Shadow and light. December 24th. Dinner was a family gathering beneath a bewildering teak-branch and banana-leaf Christmas tree. Now we approach temple gates where torched lights and flashes of red silk and gold brocade create the entrance to a realm at once intimate and vast. Here, heaven and earth merge in the shadow world.
The headiness of the incense takes me back. I indulge myself in thoughts of childhood Christmases pageants and the mystical Magi, three Kings so mysterious and wise. But this is Indonesia. And the dance performed is a ritual presented nightly. The King we meet is not wise and while drawn to light, will let darkness destroy him.
A tiny dancer bound in gold from head to toe sets the stage. We are swept away into a mystical forest where a princess has lost her way. Our King, bewitched by her radiance, captures this beauty and locks her in a house of stone. A fluttering raven brings the king this ill omen: he will die in a battle waged to set this princess free.
Three principal dancers pantomime the story. They have practiced this form, called Legong, since the age of five. They dance, not as a profession, but to serve the gods. They are young and full of energy precisely delivered. The complicated footwork, animated gestures and dramatic eye movements mesmerize. Torchlight flickers. Our eyes deceive us. Did our dancers multiply, or have their shadows joined the dance?
According to legend, Legong evolved from the fever-induced dream of a young prince. The audience is invited to enter this dream. We too lose our way. In this world of shadows, the real and the imagined are tightly paired. Two dancers enter as the double image of one character. They split. Each enacts a separate role. Then they are one again. Duality. Shadow and light. Mirrored images. Echoed illusions.
We speak often of the spirit of Christmas, and how to achieve it throughout the year. Could we benefit a nightly ritual? In reliving the stories we have chosen to define us, could we inherit the spirit of our chosen heroes? Could we lose ourselves and gain what we were meant to be?
The performance ends, and we leave the temple amidst throngs of tourists. It is Christmas in Ubud. For the dancers, who perform nightly for the gods and their community, it’s the end of another day.