Legong of the Angels
Over the years, Pagerwesi has served as a reminder to me of the coming of a wonderfully mystical legong performance. It is the most sacred of all sacred legong dances and is performed in the inner sanctum of Payogan Agung Temple in Ketewel every six Balinese months. The style is known as Legong Dedari, or Legong of the Angels (Can you think of a more heavenly name than that?). The prepubescent dancers wear masks which are not strapped to the face but clasped in the teeth during the performance.
The Legong Dedari of Ketewel and its gamelan accompaniment known as Semara Pagulingan (the gamelan of love) are said to be centuries old and enshrouded in local legend. The story is set hundreds of years ago and is focused around a Balinese prince named Dewa Agung Karna. The prince was a keen meditator and on one particular occasion he was meditating in Payogan Agung Temple when he fell into a deep meditative state which lasted for several days. It is said that many believed his spirit had left his body and would never return. Eventually, he awoke and recalled a vision. He dreamed of the most exquisite music and dance performance, sweet and refined in character, known today as the “Legong of the Angels”. Musicians and dancers were then commissioned to recreate his dream by making masks and music for the dance. The gamelan, however, is said to be much older.
The dance has a sublimely magical feel to it, set in front of the largest shrine in the most inner realm of the massive temple. The scene opens with a prelude played on the heavenly orchestra, which has a ethereal, bell-like resonance; so ancient that some of the bronze pots are peppered with bubbling rust. In the meantime the troupe of young legong dancers file into the court yard, with only two dressed in costume and the remainder witness the performance, either as dedari dancers of years past or prospective angels. The girls must undergo months of training before they are ready to perform with the masks for the Gods.
Apparently, there are a total of nine masks and they must not be touched directly. So, every time a dancer prepares to dance, the mask is blessed and fastened on the face using a soft cloth. The dancers perform in pairs and dance four times in a row, for a total of more than forty-five minutes. The dance starts slowly and is more Javanese in form – the movements are flowing and stylized and there are no flashy jolts or hops. Each mask is a painted a different colour and possesses its own special character – one may be sad, another half-smiling. No two masks are the same and it seems that the more you stare at them as they dance, the more they seem to produce ever-changing facial expressions.
The ancient gamelan Semara Pagulingan which accompanies the dance plays a haunting accompaniment to the dance, a piece known as Subandar Rawit. Its peculiar, haunting scale is known by no other gamelan and it takes specialist musicians to play the difficult repertoire, passed on from generation to generation.
The young dancers must be both mentally and physically strong; for as well as carrying the spiritual responsibility of the archaic masks, the two must dance the same dance four times in a row. The performance is purely for the entertainment of the Gods, although many spectators huddle cross-legged in the small courtyard to witness the sacred spectacle. As the dance is performed, priests busily bless all the shrines and temple buildings, on occasion weaving in and out of the dancers as they chant and flick droplets of holy water into the air.
It is truly a night of artistic beauty, leaving you with an invigorating sense that no matter how much this island is corrupted by monsters of modernism, the magic of Bali will never really ever be lost.