Last week I promised to share the enchanting tale of the Balinese Kecak Fire Dance after my visit to the awe-inspiring Pura Uluwatu. Today I will tell you all about the mesmerizing dance form and how to interpret its breathtaking beauty at the Uluwatu Temple as I bring you along on my very last night in Bali.
Picture this: the sun is drifting towards the horizon, casting a golden glow over the majestic Uluwatu Temple perched atop towering cliffs and creating a soft orange reflection on the vast Indian Ocean leading right to cliffs with the temple on top. As the sky paints hues of orange and purple, mischievous monkeys dart around amidst ancient stone structures. This seems like the perfect setting to immerse yourself in the magic world of the Balinese Kecak Fire Dance.
Where to See a Balinese Kecak Fire Dance
While I chose the Uluwatu Temple show (ticket price 100 000 IDR, with daily shows), there are other splendid venues where you can partake in the magic. A google search, or a stop at one of the many tour kiosks will yield many options all over the island. Ubud, known for its artistic flair, offers an intimate setting for the dance (ticket price 75 000 IDR). Ubud shows are performed at the Pura Dalem Taman on Wednesday and Saturday nights. With its picturesque coastal backdrop, Tanah Lot adds a splendid touch to the experience (100 000 IDR). Shows are on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Denpasar, the bustling capital, boasts several choices. These are evening shows, requiring the darkness to make the greatest impact during the final scenes.
As dusk descends, the performers, adorned in traditional attire, grace the stage, casting an air of mystique. From Hanuman's flowing garments to Rahwana's regal ensemble, each costume is unique and fascinating. These costumes are hand-made by talented artisans who spend many hours, days, and weeks weaving and embroidering intricate patterns. Vivid-coloured fabrics adorned with gold and silver threads display many different traditional Balinese motifs. The performer's headdresses are just as spectacular. Elaborate crowns and headpieces are decorated with flowers, feathers, gems, and delicate metalwork.
Laksamana, Sri Rama's brother, as performed by a female dancer
The costumes and headdresses are complimented further by the performer's intricate make-up. The makeup techniques are steeped in tradition and symbolism. Notice how the performers' faces are adorned with bold colours, intricate designs, and striking patterns. The makeup not only enhances their features but also conveys the essence of the characters they embody. Symbolic markings and designs are applied to represent bravery, purity, and divinity. Interestingly, all the makeup is made from natural and organic materials. Many of the pigments are derived from natural sources such as ground minerals, flowers, and plants.
Here's a fun fact for you: Did you know that the makeup preparation is often considered a sacred ritual? Before applying the makeup, the performers participate in traditional prayers and blessings, infusing the process with spirituality and reverence.
History and Story of the Balinese Kecak Fire Dance
The Kecak dance is uniquely Balinese, inspired by a sacred dance called Sang Hyang. In the Sang Hyang dance, a dancer is possessed by spirits and communicates with Gods and purified ancestors. Sometime during the 1930s, the Hindu epic of Ramayana was included in the dance. The performance does not include any musical instruments, instead the soundtrack is provided by a chorus of 50-100 bare-chested men dressed in checkered sarongs.
The Ramayana epic tells the story of how Sri Rama (a crown prince exiled from his father's kingdom) rescues his kidnapped wife, Sinta, from a demon king. Sri Rama went into the forest accompanied by his wife and his brother. While they were moving through the forest, the evil king Rahwana saw her and became infatuated. Rahwana managed to distract Rama and his brother and kidnapped Sinta. Sri Rama and his brother enlisted the help of Hanoman (the white monkey king) and together with Hanoman's ape army, freed Sinta.
The Balinese Kecak Fire Dance
The performance begins with the men's chorus known as the gamelan suara, entering the performance area and seating themselves on the ground in a circle formation. They fill the air with a rhythmic chant that echoes through the entire performance. Their voices intertwine and seem to dance through the air with the same intensity, colours, and energy of the dance itself. (Readers who share my synaesthesia will get this).
The chant is properly called the Kecak and is where this performance gets its name. It began as a trance ritual to invoke spiritual powers and protect against evil forces. It is easy to feel how the chanting, combined with hand claps and synchronised movements, could create a trance-like atmosphere. As a musician, I was fascinated by the intricate vocal patterns. The pengemong or leader sets the rhythm and guides the flow of the performance as the chorus members respond with precision and harmony in a captivating call-and-response form. The repetitive "cak" syllables create a rich tapestry of sound within a hypnotic and pulsating rhythm.
Sri Rama, performed by a female dancer
Scene One introduces Rama, Sinta, and Rama's brother Laksamana as they enter the forest. I was a bit confused until I realized that the roles of Rama and Laksamana were being danced by women. Once I figured that out, the story became much easier to follow. Rama sees a golden deer and follows, leaving his brother to protect Sinta. When a scream is heard, Sinta insists that Laksamana go help Rama. Rahwana tries to lure Sinta away but is unsuccessful.
Rahwana, the evil king
Scene Two is when Rahwana, driven by his desire, abducts Sinta. He transforms himself into a thirsty old man and requests water. He nabs her as she offers him a drink. As Sinta screams for help, a bird tries to assist but Rahwana captures the bird and cuts off its wings. During this scene, the dance pulsates with tension, as the performers convey the anguish and despair that befalls the princess through their gestures and facial expressions.
Scene Three, is when the star of the performance, Hanoman the Monkey King, appears. In the Uluwatu show, Hanoman interacts with the crowd as he moves throughout the audience acting like the temple monkeys, stealing water bottles, hats, and sunglasses from audience members before returning us to the story.
Hanoman located Sinta in Rahwana's palace and to keep the servants busy, he ruins the palace gardens, causing the palace to send giants out to find the guilty party. Hanoman is captured, tied up, and thrown into a fire but because of his powers is able to escape.
Scene Four, the final scene, is the showdown between Rama and Rahwana -- a battle of light and darkness. The dancers channel their energy, their synchronized movements creating a harmonious symphony. The air crackles with intensity as the story reaches its crescendo and the performance area fills with characters. It's sure to leave you breathless and in awe. Eventually, Rahwana is defeated and Rama is reunited with Sinta.
Following the show, the performers will spend some time posing for photos with the audience members but this time is quite short, especially if you attend the early performance as they need to clear the area for the next show.
I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically recommend including a Balinese Kecak Fire Dance in your Bali itinerary. It's a fascinating performance highlighting the rich tapestry of Balinese culture, as well as a glimpse into the heart and soul of the island. Tickets are relatively inexpensive and the performance will become one of the memories that you treasure long after your return home.
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