Do: Dancing with Rama

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At the Prambanan Temple complex near Jogjakarta, SHARON NG KOOI KIN is enchanted by warriors, mythical creatures and demonic kings.

WHEN the hotel tour desk suggested the Ramayana Ballet, my immediate thought was of ballet dancers in pointy shoes. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The Ramayana Ballet in Jogjakarta is actually a Javanese traditional style dance-drama enacting a Hindu epic. A 60-member choir sings the story and the Sinden, the main female soloist, moves the story along. The dance movements are slow and stylised, though some battle and fighting scenes are acrobatic and fast-paced.

The performers are accompanied by gamelan musicians, on xylophones, gongs, drums and wind instruments.

The epic Since the Ramayana Ballet has no dialogue, it will be helpful if you know the story line before going for the show. The brochure does provide a brief summary of each episode.

The Ramayana epic has been told and retold for centuries, depicted in various media and carved on the walls of Hindu temples throughout Asia. The Prambanan Temple complex near Jogjakarta has countless bas reliefs of scenes from the Ramayana on its walls. Shadowplay all over Indonesia unravel this massive story for tourists as well as at religious festivals.

There are varying versions in India, Indonesia and Cambodia as well as in Buddhist and Malay myths and legends. But they all depict the victory of good over evil and the main characters represent the epitome of purity, faithfulness, bravery and beauty.

The story is of Rama (the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu) whose wife Sita is abducted by the king of giants, Rawana.

The Ramayana Ballet in the Prambanan Temple complex Jogjakarta is based on the 50,000 lines epic poem created by Valmiki, a sage regarded as India’s first poet. The original version is written in Sanskrit and dates back to about 4th Century BC.

Dance-drama My friends and I sit on the stone terrace, waiting eagerly for the ballet to start. If you are early, you may be able to grab one of the few cushions available to sit on. The open-air amphitheatre stage is gradually lit by strong flood lights as the darkening skies blot out the magnificent backdrop of the Prambanan Temple.

At the far end of the huge stage are the gamelan orchestra and a choir of female singers in traditional Javanese costumes. Haunting gamelan music fills the air and in a moment the large stage is filled with beautiful dancers in exotic costumes.

We go straight into the court of King Janaka, Sita’s father and, as the story unfolds, key sentences in English and Indonesian are flashed on a big screen to help the audience understand the drama better. When Rama is banished to the forest to serve a 14-year exile, the unhurried and graceful dance sequences of the palace scenes give way to a fast-paced battle and fight. In the citadel of the monkeys, the Green Monkey King fights Hanoman and the Bird Army shows off its prowess.

The dancers leap and somersault. Even as the female dancers are graceful and slow in their stylised movements, the young male dancers are acrobatic and stand on each other, showing off great agility and strength. For example, one scene shows Rama standing on the shoulders of Hanoman to fight Rawana with his bow and arrow.

Another shows Rama fighting a villain whose exaggerated antics cause the audience to burst into laughter and applaud in appreciation. The villain spins and jumps, somersaults and runs across the stage in melodramatic moves that can rival any kungfu movie. Unfortunately, he is “killed” by Rama and so ends his brief moment in the limelight.

Scenes in the monkey citadel are entertaining because of the antics of the dancers, many of whom are as young as six or seven.

The interaction with the audience adds to the appeal of the Ramayana Ballet. The actor-dancers reach out and touch the spectators, targeting mainly children in the audience who squeal in delight or rear back in momentary fear as the masked dancers pounce on them.

Costumes and stage props The costumes worn are in tune with the period drama but influenced by the Javanese culture. The male dancers mainly wear baggy, batik cargo pants and elaborate headgear. They sling weapons, bows and arrow quivers across their bare chests and sport beards and long hair braids, depending on their characters.

Only the dancers portraying animals and birds wear masks, wings and tails.

The women are exquisite in their elaborate costumes — traditional tight fitting Javanese tube blouses and batik sarongs with long trains. Soft transparent scarves, and gold plated ancient necklaces, pendants and bracelets complete the outfits. Their intricate movements imitate the dainty steps of palace courtesans and their heads jerk in fluid accompaniment.

Every member of the 200-strong dance troupe is decked out in brilliant costumes and, depending on their characters, they add on capes and grotesque masks, sashes and tussles, elaborate headgear and weapons. The male warriors wear gold anklets and bracelets and bands on their muscular arms. All the dancers are barefoot, in contrast to their rich and colourful wardrobe. In certain scenes the entire stage is covered with almost the entire cast. I cannot take them all in at once and have to focus on section by section. They present a truly amazing spectacle.

The back portion of the stage is an elaborate construction of Alengka, the palace of Rawana. The dramatic end is the setting alight of the palace by Hanoman. The blazing fire is whipped into a raging inferno by the evening wind even as the audience gasps in drop-jaw amazement.

My lasting impression is that of Hanoman triumphantly standing on the central staircase as Rawana’s palace burns, lighting up the three main temple towers in the background. What a dramatic climax to a truly magnificent evening show.

Fast facts The Ramayana Ballet consists of four episodes or chapters shown on four consecutive nights with the fifth night presenting the whole epic story in one go.

The two-hour show starts at 7.30pm. Bookings can be made at your hotel in Jogjakarta or Solo.

Ticket charges range from 75,000 rupiah (standard) to 250,000 rupiah (VIP) i.e. RM26-87.

The Ramayana Ballet is available in two venues: The Prambanan Temple open stage (17km from Jogja) or the indoor Purawisata Yogyakarta. Dinner shows and transport can be arranged at additional costs.

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