Through The Eyes of Researcher: The Precarious Survival of The Legong Dance
Here is an interesting excerpt on legong dance and its survival which is taken from a thesis entitled “The role of Westerners in the conservation of the Legong dance” by Stephen Davies.
The Legong dance achieved its modern form in the 1920s and 30s. Yet it was under threat from the outset. A new type of orchestra, gong kebyar, was invented in the north about 1918. It became increasingly popular and soon spread to other parts of the island. It did so at the expense of the pelegongan or semar pegulingan orchestras that accompanied the Legong dance. By the mid-1930s, many of these older orchestras were melted down and recast as gong kebyars (Seebass 1966). Even as late as 1966, the famous pelegongan orchestra of Binoh was threatened with the same fate (Dr. Wayan Sinti, pers. comm.). In the early 1990s, only a “handful” (Tenzer 1991) of pelegongan or semar pegulingan orchestras survived. And while the Legong dance can be and usually now is accompanied by gong kebyar, that orchestra’s weightier tone and different tuning are universally deemed unsuited to the dance.
Moreover, there has never been a religious requirement for the performance of the Legong dance. Legong is a secular entertainment—originally for the nobility and later for the wider Balinese public. As such, it had to compete for the audience’s affection against other genres, such as Gambuh, Arja, Joged, and Janger. The village of Peliatan is one of the most famous centers for the Legong dance, but it was not always dominant there, as the musician I Wayan Gandera explained in 1978: “From 1930-37, the Legong dance was much liked by the people and there were many requests to perform abroad. Between 1937 and 1949, the Legong dance was not much performed and the Janger dance was to the fore. From 1949-54, Legong came back into favor with the public and there were important requests from America [for its performance]. The Joged Bumbung dance was preferred in 1954-58, with the Legong dance rarely done. Since 1958, the village has been active in performing the Legong dance for tourists in the yard of Puri Kaleran” (Wartini 1978, 12-13, my translation).
With the 1980s, the challenge to Legong’s popularity increased. The new forms of Sendratari and Drama Gong captured the enthusiasm of the Balinese public, and it would be remiss not to mention the introduction and spread of television in the same period. The Legong dance was already thought to be endangered by 1974 (Rembang et. al. 1974/75), with both depletion in the repertoire, as the dancers who remembered the choreographies and music died, and decline in the number of orchestras and groups committed to its performance. Despite a continuing dedication to the dance in some of the centers that are famous for it—Saba, Peliatan, Binoh—the popularity of the Legong dance with Balinese has continued to wane, as is true also for other “classic” genres such as Gambuh and Arja. It is widely reported that musicians prefer to play newer music and that the local audience no longer likes or understands the Legong dance. Many Balinese now cannot follow the narrative significance of Legong’s highly stylized movements.
In general, the Balinese prefer innovation and change to preservation and repetition, at least so far as the secular arts are concerned. Indeed, Bali is surely among the most culturally volatile of societies. So it would not have been surprising had the Legong dance gone the way of the Janger dance, which in past times was enormously popular but now is little performed. In fact, though, Legong has persisted and attempts to revive it continue. Perhaps this is due more to its emblematic status with Westerners than to inclinations natural to the Balinese. If the Legong dance is synonymous with Bali for Westerners (as observed in Vickers 1989), perhaps it owes its survival to its exotic attractiveness to foreigners. That is a hypothesis I explore further in the following sections.