Visitors might be forgiven for thinking that Balinese dance is all about tourism, since the performances they are likely to see are those produced for tourists. But in fact Balinese dances grow out of village traditions, and they still thrive in many villages where tourists scarcely even pass through.
They are performed by the villagers themselves, for each other and for the gods. The tremendously complicated music, choreography, and costumes are thought to be due to competition between rival royal courts (puri) in the pre-20th century ‘age of kings’ when many dozens of small princedoms vied for prestige in the grandeur of their rituals.
One of the richest performing traditions is Arja — an operatic drama performed either for its own sake or leading up to the ritual combat of the Barong and Rangda, sacred guardian effigies that embody the forces of chaos and order.
Arja developed in the 17th century out of an ancient Javanese court dance, Gambuh, which required great numbers of dancers. Arja consists of a core of twelve dancers playing archetypal roles into which the particular story is fitted. The orchestra is a small but lively gamelan with gongs and drums. The performance is essentially a series of elaborate and stately entrances as each dancer appears singing classical poetry to vigorous music — then the majesty of the dance falls apart in comic dialogue and the story gets under way.
The village of Keramas, on the southeast coast not far from Ubud, has a famous Arja troupe, much admired for the precision and energy of its dancers, their skill in singing, and their comic gifts. Keramas is little known to tourists, although it has several small puri, a farmer’s market, some beautifully carved temples, and a number of sacred springs. Komaneka at Keramas, a new boutique hotel on the beach, is due to open in early 2017.