The Illustrious and Intricate Art of Legong
(Photo by Cornelius Louis André Roosevelt, 1928)
Bali is known not only for its beautiful nature and tranquil atmosphere, but also for its vibrant culture, especially its traditional dances. One of Bali's most enticing royal court performances is the legong dance. The dance is usually done by young women. It is one of the most important classical pieces on the island and is known for its physically taxing stances and quick movements. The dance is a cultural heritage that has been meticulously preserved and continuously performed through the ages.
The legong dance is also known by its full name, "Legong Kraton," meaning dance of the royal palace. It used to only be performed for the royal family inside their walled-off residences. The name “legong” itself is derived from the words “lega” meaning happy, and “ong/wong” meaning people, so the combined word may roughly translate to “something that makes people happy." Other sources also claim the word “legong” is derived from "oleg" which means dance, and "gong" referring to the gamelan.
The legong stands out from other dances because of the performers' costumes, which include a large golden headdress with flowers and heavily decorated attire covering them from shoulders to toe. The costume is supposed to represent angels dancing in the heavens as how they were depicted in the king's dream. Despite the bulkiness of their attire, highly skilled dancers are able to move with ease. Dancing quickly to the live music of the gamelan orchestra, the dancers must keep up their agility throughout the performance. There are many artistic renditions of the legong dance that can be seen today in Bali's various areas, including the villages of Saba and Bedulu in the Gianyar regency and Kelandis in the central Bali highlands.
The Legong Kraton is the most original or purest form of dance dramas out of all legong variations. Three dancers act out the story of a female court attendant, and two legongs wearing identical costumes play the parts of royalties. The story in Legong Kraton has roots in East Java's history during the 12th and 13th centuries. It tells the tale of Rangkesari, a maiden whom a king came across when he was lost in the woods. He took her inside his stone house, where he ordered for her to be imprisoned. When the Prince of Daha, Rangkesari's brother, found out she was being held captive, he threatened war unless she was set free. Rangkesari begged her captor to let her go and stop them from going to war, but the king would rather fight. He encountered an evil omen in the form of a bird on his way to battle that foretold his demise. He was then killed in the ensuing fight.
Legong dancers' complex movements, according to an analysis by experts, can be traced back to the incorporation of elements from gambuh. Gambuh is one of the oldest surviving forms of Balinese performing arts that combines dance, music, and acting. It is based on the Malat, a collection of poems about the fictitious Javanese prince Raden Panji. Additionally, gambuh gave Balinese performing arts a fresh narrative component that influenced other dance dramas on the island, including Topeng masked dance and Arja opera. Nowadays, only around four remaining groups still perform in gambuh style.
The Legong Kraton dance is broken up into 4-5 parts for each performance. The four main parts of the legong dance are Papeson (the opening), Pengawak (the main part), Pengencet (the development of the main part), and Pekaad (the closing). In addition to these four parts, in some types of Legong there is a Pengipuk section, which contains scenes of love or battle.
The legong dancers’ ability to move with such ferocious agitation is remarkable considering they are completely covered in gold brocade and have heavy and grandiose attributes. In addition, the dancers must switch from one persona to another without throwing off the flow, timing, or mood of the dance. Dancers might appear as characters and their mirror images, with their movements closely timed. They might then separate, with each person playing a different role, before mirroring each other again. The Legong Kraton specifically, is a four-part historical story that has a deep meaning.