A vacation to the dramatic island of Bali isn’t complete without witnessing firsthand some of the most enthralling local culture, including some of the different the traditional dance performances Besides the popular Janger and Barong dances, one must see dazzling performance is the Kecak Dance – a Balinese artistic masterwork in the unique form of music, drama and traditional dance. Often performed at sunset in stunning locations, it’s a Bali experience not to be forgotten.
Kecak, also referred to as the monkey chanting dance or the Ramayana Monkey Chant, is a mesmerizing fire trance dance. The dance traces its history back to around 1930. It is widely acknowledged as amongst the most iconic signature dances in Bali alongside the Janger and Barong dances. It not only steals the show away, it is also quite exceptional since it features absolutely no musical background-other than the chanting of an exclusive male chorus humming a “keh-chack” sound that dominates the entire performance as well a body percussion sounds. This dance is traditionally solely performed by men, although there has been an emergence of women groups since 2006. The group comprises 50 or more performers adorning checked cloth around their waists, who, energetically chant “cak” and throw up their arms.
The Kecak is quite unusual and exceptional for a number of reasons. First, contrary to common dances, it includes no musical accompaniment- there’s no Gamelan, the traditional instrumental orchestra of Bali which can be heard accompanying most Balinese dances. The rhythm is derived from a chanting (monkey) chorus and the polyrhythmic sound the chant produce is known as the ‘Ke-chak’.
The group of performers gathers in a ring around a flame creating a stage. They also play the role of monkey armies in this story and turn into an undulating snake while in one of the dance’s pivotal scenes. With the flame is the only lighting, the dance will exude a primeval feel, particularly where staged outside . A look back at the Kecak history and you gather that it was originally a trance ritual which went along with the male chorus. Walter Spies, a German musician, and painter was deeply captivated in this ritual while residing in Bali during the 1930s that he worked towards recreating it into an exclusive drama centered on the Hindu Ramayana. This was also inclusive of dance, precisely purposed to entertain Western tourist audiences.
Spies working closely with Limbak and Wayan Libak popularized this dance by traversing the globe with the Balinese performers. Limbak, a then renowned dancer integrated Baris movements into this role of cak leader in the 1920s. This innovation impressed Spies who suggested the establishment of a similar scenario but centered on the Ramayana and complemented by cak chorus as opposed to gamelan, as has previously been the case.
The Kecak story is derived from the Ramayana, a Hindu epic that is expressed in multiple forms aside from dance. Carving and painting are also other alternative forms. The heir to the Ayodhya Kingdom, Prince Rama, together with his wife Sita was banished by King Dasaratha from their kingdom due to Rama’s stepmother’s trickery. The account starts with Sita and Rama’s arrival accompanied by Laksmana (Ram’s brother) in the Dandaka forest. This trio is spotted by the Demon King of Alengka, Rahwana, who lusts after Sita. Rahwana then sends Marica, his prime minister, to attempt to isolate Sita for him to kidnap her.
As soon as Sita thinks she has heard a cry for help from her husband, she pushes Laksamana to go and check on Rama. She manages to convince Laksamana by accusing him of cowardice and in the end, he gives in and departs to assist Rama but with great reluctance. As a precaution nonetheless, he creates a magical circle on the area surrounding Sita and instructs her not to step out of it no matter the circumstance. Left alone, Sita becomes an easy target for Rahwana who uses his trickery to disguise himself as an aged priest looking for food and some shelter. Sita subsequently falls for it and unfortunately steps outside the magic circle to cater to the priest and in the process; she is grabbed and taken to the palace by Rahwana.
Once they get to the Alengka Palace, Rahwana attempts everything to seduce Sita but to no avail. While at the palace, Sita narrates this unfortunate event that befell her to Trijata, Rahwana’s niece, and in the process, Hanoman shows up and reveals that he is part of Rama’s envoy. He proves it by showing Sita Rama’s ring. As proof of life, Sita asks Hanoman to go with her hairpin to Rama and ask him to come to her rescue.
Meanwhile, Laksamana, Rama, and Tualen are in hot pursuit of Sita when they come face to face with Rahwana’s son, Meganada. Meganada immediately engages the trio in battle and employs his magic to help him overpower Laksamana and Rama. He shoots an arrow that instantly transforms into a dragon that overpowers the trio and proceeds to truss them up in ropes.
All through, a bird named Garuda and the King of every bird (and an entrusted comrade of King Dasaratha) observes the entire ordeal from high in the sky and subsequently comes to the brothers’ rescue. The duo continues with their rescue mission and is later joined by the king of the Monkeys, Sugriwa, together with his monkey army.
The Ramayan fragment climaxes at when Meganada and Sugriwa and their respective army confront one another in a feisty battle. Unfortunately, Meganada is the ultimate loser. With such an interesting tale, it is impossible not to fall in love with the dance.
Nonetheless, to whet your appetite, you will be delighted to learn that there is more than one place where you can watch this remarkable masterpiece unfolding. The best spots to watch it include Pura Uluwatu-where the shows kick off at the stroke of sunset.What’s more, you can also enjoy the spectacular performances at Tanah Lot, in the Tabanan-based Beraban village which hosts daily performances at the Surya Mandala Cultural Park. Finally, you can also catch the action at GWK Cultural Park-based in the Jalan Raya in Uluwatu with daily performances at the great GWK Amphitheatre, and the Pura Dalem Ubud temple among other places.
Dance in Bali is a remarkable way to express cultural diversity in a captivating artistic manner. The Kecak is the pinnacle of all Balinese dances and what better way to unwind while on your vacation than attending a live dance performance!