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A night at Ubud Palace

Legong dancer, Ubud

In Bali, magic can unfold on a busy street corner. Raised above the din of passing motorcycles and night traffic, the pavilion stood proudly opposite Ubud Palace, beside a stone wall marking the edge of the main village temple.

Bama and I were seated in an otherwise traditional Balinese structure, whose roof tiles concealed wooden rafters and above them, sheets of interlocking bamboo fibre. It was open on three sides, held up by an exposed frame of concrete columns and beams, cleverly styled as though they were carved out of petrified wood.

The performance venue belonged to the Palace, and so it carried the title of wantilan, a name reserved only for those built at temples and royal compounds. Although functionally and visually the same, other meeting spaces in less important settings were called bale banjar.

We were here to see the fabled Legong dance, which erupted with an overture of gamelan supported by a wailing chorus just visible offstage. All eyes were on a small procession as they made their entrance with a ringing bell: two young maidens followed a trio of attendants and a white-robed priest, whose wizened face remained entirely focused on his task. He sat down to make an offering, wisps of smoke curling from the front of the stage, its edge strewn with golden trumpet flowers. On either side a small stand bore an elaborate headdress, luminescent under the full glare of stage lights. Soon, the ritual was complete and the performance began in earnest.

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Pura Taman Saraswati, near the dance venue

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Before the show

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An offering for the gods

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Dancer at the ready

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Presenting the headdress

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Into a trance

I could no longer hear the click of my camera shutter, or those of the surrounding audience. In that moment there was only the stage, the two dancers, and on either side, the gamelan orchestra in full swing. And how could I describe the richness of Balinese gamelan? It was a sheer cascade of sound, like a torrential downpour drumming against a tin roof, but each raindrop was a golden note that rang out before being enveloped in a cloud of music.

All I had known about Legong before my arrival were the wide-eyed facial expressions and extravagant costumes. I did not know of its innate mysticism or the fact that the dancers performed as though in a trance. Once crowned with the headdress, they seemed to float effortlessly across the stage, performing most of the dance with their eyes closed. The two maidens drifted forward and back, crossing over without so much as a graze, or any risk of toppling the lit offering out front. They danced as if the luxuriant headdress guided their every step.

We sat completely enraptured, hypnotised by the grace and fluidity of their movements, the torrent of music from the gamelan washing over us as the dancers’ shadows amplified on the walls, moving silently across the intricate stonework. Then came the “awakening”. With eyes ablaze, their movements reached an energetic peak before they finally slumped on the ground, propped up by attendants who had spent all this time kneeling upstage, with hands clasped as though in prayer.

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Pairing up

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Concentration

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Taking a spin

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Wide-eyed

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‘Fainting spell’

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Jauk dancer

Legong was the first act of a series that introduced us to a cast of colourful characters. In the Jauk, a mythical demon momentarily became the conductor of the gamelan ensemble, waving his ludicrously long fingernails, mask frozen in a perpetually impish grin. The clown then laid eyes on an unlucky member of the first row, beckoning her to join him on stage for a dance and wiggle as the audience erupted in laughter.

Next up was Lencana Agung Ubud – a celebration of Ubud itself and the town’s spirituality. I instantly became enamoured with the ‘queen’, whose beauty and poise was apparent the moment she stepped onto the stage. We were taken with the expressive extremes of Kebyar Trompong, created in the 1930s by legendary Balinese dance master Ketut Marya, better known as I Mario. In a flash, the sole dancer repeatedly transformed from a wide-eyed state of alertness, to the strictness of a school matriarch, before softening to a coy manner with a sweet, seductive smile. The dancer’s demeanour and makeup had me completely fooled – it was not until after the performance that I realised it was in fact a man.

Soon after the show finished, a large procession emerged out of nowhere: a river of men in white clothes and heads wrapped in a matching udeng. It was the evening of an important temple ceremony, held once every six months, and the crowd was pouring down from the road running between the Palace and pavilion. We watched in awe from the sidelines as the main street suddenly drained of traffic. Eventually the clashing cymbals and river of white grew distant until, like the Legong performers, they disappeared into the night.

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Lencana Agung Ubud

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Arrival of the ‘queen’

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The ‘entourage’

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‘Lady-in-waiting’

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Kebyar Trompong – flashes of emotion

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‘Stop and stare’

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Playing the trompong, a row of mounted gongs

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More exquisite costumes

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Introducing the Ballet of Bimaniu, from the Mahabharata

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Princess Siti Sunari

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Prince Bimaniu and Siti Sunari

38 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great photos and informative description of their native dance. I hope to have the opportunity to see one of these performances when we visit Bali sometime this year.

    January 7, 2014
    • Glad to know you’re planning to get there soon. Of the three famous dances that I saw, Legong was my personal favourite. 🙂

      January 7, 2014
  2. Wow sounds absolutly magical, wish I could have been there, great photos and post though!

    January 7, 2014
    • Thanks Jeremy, magical is right! I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening in Ubud.

      January 7, 2014
  3. The Sojourner #

    Gorgeous!

    January 7, 2014
    • Everything was exquisite… I took several hundred photos in that one sitting!

      January 7, 2014
  4. Loved the post! Beautiful pictures.

    January 7, 2014
  5. James between your eloquent description and stunning photos one can not help but feel present at the performance.

    January 7, 2014
    • Thank you for the comment, Sue – it was such a riveting show!

      January 7, 2014
  6. James, I’ll be over in Hong Kong for this upcoming Spring semester and I am really considering going to Bali during my break! It looks like it is full of rich culture.

    January 7, 2014
    • That’s fantastic Chris! How long will you be here in Hong Kong? Bali is a great place to get away for a week – it has that enviable mix of a strong artistic culture, many historical sites, dramatic landscapes and beaches with good surf. Basically a tropical destination that covers it all!

      January 7, 2014
      • I’m studying at Lingnan University. I arrive January 14th and depart sometime in the last week of May! I’m super pumped.
        I’d love for you to follow my journey on here! We may cross paths potentially.

        January 7, 2014
  7. What an eloquent way to describe the already beautiful traditional dance performance, James! From the moment they dimmed the light, I had been captivated. Then the energetic Balinese gamelan, the amazing Legong dancers, and that Kebyar Trompong dancer! It would be really hard for any other performances to beat that night.

    January 7, 2014
    • Thank you, Bama! I had no idea we would be watching Legong when we first arrived in Ubud – I’m so glad you suggested it after our long walk through the rice fields. Such a shame there aren’t any gamelan classes here in Hong Kong… I would love to start learning!

      January 7, 2014
  8. Nice write up, James and stunning shots …

    January 7, 2014
    • Thanks Sreejith – I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      January 7, 2014
  9. We were there a year ago, and quite hypnotized ourselves. You got some really great shots!

    January 7, 2014
    • Guess I was lucky being near the front and next to the aisle; that was a pretty good vantage point.

      January 7, 2014
  10. Before this I had only seen video of the dance, thanks for sharing so much detail and including the pictures. Very educational read.

    January 7, 2014
    • It’s my pleasure… someday you’ll have to watch it firsthand.

      January 7, 2014
  11. What a great story you have! Enjoy reading it, and the photos look gorgeous! 🙂

    January 7, 2014
  12. James, you totally captured the beauty, elegance and mystery of the Legong dance. When we attended the performance we were equally enraptured. It’s an experience that never leaves you. Your photos are stunning! ~Terri

    January 7, 2014
    • Terri, even now I can occasionally hear the gamelan playing in my head. The Legong performance was truly like nothing I’d ever seen before. Next time I’ll have to capture it on video!

      January 7, 2014
  13. Gede Prama #

    Thank you very much, I’am really glad that I’m following you. I’m still figuring out. Just wanted to say that you are an awesome blogger, Inspiring and May you inspire more readers essentially perfectly ok. greetings from Gede Prama 🙂

    January 8, 2014
    • Matur suksma, Gede Prama – you’re very kind. 🙂 I fell in love with your native island and I’m already planning to go back in a few months’ time. May you have a blessed year!

      January 8, 2014
  14. JMD #

    I remember it and I loved it.

    January 8, 2014
    • It’s something I’ll remember for a long time to come, that’s for sure.

      January 8, 2014
  15. This whole post is superb. I love your descriptions, taking me right back there, though I suspect you saw a far more authentic version of Legong than we did. And your photographs are absolutely beautiful. How I long for a camera that produces non-grainy sharp photos in low light. Upgrading to one of the new Fuji mirror less soon.

    January 8, 2014
    • Thank you, Alison. It’s a good thing I tested out the settings on my camera beforehand – there was a “sports mode” for capturing high-speed action. The Legong we saw was by a dance group called Panca Artha, they were just fabulous!

      January 8, 2014
  16. gorgeous photos! great post!!

    January 8, 2014
    • Thanks for the comment!

      January 8, 2014
  17. Beautiful photos! I too had a chance to see a performance here and I loved it.

    January 10, 2014
    • It was enchanting, Lydia! I would love to watch it again the next time I’m in Ubud.

      January 11, 2014
  18. JMD #

    It seems this did not change in years :
    http://gensdailleurs.com/2014/01/11/ubud-bali-3/

    January 11, 2014
    • Nice to know you also watched Legong when you went – looks like it was the one outside Pura Taman Saraswati.

      January 11, 2014
  19. Reblogged this on Just Go Places.

    January 13, 2014

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