan as a set of instruments is a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together — instruments from different gamelan are not interchangeable.
In Indonesia, gamelan usually accompanies other arts, such as dance, wayang, puppet performances, and rituals. Musicians in the gamelan often know the dance moves and poetry too, while dancers can play in the musical ensemble.
In wayang, the dalang (puppeteer) must have a thorough knowledge of the music, as he gives the cues to the gamelan. A gamelan does not typically perform concerts in the Western sense, although it can be used as background music, as for a wedding.
Dancers perform the traditional Balinese pendet, as an offering made to purify the temple or theater, often as a prelude to ceremonies or other dances. Young girls typically perform this dance, carrying bowls of flower petals cast into the air at various intervals. Balinese consider Pendet as a dance of greeting, to welcome the audience and invite spirits to enjoy a performance.
Highly dynamic, legong epitomizes classical female Balinese dancing. The court dance, originated in the 18th century in the principality of Sukawati. Beginners require months of training to master the perfect mix of posture (tangkep), movements (agem-with dancing hands), and mimicry. Three dancers in glittering costumes usually perform legong, one “condong” lady-in-waiting and two princesses whose role may change according to the narrative. In ancient times, a storyteller accompanied legong but now the dance conveys the story on its own.
A solo male dance filled with strutting and posturing, baris literally translates as ‘warrior formation’. The dancer imitates the actions of an ancient Balinese warrior. The dancer wears a symbolic wave shaped dagger, a keris, across his back. During this dance the drummer, also the leader of the gong, watches the dancer’s each move and responds musically, keeping the performance extremely dynamic throughout.
Topeng Tua performances tell the stories of Balinese and Javanese ancestors. These stories of princes and clowns follow a set of solo mask dances, often considered the best of Balinese male dances: topeng keras or dance of the strong warrior, topeng tua, a fantastic dance showing the advance of old age in the king’s old counselor and the topeng dalem or king in all his poise and balance with an array of clowns worth those of the Comedia del Arte.
Barong and Rangda
Barong is the magical protector of Balinese villages. As “lord of the forest” with long mane and fantastic fanged mask, he defends the Balinese against Rangda the witch, who rules over the spirits of darkness. During Galungan Kuningan festivals, the Barong – of which there are many types: barong ket, barong macan, barong bangkal – wanders from door to door to cleanse the territory of evil influences.
Kecak dance developed during the 1930's in Bona village. The Westerners sometimes call this The Monkey Dance for the performers’ movements that resemble those of a monkey. This spectacular dance is usually performed at night, surrounding a bonfire. One hundred or more bare-chested men surround the bonfire with priest in the middle. The only music to accompany them is the beats of their palms hitting their chests, their thighs, or other parts of their bodies, or their clapping rhythmically, accompanied by shouts and chants. The dancers move in unison, creating a spectacular, organically choreographed performance as hands stretch out, pull in, or rest on the shoulder of the next person while waists gyrate left and right.
Most visitors to Bali will watch an abbreviated version of wayang as the real performance normally goes on for as long as 8 hours. Perhaps the most famous show of Balinese theatre, wayang also presents the most challenges for its audience as it introduces Bali’s uniquely complex world of myths, symbols and religious beliefs. The puppeteer or dalang, tells the story by projecting on a white screen the shadows of the puppets he manipulates in front of a big oil lamp. In this ultimate one-man-show, the dalang plays several characters at once by adopting different voices, shifting from Old-Javanese to High-and Low-Balinese speech, singing and hitting his puppet box to mark the rhythm. He must act learned, funny and sad in seamless repetition.
The framework of the dalang’s narrative typically derives from the great epics of the Indo-Javanese tradition, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, although other stories may also be used. He then creates his own episodes, usually around a hero’s quest for a magical weapon, a godly secret or a mate. The hero, accompanied by buffoons, eventually succeeds after long adventures in the wilderness and fighting against evil giants. The two sets of puppets, those of the right for the heroes, and those of the left for the villains, symbolise the eternal fight of good and evil. Equally important to the audience, is the dalang’s ability to poke fun at everyone through the mouth of the buffoons.