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Through the Eyes of Researcher: Legong Dance and Its Recent History  

by on Wednesday, 26 November 2008No Comment | 4,759 views

Here is an interesting excerpt on legond dance and its recent history which is taken from a thesis entitled “Balinese Legong:Revival or Decline?” by Stephen Davies.

Legong is a genre of Balinese dance accompanied by gamelan. Traditionally, the dancers are three young girls: the servant (condong) who dances a prelude, and two legong, identically costumed in gilded cloth and wearing elaborate headdresses and accessories.


The central repertoire consisted of about fifteen dances (some of which are now lost), ranging in their longest versions from thirty to sixty minutes. Some of these are narrative (“Lasem” [King of Lasem], “King of Lasem” [Siwa destroys the god of love], “Kuntir” and “Jobog” [which both deal with battles of the monkey brothers Subali and Sugriwa], “Legod Bawa” [Siwa’s Linga], “Sudasarna” [a tale of the witch Calonarang], and “Raja Cina” [King of China]). Other choreographies are abstract or general representations of nature, birds, insects, or plants (“Pelayon” [an abstract dance appropriate originally for dozy afternoons in the palace], “Kuntul” [Heron], “Kupu-kupu Tarum” [Battling Butterflies], “Candra Kanta” [which depicts the relation between the sun and the moon], “Bremara” [which depicts the courtship of bumblebees], “Guak Macok” [Crow Pecking], and “Gadung Melati” [Intoxicating Jasmine]). Those that involve narratives are nevertheless highly stylized, and the presentation of the drama is always secondary to the beauty of the dance. The gamelan is composed of twenty-five or more players and traditionally is of the types known as pelegongan or semar pegulingan, noted for their sweet, soft sound.

Legong is a long-established genre of Balinese dance that achieved its modern form between about 1915 and 1935. The genre is regarded as a treasury of the movements for Balinese women’s dance, and no dancer’s training is complete if she lacks a solid grounding in legong. In the past, legong dances were presented as a secular entertainment for the village nobility—hence the name legong keraton, which means palace legong.

Legong is now performed for Balinese as an entertainment at festivals and major social events. It is most often presented at temple ceremonies, where, being a secular dance (tari balih-balihan), it is relegated to the outer courtyard, a nonsacral space. It is given also at concerts specially organized for tourists. In these, the legong dance is one of a potpourri of dances most of which (e.g., “Teruna Jaya,” in which a young woman plays the role an emotionally moody youth, and “Oleg Tamulilingan,” which is inspired by the courtship of bees) are in a different, more aggressive and dramatic gong kebyar gamelan style that emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The legong dance is culturally emblematic. Charming yet exotic images of frangipani-crowned, sumptuously costumed legong dancers advertise Bali to the outside world, and “legong” dance shows are offered nightly to tourists. Despite this, the condition of legong at the beginning of the 1990s did not appear to be healthy. If any legong dance was performed at a tourist concert, it was inevitably “Legong Lasem” which abstractly represents the love of the King of Lasem for Princess Langkasari, whom he abducts. Later, he encounters a bird of ill omen en route to do battle with Langakasari’s fiancé. Whereas this dance lasts for up to sixty minutes in its complete form, for tourists it would be cut to about fifteen minutes.

Instead of the prepubescent girls of former times, most of the dancers were in their mid twenties. The pelegongan or semar pegulingan gamelans that traditionally accompanied legong had become very uncommon.

The dance was usually accompanied by the differently tuned gamelan gong kebyar, the tone of which is, according to Balinese, weighty (bobot), whereas a sweet (manis) tone is desirable for legong. Meanwhile, the preference of the Balinese did not favor legong. Whereas gong kebyar competitions with new music drew large followings, musicians and audiences were not attracted to legong.

Like other, older Balinese art forms—such as gamelan gambang (a sacred seven-tone pelog scale ensemble) or the drama genres of gambuh (a dance drama telling stories of the East Javanese Prince Panji) and arja (a dance opera form)—legong appeared to be moribund. Signs of a revival in legong began to emerge about the mid 1990s. Some of these were general. For example, multidisk compilations of Balinese dances, including legong dances, were issued in VCD format by Bali Records and Aneka. Owing to increased wealth, more groups acquired semar pegulingan gamelans and began playing the repertoire composed for that ensemble. Several legong dances were performed most years at the annual Balinese Arts Festival. In 2002, competitors representing each of Bali’s eight regencies in the gong kebyar competition at the arts festival were required (among other things) to perform“Legong Kuntir,” which shows the monkeys Subali and Sugriwa fighting in a Ramayana episode. Change was also apparent at the local level, especially in the region of Peliatan (in Gianyar Regency). In 1995, a Pelegongan festival that featured legong dances from different regions plus some related dance genres was held in Peliatan.

In its tourist performances, the famous Peliatan legong troupe Tirta Sari began performing two legong dances, adding “Jobog,” “Kuntir,” “Kuntul,” “Semarandana,” and “Pelayon” to “Lasem” in its tourist repertoire. Another tourist concert at the nearby Agung Rai Museum of Art included a virtually uncut, forty-minute version of “Legong Lasem.” Various video disks and CDs including legong dances were issued by local groups, and there was a move to use younger dancers than the twentysomethings of the 1980s. The group Dharma Purwa Jati in Teges (a village on the edge of Peli- atan) engaged the celebrated teacher Sang Ayu Ketut Muklin to pass on and record old versions of legong dances. Another renowned elderly teacher, Anak Agung Raka of Saba, was employed, shortly before his death in 2000, to teach “Legong Candra Kanta” and “Legong Sudasarna” to a group in Pengosekan (a few kilometers southwest of Peli- atan). Outside of the Peliatan area the group Mekar Bhuana in Sanur attempted to revive their local legong style.

The revival is self-conscious. Those who advocate it are also aware of the obstacles and problems they face. Anak Agung Gede Oka Dalem, dance director of Tirta Sari of Peliatan (6 July 2003), says, “It’s difficult. But our challenge if we want to keep legong permanent is to resist these modern changes. Though it is hard. Finally we have to be tough; we have to call them [the dance students] in. The important thing is to keep it going. Bluntly, to keep the Peliatan style constant. Otherwise it will be lost. If it is to be eternal, we have to stir up the children, though this is already demanding.”

Dewa Ketut Alit of Pengosekan (27 June 2003) observed, “I want to plant it so it grows back. Why teach legong? So young children will come to feel it as classic and regard it as classic when adult. . . . It’s difficult to keep the tradition inside. But if from the beginning when they are little they see and absorb what is old, they come to feel attracted to it.”

Dr Wayan Dibia, a professor at ISI, the college of the arts in Denpasar (12 July 2003), takes a positive view:
We are hoping for a renaissance in Bali’s performing arts. Now there are several gambuh groups back performing. There are many, many semar pegulingan gamelans. Local people may be a little tired of gong kebyar, or may still love gong kebyar but don’t want to lose legong. In the old days, when a new form became popular usually it killed the old. That is not the case now. Villages can now afford to have different gamelans (for example, three in one banjar).

This is a big hope for more revival of legong in future. This is the challenge of the Bali Arts Festival: to provide space and room for this. These various moves toward the revival of legong were mostly uncoordinated. Many arose from the independent decisions of local performing troupes. In Bali, it is common for geographically close groups to have no interest in or knowledge of what their neighbors are doing. Nevertheless, the overall impression was of resurgence in Peliatan and adjacent villages, along with concern for and commitment to the perpetuation of the legong dance genre.

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