5 Balinese Performances Not To Miss

by Joel Tan

When choosing a study abroad program in Indonesia, you will soon discover that many courses focus on the performing and visual arts. Indonesians, particularly those inhabiting the southern island of Bali, are very focused on the arts. They are deeply rooted into the Balinese culture.

Pura Besakih, Bali, Indonesia

Pura Besakih

The people seem to live and breathe them, which is probably why three of the most popular dance traditions of Indonesia originated in Bali: Barong, Legong, and Kecak. Barong is the most well known and narrates the struggle between good and evil. Legong is intensely expressive and usually performed by young girls who started their training around the age of five. Kecak is typically performed only by men and resembles a hypnotic trance.

The Significance Of Dance

Dances are merged with stories and history in Bali. Many focus on the Sanskrit epics of India which are literature that convey cultural beliefs and structure. The two most well known are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Ramayana has 24,000 verses and  portrays the ideal characters of life such as the perfect servant or father. The Mahabharata, is the longest of them all. It is more philosophical and focuses on the goals of life. Both are brought to life through performances and storytelling. Balinese and Indian cultures are closely linked. Bali’s population of four million is largely Hindu, unlike the rest of Indonesia which is predominantly Muslim. This is demonstrated once you step foot on Bali's shores and learn that the island is dotted with about 20,000 Hindu temples and shrines.

Make sure to see these five well known Balinese performances to enhance your international education while studying in Indonesia.

Legong Dancers, Bali

Legong Dancers

1. Legong of Mahabharata

The Legong of Mahabharata is the retelling of the ancient Indian epic through Legong. The Legong style makes use of intricate finger movements, precise feet movements, and intense facial expressions to convey the tale.

The Mahabharata is a story about two branches of a royal family, the Kaurava and the Pandava, struggling for the throne of Hastinapura. It is full of action and drama. Every Sunday dancers gather at the Ubud Palace to reenact the Mahabharata in the Legong form.

2. Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

Make sure to catch the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance, especially by the Taman Kaja Community, a small community composed of 140 families at the Jalan Raya Ubud.

Kecak is a dance performed by 100 or more dancers wearing checkered cloths around their waists. The dancers chant together while swaying to the beat. The dance draws crowds because of it’s large presence plus it usually includes fire spectacles.

3. Wayang Kulit

Although technically not a dance, the Wayang is undoubtedly a performance. The dance component comes in the form of leather puppets. Wayang Kulit actually means shadow puppets. In typical Balinese fashion, the Wayang Kulit tells the stories of Hindu epics such as the Serat Menak, which is about the heroism of Amir Hamza, paternal uncle of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. There is a show almost every day of the week in Oka Kartini, a popular lodging site in Ubud.

Barong and Kris Dance, Bali

Barong and Kris Dance

4. Barong and Kris Dance

The Barong Dance is another Indonesian cultural performance steeped in mythology. There are two main characters in this dance: Barong, a lion-like spirit that protects the land and its people, and Rangda, a demon queen. A kris is an asymmetrical dagger popular in Indonesian culture. This dance includes many men wielding the ominous looking blade which lends itself to the title.

What makes it endearing is its close ties to the mythological traditions of Bali, ancient beliefs that once held sway over the island before the spread of Hinduism. Unfortunately, the Barong and Kris Dance isn't as common as the Legong and the Kecak but visitors can still find shows performed several times throughout the week.

5. Ramayana Ballet

The Ramayana Ballet is another rendition of the epics but uses a more contemporary dance form. The Ramayana Ballet is not accompanied by voices singing in unison or the stomping of feet like others, but by a 30-piece Gong Kebyar orchestra. The orchestra is a popular bronze ensemble whose most prominent piece is a giant gong. The music is powerful and filled with contradictory emotions.

The ballet tells an adventurous tale broken into four scenes that include kidnapping, travel, and death. The dancers do not converse with each other. The story is voiced only by the sinden, a female singer present throughout the piece.