It was 7 pm, James and I were seated in Ubud’s wantilan, a shaded traditional pavilion open on three sides with a stage set up for the night’s performance, flanked by Balinese gamelan – a set of traditional musical instruments originally created to lull kings to sleep – glowing under the stage lighting.
At 7:30 the lights were suddenly dimmed, leaving only the stage illuminated in golden glow, the crowd was instantly silenced in anticipation. In an absolute unison gamelan players started hitting the brass plates of the musical instrument, while two kendang – Balinese tabla – players sat on both sides of the stage, at the far right end two gongs were alternately hit, enveloping the tunes of gamelan instruments in a captivating harmony.
The fast-paced rhythm of Balinese gamelan was then silenced when a white-robed old priest entered the stage. A bell on one hand and a chalice filled with offerings on the other, he was preparing to bless the night’s performance, a ritual mandatory in almost all events held on the island as a gesture to seek gods’ blessings.
Two girls – the main Legong dancers – helped by attendants donned the iconic flower-laden headdresses. Then, the most amazing scene unfolded before our eyes: the two dancers moved around the stage performing elaborate sets of hand and body movements with their eyes closed. They hovered back and forth and from one side to the other side of the stage completely unable to see each other, at times they moved as if they were about to collide. But they did not.
For the next few minutes James and I were mesmerized by the fine gestures of the two dancers, who later opened their eyes and flared the famous Balinese dancer’s stare. As time passed by, the audience’s anticipation grew even higher for more stunning performances, as if one amazing performance was not enough.
Jauk, a demon with long fingernails entered the stage afterwards, ambling around and unexpectedly waving his fingers to the front row audience. The supposedly frightening demon turned out to be the night’s clown. Then a troupe of men and women dancers took the stage, carrying the emblem of Ubud while performing elaborate dances with a hint of modern dance influence here and there.
Then all of a sudden a male dancer stormed into the stage once the troupe left, wearing an exquisite costume with brightly-colored intricate traditional patterns all over it. The rough-looking face of the dancer at times turned soft, more like seducing the audience with his flirty eyes and smile. But as the gamelan players hit firm-pitched notes, his face turned stern once again then he jumped around, striking a menacing pose. Kebyar Trompong had James fooled throughout the entire performance as he mistakenly thought it was a woman due to the dancer’s make up and ambiguous gestures.
One performance after another kept the audience glued to their seats, cheap plastic seats to be precise – no fancy seat by any means. The last performance portrayed the life of Abhimanyu, an important figure from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the son of Arjuna and the grandson of Indra, the king of all gods. From his marriage with Siti Sunari to his battle against demon and evil spirits, the dancer’s facial expressions displayed his mixed emotions, of happiness and fear.
For me the one and a half hour series of performances was not like anything I had seen before, such a captivating traditional entertainment right at Bali’s cultural heart and just across the Ubud Palace. After the final performance, dozens of locals donning white robes gathered outside the wantilan, then marched away to the east of the palace down the main road while playing cèng-cèng (Balinese cymbals) and small gongs along the way.
I kept saying how amazed I was on our way back to the hotel, millions of times, like a kid who just went to Disneyland for the first time.