Traditional dance and music have been an indelible part of local village life in Bali for centuries. Dance dramas and accompanying music is used to keep alive the epic stories of Hindu mythology such as the Ramayana and performed on a local level at religious festivals, weddings, funerals and temple anniversaries. Virtually every village has its own dance company and gamelan orchestra which is an integral part of every child’s education.
Dance is the most recognisable art form in Bali and a great tourist crowd pleaser. Every night of the week you can watch Balinese dancing in restaurants or at large cultural centres in places such as Ubud and Denpasar. They often take place in historic venues such as royal palace courtyards and temples. Bali’s many annual art festivals always feature traditional dance shows.
There are over a dozen different dances to choose from and range from the refined movements of the elegant Legong dance to frantic trance dances which can last for several hours. Among the most popular is the charming Barong dance which features weird and wonderful costumes and haunting gamelan music. Other performances include the extraordinary ‘Kecak’ all male choir and Topeng masked dances.
All Balinese dances convey a morality tale of the battle of good over evil which is easy to follow despite there being no English language narration. Dance movements are expressive, the costumes and scenery eloquently display a sense of occasion and the music is full of meaning. Those performances which cater to foreign tourists are usually condensed into a manageable one to two hour performance but in their purest form can last for over five hours.
The most enchanting part of Balinese performance art is undoubtedly the ‘Wayang Kulit’ or shadow puppet play. Tickets for these shows are like gold dust and offer a fascinating night’s entertainment for kids and adults alike. It is a highly complex performance and a million miles from the average Punch and Judy show. A single puppeteer voices and directs up to 50 different characters in an unbroken performance which can last several hours.
All the action is conducted in silhouette behind an illuminated screen and although they are simple two dimensional puppets, each face has incredibly contorted features which range from the lovable to the downright scary. Puppeteers are highly skilled and are afforded great reverence in Balinese society.
Virtually all Balinese dances are accompanied by the sounds of the famous gamelan orchestra. Each village has its own music club with perhaps one or two full orchestras which comprise intricately made bamboo gongs, drums and flutes. The sound produced is a totally unique one with very subtle changes in tempo and a real haunting quality. The gamelan orchestra is traditionally all male which can number up to 20 players all dressed in identical costume.
While traditional gamelan music is structured and subtle, the modern ‘Kebyar’ gamelan which originated in 1960s Bali is a much racier version with dramatic tempo changes and crescendos. This is the type of sound you will hear at lively village dances and wedding parties, rather than as a soundtrack to traditional dances. It often features a troupe of female singers and dancers and performances have all the vigour and spectacle of a Bollywood musical.
Balinese music and dance has become an important cultural export and there are now many professional gamelan ensembles based overseas in Australia, Europe and North America. There are even Indonesian cultural events held in Australia and the United States each year. You can try out a few dance steps or learn how to play the gamelan while in Bali. There are numerous cultural centres offering day and residential courses for beginners in Ubud and Denpasar and is an especially fun and rewarding day for kids.