A night at Ubud Palace
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.
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.
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. ◊