Ubud is well known as the cultural center of Bali. Walking the main streets of town, you are surrounded by art shops selling paintings, carvings, clothes and all sorts of the typical souvenirs. You get this all over the big towns in the south of Bali. But in Ubud, you also get dance.
Ubud is famous for its traditional Balinese dance and Gamelan music. Most travel guides will point out the best venue or dance to see. Our Rough Guide told us to check out either the Palace or watch the Kecak (monkey dance). We opted instead to take in a show by Cenik Wayah at the Lotus Pond based pretty much exclusively on the fact that the pond provides a gorgeous environment. The stage is a dramatic one with a temple wall as backstage and the audience sitting surrounded by a pond of lily pads and flaming candles. It all seemed ideal.
What we didnt know when buying the tickets, however, is that the performance would be done by children (actually teenagers). They looked amateurish as they proceeded, giggling and talking, to take their spots behind their instruments. As the lights went down on the stage, I had forgotten the pond and was now in buyers remorse.
Then the music started.
If you have never heard Gamelan music before, you are in for a treat. the music is wildly varied, dramatic and fast. While it may sometimes feel lacking in variety, it more than made up for it in sheer musical hummingbird like flight, moving from pace to pace. Sometimes clashing, then rejoining, before tossing you around again for a loop.
I was immediately relieved of my concerns around the professionalism. Indeed the performers lacked the discipline of professionals in their appearance, but they played beautifully and with fantastic gift for the music. I was willing to forgive the behavior for such musical attention.
The dance component was equally new to me. Balinese dance emphasizes exact, sharp motions often in the male roles while females tend to have twisting intricate arm and hand gestures. From a modern, North American eye, the dance appears limited, much like the Gamelan. The dancers are limited by either costume or tradition from rapid motions such as running, jumping or other such acrobats. But this limitation means that dancers are forced to perfect other techniques of expression such a hand, eye or facial movements. The result is very striking and highly engaging to the audience. One dance, Kebyar Duduk, while not the most interesting dance in itself, showed fantastic use of eye movement. The dancers eyes, emphasized by makeup, darted perfectly from the audience to his fan leaving you entranced with the effect.
Other dances, such as the Legong Trance Dance, included the opposite effect; two female dancers in synchronization with their eyes closed.
The last dance, the Barong Dance, involved a massive two person costume and portrays a lion as king of the forest. The dancers use of the mask here, again subtle, was the dominant feature with only limited forward motion by the dancers.
In all dances, the dancers were quite good and, in some cases, exceedingly effective in working with the tools that they had perfected. Leaving the performance, I felt rewarded for the experience and grateful that we had avoided the Royal Palace and opted for the children’s show instead. The scenery combined with the impressive display by the young performers made for a fantastic night out.